Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911–1984) has an international reputation, but I only became aware of him through the PinC preparations for an event, celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth, on Monday 17 Jan at Kings Place. Of course, we all tend to know better the poets in our own cultural tradition, those we studied at school and university or those our parents loved. But one of the delights of being involved with Poet in the City is the exposure we get to those beloved of other traditions and the realisation that they too have stirred the hearts of millions. As Soonu, one of the Event Managers, mused,
‘New audiences’, as Poet in the City defines them, would be those who don’t usually read poetry or who don’t go to poetry events. But that would rule out the young workers (now nearing retirement) I used to know in Slough, Watford, Milton Keynes, Birmingham, Bradford, Preston, Blackburn—in fact in every town and city in Britain, in the ‘60s, ’70s and ’80s, that had a furnace or factory.
That’s because Pakistani and Indian immigrant workers were not new to poetry. No suitcase was ever packed for that long journey to ‘baylaat’ (Blighty) without a couple of books from one’s poetry collection. It wasn’t possible to have a discussion, without someone quoting a verse to make a point and everyone joining in to complete it. Poetry pulsates in the veins of our people like the throbbing memory of home.
There were regular ‘mushairas’ in people’s houses—usually bedsits—where the works of well-known poets were recited; and people read their own poetry. Everyone present was expected to contribute something original, even if it was just a couplet. University students and foundry workers shared the same enthusiasm for poetry: there were no class distinctions in the mushairas between those who had come to England because they could afford to and those who had come because they could not afford not to.
It was taken for granted that our monthly workers’ newsletter would have at least one poem in it. The problem was what to do with the poems that arrived unsolicited.
Occasionally, an established poet would arrive on these shores and public halls up and down the country became overfull with eager audiences. Poet in the City, where were you then?
Well, it’s because Poet in the City is here now that I have been introduced to Faiz Ahmad Faiz. LiveJournal has a small collection of his poems in English translation, prefaced by a brief introduction to his poetic and political life: Advanced Poetry. The few poems quoted here are full of wrenching sorrow and precious hope. I found this stanza from ‘Speak’, translated by Azfar Hussain, particularly affirming:
Speak, your lips are free.
Speak, it is your own tongue.
Speak, it is your own body.
Speak, your life is still yours.
… and this is made even more poignant by the news I heard yesterday that Faiz’s nephew, Salman Taseer, was murdered on 4th January for his outspoken support for a secular Pakistan. In the spirit of this stanza, his daughter, Shehrbano Taseer, said:
To honour his memory, those who share that belief in Pakistan’s future must not stay silent about injustice. … (The assassin and his supporters) may have felled a great oak that day, but they are sadly mistaken if they think they have succeeded in silencing my father’s voice or the voices of millions like him who believe in the secular vision of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
Has any of Faiz’s poetry touched or challenged you? Please leave a comment here to tell us about it.