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June 8, 2016

Khushal Baba


June 8, 2016


The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.

The Heaven has not left a single heart intact/It has stained each and every one by the impact

These stars that you see in the night sky/Are all such stains, in fact!

– Khushal Khan Khattak

When imperial ambition coming from the West and the quest for domination coming from their east have put a squeeze on the life and liberty of the Pakhtuns, imposed a continuous war on them for almost four decades, turned their secular civilisation into a bigoted culture and stereotyped them into either terrorists or refugees, someone from their midst finding the resolve to translate Khushal Khan Khattak from Pashto into English is a testament.

It is a testament of hope, inner strength, revival and of conserving and presenting today what remains invaluable in Pakhtun culture and civilisation of yore.

Sami ur Rahman has translated 464 quatrains of Khattak, titled ‘Rubaiyat of Khushal Khan Khattak’, in a refined, accessible and aesthetically pleasing language. My handicap of not knowing Pashto prevents me from critiquing the quality of translation and its truthfulness to the original but what I can vouch for is the pleasure offered by Rahman’s English rendition to a reader. Rahman, in his translator’s note, discusses different views on translating poetry from one language to the other or in fact one idiom to the other. He brings examples from Edward Fitzgerald and Coleman Barkes and appreciates fully the perils one faces in the process of translating poetry.

But even if some lines are creatively translated in accordance with the idiom, nuance, tradition and syntax of the language the work is being translated in, it is better than a crude, inaccessible, literal translation which may not convey the meaning. The aesthetics and idiom of a language are indeed important but so are the thought and the content. It is a challenge for the translator to negotiate a middle path – where the beauty of the original expression is conveyed and the essence of the idea is not lost.

Translations are extremely important, whichever school of thought on translating literature one belongs to. If Fitzgerald had not translated Omar Khayyam, Barkes had not translated Rumi, Julie Scott Meisami had not rendered Nizami Ganjavi into English, Afkham Darbani and Dick Davis had not translated Fariduddin Attar and A J Arberry had not translated Iqbal’s ‘Javid Nama’, the occident would have had little idea of the richness and depth of Persian poetry across centuries.

For us reading Pakistani languages, English being the last but hugely significant addition to our linguistic repertoire, Goethe would not have existed if there had been no Stephen Spender and we would have been unable to relate to Pablo Neruda or draw critical comparisons between his work and our own Faiz Ahmed Faiz if Nathanial Tarn had not edited a volume of Neruda’s translations into English.

Speaking of translations of poetry from our eastern languages into western languages, a small collection of Ghalib’s select couplets from different ghazals rendered into English by Daud Kamal warrants a mention. Kamal has turned each couplet into a short poem with ease that only a master could afford. Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote a foreword to this apparently self-published work, titled ‘Reverberations’. I wish some publisher would pick it up for a reprint.

Sami ur Rahman’s translation of Khattak is a labour of love, as mentioned in the introduction to the book by Raza Rumi. Rahman is certainly an aesthete and his expression confirms that his primary interests lie in art and letters. But this love is not limited to Khushal Khan Khattak or his work alone. He longs for the revival of whatever was good and worthy, humane and wise, plural and rich in Pakhtun culture. He loves his people and his land. His people continue to suffer and face hardships, they are brutalised and subjected to live in poverty – poverty of means and poverty of thought.

Nationalism is of two kinds. One breeds sentiment that soon graduates into chauvinism and then becomes fascism. The other is nationalism that is rooted in universal human values of freedom and enlightenment for all people including your own.

The first kind is epitomised by Adolf Hitler and the second is represented by Nelson Mandela. Rahman falls in the second category. And so did Khushal Khan Khattak, as is evident from the sorrow expressed in one of his quatrains for Shah Jehan, the Mughal emperor who was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb Alamgir.

A poet who became a warrior to resist King Aurangzeb’s rule, Khattak was able to defeat the Mughal troops on many occasions. He is considered the father of Pakhtun nationalism and is revered across Pakistan and Afghanistan equally for his efforts to bring unity within feuding Pakhtun tribes. He also wrote in Persian, as was customary for most poets in the wider region of Central and South Asia then. But his main work is in Pashto.

Khattak lived in the 17th century and led an eventful life. He wrote a number of quatrains about the times of Aurangzeb and the injustice and hypocrisy experienced under his rule. For instance, one of his quatrains about the Mughal king reads, “Aurangzeb rules over the country/ He only commits acts of crime/ What can poor Khushal do/ When God is happy with this paradigm?”

These quatrains remind me of ‘Zafarnama’, the exquisite 111 stanzas written by Guru Gobind Singh, addressed to Aurangzeb and indicting him of the moral bankruptcy of his rule. The Guru writes, “You sit on a mighty throne/ You are king of all you survey/ But strange is your justice/ Strange the virtues you display.” ‘Zafarnama’ was written by the Guru some fifteen or more years after Khattak had died in 1689.

Khattak lies buried in the town of Akora Khattak, district Nowshera, in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This is the same town from where the translator of his quatrains, Sami ur Rehman, hails from and prides himself on carrying Khattak’s legacy. What is paradoxical here is that Akora Khattak is more famous for the Darul Uloom Haqqania, one of the largest and most orthodox seminary in Pakistan. In some sense, it is the politics and values of Aurangzeb that currently prevail in Pakistan and not what his diverse adversaries stood for – from Dara Shikoh and Sufi Sarmad to Khushal Khan Khattak and Guru Gobind Singh.

For the spiritual and intellectual successors of Dara Shikoh and Sarmad, the struggle continues since the 17th century. It is a struggle against deceit, injustice, hypocrisy and bigotry. In the humanistic tradition within Islam, the lover of truth, justice, sincerity and fairness has to make a sacrifice. Khushal Khan Khattak says, “When lovers witnessed the Divine Effulgence/ Moses saw it in the bush, Mansur on the cross/ It made an appearance in Bayazid/ While Attar saw it in the sharp edge of the sword.” This shows Khattak’s inherent connection with Persian poetry, the amalgamation of love and sacrifice professed by Sufis and rebellion against power.

Similarly, he shares a bond with poets of other languages spoken in the Indo-Gangetic plain through shared themes, subjects, metaphors and similes. To give one example, an idea one would find among many poets – from Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai to Bulleh Shah and from Mir to Ghalib – can be enjoyed in Khattak’s quatrain: “What is this shallow talk O sheik?/ Paradise, houris and the stake/ I will see my pretty babe today/ Shirking credit and interest rate.”

In terms of its layout and illustrations, ‘Rubaiyat of Khushal Khan Khattak’ is a well-produced book. What intrigues me, though, is that all the illustrations in this book are Mughal paintings and miniatures. Art eventually brings the feuding tribes and peoples together.

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