Feb 24, 2011 - published work, Society    23 Comments

Hum dekhain gay …

As someone who read up on 20th century revolutionaries quite a bit – although my readings were for mainly non-revolutionary reasons – I used to cringe every time I spotted a finance undergraduate or an aspiring MBA candidate in a Che Guevara T-shirt at my college campus in England. The irony of it almost never failed to hit me. Most of these kids were middle-class (in the British sense) or upper-class (in the Third World sense) whom Che would have shot without blinking his revolutionary eyes. But as we have all been forced to concede, Che is popular today not for his philosophy or political practice but for his face, i.e. as the quintessential postmodern icon, which means (relatively) different things to (relatively) different people.

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.

Reciting Faiz in a party or to quote him in a blog or to join a facebook page can never replace real activism. Real activism means de classing yourself and to give gut and blood to the ideology we believe in. In this day and age when “idiology” has replaced “ideology” how many of us can remain true to what we believe in and are willing to walk in Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s formidable shoes.

A slightly edited version of this post has been published in The Friday Times


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  • You should write more on the similarities of
    Burger Jihadis and Burger Communists

  • I enjoyed reading this. I like ur style and I don’t understand how Pakistanis born and brought up in the homeland, go to the West for study and work, and ‘forget’ how to read Urdu..? Mystifying, no?

  • I haven’t read any Urdu poetry though I have heard about Faiz. I do agree with your last point about how many of us actually walk the talk. You are dead right –“idiology” more than “ideology” works today!

  • I think my “Eff” moment was when Musharraf declared Iqbal Bano and Hum Dekhein Gay as his fave.
    And we must be the only country where the powers that are decide From Today On We are Sufi..where else does the Centre decides from now on we are the Margin.

  • most of the guys are in there for ladki-baazi any way.

  • What he wrote is relevant today, and youths didn’t have time to go through history lessons to understand context of his poems. When people do not associate their identity within social and cultural fabric of their country, nothing is going to change. Even when people have good intention but unable to take action due to lack of knowledge and further their resignation of mind to have fun and entertainment all time. Mainstream don’t think, it just follows like sheep’ herd to the authority. And all Faiz did was to give voice to the oppressed and exiled people against authority.

    Thanks for such a good article. And, We are losing the art of scholarship due to easy picking conspiracy theories. Across the border, same story…

  • I am quite sure they will learn lots of new stuff here than anybody else!

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  • Awesome read and indeed in a way very true picture of our generation. My interest in Faiz began with an incident when one of my class fellows gave me Nuskha Haye Wafa to find some material for my debate. Needless to say, he still has not got that book back. And its not the famous poems that depict his stature, its the little things, the bits, the analogies, the hiding of painful feelings behind beautiful words.

    Once again, well written. Keep up the good work

  • Hi,
    I grew up in India and I can’t read urdu script and I read Faiz saheb in Devnagri (hindi) script.
    I was introduced to popular nazms of Faiz by Zia Moheyeddin in an Album “Faiz Saheb ki yaad mein” (what an orator) and after that I did my home work and came across other not so popular verses/ghazals/nazms of faiz.

    In my amateur opinion what separates Faiz from other revolutionary poets is that he hardly ever talks about giving into violence in his poetry.

    “Yeh char din ki khudai to koi baat nahin”

    Only Faiz could have said it.

    I hope you realize there are millions of people who can’t read Faiz in urdu script but that doesn’t diminish their love for Faiz.


  • I’m glad there is SOMEONE who realizes the irony in all the pictures of Che Guevara on t-shirts and the kind of people who’re wearing them.

    It is a really troubled time when a writer like Faiz or a someone like Che becomes a symbol for the latest trend and not for what they actually believed or practiced. Pakistani socio-political culture is more rhetoric-based and I’m guessing that’s why people don’t seem to be getting over this selective reading and quoting.

    A revolution is not ‘Khala jee ka ghar’ and everyone, including the Pakistani politicians (who influence far too many people in Pakistan, mostly illiterate) seem to take it really lightly and every speech or talk-show debate has countless references towards gathering the people for a ‘revolution’.

    People need to understand that a revolution isn’t simply a regime change and that it is always against a certain system that they feel can be changed for the better (and have a suitable plan for). An ‘idioligy’ that defines a revolution will create a major power vacuum while an ideological power-shift is more likely to achieve real and (hopefully) positive results.

    There. Hope that makes sense to more than just me! =)

  • Thank you for this Tazeen. The Che T-shirt thing irks me too, I remember reading pieces by his children that said that it was beyond offensive to put the face of the man who campaigned against capitalism his entire life on a t-shirt and sell it like popcorn.

    In keeping with your encounter, I have one of my own. During the Faiz fest, I met an ‘auntie’ who asked me which of his poems was my favourite, ‘Kutte,’ I said.
    She than went on about his genius and how she fought for the cause too. We got into a discussion about child labour and how I was writing about street children and the Child Protection Bureau and she said “What you dont realise beta, is that you’re not doing ‘these’ people any good by putting them in school. Once they get out they are left no where, they dont think they’re fit to be servants anymore and they’re certainly not fit to be employed in offices. At least we give them jobs”.

    That is where we are right now, socialites flittering at Faiz gatherings in shatoos shawls talking about how if children were put in schools and out of servitude they wouldn’t have anyone to cook for them! The youth cant comprehend Faiz’s spirit either because much as they might like his poetry they will hate his socialism. The latter doesn’t prioritize or even pander to religion, Pakistani’s cant really feel patriotic without that.

  • Spot on! Loved it. Faiz is our Che. The irony that Che is being used to look ‘cool’ ticks me off.
    Ashamed to admit, havent read Faiz much myself, but enjoyed this. Write more on the lofty rebels.

  • Awesome read; specially since I’ve started reading the man a bit here and there.

    I was bombarded with excuses that ranged from “Urdu is very difficult to understand

    Well, that is true, is it not? Does anybody, anywhere actually speak Urdu like the way Faiz writes it?

  • so…faiz wrote in urdu? I thought it was english!

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  • I love your style! That was a very enjoyable read!

    I was introduced to Faiz Ahmad Faiz hardly about a month ago through Laal (the Pakistani band; I have recently been listening only to their songs because I love their passion, and their lyrics are from revolutionaries like Faiz Ahmad Faiz). So I haven’t read (in Urdu) any of his poems save the ones that Laal has melodized.

    But I, too, find it pitiful that most of the people who adore Faiz and other influential and important historical figures without actually knowing what their philosophies were or what they stood for and fought against. To me, that diminishes their significance and is a mockery of them rather than a sign of honor and respect.

    I don’t think I’ll be exaggerating or blaspheming here if I compared it to the “love” that many Muslims have for God and Muhammad (pbuh)! You know how it goes — “I love Prophet Muhammad more than I love my parents” … but they have no idea what the ultimate message of Muhammad’s teachings was.

    If I may ask, by the way, what were the non-revolutionary reasons although that you read these revolutionaries for?

  • “It’s quite interesting that for such Pakistani students Faiz is the only symbol of liberation from oppression and exploitation.”
    What about good old Imran Khan? Lots of kids nowadays are spouting “revolution, revolution!” due to HIS proclamations of it, if I am correct…

  • By going through all of above literate and otherwise comments, I wonder how people to go lengths just to pose that they understand everything. Faiz was socialist or what our badshah log called “Surkhay” means red ones. For those who really want to walk in formidable shoes of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, I advise them to please understand the slogan of yours “We will watch” let me explain what Faiz Sahib means by all that sufi terminology, Faiz wrote that we will see the promised day which is written in loh-e-azl, I do not know what he meant by tablet which was ever there and how we know that the day free from tyranny is written there but what a closet thing I think he meant was Loh-e-Mahfooz which can not be read by humans since it was at seventh heaven and we do not know how to reach it and what it looks like, for the promised day it is largely regarded as Day of Judgement (Qayamat) and ofcourse we agree with him that on the day there will be no tyranny and we will certainly see it but perhaps not in this life. Well Faiz go out of the way to claimed that Ka’aba is now filled with idols and he and his fellows are real Ahle Saffa (saaf suthray) and generally known as murdood-e-harm (ones to entry to harm is prohibited) maybe it is one of his excuses to not to perform Hajj/Umrah but truth is every Muslim however paji he can be is allowed to go to Harm, all you have to do is buy ticket and get visa but I think Faiz do see idols which is unseen to us in Masjid-e-Haram since 8 hijra. The thing is only non-muslims are murdood-e-harm but I think Faiz was high when he wrote that anyway now he has passed away and certainly many things must be crystal clear to him now. Now here comes the real thing which you should understand and should be very clear Faiz said that Allah is invisible and visible and He is seer and is seen now be perfectly clear that this is nothing to do with your own false interpretation of sufi idea but pure aqeedah of Wahdat-uz-zahoor and wahdat-us-shahood which is driven from wahdat-ul-wujood please read Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam which is further explained by Faiz as slogan of anaal-Haq which is pure blaspheming and heresy because it literally means I am Haq/Allah. Now at last do we believe that we are God or do you?

  • This is not the first of your posts I’ve read, and you never cease to amaze me. Thank you, and I look forward to reading more.


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  • My experience with Faiz saab’s poetry really began as an undergraduate in college, here in America. Having left Pakistan during Class IX, I was familiar with certain poets from Urdu textbooks. My father is an avowed poetry lover so there was always discussion of shairi at home. When I saw an Urdu anthology of Faiz’s poetry at a friend’s apartment, I was bothered by the fact that I could read his poetry, but not understand it. I’ve gotten much better since then, and have (re)acquainted myself with other awesome Urdu poets in the process.

    Re: Che wannabes. I confess to being of revolutionary heart and mind trapped in the body of someone raised as “upper middle-class”. I never have worn a Che t-shirt though. 🙂

  • Tazeen Sahib, I am really impressed with your writing and brief explanation of Faiz’s philosophy. I just became his fan very recently after listening to his gazel: ‘Hum Dekhain Gay”. Being an enthusiast of ‘revolutionary poetry’ it did not take me long to admire his thinking. However, as far as young activists, supposedly espousing for a ‘change’ in the name of Faiz or by invoking the poet’s slogans may seem a triviality at the onset. Give some time to these young men to mature and grow and hopefully their understanding of Che’?Faiz will improve. In any campaign, generally, its leaders have better understanding and the followers are merely, being herded into a framework, so to speak of. The important thing is that the young generation is striving for a ‘change’. We all over the world want change for the better of our lives. Not knowing Urdu script does not in any way diminish my appreciation of Urdu Poetry. I have no doubt that I will be able to appreciate it even more if I am well versed with the written script.

    • Thanks a lot for your comments and it is Tazeen sahiba, not sahib 🙂

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