Faiz in tragic times (Daily Times)

Faiz centenary — 1

Faiz Ahmed Faiz – sadly still relevant

By Babar Ayaz

Sadly, much of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry that reflected on the curbs on freedom of expression, political repression, social and economic inequality continues to be relevant in these tragic times in Pakistan. Why do I say ‘sadly’: when all the great works of art are known for their universality as they transcend geographical, religious, ethnic, and time boundaries?

I have no problem with any work of art that lives to be relevant to today’s sensibilities and personal life feelings. I think that it is sad, because even though we are commemorating Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s birth centenary, his poetry which was against the social and economic injustices is still contemporary. That means we have not been able to change the society as he prayed:

“Come let us also raise our hands to pray,

We who have forgotten how,

We who know no god, no idol,

Only love. Come let us ask life

To infuse the sweetness of tomorrow

In the bitter gloom of today…” (Translation: Mahmud Jamal)

Isn’t the sky of Pakistan overcast with the darker clouds of bitter gloom today? Only some references have changed now. Decades ago when he wrote:

“Speak, for your lips are free;

Speak, your tongue is still your own;


This straight body still is yours –

Speak, your life is still your own.” (Translation: Victor Kiernan)

He was addressing the people to speak up against injustice and curbs on freedom of expression by the state. The state’s control on much of the freedom of expression has eased out – thanks to media struggle and unbeatable cyber technology. Still today it is worse and suffocating. The extremists have silenced forever the voices of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti and are hounding Sherry Rehman and many others for speaking up against laws that are often misused and suppress freedom of expression.

More than six decades ago as a young poet during the Second World War Faiz wrote against fascism:

“Darkness is continuing to spread,

As if every vein of night is spurting blood,” (Translation mine)

And today the fascist forces are suppressing reason and dissent spreading darkness. Even the political parties are afraid to stop the rapture of sanity and spurting of blood by the fascists in the name of religion.  

At the dawn of independence on August 15, 1947 Faiz appealed in his Pakistan editorial:  “Our present sorrow is but a passing phase and must not be allowed to damage our national heritage that is permanent and enduring. Let us enter into our heritage, devoutly and thankfully, even though the steps are stained with blood and the threshold washed in tears.” 

But few years down the history lane, he, like many others was disillusion by the outcome of the freedom from the British Raj. That led to his famous poem much criticized by the then ultra-nationalists. He wrote:

“This trembling light, this night-bitten Dawn,

This is not the Dawn we waited for so long.


This is not the Dawn whose birth was sired

By so many lives, by so much blood

He moves on and says:

“Generations ago, we started our confident march,

Our hopes were young, our goal within reach.

“We are told: your new Dawn is already here;

Your tired feet need journey no more…”

But he ends with the message that is true even after 63 years:

“And yet, even today,

Our hearts are aflame,

Our desires unquenched,

Our goals unmet.” (Translation by Dr. Mahbub ul Haq)
In spite of the disillusion, Faiz and his young were starry-eyed.  Most of us still believe in Faiz’s anthem:

“We will see.

Certainly we, too, will see

That day ordained

When these colossal mountains of tyranny and oppression

Will explode, into wisps of hay….

And: “The cry

“I am Truth’

Will rend the skies

Which means

You, I and all of us.

And sovereignty will belong to the people


Which means

You, I and all of us.’

By the time Faiz grew old he had lost the hope to see the end of injustice and suppression in his life time. But being an optimist he did not lose hope for the generations that followed him. He passed on the baton of change:

“Now there will be no light, nor darkness anywhere;

Now I am gone the pilgrim lies hushed as my heart:

What will become of that band vowed to love martyrdom?

Some other now tend the garden of sacrifice;

The dew these eyes of mine has shed, friends, is used up,

The passionate faith is stilled; the hail of stones is over…”

(Translation: Victor Kiernan)

The metaphor ‘the hail of stones’ should be read ‘the hail of bullets’ which is not over yet. My generation, which is 48 years younger than Faiz, is also in the sixties and is hoping to pass on the baton to the younger generation in these tough times. That is the reason that the Faiz Centennial Committee is trying its best to involve the youth in the centenary commemoration. So far many colleges, schools have been encouraged to organize a Faiz day. His message of love, humanity and tolerance was never needed more than now.

Faiz was shaken by the massive killings of the people of East Pakistan by the military government, which eventually got liberated in 1971and is now a prosperous secular Bangladesh. When he visited Bangladesh he asked:

“Will there be a spring when the green is all unblighted

And how many rains must before the (blood) spots are washed

clean” (Translation: Shoaib Hashmi)

Aren’t we reminded of this poem when we hear that Baloch political activists, who are striving for their rights ever since Pakistan was made, are being killed not so mysteriously? They have gained autonomy on paper in the constitution, but are actually ruled by the extra-parliamentary forces.

As for sensitive Faiz, who gave us the poetry that expressed the feelings of all those who dream for a better and just society, I am glad he has been spared of the pain of living in these tragic times. But also I wonder what poetry he would have penned today as best of the poetry has been done in the worst of times. (To be continued) (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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