In March 1955, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, still imprisoned in Rawalpindi’s Montgomery Jail where he had been interred since 1951 for ‘seditious activities,’ wrote Aa Jaao Africa (Come, Africa), a poem based on a phrase he had heard as a rallying cry among African anti-colonial rebels:
Aa jaao main ne sun li tere dhol ki tarang
Aa jaao mast ho gayi mere lahu ki chaal …
Come, that I have heard the sounds of your drum
Come that my blood flows to its rhythm
Come, for I have raised my forehead from the dust
Scraped away the hide of grief from my eyes
Broken away from the grip of pain
Torn away the web of helplessness
The earth’s heart beats with mine, Africa
The river dances while the moon keeps time
I am Africa, for I have taken on your form
I am you, and my gait is your lion-walk.
Come with a lion-walk
We always felt intrigued by the poem, not least because it troubled us. While Faiz’s solidarity with Africa was obvious in the lines, the image of the continent was primal, wild, invoking jungles and wild animals. Our latter-day sensibilities could not reconcile Faiz’s obvious commitment to international humanism with the image he obviously harboured of Africans as primal beings. It was much later that we learned that far from invoking racialised stereotypes, Faiz’s imagery had been inspired by the poetic aesthetics developed by writers and intellectuals of the Negritude movement, which sought to reclaim the metaphors of blackness in the service of an international solidarity amongst people of colour. Faiz’s friendship with African poets such as Aimé Césaire of Martinique must have led him to adopt these metaphors, which he then brought to the Subcontinent. Ultimately, other Urdu poets like Ali Sardar Jafri would use similar imagery in their poems celebrating black revolutionaries across the world.
The story of Aa Jaao Africa in many ways frames Faiz’s role as someone who helped the progressive aesthetic of Urdu poetry add an internationalist ethos. His travels across the world in the 1950s and 1960s brought Faiz to far more interesting places than the standard sojourn to the island of Vilayat by his peers. He developed relationships with a variety of peers, who in their poems wrote of the oppressed in their lands: the Chilean Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes of the Harlem Renaissance, and Nazim Hikmet of Turkey (whose work he translated into Urdu). Also, while leftists across the Subcontinent were well aware of Soviet poets like Mayakovski; their exposure was limited to Russians who wrote in a European style. Thanks to Faiz, we have Urdu translations from the ‘lesser Soviets’ such as Kazakhstan’s Olzhas Suleimenov, or Daghestan’s Rasul Gamzatov.
At odds with the state
Faiz was an internationalist partly by inclination, and partly out of circumstance. His relationship with the nation-state was doomed on 15 August 1947, with the partition of the country. The promised independence arrived, but its crimson hue was not that of the awaited socialist ‘red dawn’ but came from the blood of the dead of Partition violence. Faiz’s poem Subh-e Aazadi (The dawn of freedom) was an anthem for the defeat of progressive politics at the moment of decolonisation. Ye dagh dagh ujaala, ye shab-gazeeda sahar (This pock-marked light, this night-inflected morning), carried the voice of all progressives regarding the catastrophe of partition. The poem ended with the call to continue the unfinished journey:
Abhi giraani-e-shab mein kami nahin aayi
Najaat-e deeda-o dil ki ghadi nahin aayi
Chale chalo, ke wo manzil abhi nahin aayi
Don’t be fooled, the abatement of the darkness is not here yet
The deliverance of the eye and the heart is not here yet
Keep moving, for the awaited destination is not here yet.
Faiz’s relationship with the nation-state was rendered even more contingent when he was arrested in 1951 by the Ayub Khan regime in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. The charges of working to overthrow the government led to a longish prison stint, and incidentally laid the foundation for the banning of the Communist Party of Pakistan and its various fronts in 1954. Faiz’s poems during those days, collected in his book Zindan-naama (Letters from Prison) perhaps reflect his best work:
Nisaar main teri galiyon pe ai vatan, ke jahaan
Chali hai rasm ke koi na sar utha ke chale
I sacrifice myself to your lanes, my country
Where it has been decreed that none should walk with head held high.
It was here that he developed his trademark poetic metaphors, where the qafas (cage) encloses the prisoner, who then depends on the breeze (saba) to get news of the homeland. As the two poem snippets below show, Faiz’s poetry seemed to enter a reflective state, combining the passion of classic love poetry with revolutionary idiom, which is what makes him unique among the progressives.
Chaman mein ghaarat-e gulcheen se jaane kya guzri
Qafas se aaj saba beqaraar guzri hai
I wonder what wrath the flower-picker wreaked on the garden
For the zephyr has passed through my cage rather agitated
Qafas hai bas mein tumhaare, tumhaare bas mein nahin
Chaman mein aatish-e gul ke nikhaar ka mausam
Bala se hum ne na dekha to aur dekhenge
Furogh-e gulshan-o saut-e hazaar ka mausam
The cage may be in your power, but you do not control
The season of the flowering of the bright rose
And so what if we do not see it? For the ones following us will witness
The brightness of the garden, the singing of the nightingale
Citizen of the world
While Faiz’s poems are a vibrant example of the internationalist ethos of progressive Urdu poetry, the internationalism itself is not really exceptional. The internationalist commitment of the progressive movement was apparent since its very beginning. The anti-fascist struggles of European literary figures had enthused the Progressives, and one of the first activities of the newly formed Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA), in 1935, was to send Sajjad Zaheer and Mulk Raj Anand as their representatives to London to participate in the conference of ‘International Writers for the Defense of Culture’.
Poets like Mohammad Iqbal had been expanding the horizons of Urdu literature’s engagement with the world for a while. The PWA poets besides Faiz, however, took the internationalism to new levels. The Association had come into being at a time when the freedom movement was at its height, and the initial writings of its members were focused on the struggle against British occupation. Overtures to internationalism took two forms: an interrogation and critique of colonialism and its related issues (the Second World War, for instance), and an expression of admiration for the Soviet revolution accompanied by a hope that India’s freedom would result in a similar socialist society.
The emergence of the Non-Aligned Movement at Bandung, Indonesia in 1955 (the year of the writing of Aa Jaao Africa), concretised the idea of Third World solidarity, and provided another arena of expression for progressive poetry. Sahir wrote several poems in appreciation of Lenin, Makhdoom wrote moving elegies to Patrice Lumumba and Martin Luther King, Ali Sardar Jafri composed odes to Paul Robeson, and Kaifi Azmi wrote poems critiquing the US involvement in Vietnam. The cultural exchange fostered by the Non-Aligned and Afro-Asian movements led to the translation of many of Faiz’s poems into Swahili, Chinese and Vietnamese, while the works of progressive poets from around the world were translated into Urdu.
This period of Third World solidarity saw the Progressives composing poems on issues such as the struggles of Iranian students in 1959, the McCarthy era of repression of dissent in the United States, the European student uprisings in the 1960s, the Algerian freedom movement, the Palestinian struggle and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Faiz weighed in on a variety of global debates of the time, but with a lyricism that was unmatched. When Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in 1953 by the US government on the charge of being Soviet spies, Faiz was inspired to write a poem. But rather than write it as a protest against the injustice, he framed it as a lyrical tribute to their love, as they stubbornly refused to betray each other despite inducements, threats, incarceration, and ultimately, execution. His tribute is heartbreakingly titled Hum jo tareek raahon mein maare gaye (We who were executed on dark highways). Here is an excerpt:
Tere honton ke phoolon ki chaahat mein hum
Daar ki khushk tahni pe vaare gaye
Tere haathon ki shammom ki hasrat mein hum
Neem-tareek raahon mein maare gaye…
Jab ghuli teri raahon mein shaam-e sitam
Hum chale aaye laaye jahaañ tak qadam
Lab pe harf-e ghazal, dil meiñ qandeel-e-gham
Apna gham tha gavaahi tere husn ki
Dekh khaayam rahe is gavaahi pe hum
Hum jo tareek raahon mein maare gaye
In the desire for the flowers that were your lips
We were sacrificed on the dry branch of the scaffold
In the yearning for the light of your hands
We were killed in the darkening streets…
As the evening of tyranny dissolved in your memory
We walked on as far as our feet could carry us
A song on our lips, a lamp of sadness in our heart
Our grief bore witness to our love for your beauty
Look, we remained true to that love
We, who were executed in the dark lanes.
Faiz’s travels resumed when he went into self-exile in Lebanon during the dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq. It was in Beirut that he wrote several poems on the Middle East conflict: a piece on Beirut itself (Ishq Apne Mujrimoñ Ko Pabajaulaañ Le Chala / Love Leads its Prisoners Away in Chains), an anthem for Palestinian freedom-fighters (Ek Taraana Filastini Mujaahidoñ Ke Naam / An Anthem for Palestinian Revolutionaries), a dirge for the Palestinian dead (Filastini Shohada Jo Pardes Meiñ Kaam Aaye / Palestinian Martyrs Who Died Abroad), and perhaps the most famous, a lullaby to a Palestinian orphan (Mat Ro Bachche / Weep Not, Child). Faiz dedicated his book Mere Dil, Mere Musaafir (My Heart, My Wanderer) to the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. But the great sensitivity of Faiz was to relate the Palestinian condition back to Southasia, using the victory of Israel as a metaphor for the victory of capitalist elites in India and Pakistan, often in collusion with religious elites. Following the defeat of the Arab forces in the June 1967 war, his Sar-e Vaadi-e Seena (Atop the Sinai Valley) was, among other things, a scathing indictment of the hypocrisy of elitist Islamists. The poem exhorts people to cast off the chains of theocratic exploitation:
Phir barq farozaan hai sar-e vaadi-e Sina
Ai deeda-e beena
Phir dil ko musaffa karo is lauh pe, shaayad
Maabain-e man-o tu naya paimaan koi utre
Ab rasm-e sitam hikmat-e khaasaan-e zameen hai
Taaeed-e sitam maslehat-e mufti-e deen hai
Ab sadiyon ke iqraar-e itaa’at ko badalne
Laazim hai ke inkaar ka farmaan koi utre
Yet again, lightning shimmers atop the Sinai valley
O seeing eye
Ask the hearts to line up again
That between you and me, a new promise may descend
For now, the elite of the earth have decreed Tyranny to be normal
And the mufti has pronounced Oppression worth obeying
To break this centuries-old cycle of acquiescence
A new proclamation must descend, the proclamation of dissent
Some of Faiz’s contemporaries were even more direct. Using a similar metaphor, but with far great irony, Habib Jalib taunted Zia-ul-Huq in a poem that set the tone for the critique of the regime that chose to deploy Islam as a tool of ensuring domestic acquiescence, but was slow to take on Israeli imperialism for fear of angering the US:
Jahaan qatre mein hai Islam, us maidan mein jaao
Hamari jaan ke dar pe ho kyon, Lebnaan mein jaao
Ijaazat maangte hain hum bhi jab Beirut jaane ki
To ahl e hukm ye kahte hain tum zindaan mein jaao
If you must save Islam, go where it is in danger
Why darken our doors, go to Lebanon
And when we ask for permission to go to Beirut
Our rulers instead send us to the dungeons.
Ultimately, Faiz’s internationalist vision, and indeed, that of the other PWA poets like Faiz, Majaz, Makhdoom, Kaifi and others, came directly out of the politics and the general sensibility of the time. The realities of colonialism, and later neocolonialism/neo-imperialism, both required and provided a global frame of reference and a basis for shared political engagement with other colonised and/or oppressed peoples. Internationalism in this period, however, was not homogeneous; the internationalism of Faiz and the Progressives, for example, was a far cry from the pan-Islamism of Iqbal and his followers. While Iqbal was motivated more by the need to find common heritage across Muslims of the world, Faiz’s understanding was informed more by an understanding of the shared material conditions of oppression and struggle and was inspired by the international working-class movements and the struggles of colonised peoples across the world. For them, internationalism meant a common struggle against imperialism and for a new world order.
–Ali Mir and Raza Mir grew up in Hyderabad on a steady diet of progressive Urdu poetry. They divide their time between India and US, and earn their living as university professors.