Faiz Ahmad Faiz
By Suleman Akhtar
February 14, 2013
Faiz’s poetry speaks of an entire generation that embarked on a difficult endeavour in the pursuit of a just and egalitarian society cleansed of oppression
February 13 marked the birth anniversary of one of the most prolific Urdu poets, Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Faiz sahib stands out in the rich tradition of Urdu poetry as an ideologue who never shied away from taking up the momentous task of conveying the message mainly inspired by politics of the Left. That too in such a spellbinding manner that no other poet, save few, in the history of Urdu poetry surpasses him in eloquence and beauty of verse — an art he excelled at. Plainly said, he was a communist and a poet who lived and loved both. But the story does not end here.
The irony is, today, Faiz is being celebrated, cherished and wrangled over by those who have nothing but utter animosity towards the values he stood for during his lifetime. The poet was detained, harassed, charged as a traitor and coerced into self-exile on the account of having been an adherent and a vocal proponent of the political school of thought deemed as a challenge posed to oppressive regimes and corroded societal values. Now 28 years after his death, he is being sung and manipulated by the very mindset that would have maligned him for his thoughts if he were alive today.
What’s wrong if he is being reinvented, some may ask. Well, it is more of a rebranding than reinventing of a poet and that too by cutting him off from the ideology that was largely a driving force behind his work, and that is treachery to history. If it goes on unchallenged, unhindered, the real image of Faiz will go down in the graveyard of history to become yet another falsified debris of historical events and personalities whose character has been distorted on purpose.
The same goes for Iqubal whose subtle message of nationalism intertwined with Muslim awakening has been garbled by all on the political spectrum from right to left. Withal, elusiveness of the method employed by Iqubal and somewhat paradoxical streaks that appear in his poetry here and there make him more vulnerable to misrepresentation to say the least. But then Faiz is thoroughly candid and straight-from-the-shoulder in whatever he writes in whatever manner. His poetry is nothing but the manifestation of his deep contemplation of the wretchedness of the downtrodden class of society. He dreams in his poetry of a utopia wherein the salvation of humanity would be possible. And he does it by adding a delightful flavour of romanticism, which was an essential feature of his personality, to get his message through.
Jub zulm o sitm ke koh-e-giran/Rooi ki tarah urr jain ge/Hum mehkoomon ke paaun talay/Yeh dharti dhar dhar dharkay gii/Aur ahl-e-hakam ke sir uuper/Jab bijli kar kar karkay gii/Hum dekhein ge
(When heavy mountains of injustice/Will blow away like cotton wool/Beneath the feet of us oppressed/Like a heartbeat this land will beat/And above the heads of the people-of-power/When lightning will crackle/We shall see).
The poem, immortalised by Iqubal Bano, has come to be a shibboleth of resistance in Pakistan. Faiz, through these lines, essentially speaks of a classless society that is a distinctive feature of the Marxist ideology Faiz himself was an exponent of. To view it as a freestanding piece of poetry would be tantamount to depriving it of its essence and belittling it to mere rhetoric. To blot out the ideology Faiz and his companions stood for would equate downplaying the sacrifices rendered by leftists in Pakistan throughout the latter half of the 20th century while struggling against oppressive regimes. Faiz’s poetry speaks of an entire generation that embarked on a difficult endeavour in the pursuit of a just and egalitarian society cleansed of oppression.
Not unlike Faiz, Che Guevara, an Argentine Marxist revolutionary and a quintessential icon of resistance, has come under the same axe of degeneration. Aspiring nonconformist wannabes, whose political affiliations largely lie with the far right, take pride in wearing Che T-shirts with Che in a Nike cap. Nike symbolises the same corporate system Che sought to destroy. More than an irony, this is a postmodern reality. By the same token it has become a norm-cum-fashion in Urdu writings to quote Faiz anywhere even where he is most irrelevant.
During times of regression in the history of nations, even the most progressive of symbols from the past become susceptible to fall prey to conservatives who remould these symbols in order to retain the status quo, leading to a downward spiral. New art becomes nonexistent while the erstwhile undergoes depreciation in terms of essence. In the words of Bertolt Brecht, “Let nothing be called natural in an age of bloody confusion, ordered disorder, planned caprice and dehumanised humanity, lest all things be held unalterable!”
Irrespective of the relevance of Faiz’s ideology in present times, let there be no confusion about the values he was a vocal proponent of. Let’s not ruin anything good that has been left in us. Let’s not distort his splendid legacy of beauty and revolution so splendidly interlaced. Let’s not shy away from giving credit where it is due. It would be a favour to the great poet not to remember him at all instead of remembering him for all the wrong reasons.
Suleman Akhtar is a mechanical engineer by profession, and a freelance writer, with special focus on art, politics and cultural anthropology.