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Ghazi Salahuddin
Sunday, December 26, 2010
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A regular columnist in our country gets addicted to expressing anguish and sorrow. Every week provides its separate topics for the same lament over what is not. It becomes hard to be cheerful, even when you lapse into satire and ridicule. But the mood at the end of the year, with its global intimations of joyfulness, certainly demands a somewhat happy and reflective tune. We are all set to greet another year, in fact a new decade, and a look back at the year that is passing out may breed some nostalgia.

Yesterday, on Saturday, we “celebrated” the 134th birthday of the Founder of the Nation and we had an occasion, once again, to talk about his vision for Pakistan. But tomorrow, on Monday, we have another anniversary of a more recent event – the third anniversary of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. And though it reminds us of one of the most tragic events in our history, the glowing, beautiful face of a leader who embodied a liberal and progressive image of this country, also illuminates our minds with fond memories and a feeling that we must rekindle hope in our political sense of direction.

The point I am trying to make is that a poet would do better justice to articulating the feelings that are inspired by these last days of December, particularly the anniversary of Benazir’s death. If this makes you think of Faiz, I will remind you that the year that begins on next Saturday, 2011, is being celebrated as the Faiz centenary. Perhaps as an afterthought, the government recently notified that the centenary would be officially celebrated. In any case, we should have ample opportunities to pay tribute to Faiz in the coming year and some events have already been announced.

Incidentally, 2011 is also the birth centenary of another great Urdu poet Majaz and it is being celebrated in India. Majaz and Faiz had many similarities, though Majaz died at a relatively young age. I had read about the Indian government issuing a postage stamp some years ago with the portrait of Majaz and a couplet in Urdu which, in effect, said: “Majaz, we have been so emboldened by Ishq, that we are not afraid of the political machinations of this world.”

Another of his couplet, I think, would be more appropriate as a message for our women, though he said it more than fifty years ago: “Thery chehrey pe ye aanchal bahut hi khoob hai laikin / tou iss aanchal ka ek parcham bana laiti to accha tha.”

Now, I have to resist the temptation to quote Faiz because he has chronicled our national sorrows in a gripping and inspiring voice that touches our hearts. From “dagh, dagh ujala” to “lazim hai key hum bhi dekhen gay,” his poetry embraces the entire spectrum of our collective experience and aspirations.

Without attempting any critical appreciation of Faiz, I would like to underline the importance of poetry – and literature – in our lives. If you look around in this society, you will see how brutalised it has become. It is gravely afflicted with extremism and intolerance and intellectual mediocrity. All this is the outcome of a serious deficiency in education, in enlightenment and, certainly, in culture that would include literature and arts. Poetry remains the most compelling expression of a culture.

One great tragedy that we have suffered is that our English-oriented intelligentsia is moving away from an appreciation of Urdu literature. Urdu poetry, in particular, is a great treasure that we have not benefited from in defining and expanding our social and cultural conscience. Poetry does not only have a therapeutic effect – sharing our distress in our lonely existence – it can enthuse an entire society with a yearning for change and emancipation. Do we not invoke Iqbal in this light? At the same time, our collective mind is drained of all poetic thoughts.

One peg that I have this week in this context is the Karachi International Book Fair. It was opened on Friday. Our reading habits are so dismal that any effort to underline the culture of books should be applauded and the book fair at the Karachi Expo Centre, which will conclude on Tuesday, provides an opportunity for many of us to be acquainted with the pleasure of reading books.

In one listing of great speeches of all time, I was pleasantly surprised to find, at number six, a speech by William Lyon Phelps on “The Pleasure of Books.” It was a radio address made in 1933 and it began: “The habit of reading is one of the greatest resources of mankind.”

Coming back to the resource that is enshrined in poetry, I need to refer to the Poetry International Festival that is held in London’s Southbank Centre once every two years. The latest was held from Oct 30 to Nov 7 in this year and the theme this time was “imagining peace.” Though its focus was the Middle East, we may also relate to our “Aman ki Asha” in South Asia. The emphasis was on “voices emerging from zones of conflict around the world,” with particular reference to the Arab-Israel conflict.

It may be difficult for many of us to believe that nine days could be devoted to “performance, debate, and challenging thought” – all based on poetry. Perhaps we can design a similar event on Faiz in the coming year. In fact, Faiz was very closely associated with the Palestinian struggle and had a personal relationship with Yasser Arafat. A number of his poems directly invoke the Palestinian cause.

So, Faiz becomes very relevant in posing the question that has repeatedly been raised at London’s Poetry International Festival: is poetry truly capable of bringing about tangible political change? This question was answered by Ted Hughes when the first Festival was launched in 1967.

This is what he said: “If the various nations are ever to make a working synthesis of the ferocious contradictions, the plan of it and the temper of it will be created in spirit before it can be formulated or accepted in political fact. And it is in poetry that we can refresh our hope.”

We have a resounding message in this statement. We need poetry to refresh our hope. The problem with us is that we have our poetry – Faiz being a pertinent example – but we do not have a society that is capable of a creative engagement with this resource. Our cultural values are being undermined by the onslaught of obscurantist elements. Yes, the ready reminder this Friday was the nationwide demonstration by religious parties in defence of the blasphemy laws. We can be sure that the fanatics do not read poetry.

Against this perspective, let me quote Walt Whitman: “To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.”

The writer is a staff member. Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail .com