Sunday, April 20, 2008

Travel – Journey to Pakistan

Journey to Pakistan

When an Indian goes to Lahore with excess baggage.

[By Rakhshanda Jalil; a resident of Delhi, she recently edited neither night nor day, a collection of 13 stories by women writers from Pakistan; picture of the Allama Iqbal International Airport by Manitoon]

My first trip to Pakistan, in March, 2007, began with the usual excess baggage -- usual, that is, for most Indian Muslims who set out for Pakistan carrying their nationalism on their sleeve even as they totter under the weight of an indefinable deja vu.

This sense of seeming familiarity with everything in a country one is going to step foot in for the first time is uncanny. Virtually from the moment you step into the PIA aircraft in Delhi -- no, even before that, actually, when the PIA security person says 'Assalam-alekum' as she does a thorough body search -- this sense of the familiar and the known grows.

Lahore airport could pass of as an airport in any Indian city except for two things -- it is a lot cleaner and modern, and that distinct smell of phenyl and stale urine that greets passengers as they step off the tarmac at any Indian airport anywhere in the country is missing here.

But once outside, the air smells the same as Delhi, the trees look familiar as does the chaotic traffic. Rickshaws, pony carts and autos (gaily decorated contraptions that veer crazily all across the road with the same devil-may-care attitude that makes their Indian cousins such a menace on our roads) jostle for space with the latest state-of-the-art dream machines.

Our nifty Maruti Suzuki is equally ubiquitous there as it is here -- with one small difference of having dropped the 'Maruti' from its derriere. What takes some getting used to, however, is that everyone is dressed in salwar suits -- even the men!

I spend the next few days making several discoveries about the said garment: (a) in this Land of the Pure, its tailoring has been elevated to an exact science, comparable only with astronomy or rocket science, and (b) it comes in a seemingly endless variety of styles and shapes -- loose or fitted, billowing or snug, long or cropped, plain or profusely embellished -- the variety within the sameness making it mind-boggling.

The same applies to Pakistan -- as I would discover in the course of the next seven days while I travelled from Lahore to Sargodha, Faisalabad and back to Lahore to catch the flight home.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah's dream of a people united under Islam, leaving in peace and harmony as part of a pan-Islamic brotherhood is just that -- a dream. While it is true, I stayed within the province of Punjab and did not get the opportunity to visit Karachi and Islamabad which are considered far more cosmopolitan, I was struck by the regional, ethnic, linguistic differences and the pride people take in their distinctness -- be it of food, dress, language, idiom, custom.

The stereotype of monolithic Islam -- so often trotted out for Indian Muslims -- is as untrue for Pakistan as it is for India. I met people of various inclinations and denominations -- Shia, Sunni, liberal, fanatic, tolerant, intolerant, Wahabi, Hanafi...

While I came back loaded with salwar suits, I had no excess baggage on my return trip. I found I had shed most of it as I realised a shared past and shared histories give more occasions for persistent deja vu than shared religion.

(Ms. Rakhshanda Jalil read a paper on "The Events of 1857 as reflected in the Poetry and letters of Mirza Ghalib" at the University of Sargodha, and on "Society, Culture and Literature" at GC University, Lahore.)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Reading Urdu Outside Pakistan

Reading Urdu Outside Pakistan

The homesick diaspora has online Urdu as refuge.

[Text by Raza Rumi; the author also blogs at Pak Tea House and Lahore Nama; imaging of Ahmad Faraaz's poetry by Warraich]

The popularity of Internet as a medium and the personal space it provides to the diaspora is evident from the growing number of Urdu related websites outside Pakistan.

Take the Europe-based Iqbal Academy. That Iqbal is being seriously debated or even considered relevant and that too abroad is quite encouraging.

The website states:

Iqbal Study Group was formed by young Muslim students of various universities in Copenhagen. They sought our patronage, to which we agreed. Since then we have been helping them to know Iqbal as much as possible and attending their each and every session. During the month of November 2005 two historic events were organized by us, in which The Director Iqbal Academy Pakistan personally participated. His report in Urdu published in Pakistan and Denmark.

Iqbal Academy Scandinavia was formed in 2002 and formally inaugurated on 30th, August, 2003.

There is another news-site Inqelaab. Based in Italy, Inqelaab brings together news from Pakistan as well as Europe (on Pakistanis there).

And news from the Gujrat district in the centre of Punjab province are carried by Gujratlink. Given that most of the Pakistanis in Norway are from a particular sub-district of Gujrat, this is not surprising. There is surely a readership, I suspect a thriving one.

Finally the London based Al-Qamar, edited by a well known writer Safdar Hamdani. On this site, Safdar Hamdani writes a column on various issues and I trust has a wide readership on the Internet.

The disaspora is reinventing its nostalgia for Pakistan. Instead of the old-world elegies of separation, it has learnt to use the Internet for a creative celebration of its dual identity.

P.S. Totally unrelated, but the readers might like to visit this link to a Lucknow-based Urdu e-newspaper called Lashkar.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Dateline Lahore - Poetry in Pakistan

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.

Time enough

Before the body perishes —

Before the tongue atrophies.

Speak — truth still lives.

Say what you have

To say.