Tuesday, April 01, 2008
Dateline Lahore - Poetry in Pakistan
Poetry is a part of everyday life, including politics.
[Report by Los Angeles Times Staff Writer Henry Chu, picture by Faisal Qureshi]
Cut off from the world, even in parts of his own home, Aitzaz Ahsan did what many of his compatriots do in times of personal and political crisis: He wrote a poem.
Months of house arrest had left the celebrated lawyer enraged over his isolation and the autocratic, military-backed regime that ordered it. His hopes of a just and tolerant nation appeared to lie in ruins, and his disillusionment bled onto the page.
We walked together singing the song of freedom
A new dawn of freedom was about to break
One push was required to demolish the old edifice
But in fact we were straying apart and losing our dreams
The poem was a private “cry against the system,” Ahsan said, one man’s lament on “the loneliness of being a dreamer in a world full of pragmatists and time-watchers and opportunists.”
But his words soon reached the ears of millions of Pakistanis. When restrictions on Ahsan’s freedom were finally eased last month, television crews besieged him in his study and, one after another, beseeched him to recite his verse for their eager viewers.
It was yet another demonstration of how seriously this land takes its poetry.
Pakistan may be home to Islamic terrorists. It boasts a nuclear arsenal and an omnipotent military. But it is also a place where lyrical expression still holds great power to inform, inspire and even mobilize the masses, as it has in recent months, to the government’s dismay.
That power derives from the fact that poetry is woven into the fabric of everyday life here in a way seldom found in the West.
Drivers of three-wheeled taxis paint their own witty ditties on the backs of their vehicles. Families of newlyweds commission special odes to the bride and groom. Ordinary Pakistanis drop original or well-known couplets into general conversation.
On her return from exile last year, slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto visited Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural hub, where one of her first acts was to pay respects at the tomb of the revered poet Mohammed Iqbal. His birthday is a national holiday. (Imagine a U.S. holiday for Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson.)
“Our people are very fond of poetry. If you talk on any subject for one hour, if you start your speech with verses, then the people appreciate it and start stepping in,” said Ahmed Faraz, one of the best-known poets in Pakistan today. “It’s very powerful.”
Too powerful, in the eyes of some officials, as Faraz knows all too well. In the ’80s, he angered dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq with his poem “The Siege,” which excoriated the army. For such heresies against the military establishment, Faraz was arrested and thrown in jail.
Over the last year, poetry has, in many ways, emerged again as the galvanizing language of political protest in Pakistan.
After President Pervez Musharraf suspended the country’s chief justice in March 2007, lawyers including Ahsan mounted protests that also attracted human rights activists. Clad in their trademark black suits, the attorneys braved tear gas and riot police and have remained at the forefront of opposition up to the present. They roundly condemned the six-week state of emergency Musharraf declared in November, which resulted in the chief justice’s dismissal and Ahsan’s arrest.
At every demonstration, their rallying cry draws on a famous Urdu verse by legendary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz:
We shall see
Certainly we, too, shall see
That day which was promised,
Which was written in God’s ink
We shall see
“A lot of people told me that Faiz has come alive after the emergency yet again. They tell me, ‘We’ve come back to Faiz when we’re at a loss for words,’ ” said the late poet’s daughter, Salima Hashmi, an eminent painter and dean of visual arts at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore.
Her father was a left-wing intellectual whom the government imprisoned in the 1950s for his alleged involvement in a coup attempt. The state does not accord any official recognition to his work, but because of his stature in Pakistani letters, most people are familiar with it anyway, which can lead to surprising results.
“Sometimes I find a totally right-wing mullah standing up in front of a huge audience and starting with two lines of my father’s poetry,” Hashmi said. “I have a good laugh, and think he would have had a good laugh also.”
Other exponents of “resistance poetry” include such luminaries as Habib Jalib, who spent time behind bars in the 1960s and ’70s for lambasting the government in his lyrics, one of which famously compared a manipulated new constitution to “a morning without light.” In the recent protests against Musharraf, Jalib’s poetry has also been widely invoked: “Such customs . . . / I do not accept, I refuse to recognize.”
Poetry’s ability to stir the soul has roots that stretch back centuries in South Asia, to the great Sufi mystics who rhapsodically described encounters with the divine. Their poems also gave voice to the feelings, thoughts and concerns of common folk, who, being largely illiterate, often used spoken and sung verse to share ideas and stories.
Until more recent times, public gatherings known as mushairas, at which poets would read out their work, could attract thousands of spectators and make or break an aspiring writer. Those events have mostly vanished, done in by government crackdowns on public assembly and the onslaught of television and the Internet.
Yet, “there is still life in the way that poetry is understood and used by ordinary people,” Hashmi said.
That poetic instinct prompted student Babar Mirza to reach for his pen almost immediately after Musharraf declared emergency rule Nov. 3. The imposition of de facto martial law triggered a domestic and international outcry.
An undergraduate in law, Mirza decided to set aside the sentimental verse he was used to composing, about “love and breakups and stuff,” in favor of a six-stanza call to arms to his fellow students at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Enough of criticizing history!
Enough of worshiping lies!
For when the truth runs in your veins
It’s binding to change your destiny
“Generally I don’t write political poetry,” said Mirza, 19. “But I thought that this is the time.”
He recited his poem at a campus rally against Musharraf’s emergency decree. It also got posted on one of the many blogs that sprang up to keep people informed amid a ban on private television news channels.
“The beauty of poetry, in my view, the way it helps political movements, is that it distills ideas. It gives you one line where so many things make sense to you,” Mirza said. “You address not only external issues but also the inner conscience of your audience.”
For Hashmi, it is only natural that her fellow Pakistanis should seek consolation and courage in the lyrical, when ordinary words are not enough.
“I think in times of crisis, the true subject comes out, the true subject being what the Sufis call the ability to stand up and have your head sliced off, because through that you will live forever,” she said. “Poetry is used very much to give courage, to get you to stand up above yourself.”
Many Pakistanis believe her father, Faiz, expressed it best. One of his works, “Speak. . . ,” is so iconic that human rights activists here put that single word on stickers, in exhortation, and almost everyone understands the allusion.
The poem opens and closes like this:
Speak — your lips are free.
Speak — your tongue is still yours. . . .
Speak — there is little time
But little though it is
It is enough.
Before the body perishes —
Before the tongue atrophies.
Speak — truth still lives.
Say what you have