If they snatch my ink and pen,
I should not complain,
For I have dipped my fingers
In the blood of my heart.
I should not complain
Even if they seal my tongue,
For every ring of my chain
Is a tongue ready to speak.
I was looking for December poems, and discovered a huge cache of Urdu poetry, since the traditional poetic form — Shayari — has a whole subset of December Shayari. Unfortunately, I understand no Urdu, and much of what’s online isn’t translated.
But in looking for English translations, I found Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984).
Faiz, regarded as a leading poet of the Indian sub-continent, and one of the greatest Urdu poets, was also a Marxist-communist revolutionary who antagonized both British and Muslim leaders, and spent years in prison and exile. Although denounced as an atheist by his opponents, he was often inspired by Sufi mysticism.
Is someone there, oh weeping heart? No, no one there.
Perhaps a traveler, but he will be on his way.
The night is spent, the dust of stars begins to scatter.
In the assembly halls dream-filled lamps begin to waver.
Small streets sleep waiting by the thoroughfare.
Strange earth beclouds footprints of yesterday.
Snuff out the candles, put away wine-cup and flask.
Then lock your eyelids in this morning dusk.
For now there’s no one, no one who will come here.
We Who Were Executed
I longed for your lips, dreamed of their roses:
I was hanged from the dry branch of the scaffold.
I wanted to touch your hands, their silver light:
I was murdered in the half-light of dim lanes.
And there where you were crucified,
so far away from my words,
you still were beautiful:
color kept clinging to your lips–
rapture was still vivid in your hair–
light remained silvering in your hands.
When the night of cruelty merged with the roads you had taken,
I came as far as my feet could bring me,
on my lips the phrase of a song,
my heart lit up only by sorrow.
This sorrow was my testimony to your beauty–
Look! I remained a witness till the end,
I who was killed in the darkest lanes.
It’s true– that not to reach you was fate–
but who’ll deny that to love you
was entirely in my hands?
So why complain if these matters of desire
brought me inevitably to the execution grounds?
Why complain? Holding up our sorrows as banners,
new lovers will emerge
from the lanes where we were killed
and embark, in caravans, on those highways of desire.
It’s because of them that we shortened the distances of sorrow,
it’s because of them that we went out to make the world our own,
we who were murdered in the darkest lanes.
When Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan imposed extreme restrictions on the communist party in 1951, Faiz was among those swept up in the massive arrests as a conspirator in the Rawalpindi Plot, a secret meeting between party members and left-wing military leaders. Faiz was tried in a military court, and spent over four years in prison, until his sentence was commuted, and he went into exile in London in 1955.
Do not strike the chord of sorrow tonight!
Days burning with pain turn to ashes.
Who knows what happens tomorrow?
Last night is lost; tomorrow’s frontier wiped out:
Who knows if there will be another dawn?
Life is nothing, it’s only tonight!
Tonight we can be what the gods are!
Do not strike the chord of sorrow, tonight!
Do not repeat stories of sufferings now,
Do not complain, let your fate play its role,
Do not think of tomorrows, give a damn–
Shed no tears for seasons gone by,
All sighs and cries wind up their tales,
Oh, do not strike the same chord again!
He returned to Pakistan in 1958, but was detained for publishing pro-communist ideas. When this sentence was commuted in 1960, he went to Moscow. In 1963, Faiz became the first Asian poet to be awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, the Soviet Union’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize. In his acceptance speech, Faiz said,
“… I believe that humanity which has never been defeated by its enemies
will, after all, be successful; at long last, instead of wars, hatred and cruelty, the foundation of humankind will rest on the message of the great Persian poet Hafez Shiraz: ‘Every foundation you see is faulty, except that of Love, which is faultless….”
After some time spent in London, Faiz returned to Karachi in 1964 as Principal of Abdullah Haroon College. In 1965, Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a democratic socialist, lobbied for his appointment to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. During the 1971 Winter War, Faiz wrote poems and songs opposing bloodshed as Bangladesh separated from Pakistan.
From 1972 to 1974, he served as a culture adviser to the Ministries of Culture and Education. In 1977, a military coup put him back under suspicion and constant surveillance by Military Police. Faiz took asylum in Beirut in 1979, but left in 1982 because of the renewal of the Lebanon War and his declining health. He returned to Pakistan.
In 1984, shortly after he was notified that he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Faiz Ahmed Faiz died in Lahore, Punjab Province.
A Prison Evening
Each star a rung,
night comes down the spiral
staircase of the evening.
The breeze passes by so very close
as if someone just happened to speak of love.
In the courtyard,
the trees are absorbed refugees
embroidering maps of return on the sky.
On the roof,
the moon – lovingly, generously –
is turning the stars
into a dust of sheen.
From every corner, dark-green shadows,
in ripples, come towards me.
At any moment they may break over me,
like the waves of pain each time I remember
this separation from my lover.
This thought keeps consoling me:
though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed
in rooms where lovers are destined to meet,
they cannot snuff out the moon, so today,
nor tomorrow, no tyranny will succeed,
no poison of torture make me bitter,
if just one evening in prison
can be so strangely sweet,
if just one moment anywhere on this earth.
In 1990, under Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani government posthumously awarded Faiz Ahmed Faiz its highest civilian award, Nishan-e-Imtiaz (Order of Excellence).
The Pakistan Peoples Party’s government declared 2011 as “the year of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.”
My caged body is cheerless today,
Someone please fill hope in the morning breeze.
For god’s sake! don’t let it go empty,
Let it carry with it the story of our friends.
— from Gulon Mein Rang Bhare
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
Translated by Philip Nikolayev
We Who Were Executed
English Translation By Agha Shahid Ali
A Prison Evening
- Dast-e-Tah-e-Sung (1965)
- Mere Dil Mere Musafir
- ‘Eye of wisdom’ mandala from a 15th century Islamic manuscript. Source: The Book of Symbols (2010) © ARAS/Taschen.
- Eclipse at Rawalpindi, AP Photo
- Sufi Winged Heart
- Milky Way with the Moon
- Word Cloud Photo by Larry Cloud