In 1942, when Faiz Ahmed Faiz joined the army and was produced before the public relations department on the first day, the British officer inquired: “I have your police report. It says you are an advanced communist. Are you?” A calm and composed Faiz replied: “I don’t know what retarded communist is.”
As we mark his birth centenary today (Feb. 13), a decent tribute to Faiz would be to honestly remember him the way he was. Reducing Faiz’s intellect and multifaceted personality to poetry—which no doubt constitutes the crown and glory of Urdu literature—is akin to trimming the Himalayas down to K2. Therefore, to understand Faiz, a rich legacy of prose he left is equally important to mention. In fact, his poetry is decontextualised if read without the essays, editorials, travelogues and plays he wrote, or the speeches he made, the interviews he gave, or his talks. After all, he was not mere a poet. He was an intellectual par excellence, a trade unionist, a successful editor, a literary and cultural critic, a peace activist, an educationist and, above all, a visionary. But a visionary engaged in activism.
Soon after the creation of Pakistan, when the Pakistan Trade Union Federation (PTUF) was formed, he was elected its vice president. The legendary trade union leader, the late Mirza Ibrahim, was president while M Malik, who was later to be governor of East Pakistan, was elected general secretary. Most Pakistani postal workers would be surprised to know that Faiz Ahmed Faiz was the first president of the organisation when the Post and Telegraph Workers Union was formed in Pakistan.
Faiz actively engaged in efforts to unionise clerical staff across Pakistan and the workers at the Pakistan Mint. For years, his routine was to visit the offices of the Railway Workers Union at Garhi Shahu in Lahore. As happens now, workers active on the trade union platform were frequently charge-sheeted. For hours, Faiz would type up replies to show-cause notices the unlettered workers were issued. He represented the PTUF at the International Labour Organisation for two years. In 1948, when Faiz was representing Pakistani workers at the ILO, Pakistan became a signatory to the ILO’s Convention 87 (on unionisation) and Convention 98 (on collective bargaining). Simultaneously, he was editing Pakistan Times, Imroz and Lail-o-Nehar, publications owned by Progressive Papers Limited (PPL), until he landed in jail in 1951. “Those were very, very satisfying days for four years” (1947-51), he would later recall.
On his release from jail, he was back at the Pakistan Times offices. When Gen Ayub imposed his martial law, one of his initial orders was for PPL newspapers to be nationalised. Faiz landed in jail yet again, without any charge. “The funny thing was that the government at that time—the martial law government—rounded up everyone whose name appeared on police files from 1920 onwards,” he said.
In 1962, he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, as if in anticipation of what lay ahead. In 1965 and 1971, when Pakistan went to war, Faiz refused to jump on the “patriotic” bandwagon. “These two were difficult periods for me because I was under a great deal of pressure to write war songs. But I said, ‘Look here, I am not writing any war songs!’ They said, ‘Well, why not? It is your patriotic duty.’ I said, ‘Look, firstly, because I consider these wars to be a very wanton waste of precious lives and, secondly, because I know that Pakistan is not going to get anything out of either this war or that war. I am not going to write any war songs.’ “ Instead, Faiz wrote poems for peace during both wars. During the 1965 war, he wrote “Elegy” to a fallen soldier, and “Blackout”:
Since our lights were extinguished/I have been searching for a way to see; /my eyes are lost, God knows where./You who know me, tell me who I am, /who is a friend, and who an enemy./A murderous river has been unleashed/into my veins; hatred beats in it./Be patient; a flash of lightning will come/from another horizon like the white hand of Moses/with my eyes, my lost diamonds.
During the 1971 war, he wrote “Stay Away from Me” and “The Dust of Hatred in My Eyes.” The latter was written from the point of view of East Pakistan, where the khakis, assisted by the Jamaat-e-Islami brigades, launched a planned genocide. Faiz refused to accept this massacre as something taking place in his name, since he was from West Pakistan.
How can I embellish this carnival of slaughter,
How to decorate this massacre? Whose attention could my lamenting blood attract?
According to Faiz himself, “Well, that naturally infuriated these people even more. So for a few days I was obliged to go underground in Sindh and not to stay with the wrath of my patriotic friends.” Understandably, the media mujahideen of those days heaped scorn on him and subjected him to slurs. Dignified as he was, Faiz would not even contradict the fake statements made about him by rightwing rags and the scandals they invented.
He was beyond provocation. So rather than being bothered and distracted by provocations, he busied himself with the important tasks on his hands. He founded the Pakistan Arts Council. As secretary of the Arts Council (1959-62) and vice president of the Pakistan Arts Council, Karachi (1964-72), he dedicated himself to laying the groundwork for the cultural industry in the country. After Zulfikar Ali Bhutto assumed power, Faiz, for the first time, was not a dissident the state had wanted to hunt down since independence. He was requested by Bhutto to help determine the country’s cultural and educational policies. In his capacity as advisor on cultural affairs at the ministry of education, Faiz began to vitalise the country’s cultural life.
But the forces of darkness were waiting in the wings. The Zia dictatorship sent Bhutto to the gallows and drove Faiz into exile, which was a traumatic experience for him. In exile, as editor of Lotus, he became the voice of Palestine, a nation exiled to refugee camps, a country converted into a foreign land. Edward Said, together with Eqbal Ahmed, visited him in Beirut. Since he himself was a Palestinian exile, Edward Said shared Faiz’s exilic trauma.
Edward Said told Eqbal Ahmed, who was translating extempore into English the poems Faiz was reciting, not to translate as he could feel what Faiz was reciting.
My heart, my fellow traveller/It has been decreed again/That you and I be exiled, /go calling out in every street, /turn to every town./To search for a clue/of a messenger from our Beloved./To ask every stranger/the way back to our home.
He found the way back, only to rest in peace forever. On Nov 20, 1984, be became immortal.
The writer is a freelance contributor.
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