In Pakistan too, after the Lawyers’ Movement of 2007, a new generation of urban youth has become enamored with the idea of revolutionary change. For them the closest thing to a homegrown, feelgood, postmodern iconoclast is the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The man and his poetry have become one big symbol of the underdog, the idealist, as well as the man or woman who is willing to suffer for a cause.
On the occasion of Faiz’s 100th birthday, many events were organized across the country to celebrate and commemorate his life and work. I was quite pleasantly surprised to see so many young people turning up at different venues to celebrate someone who consistently supported causes that were dangerous then and are passé now, and who wrote in a language that is no longer considered fashionable.
But my delight experienced an early demise after a series of unfortunate events that have led me to believe that Faiz is celebrated – just like Che – as a symbol rather than for what he actually believed or practiced. I have by now met too many wannabe revolutionaries who print out Faiz’s avant-garde anthem ‘Hum dekhain gay’ in the Roman alphabet and call themselves Faiz aficionados. Reading Faiz, or for that matter any great Urdu poet, in the Roman script alone is a sacrilege, but for such people to claim to be an authority on his very vast repertoire of outstanding work, when they have only a chorus in mind, is both hilarious and infuriating.
I recently met one such specimen of a Faiz fan at a Faiz fest (fittingly, if you’ll forgive all the effing). The interaction, though it was mercifully brief, convinced me that Pakistanis can trivialize just about anything. What follows is an excerpt from our conversation.
Boy: Isn’t Faiz awesome?
Me: I believe he is.
The Boy: Isn’t his revolutionary work great.
Me: I am not sure what you mean by revolutionary work but I assume you are referring to his poetry against tyranny.
Boy: Yeah. So what do you think about his work.
Me: I have not read a lot of Urdu poetry and cannot compare his work with others but I truly admire Faiz’s ability to relate his internal, subjective world to the larger world and the fact that his empathy for people transcended geographical boundaries…
The Boy: That’s cool. He wrote for people from other parts of the world?
Me: Yeah, he wrote for the Palestinians and the colonized Africans and he showed compassion for Bangladeshi people when no one dared to do so. Haven’t you read Aye Arz-e-Falasteen?
The Boy: I can’t read Urdu. My family recently moved back from England.
Me: How have you read Faiz if you can’t read Urdu?
Boy: Oh I haven’t read him. I only know the revolutionary bits like “Bol ke lub azad hain teray” and “Hum dekhain gay.” You know we sang them during the long march and all! They are freakin’ awesome.
Me: Errr… but you do realize that Faiz is a lot more than those two “revolutionary bits” as you have called them…?
Boy: Yeah but those are the ones that matter …
That boy is not alone. During my stint as a teacher of undergraduates, I came across many students who were filled with a similar zeal and wanted to change the world through Faiz’s poetry. It’s quite interesting that for such Pakistani students Faiz is the only symbol of liberation from oppression and exploitation. They are not familiar with other poets of the time, such as Josh Malihabadi, Noon Meem Rashid or Habib Jalib, to name a few. In fact, during my class on popular social movements, Jalib was referred to as the “dude who wrote songs for the Band Laal.” Jalib must have been somersaulting in his grave after that.
Most young people who claim to be impressed by Faiz’s poetry are familiar only with his famous poems; and they don’t even understand those. During one of our discussions, I asked my students about their views on Faiz’s employment of the Arabic term Ana-al-haq (or ‘I am the Truth’), attributed to the martyred Sufi Mansur Hallaj. I was looking for a response about the political struggle, about how Faiz may have tried to relate it to the personal quest for self-actuation. But it drew a blank from all my students except one. When I pointed out that Ana-al-haq has been used in one of the most popular anthems of our times – none other than their “favourite” Faiz poem, that’s right, you got it, the one that goes ‘Hum dekhain gay’ – I was bombarded with excuses that ranged from “Urdu is very difficult to understand” to “the poetry was against people like Musharraf and Zardari and not about religion.”The sad reality of our times is that Faiz – the revolutionary is expropriated by everyone and anyone who thinks Faiz’s words can serve their purpose, especially by people against whom most revolutions are targeted. From right wing politicians to rich kids who are sent to liberal arts colleges abroad on money their parents made by running sweat shops, Faiz is the poet everyone loves to recite to lend credence to their rhetoric. In 21st century revolution loving Pakistan, Faiz’s popularity among a certain section of society represents ignorant kitsch which should not be taken seriously. During a recent protest, some of such Faiz lovers who espouse revolutionary ideas expressed displeasure at marching with trade union activists because they did not smell good.
A slightly edited version of this post has been published in The Friday Times