Beyond the Crimson Tide

The poems of Pakistani exile Faiz Ahmed Faiz reflect the people’s longing for a just social order, writes Ali Shehzad Zaidi.

It ought to be more than a passing concern that, according to a 2011 survey, malnutrition has stunted the growth of nearly 44% of children in the world’s fifth most populous nation. Furthermore, among the 186 countries surveyed in 2015, Pakistan had the highest rate of stillborn births, spending a mere $36 per capita on healthcare that year. Underscoring its fiscal priorities, Pakistan possessed an estimated 165 nuclear warheads by 2021. These contradictions exist in a country whose official name, as adopted in the 1956 constitution without any apparent sense of irony, is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

During the first decades of Pakistan’s existence, the military gradually imposed authoritarian strictures in all aspects of life. Those strictures found an effective challenge in the Urdu poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984). In “Ash Flower,” Faiz highlights the paradox of a fertile land full of hungry people:

Why do my people –
the doomed inhabitants
of these beloved
shimmering cities
always live in the fervid hope
of death?

in two
by a dark boulder.

why does
only hunger
in these fecund
voluptuous fields?

The dark boulder represents the forces that thwart the natural course of the nourishing mountain-stream that represents mercy and succor. The mountain symbolizes spiritual heights and the water that flows from it recalls the diminishing glacier melt that irrigates Pakistan’s farmlands while providing drinking water for its people. The shimmering lights of unrealized possibilities and unfulfilled dreams gives rise to frustration and a cult of death.

Financed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s military, allied to feudal lords and rightwing religious groups such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, crushed democratic and progressive movements, targeting the courageous few who dared to speak up. It carried out extrajudicial killings of labor organizers, scholars, trade unionists, journalists, dissidents, human rights activists, workers, farmers, and the incompliant, with near total impunity, imposing press censorship and crippling cultural life in Pakistan. Under the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, showy religiosity became the norm for public officials, and retrograde education that masqueraded as patriotism mystified the past.

Faiz’s career as a newspaper editor ended when he was imprisoned and later forced into exile. In “Amnesia,” Faiz describes the malaise that afflicted those who longed for a just social order:

A strange disease –
people no longer know how to walk
with their heads held high.

The love-possessed avert their eyes
and move through the streets
like shadows.

Ultimate absurdity –
bricks and stones chained down
and vicious dogs absolutely free.

As the poem’s title suggests, memory was erased from public consciousness. The military suppressed civil institutions that might countervail its rule, such as universities, unions, the press, and human rights organizations, leaving itself as the default institution for providing order and stability.

Faiz did more than anyone to counteract the destructive forces reshaping Pakistan. In the seventies, during a brief interlude of semi-enlightened civilian rule under Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Faiz developed the National Council of the Arts and the Institute of Folk Heritage, and served as cultural advisor to the Ministry of Education, to name but a few of his worthy endeavors. In “Two Loves,” Faiz writes,

Blood gushes out
from the night’s ruptured veins:
the crimson tide swells
without abatement.
Agony of stars
resolved in the sky’s oblivion:
my hopeless passion for you
and this our long-suffering land.
They branded me an infidel
from the pulpit:
they screamed at me
in the market-place.
Inquisitors. Prison-cell.
Torment in the desert.
Banishment. They condemned me
to loneliness, alienation, despair.
I did not complain.
They stretched me on the rack.
I did not repent.
My heart is sick
but not with remorse.

The explicit love for “our long-suffering land” contrasts with the absence of specification of the ‘you’ whose ambiguity reminds us of our collective identity and prompts us to action. Beyond the crimson tide that swallows stars and annuls possibilities, the moon still shines.

Note on the essay and translations

The translations of Faiz’s poems in this essay are by Daud Kamal. The copyright is owned by the Kamal family, who granted me permission to publish them. Kamal also translated poems by Munir Niazi which will feature in an essay in the next issue of the Scottish Left Review.

What brought me to the Scottish Left Review is the memory of the Scottish poet Howard Purdie, who wrote a couple of articles about Faiz, which were published in The Scotsman in the eighties. Purdie visited Pakistan more than once, and in 1983 he met both Faiz and Daud Kamal. Kamal was my professor at the University of Peshawar during the early eighties, at which time I edited the English department literary journal. We published a beautiful poem by Purdie in the 1983-84 session issue entitled “Echo, River, and Cloud”.

In 1985, Kamal gave me a manuscript of his poems and translations, some of which have never been published, owing in great part to his untimely death in 1987. A few translations remain unpublished, while others, including the Faiz translations in this essay, circulated only within Pakistan during the eighties. Some were published in our department journal or in English language newspapers such as The Muslim and The Pakistan Times, often in truncated form with missing lines because of censorship or editorial incompetence. I am publishing this essay and the essay in the next Scottish Left Review at the request of Kamal’s family.

Ali Shehzad Zaidi is the Director of Publications at the Transformative Studies Institute. He was the Vice-President of the Southeast European Studies Association (2009-2013).