The ideals Faiz stood for are alive and well
en do not care how nobly they live, but only for how long, although it is within the reach of many to live nobly, but within no man’s power to live long”- Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Working on the seemingly endless task of proofreading and editing the Urdu version of my Faiz Ahmed Faiz biography, the power of words and writing struck me again. After much gnashing of teeth, I had managed to finish editing a first draft of the manuscript in time for the 2023 Faiz Festival, now a much anticipated and beloved annual fixture on Lahore’s spring festival scene. During a session to discuss the Urdu biography, we covered the well-worn ground of Faiz’s childhood, his adventurous globetrotting father and, of course, his melodious, exquisite poetry.
I proudly told the story of how my alma mater, King Edward Medical University, had a year ago, held a grand ceremony in November to remember Faiz and memorialise the room where he had breathed his last in Mayo hospital, where I currently teach. Last year, we had also spent a lovely winter morning at Faiz’s alma mater, the Government College University, listening to students sing and talk about what Faiz meant to them today. In what seems like a world gone mad, Faiz is a constant beacon of hope and joy for many people in Pakistan. Cities other than Lahore are also stepping up to honour his name and claim his legacy. This year we had similar events in Multan and Karachi and, in years past, in Islamabad. Smaller events at universities and colleges are held all the time in November (when he died in Lahore) and February (his birthday). Faiz sahib wisely timed his arrival and departure with nice weather so everyone can celebrate.
In the panel discussion about the Urdu Faiz biography, a gentleman asked an important question: why is Faiz’s poetry, written with a specific political purpose and a specific ideology (socialism) in mind, often divorced from its sociopolitical context? Or to put it another way, why is his political struggle for the rights of workers, peasants, trade unions, women and minority rights not highlighted as energetically as Faiz himself would want it to be? The person who asked this question was referring to writings about Faiz and media coverage of Faiz festivals.
It is an important issue and one that should be reflected upon. While Faiz was a technically proficient poet with a commanding grasp of poetic art by virtue of his vast knowledge and long years of practice, one of his groundbreaking innovations was the seamless melding of political imagery and ideology into his poetry. Like his comrade in arms, Pablo Neruda of Chile, another acknowledged master of his craft (equally adored in South America and the Hispanic world), Faiz wrote about and in service of a specific ideology and broad political aims: socialism, the end of all forms of economic and social oppression, the liberation of all those in bondage - from landless peasants to factory workers to women and everyone in between. This was not by accident. Faiz himself witnessed the ‘de-classing’ of his own family from wealthy, educated, ‘upper class’ people to being reduced to worrying about their daily rations after his father died when he had just started college (Faiz’s mother was his father’s last wife whom he married after his world travels when he returned home to his village near Sialkot).
Faiz was introduced to revolutionary ideas at Government College in the company of people like Khwaja Khurshid Anwar (Pakistan’s most celebrated music composer), who was arrested and prosecuted over the ‘acetic acid’ case in his college years and was an ardent supporter of Bhagat Singh and his comrades. Later, at his first teaching job in Amritsar, in the ferment of the pre-independence years before World War II, Faiz’s revolutionary leanings were fanned by his close friendship with the likes of Syed Sajjad Zaheer, the founder of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association, Dr Rasheed Jahan (who was the main inspiration for the life and work of Ismat Chughtai) and Sahibzada Mahmooduzzafar, who lent Faiz his copy of The Communist Manifesto.
Later, Faiz made a conscious effort to incorporate these influences into his poetry and, in combination with his luminous intelligence, his firm grounding in Persian and his formal education in English literature as well as Arabic, he came up with poems such as his famous W’yabqa wajho rabbik (popularly known as Hum Dekhengay). Poems like these and many others seamlessly incorporate religious imagery, socialist slogans and a deep, abiding hope in humanity and its struggle against all odds to create aesthetically masterful poems that are both easy to understand and shake one to the core. And while it is quite easy to appreciate the poems apart from their sociopolitical context, if one understands what the poet is attempting to say with his poetry, the impact is that much deeper.
So, when the question was raised as to why Faiz’s political and ideological leanings are often ignored in popular writings, my answer was that I cannot, of course, speak for other writers, but in my Faiz biography, his life, his political struggle and what it meant to him and to Pakistan and our region, in general, is front and centre.
Minor controversies aside, the annual Faiz festivals are a chance to remind everyone that the ideals Faiz stood for are alive and well: the struggle to end economic, political and social oppression; equal opportunities for all; for good education, for employment, for a life not crushed by poverty and destitution; an end to all forms of exploitation and a chance to build a new, better world. At the Faiz Festival, all are welcome to attend, discuss, debate, argue and learn from one another. Faiz would have wanted no less.
The author is a trustee of the Faiz Foundation Pakistan. Love and Revolution: Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the biography was first published in 2016 and has been reprinted by Sang-e-Meel Publications Lahore. February 13 was the 112th birthday of Faiz Ahmed Faiz