Faiz — poet of all ages

His poetry was lyrical, above politics, despite accusations to the contrary and, therefore, eternal.


Editorial February 14, 2011

South Asia is celebrating the birth centenary of Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911-2011), an Urdu poet in the classical tradition whose poetry (as he lived) was read and recited by the citizens of Pakistan in the same manner as Allama Iqbal’s before him. The classical tradition seems to have paused after him. He harked back to Ghalib with his great love poems while linking himself with Iqbal with his hortative address to the common man.

He was the last of the five ‘greats’ — Anis, Mir, Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz — of Urdu poetry. One can imagine Ghalib reading Faiz and marvelling over such metaphors as dard ayay ga dabay paon liyay surkh chiragh (‘And pain will come tiptoe carrying its crimson lamp’) from his early Naqsh-e-Faryadi days. And how would he have reacted to dard ki kaasni pazeb? Ghalib would have recognised the classical style of Faiz but would have loved the new metaphor and the colloquial touch of that wonderful tautology koi nahin, koi nahin aayay ga because he himself had begun intruding common speech into ghazal.

The pathos of Faiz sprang from his feminine acceptance of pain as a way of overcoming the foe, in lieu of preventing the infliction of pain through acquisition of power. This set him apart from Allama Iqbal. If Iqbal was ‘masculine’ in his expression of power (the hawk metaphor), Faiz was ‘feminine’ in his passive opposition to powers of tyranny and exploitation. His political affiliation never surfaced in his poetry except that he voiced the aspirations of the common man, the downtrodden and the exploited. When he first rejected autocracy and dictatorship, many marginalised him politically as a ‘poet of the Left’. Today, his ideological adversaries find solace in his verse.

Faiz’s father, Sultan Muhammad Khan, was Afghanistan’s ambassador to England and wrote the two volumes of Amir Abdur Rehman’s biography in English, which were to be become a basic document in the dispute over the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Faiz Ahmad Faiz studied Persian classical poetry in his father’s great library in Sialkot while still in his teens and started writing ghazals as a teenager. He gained admission to Government College on the recommendation of Allama Iqbal, who had known his father in London. Faiz completed his MA in English at Government College and MA in Arabic at Oriental College Lahore, and became a lecturer in English at MAO College Amritsar in 1935 where he came under the influence of Professor MD Taseer. He married Englishwoman Alys Faiz, sister of Taseer’s wife, the nikah being solemnised in Srinagar by Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah. He became a founder-member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement while teaching at Amritsar.

Faiz’s first collection of poems Naqsh-e-Faryadi came out in 1941 when he was teaching at Hailey College of Commerce in Lahore. He edited Lahore’s progressive literary journal Adab-e-Lateef till 1942, when his friend Majeed Malik took him to the British Army Public Relations Department in Delhi. In February 1947, he joined Lahore’s Progressive Papers Ltd as chief editor of two dailies, The Pakistan Times (English) and Imroze (Urdu), under the inspired leadership of Mian Iftikharuddin while taking part in the labour politics of the city. In 1951, he was arrested along with Communist leader Sajjad Zaheer for conspiring to overthrow the government of Liaquat Ali Khan. He remained in jail till 1955 and wrote some of his best poems, which to this day are recited by people of all political stripes. He was also arrested and jailed in 1958 under the first martial law.

His poetry was lyrical, above politics, (despite accusations to the contrary) and, therefore, eternal. His collections, such as Naqsh-e-Faryadi (1941), Dast-e-Saba (1953), Zindan Nama (1956), Dast-e-Tah-e-Sang (1965), Sar-e-Wadi-e-Seena (1971), Sham-e-Sheheryaran (1977) and Meray Dil Meray Musafir (1981) became a part of the national psyche. With time, even the rightist circles who had opposed him earlier began to recite his lines to express the collective emotion.  Why is Faiz everyman’s poet today? What offended us in his post-1947 lines of disenchantment with the new state and its social injustice, today reflects our ethos as we protest at the intolerance and violence embedded in a security state dominated by the military — ahle tabal-o-alam as he put it.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 15th, 2011.

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