Faiz - Between Romance and Revolution

Poetry has always held within it the potential to bring about sweeping changes. It is perhaps for this potential that poets and poetry are feared by both the despot and the fanatic; for their worlds are built on absolute adherence to decadent dogmas and total servitude to blind beliefs. Poetry has the power to ridicule the dogma and question the belief. Luckily for them, most of the poets choose to work on a realm of pure fantasy. The sweat, toil and tears of the real world rarely find their way into the world of the poet. But then, there are other poets-the exceptions to the general rule. Poets whose works unleash the power of human imagination, poets whose works inspire revolutions, poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz. For Faiz understood that a society without meaningful poetry is a society in the last legs of its wretched existence, a society sans dreams and thus a society sans hope. Faiz was born in Sialkot, British India on the 13th of February 1911. During the course of his formal education, he obtained Master of Arts degrees in both English and Arabic; yet it was Urdu that was to become Faiz's medium. And it was the common women and men that were destined to be his subject.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a member of the Progressive Writer's Movement (Anjuman Tarraqi Pasand Mussanafin-e-Hind) which was formed by a diaspora of writers ranging from the Gandhian Munshi Premchand to the Marxist Sajjad Zaheer. The artists of the PWM were committed to anti-imperialism and driven by an aim to bring arts to the masses. No longer was hunger, poverty, suffering and oppression topics barred from mainstream art. Inconvenient truths about the oppressed and the suppressed in British Indian society suddenly found form and expression through their works. At 25, Faiz was heading the PWM in Punjab and was absolutely clear about the politics of art. Art to him was a tool for social change, a hammer with which society could be forged. Urdu as a language has a rich tradition of poetry. The PWM and Faiz, interestingly chose not to have a radical break from these traditions. Instead, they chose to use the vehicles of classical Urdu poetry such as the ghazal and the nazm to spread their dreams and ideals. At the hands of an artistic rebel like Faiz even surrealism proved to be a weapon in the historical advance of the proletariat. Faiz was organic in the sense that he was inspired by the Sufi tradition of dissent and Faiz was progressive in the sense that he was an avowed Marxist.

Intesab

'Intesab' is one of Faiz's simpler poems. Literally meaning dedication, Faiz dedicates the poem to the ordinary forgotten people in society. Rich in imagery, Intesab is the anthem of the insulted, the oppressed and the betrayed. Every line in this poem is in effect a declaration of revolution. The poem is rumored to have been left incomplete by Faiz.Perhaps it was symbolic.

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The Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) was formed in India. During the Communist Party of India's Second All India Conference held at Calcutta in 1948, an idea of a separate Communist Party for the newly formed nation of Pakistan was mooted. Sajjad Zaheer was elected to lead the party and a good number of Muslim leaders of the CPI were delegated to work in Pakistan for the organizational strengthening of the CPP. Three years down the line, the hope of fomenting a revolution in Pakistan was cut short with the Rawalpindi conspiracy case of 1951. The Rawalpindi conspiracy case was perhaps the first proof that in Pakistan, the military had no intentions of taking orders from the country's civilian leadership. Eleven military officers and four civilians including Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmed Faiz were arrested on charges of planning a military coup against the civilian government. Perhaps the real conspiracy in the case was how the names of Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmed Faiz found themselves along with a group of dissatisfied military officers. The credit for this is generally attributed to the American and British 'anti-communist experts' which were advising the Pakistani establishment at the time. The end result was that the Rawalpindi conspiracy case greatly damaged the CPP infrastructure. Any hope that a democratic opposition would be tolerated in Pakistan was rubbished. Pakistan began its spiral into chaos. By 1958, martial law was declared and General Ayub Khan assumed power- Pakistan's first military administrator. The Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case had landed Faiz in jail. The sensitive and soft spoken poet was separated from his family. Faiz was married to George Alys, who was a member of the British Communist Party by the time she was 16. Despite advices from well wishers to return to England with her two young daughters, she chose to stay back in Pakistan. She wrote frequently to her husband during the period and visited him whenever the authorities permitted her to. Faiz would write “Like love, imprisonment is a basic experience, for it opens many new windows for the soul.” It was in that period of imprisonment he would write the Dast-e-Saba (The Fingers of the Wind). Faiz would summarize that the struggle of human life was the fundamental pre-requisite of art.

Aaj Bazaar mein

Faiz is at his cryptic best in 'Aaj Bazaar mein'. A literary reading of the poem will lead one to conclude that it is a poem dedicted to romance. Critics have acclaimed Faiz's use of imagery in this poem. To Faiz , love was eternally pure and the true lover was one who refused to submit to the hypocrisies of a flawed social system. Faiz exposes the the systematic oppression and the hegemony of the system. The poem highlights the public displays of power as methods to reinforce that hegemony. That shackled walk in the marketplace, in this era of commodification, seems to attain a whole new meaning.

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Faiz was released in 1955, after 4 years of imprisonment and found himself to be in a totally changed nation. Pakistan was firmly on the American side of the Cold War. Censorship was normal. Trade unions were suppressed. CPP and Progressive Writers Association were banned. Faiz returned to his job as the editor of the Pakistan Times. In 1958, Faiz was attending the Conference of Afro-Asian writers at Tashkent, when the Pakistani Army took over the reins of power under General Ayub Khan. Friends and well-wishers pressurized Faiz not to return to Pakistan. The rebel in Faiz prevailed; he chose to return and was arrested. The jail term would last six months. Faiz found it frustrating to be a journalist under a military dictatorship and ventured into teaching. Then in 1962, the unexpected happened. Faiz was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize. International recognition followed. Things went on well for Faiz until 1969, when a new military dictatorship under General Yahya Khan, threatened civil society in Pakistan.

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Faiz being awarded the Lenin Peace Prize. Image Courtesy: Dawn

“Human ingenuity, science and industry have made it possible to provide each one of us everything we need to be comfortable provided these boundless treasures of nature and production are not declared the property of a greedy few but are used for the benefit of all of humanity… However, this is only possible if the foundations of human society are based not on greed, exploitation and ownership but on justice, equality, freedom and the welfare of everyone… I believe that humanity which has never been defeated by its enemies will, after all, be successful; at long last, instead of wars, hatred and cruelty, the foundation of humankind will rest on the message of the great Persian poet Hafez Shiraz: Every foundation you see is faulty, except that of Love, which is faultless.” -Faiz, in his acceptance of the Lenin Peace Prize.

Nisar mein

The poem 'Nisar mein' is a treasure trove of powerful social imagery conjured up by Faiz. It is without doubt that Faiz's exile has had a bearing on the poem. Cryptic and often troubling, these images convey the tyranny of dictatorship and the pain of separation. Faiz laments that as the constructive and progressive forces of society are shackled, the fanatic and the fascist proceed to mould society in their image. Faiz's statement the rebellion is eternal seems to be a testament to Marx's observation that that the [written] history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.

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Faiz and his ideas are as relevant today as they were five decades back. Image Courtesy: Asia Society

Carlo Coppola described Faiz as "a spokesperson for the world's voiceless and suffering peoples whether Indians oppressed by the British in the '40s, freedom fighters in Africa, the Rosenbergs during the Cold War America in the '50s, Vietnamese peasants fleeing American napalm in the '60s, or Palestinian children in the 1970s”. Faiz was a wizard with words and had absolute control over the content of his poetry. This coupled with the universality of his works has helped Faiz survive even after his physical demise in 1984. It is easy to see that Faiz and his ideas are as relevant today as they were five decades back. The toppling of dictatorships in the Arab world make his words in 'Hum Dekhenge' (We shall witness) seem prophetic. All throughout his life, Faiz refused to toe the 'official line'. He wrote openly against military actions against what was then East Pakistan (present day Bangaldesh) when Pakistan was reeling under the jackboots of General Yahya Khan. More than a decade later (in 1985), Pakistan's celebrated singer Iqbal Bano would sing this song at the Lahore stadium; in defiance of another dictator- General Zia-ul-Haq. General Zia represented a sharp break from scotch drinking military dictators who had raped Pakistan until then. For he was not just a despot but also a fanatic. Faiz and his poetry symbolized everything that the fanatical dictator stood against. The Sufi tradition of dissent questioned his dogmatic faith and the promise of change weakened his dictatorial grip on society. As Iqbal Bano sang Hum Dekhenge in violation of a ban, wearing a black saree (the saree was banned as an un-Islamic dress by the Zia regime) as a symbol of protest, she was received was a 50, 000 strong audience with slogans of 'Inquilab Zindabad!” (Long live the Revolution!). Through his poetry Faiz had transcended time, he had become eternal, he had become immortal.

Hum Dekhenge

All throughout his life, Faiz refused to toe the 'official' line. He wrote openly against military actions against what was then East Pakistan (present day Bangaldesh) when Pakistan was reeling under the jackboots of General Yahya Khan. More than a decade later (in 1985), Pakistan's celebrated singer Iqbal Bano would sing this song at the Lahore stadium; in defiance of another dictator- General Zia-ul-Haq.

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Disclaimer: The literal translations provided here are for a basic understanding of the poems, and in no way do justice to the poetry of Faiz. Drawing heavily on the traditions of Persian poetry, Faiz built his poems around similies, metaphors and symbols that are difficult to translate from Urdu.