The Pakistani diaspora in Italy, comprised of around 150,000 people, is the largest in continental Europe. Most Pakistanis in Italy are first generation immigrants with limited education and training, which restricts them to menial jobs in agriculture and production.
Although many Pakistanis in diaspora are blue-collar workers, there are also those who are businessmen, entrepreneurs, artists, and poets. Over the past year, I’ve tried to meet as many Pakistanis in Italy as I could to document their successes as inspiration for the next generation. Among the people I’ve met is a Pakistani poet named Umeed Ali who has lived in Italy since 1987.
Umeed has published two volumes of poetry in Italian, of which he has sold more than 10,000 copies. The popularity of his book is a feat considering he released his work without the help of a major publishing house. His poems have been translated into English, German and Spanish and has been heralded by Rolling Stone, an American periodical, as one of the best living Italian poets.
Umeed was born in 1961 in Pindi Mehr, a small village near Khushab in Punjab. His father was a teacher in the local “tat school” - a school where children sat on old jute bags and wrote in the dirt. The family was not well off, but Umeed’s parents valued education and send all four of their children (a girl and three boys) to school in Pindi Mehr and later, Khushab.
Umeed started writing poetry as a young man and by the time he completed his matriculation exams, he had a growing collection of poems to his name. Although Umeed’s father was proud of his poet son, he was not able to fund Umeed’s studies beyond matric. As a result, Umeed, like his brothers, moved on to work low paying jobs in the city.
Adulthood and his exposure to working life brought Umeed face to face with the injustice of Pakistani society. He could not continue to study since his family couldn’t afford school fees. He could not earn enough money to afford nice clothes or shoes and a big house. And he certainly couldn’t think of traveling outside of the insular reality that surrounded him.
His days as a young man were characterized by desire for opportunities and the good things in life, and by despair because of the knowledge that these things were only available to the rich and well-connected. The world of words and images provided an escape. Poetry was where he found the greatest solace and satisfaction.
Doing whatever jobs he could find, Umeed managed to save enough money to leave Khushab. He headed for Italy. In 1987, it was relatively easy to get a visa there and Umeed had relatives in the southern region of Calabria who could put him up and help him find work. After he arrived, he started working as an itinerant hawker. He would sell jewelry and trinkets to holiday makers on the beach in the summer and scarves and umbrellas to city folk in Calabria and Sicily in the winter.
The life of an iterant salesman in Italy is hard. But by scrimping on food and rent, most Pakistani immigrants can make a respectable living – enough to support their families back home, contribute to the costs of events such as marriages and funerals in their extended families, and, if they are lucky, maybe even build a house.
But Umeed soon realized this life was not for him. He did not want to be a trinket seller, but aspired to write and recite his poetry, and to be appreciated for his thoughts and ideas. He was willing to continue being itinerant to do so, and began traveling the length and breadth of Italy, from Perugia to Palermo to Rome and Rimini. He recited his poetry in pubs and restaurants and at cultural events and literary festivals. He started to sell his books, which earned him enough money to support his very modest lifestyle.
As he traveled, he was always hoping for his big break. He thought about a contract with a big publishing house that would promote and distribute his books. He fantasized about meeting a famous musician who would set his words to music and create a smash hit, or at least a politician who would help him get access to public housing. He met many people, some of them rich and famous, who promised to help him, but none did.
Now, Umeed is 60 – battling ill health, living in insalubrious accommodation. He goes to beaches and markets to recite poetry and sell his books. It is a very hard life.
I first met Umeed in 1998 on the beach in Calabria where I was a regular visitor. We had long conversations about life, love, and poetry. We sporadically kept in touch, and I provided help occasionally when he was short on money, like during the pandemic when he could not move around to sell his books because of lockdowns.
I most recently traveled to see him in Ischia, a spectacularly beautiful island and tourist hot spot off the coast of Naples. The day I saw him it was hot and we spent the afternoon in a shady park next to a water foundation talking, as we did 25 years prior, about life, love and poetry.
What makes you poet?
Poetry is something that is part of me. I [have] loved words ever since I was very young. I enjoyed the rhythm that comes from putting words together. I wrote in Urdu, in Punjabi and in Saraiki.
And as I grew older, it also became a medium to express my feelings. In poetry I found a way to reconcile my loneliness, my anger, my frustrations, and my loves.
How did you start to write in Italian?
When I came here, I did not have a word of Italian. But I loved the sound, the rhythm, and the harmonic balance of the Italian language. And as I learned more, I grew to also appreciate the richness of its idiom and its expressions. As all languages, it is like a sea -- the further you venture into it, the deeper it becomes.
In order to improve my Italian, I registered at the University of Perugia. This was 1996 but it was impossible to study on an empty stomach. And so I had to leave after less than a year. It was another opportunity denied to me because of lack of money.
You now have two volumes of poetry?
Yes. I found an editor in Perugia. He agreed to publish 500 copies [of] my first book. More importantly he agreed, to accept payment in installments. So, as I sold copies, I paid him the publishing costs. However, the publisher did little to promote my books, so I have to do what I do – walk the streets and beaches, and go to literary events and book fairs.
What were your most difficult moments?
Most of my life has been hard. I am a poet and making money from poetry is difficult. It is like selling mirrors in a country of the blind. The last three years have been particularly tough. In 2019, I had a bad heart attack and was in the hospital for almost two weeks. After the heart attack I have to take strong medication and this makes it hard to be physically active.
Then in 2020 there was COVID. I was “locked down” in a small flat with five people sharing one room. Several of my roommates smoked which caused me long bouts of coughing. It was an impossible situation. I was lucky to find accommodation in a monastery. It was a very small room and facilities were very basic. But I survived.
But with tourism at a standstill and no events where I could sell books, I had no money. With help from various people and also from the Embassy, I was able to get back to my village. I am now back to Italy and managing to sell a few books each day.
But all the hardship and pain goes away when I think of the many beautiful people I have met. Over ten thousand people have bought my book and many more have listened to me reciting my poems. And for an artist and a poet the greatest satisfaction is when someone appreciates your work.
Have you ever thought about going back to Pakistan?
Sure, I [have] thought about it. I would love to live in the place I was born and brought up. I would like to enjoy the company of my friends and relatives. Enjoy the sights and smells that remind me of my childhood. Bathe in the icy Jhelum River.
But if I go back to Pakistan, how would I survive? I would not be able to support myself and my family. I married late at the age of 41 and love my wife even though we cannot see each other often. There are many people in my household -- my mother, my wife and three children, and the widow of my brother and her two children. There is nothing that I could do in Pakistan to maintain them. I would like to bring them to Italy, but they cannot get a visa unless I have a place where they could stay and enough income to support them.
The best I can do is see them about every two to three years. If I manage to attend some good literary events, I can sell 50 to 80 books. And that makes enough money to go back for a visit.
Do you have a dream?
Poets are dreamers and I have lots of dreams. I would like a world where there is peace and love. Where there is no hate, no fear and no racism.
Above all, I dream of a world without poverty. I hate poverty as it deprives you of hope. It is hard to be poor; and there is a risk that suffering can make you bitter, angry and even violent. For myself, I often dream of having an easier life than the one I have had until now. I would like to be able to make enough money from my poetry to lead a dignified life. I would like to have my family near me; to talk to my wife and children every day; to transmit the love of words and poetry to them.
I struggled a lot to get very little. Life is never bad, but I can't say it was good. Maybe I will write a new collection of poems which will make lots of money and allow my children to live a better life.
Which of your poems would you like to share with readers in Pakistan?
This poem is called Noia (Boredom). It tries to express the feeling of uselessness that modern society creates in our youth – especially those who are poor and do not have opportunities. Next time you meet a poor person – remember he or she also has hopes and dreams; try to look, try to listen, even if it is only to their pain.
Sto svendendo la mia vita
in una societa’ triste
dove il sole non ha colore
i fiori non hanno odore;
e la gente non ha cuore
non ha tempo di guardare
non ha tempo di ascoltare.
Cio’ che voglio domandare:
come posse esternare il mio dolore
in un’aria di egoismo che fa troppo rumore?
I am throwing away my life
in a sad society
where the sun has not color
where the flowers have no smell;
and people have no heart
no time to look
no time to listen.
What I want to ask is this:
how can I show my pain
in such a noisy society of selfishness.
Ehsaase kamtari mei na ho mubtala Umeed
Lakhoon tojohen milen ge bezaar zindagi mein
(Umeed don’t let yourself fall victim to feelings of inferiority;
You will meet hundreds of thousands who are fed up of life – as they are worse off than you.)
Daud Khan is a freelancer who works as consultant and advisor for various Governments and international agencies. He has degrees in Economics from the LSE and Oxford – where he was a Rhodes Scholar; and a degree in Environmental Management from the Imperial College of Science and Technology. He lives partly in Italy and partly in Pakistan. All information and facts provided are the sole responsibility of the writer.