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”