The language of love

Next year, Pakistan will celebrate the centenary of its premier Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-84). The Pakistan Academy of Letters has announced an impressive range of events for 2011 - it plans to hold international conferences in Britain, Sweden and Canada, co-ordinate a huge translation project and issue memorial stamps. Faiz's work will be introduced on to the national syllabus in Pakistan and his "public-oriented poetry" will be disseminated at central and provincial levels.

Despite being a known supporter of the Communist Party, Faiz was both highly respected and popular in his lifetime, so the wider introduction of his work 26 years after his death is long overdue. It is also a relatively safe option, as those protesting against the current political order tend to be drawn more to Islamic-style solutions than to communism. The thundering success of the apocalyptic title poem of his verse collection In the Valley of Sinai (1971) bears witness to this trend.

From the masses to the classes, Pakistan is a nation that is passionate about poetry. Admittedly, levels of understanding vary, not just as a result of differences in education, but because of Pakistan's many regional languages, each with its own literature.

Faiz's language of choice, Urdu - Pakistan's lingua franca - is associated not with any specific province, but with the Mughal courts of the 18th century, where it gained royal patronage as a literary language. We know for certain that even the most warlike tribes among the Pathans and the Baluch are devoted to love poetry. Faiz excelled at it; his love poems are immediately expressive and abound in fabulous images, with flashes of forbidden love, particularly poignant in societies where people are killed for romantic liaisons even today.

Even his harshest protest poems are nuanced with a wider kind of love and longing. His signature works in free verse also employ the specific devices of a split voice or the idea of divided love, in which romantic passion transforms, often without warning, into a tormented love of humanity; from a soporific romantic trope into an unsparing picture of harrowing poverty, unbearable loss and self-obsessed leadership. Yet Faiz very rarely sacrificed lyricism for rhetorical effect, as the large number of his verses performed by the greatest Pakistani singers (including the foremost diva, Noor Jehan) attests.

The circumstances of Faiz's life add exceptional interest to his poetic achievements. There was his early attachment to the ideals of the highly political Progressive Writers' Movement; his war service in the British Indian army (in which he rose to become lieutenant colonel); his romantic marriage to a British woman, Alys; his outspokenly left-wing editorship of the Pakistan Times in the early years of Pakistan; his arrest and imprisonment for alleged involvement in the Rawalpindi conspiracy case in the 1950s (his newspaper supported the coup as a quid pro quo for the Communist Party's entry into parliament); the award of the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962; his role as cultural adviser to the Bhutto government in the 1970s; and then his self-exile in Beirut following the July 1977 coup by Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.

In 1984, the year of his death, Faiz was nominated for the Nobel Prize but, according to one theory, was struck off the list because of his association with the Palestinian leadership.

Shahrukh Husain is an author and screenwriter. She is the editor of "The Virago Book of Erotic Myths and Legends"

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times