Past and present

November 19, 2023

Faiz made many Palestinian friends, mostly poets, during his stay in Beirut

Past and present


aiz Ahmed Faiz spent a few years in Beirut when he was made the editor of the Lotus magazine. That was a very difficult time as the city, once seen as a bastion of modernity and intellectual dynamism, was almost destroyed by the civil war. He and Alys Faiz heard and saw explosions, some perilously close to their office. In retrospect, they considered themselves lucky to have escaped unharmed.

The Palestinian cause and struggle are again making headlines these days after the Hamas attack and an unprecedented retaliation by Israeli forces. The indiscriminate use of force has shocked the world. The outcome of it all is still uncertain, though people (women and children in particular) dying is a palpable reality.

Faiz had a wide circle of friends, mostly poets. He met artists, intellectual and writers across the Afro-Asian spectrum during his frequent international travels. He interacted with many and was abreast of their achievements. The years spent in Beirut resulted is his meeting some of these poets on a regular basis so that he was more exposed to their work. Also, it made him a resident of a city in the midst of war where it was not a theoretic possibility or topic of an academic discourse but actual blood and gore. The cities were being destroyed and people being maimed and murdered.

For quite some time, Faiz was a hunted figure in Pakistan. It can be said that he had a relatively peaceful stint in the Bhutto years. Once the military took over, arrests and harassment started. Faiz was high on the list and but left the country once again and was eventually given an assignment in the war-torn Beirut. Twice incarcerated and forever hounded, he was no stranger to the tentacles of oppression. He was also no stranger to self-imposed exile. After he received the Lenin Peace Prize many friends and well-wishers advised him to stay away from his arz-i-watan but he decided to return to Pakistan even though he had already been in prison twice.

He had a particular friendship with Mehmoud Darvesh, the leading poet. He had even greater respect for Muin Aufik Bseiso. In probably his last public meeting at the Pak Tea House, Faiz read some of the poems of the Arab poets that he had translated, saying that that was ‘real’ poetry. “Hum nay to jhak mara hai,” he said with his familiar humility.

He was also friends with Yasser Arafat and dedicated Meray dil meray musafir to him. He also had other friends among leaders of the Palestinian cause. As editor, he moved the magazine’s focus away from the fire and brimstone armed resistance to embrace a broader cultural-scape. He also widened it scope, making it more Afro Asian than strictly Arabic or Arab as had been the case before him. The fact that the previous editor of the magazine had been murdered, meant that the job was not a simple or secure one.

Actually aware of the bleeding wound in the Middle East, particularly after the debacle of the Six Day War, he had dedicated a book, Sar-i-Wadi-i-Sina, to it.

Faiz had sided with the struggle of the people of Africa and other oppressed nations. He had later shifted his focus to the Palestinians due to the ongoing bloodletting. During his days in Beirut, he too wrote a few poems, his artistic response to the never ending series of injustices. Some of his poems are quite poignant, for instance, Lori, for a Palestinian child in a foreign land. He described the exacting days of Beirut as being akin to Karbala – Ek naghma karbala-i-Beirut kay liye.

In the 1970s many Pakistani poets woke up to the struggle and were curious about the poetry being written in Palestine. Shifting their gaze from the West, they came across poetry of resistance written in the Middle East. Some attempts were made to translate those poems into Urdu and other Pakistani languages.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

Past and present