Saturday, July 04, 2015

Celebrating Independence Day!

A very Happy Independence Day to all Americans!

America declared its independence 239 years ago today with Thomas Jefferson's soaring words that " we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal". However, the institution of slavery which most visibly contradicted the declaration's Enlightenment rhetoric remained intact, only to be abolished 89 years later after the Civil War.

As a naturalized American, I take the greatest pride in America's history of expanding the umbrella of constitutional liberties for all its people, starting with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution through to the Emancipation Proclamation, Equal Protection under the 14th Amendment, Women's Suffrage and the Civil Rights Act. There have been bitter fights and innumerable setbacks along the way but, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of American history has bent toward justice.

In my mind, the representative scenes of American independence are of Washington crossing the Delaware or hunched-over participants at the Constitutional Convention. But I also think of the image of the exhausted and prematurely aged Abraham Lincoln, standing on the East Portico underneath the completed Capitol Dome, after taking the oath of office the second time. The greatest struggle for the advance of liberty in America was to end slavery and its signature moment was Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address on March 4th, 1865, barely more than a month before he was assassinated.

It is the most powerful work of oratory and literary genius in American political history. Here are some excerpts:

"Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged."...

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."...

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

A very happy 4th to you!

Saturday, January 03, 2015

A Tribute to Peshawar Massacre's Victims - Faiz Sahib & Zehra Nigah

Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote the introduction to "Dast-e-Saba", his second volume of poetry, in Hyderabad's Central Jail in September 1952. The volume was published that same year and includes several of Faiz Sahib's iconic verses; the poem Do Ishq ("Har daagh hai iss dil maiN ba-juz daagh-e-nidamat"), the famous ghazal "Tum aaye ho na shab-e-intezaar guzri hai" sung by Farida Khanum, Noor Jehan, Mehdi Hassan AND Iqbal Bano and the moving verses mourning the passing of his beloved older brother, Tufail ('Mujh ko shikwa hai meray bhai keh tum jaate hue' / 'Lay gaye saath meri umr-e-guzashta kee kitab').

The volume also includes a slightly lesser know poem called "Irani Talaba Kay Naam" with the sub-heading 'jo amn aur azadi kee jiddojehad maiN kaam aaye". (Translation: "Dedicated to Iranian Students" who died fighting for peace and independence). Like all first-rate poets, Faiz Sahib's best poetry is universal and timeless. Reading this poem a few days ago, it occurred to me that Faiz Sahib could have written these exact words for the children slain in Peshawar.

This post is a tribute to those lost lives in the words of Faiz Sahib and the voice of Zehra Nigah! 

Zehra Nigah, an eminent poet herself who was a good friend of Faiz Sahib, has done wonderful recitations of several of Faiz Sahib's poems, including "Irani talaba kay naam". Here is Zehra Nigah reciting the poem in her inimitable "tarannum". The words (in Roman Urdu) are transcribed below. My apologies to those who don't know Urdu but even a half-decent translation is beyond my abilities. I have included a glossary at the end for some of the more difficult words.

Irani Talaba Kay Naam

Yeh kaun sakhi haiN
jin kay lahoo kee
ashrafiaN chhan chhan, chhan chhan
dharti kay paiham pyaasay
kashkol maiN dhaltee jaatee haiN
kashkol ko bhartee jaati haiN

yeh kaun jawaN haiN arz-e-ajam
yeh lakh lut
jin kay jismoN kee
bharpoor jawani ka kundan
yooN khaak maiN reza reza hai
yooN koocha koocha bikhra hai

Aye arz-e-ajam, aye arz-e-ajam!
kyuN noch kay hans hans phaink diye
in aankhoN nay apnay neelam
in hontoN nay apnay marjaaN
in haatoN kee be-kal chaandi
kis kaam aayee, kis haath lagee

aye poochnay waalay pardesee!
yeh tifl-o-jawaN
uss noor kay nauras moti haiN
uss aag kee kachchi kaliyaN haiN
jis meethay noor aur karwee aag
say zulm kee andhee raat maiN phoota
subh-e-baghawat ka gulshan

aur subh huee man man, tan tan
in jismoN ka chaandi sona
in chehroN kay neelam marjaaN
jug-mug jug-mug, rakhshaaN rakhshaaN

jo dekhna chaahay pardesee
paas aaye dekhay jee bhar kar
yeh zeest kee rani ka jhoomar
yeh amn kee devi ka kangan!

sakhi: generous
ashrafiaN: gold coins
paiham pyaasay: always thirsty
kashkol: begging bowl
arz-e-ajam: non-Arab land (in this case Persia, but also Pakistan)
kundan: gold
neelam: sapphire, blue
marjaaN: deep pink or red
be-kal: restless
tifl-o-jawaN: children and youth
zeest: life

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Lahore - off the beaten track

It’s a common lament but modern Lahoris are largely indifferent to their glorious history. For most affluent residents of the city a culinary visit to Cooco’s or Andaaz with their majestic rooftop views of the 17th century Badshahi Mosque suffice as a representative cultural experience, before they beat a hasty retreat to the attractions of the Y Block market. But beyond the well-known spectacular treasures of Lahore’s heritage (Lahore Fort, Badshahi Mosque, Shalamar Gardens, Lahore Museum, Masjid Wazir Khan etc.), all of which are well worth discovering and rediscovering, there are hundreds of amazing places, in and outside the walled city, that tell “tales without end” of Lahore’s fascinating past. Here is a smattering of some of my favorite, less frequently visited, historic sites.
Entrance to the shrine of Syed Hussain Zanjani
Legend has it that the patron saint of Lahore, Data Ganj Bakhsh (d. 1072), arrived in Lahore the day another revered saint, Syed Hussain Zanjani, died. The shrine of Syed Hussain Zanjani is located in the Chah Miran area, and once found with some difficulty, is an oasis of tranquility and spiritual quiet in an area otherwise bustling with commercial activity. There is a spot that marks the place where the famous saint Khawaja Mueenuddin Chishti of Ajmer (Rajasthan) prayed at the shrine when he visited Lahore.
Not far from Syed Hussain Zanjani’s tomb, is one of the most wonderful shrines in the city: the 16th century Mazar of the child saint Ghoray Shah. As you enter the gateway, you see the stall selling toy clay horses that devotees buy as an offering for the saint. The child saint Syed Burhanuddin Ghoray Shah, who loved horses, was believed to have miraculous powers. People who brought him gifts of a toy horse had all their wishes fulfilled. It is said that Ghoray Shah was heart-broken after being scolded by his pious father for granting favors in exchange for toys and died at age five. Four hundred years later, devotees are still bringing toy horses for the saint to seek his favor and to have him intercede on their behalf. The enclosure is peaceful and cool with the shade of old trees. Toy clay horses can be seen placed near the saint’s grave on a raised platform as well as along the graveyard fence.
Ghoray Shah Shrine - Toy horses can be seen on the platform in the background
The history of darbaars, mazaars and dargaahs of Lahore can fill volumes. Leaving out Mian Mir (in whose adjacent graveyard I fortuitously found the gravesite of poet Faiz’s beloved older brother Tufail with an inscription of Faiz’s famous verses “Mujh ko shikwa hai meray bhai keh tum jaate hue”) or Madho Lal Hussain seems egregiously wrong but we must move on.

Poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz's brother's tombstone inside Mian Mir's shrine
The walled city had many grand havelis for the intellectual and ruling elites of the city and despite the loss of many historic structures due to official neglect, fortunately, some major havelis are still extant. Despite not being in great condition, Mubarak Haveli in Kucha Chabaksawaran inside Mochi Gate is well worth a visit. It is owned by the Qizilbash family now, having been granted to them for their services to the British. Its fascinating history includes being the temporary residence of the Afghan king Shah Shuja Durrani when he was in exile in Lahore in 1813 / 1814. It is in this haveli that he surrendered the Kohinoor diamond to Maharaja Ranjit Singh in exchange for his freedom. Kohinoor, later taken by the British now forms part of the British Crown Jewels at the Tower of London.
Exterior of Mubarak Haveli
Just down the street from the Mubarak haveli in Mochi Darwaza is another Qizilbash property called Nisar Haveli, famous for being the starting point of Lahore’s Muharram procession. The procession starts there and after winding its way through the walled city eventually ends on the evening of 10th Muharram at Karbala Gamay Shah next to the Central Model School not far from the Government College. Beyond its religious and cultural significance, Karbala Gamay Shah is also interesting as the burial place of the great Urdu writer and scholar Muhammad Hussain Azad (who died in Lahore in 1910). Azad’s book Aab-e-Hayat (published in 1880) on Urdu poets and poetry is considered one of the pioneering works of its genre. The site in the back courtyard is marked by a brick structure with a white dome.
Nisar Haveli Courtyard
Tomb of Urdu writer Muhammad Hussain Azad in Karbala Gamay Shah
Unfortunately, I have not yet had the opportunity to see, reputedly, the two best maintained grand havelis in the city; Haveli Baroodkhana (owned by the Mian family) and ‘Mubarak Begum’ haveli (owned by the Syed family).
Interior of Begum Shahi Mosque
Anyone who has not visited Masjid Wazir Khan inside Delhi Gate must first visit that gem of Lahore’s architecture. But inside the walled city another lesser known mosque should attract many more visitors. Entering androon shehr from Masti Gate, you will find the oldest extant Mughal mosque in Lahore, the Maryam Zamani or Begum Shahi Mosque, built in 1614. This beautiful mosque close to the Akbari Gateway entrance of the Lahore Fort was built by Emperor Jahangir’s mother who was known as Maryam-uz-zamani (Mary of her age). This wife of Emperor Akbar and mother of Jahangir, born Rajkumari Hira Kunwari, was a Rajput princess and the daughter of Raja Bihari Mal of Amber (now Jaipur). Its prayer hall is beautifully decorated and the central dome remarkable for the richness of its muqarnas and painted frescos.
Sikh Monuments:

Gurdwara Janam Asthan Guru Ram Das Ji
Lahore has a rich array of well-known Sikh era buildings like havelis (e.g. Mai Jindan haveli, Haveli Naunehal Singh, now Victoria Girls School), Samadhis (e.g. Maharaja Ranjit Singh) and Gurdwaras (e.g. Dera Sahib in the same compound as Ranjit Singh samadhi) but a lesser known Gurdwara inside the walled city bears mention. In Kotwali Wala Bazaar near Chuna Mandi Chowk in Kashmiri Gate is the “Gurdwara Janam Asthan of Guru Ram Das Jee”. Guru Ram Das was the fourth of the Ten Gurus of Sikhism and was born in Chuna Mandi in 1534. He founded the original township which became the Sikh holy city of Amritsar. The Gurdwara is in good condition and is actively used by the Sikh community. Sikh volunteers keep the structure well-maintained.
With every visit to the historic Lahore, I find, that more and more historical buildings are suffering from neglect or worse, being destroyed. Just last month on a visit to the beautiful Dai Anga Mosque (built in 1649), I was heartbroken to see that the original interior of the mosque had been scraped and ripped out and was being replaced by white bathroom tiles on cement, completely destroying the historic structure. The sign in the mosque’s courtyard calling it a “protected monument” seemed like a cruel joke. To effectively protect a city or nation’s history, culture and heritage its people and governments have to know, care for and value their treasures.
For those interested in exploring the great city of Lahore, I highly recommend getting Yasmeen Lari’s “Lahore Travel Guide”. It is meticulously researched and is a treasure trove of Lahore’s history and heritage. The hand-drawn maps of the walled city are painstakingly done. As a native of Lahore who was unaware of many corners of my own city’s history for too long, I must thank Ms. Lari for this outstanding labour of love.

This post was originally published in the March 28th, 2014 issue of The Friday Times.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

The exploding Middle East & the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

In case you haven't noticed, the Middle East and its periphery are burning! In Iraq, Sunni ISIS militants have taken over large expanses of the country and are perpetrating horrific violence on non-Muslim minorities as well as other Muslim sects. In Syria, the nominal Shia/secular regime of Bashar-al-Assad, with the help of Iran and Hezbollah, has bombed and destroyed large parts of the country, mercilessly killing civilians in its fight against vicious Saudi-backed Sunni militants. Libya is more or less in a state of anarchy. Egyptian military, with full Saudi and Western support, has brutally killed civilians and extinguished all opposition. A fragile peace prevails in Lebanon but the entire Middle East is on tenterhooks as the reactionary Wahhabi regime of al-Saud fights a fratricidal war with Shia Iran with the primary purpose of hanging on to perpetual power.

The byzantine complexities of middle eastern power politics, the intractable historic nature of many conflicts and the difficulty of assigning simple "good" and "bad" labels make resignation and withdrawal an increasingly common reaction of those not directly caught up in the wars. " A pox on all their houses". Most people can, at best, muster periodic expressions of outrage at the loss of innocent human lives, condemn perpetrators of violence or bemoan the ill-considered Western interventions that have released the genie of instability in fragile and unformed post-colonial nation states.

And then in the midst of all this is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; an issue so divisive that even the simplest expression of your views is likely to be seen as propaganda for one side or the other. My social media feeds have been inundated by "evidence" of the treachery of the other side.

I have not waded into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict on social media or elsewhere. Beyond unequivocal condemnation of loss of innocent lives and expressing the wish for a peaceful long-term solution, I have not written much. The issue is too complex for sound bites and generates considerably more heat than light. A large part of the problem is that there is a set narrative on both sides and every inevitable conflagration every few years brings out the supporters on both sides with exactly the same set of talking points. What is needed is an empathetic understanding of the historical perspective of both sides and a rational approach and commitment to solving the problem. Palestinians and Arabs have a history of missed opportunities but Israel as the dominant and occupying power, with unquestioning US support, has the greater onus of breaking the logjam. It is also clearly in Israel's own long term interest to find a way out of occupation and give Palestinians a just peace and their own homeland. On the current path of perpetual occupation and settlement expansion, Israel will eventually either lose any pretense of being a democracy or the demand for a one state solution incorporating the West Bank and Gaza will pick up steam, much to the detriment of Israel and its supporters.

Here are a few recent interviews and articles that I have found most helpful in getting a diverse perspective, even when I disagree with some of the viewpoints. They provide a wide diversity of educated opinion from very pro-Israeli to pro-Palestinian and have aided my understanding of facts and the search for solutions to this intractable conflict.

1) Interview of Yuval Diskin - Former Head of Israeli Security / Shin Bet (Der Spiegel)

3) Collective Punishment in Gaza - Rashid Khalidi (The New Yorker)

The Liberal Zionists - Jonathan Freedland (New York Review of Books)

Return to Blogging

It was well over a year ago that I last wrote on this blog. At that time, I was finding myself writing less frequently and the list of blog ideas and inspirational links in my notes was getting ever longer. To share things more often I shifted to posting more things on Fawad's Posts Facebook page.

I think its time to do some longer form writing again and bring a little discipline back into my life. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"Fawad's Posts" on Facebook

I find myself writing these blog posts less and less frequently. Lack of time is a perennial issue. Also all the things that typically spur me to write such as listening to a piece of music, passing away of a legend or reading a fragment of poetry now get more immediately shared on social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

I still intend to use this space periodically for "long form" pieces and musical reveries but any readers who stray here and enjoy what they read might just want to visit my Facebook page of posts and "Like" it. Here's the link to "Fawad's Posts" on FB.     

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"Leaving Mississippi" & "Reminiscence at Toul" by James Autry

Until yesterday I had never heard of James Autry. On yet another drive criss-crossing suburbia I heard Bill Moyers (the indefatigable liberal conscience of America!) interviewing him on NPR. As is often the case when I find something unexpected on the radio I found myself driving around to listen to the soothing, worn and wise voice of this thoughtful businessman poet. Watch the entire 22 minute segment of Bill interviewing Jim Autry here.

The poems he read were the highlight of the program and introduced a new American voice to me. "Leaving Mississippi" captures the feelings of anyone who has ever moved far away from their childhood home and forever after experiences flashes of the sights and smells of the places left behind.

Leaving Mississippi
Part of me never left
and another part is always leaving,
leaving Mississippi but never gone.
“Jimmy when you gonna come on back
down home,” my people ask,
and I cannot say, “Never,
I’ve found my home somewhere else”
any more than I can say my home
was never in the State of Mississippi
but in the community of it,
in my father’s churches,
in Abel’s store,
in Ashland on the square,
in how the people were together.
Now that home is gone forever from Mississippi–
yet it is with me still,
in the fall smell of wood smoke
from some suburban chimney,
in an Atlanta taxi driver’s turn of phrase,
in the quiet of an old church in Bavaria,
in the call of an Iowa night hawk,
in a fish breaking the surface of a Colorado stream,
in the night peepers everywhere
in a stanza of Amazing Grace,
in the crickets,
in dust.

"Reminiscence at Toul" is a beautiful poem giving us yet another reminder to live in the present: "Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans". John Lennon's immortal words from "Beautiful Boy"  (whose poignancy is particularly heartbreaking in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre) are much remembered in "quotable quotes" but mostly ignored in the hurly burly of life.

Reminiscence at Toul

Thirty years ago
On New Year's eve
drunk on French champagne
we shot bottle rockets
from the windows
of Hank and Willi's
rented chateau overlooking Nancy.

It sounds so worldly
which is how we wanted to think of ourselves,
but Lord, we were just children,
sent by the government to fly airplanes
and to save Western Europe
from World War III.

We thought we had all the important things
still left to do
and were just playing at importance
for the time being.
It never occurred to us,
living in our community of friends,
having first babies,
seeing husbands die,
helping young widows pack to go home,
that we had already started the important things.
What could we have been thinking,
or perhaps it's how could we have known 
that times get no better,
that important things come without background music,
that life is largely a matter of paying attention.

Jim Autry reads "Leaving Mississippi" and "Ronald's Dance":

Jim Autry reads "On Firing a Salesman":

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Mirza Ghalib - A Musical Feast

Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (b.1797 - d.1869) was one of Urdu's greatest poets. No other poet (with the possible exception of Faiz in the 20th century) has seeped into the popular imagination of the Urdu-knowing sub-continent quite like Ghalib. His cultural influence in the world of Urdu is almost Shakesperean. Ghalib's ghazal poetry and prose (in the form of his letters to friends) have left a lasting imprint on the language itself. What is remarkable is that this towering reputation is built on a slim volume. "Deevan-e-Ghalib" is less than 200 pages of Urdu poetry.

Featured extensively in art, film and theater, it is music where his poetry has found a permament home for well over a hundred years. It is a rare popular or semi-classical vocalist of the sub-continent who hasn't sung Ghalib's ghazals. This post will celebrate the wonderfully varied presentations of Ghalib's poetry in music. So much of Ghalib's poetry is familiar to audiences that I have chosen a different ghazal for each of my favorite pieces highlighted here. Every one of these ghazals has been sung by different performers in multiple compositions.

Let's kick this off with a couple of cuts from film music:

Bharat Bhushan played Mirza Ghalib in the 1954 Indian film of that name and the lovely Suraiyya played the courtesan ChaudhviN. Here is Suraiyya singing "Aah ko chaahiye ik umr asr hone tak". The composition is by Ghulam Mohammad (whose music for the film "Pakeezah" years later immortalized him).

Gham-e-hasti ka Asad kis se ho juz marg ilaaj
Shama har rang meiN jalti hai sehr hone tak

In the 1961 Pakistani film "Mirza Ghalib", Noor Jehan played the ChaudhviN character and her rendering of "Muddat hui hai yaar ko mehmaN kiye huue" is justly famous. The composer is Tassaduq Hussain.

Jee dhoondta hai phir wohi fursat, keh raat din
Baithe raheN tasawwur-e-jaanaN kiye huue

Gulzar's TV serial Mirza Ghalib on Doordarshan in the late 80's must be credited with introducing Ghalib to a whole new generation of Urdu lovers. Naseeruddin Shah's sublime portrayal of Ghalib was the highlight of that production and ghazal singer Jagjit Singh sang the ghazals in his beautiful, deep voice. Jagjit Singh who passed away last year helped keep ghazal singing alive in India where the new generation seems ever more removed from the old composite culture of the Urdu/Hindi-speaking belt. Jagjit and Chitra Singh's contribution to Indian ghazal singing is undeniable but even though they sang some great compositions their virtuosity falls short of both the masters of the light genre like Lata and Noor Jehan and the semi-classical greats like Mehdi Hassan and Farida Khanum.

Here's a nice version of "Unke dekhe se jo aa jati hai munh par raunaq" by Jagjit from the TV serial.

Hum ko ma'loom hai jannat ki haqeeqat lekin
Dil ke khush rakhne ko Ghalib yeh khayal achha hai

Before moving on to the semi-classical parade of immortal melodies lets listen to a singer who was his own genre. There has been no other Kundan Lal Saigal; the voice, the mastery, the soul-stirring performances! The music of K.L. Saigal is a human treasure. Saigal singing "Phir mujhe deeda-e-tar yaad aaya".

Dum liya tha na qayamat ne hunooz
Phir tera waqt-e-safar yaad aaya

Begum Akhtar sang countless Ghalib ghazals in her inimitable style. Here she is singing "Nukta cheeN hai, gham-e-dil uss ko sunaye na bane":

Ishq par zor nahiN hai yeh woh aatish Ghalib
Keh lagaye na lage aur bujhaye na bane

Ustad Amanat Ali Khan (the scion of the Patiala gharana) was a classical singer but with few patrons of classical music in Pakistan he started singing ghazals in a light style and gained a tremendous following. He died almost 40 years ago but his ghazals remain highly popular. "Yeh na thee hamari qismat keh visaal-e-yaar hota":

KahooN kis se meiN keh kya hai shab-e-gham buri bala hai
Mujhe kya bura tha marna agar aik baar hota

Anyone who has ever visited this page knows of my reverence for Mehdi Hassan. I remain in awe of the great man's musical genius. Here's a little gem of a performance of a Ghalib ghazal by the emperor of ghazal singing: "Arz-e-niaz-e-ishq ke qaabil nahiN raha".

Bedaad-e-ishq se nahiN darta, magar Asad
Jis dil pe naaz tha mujhe, woh dil nahiN raha

Malika Pukhraj at her best in this melodious rendering of "TaskeeN ko hum na royeN jo zauq-e-nazar mile":

Saaqi gari kee sharm karo aaj, warna hum
Har shab piya hee karte heiN mae, jis qadar milay

The stentorian voice of Farida Khanum (disciple of another Patiala vocalist Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan) singing "Zikr uss parivash ka aur phir bayaaN apna":

Hum kahaaN ke da'na thhe, kis hunar meiN yakta thhe
Be-sabab hua Ghalib dushman aasmaN apna

Iqbal Bano (disciple of Ustad Chand Khan of Delhi) sings "Dayam para hua teray dar par nahiN hooN meiN" on PTV's program 'Nikhar' in 1974. The mehfil is at the house of the writer Ashfaq Ahmed and you can see several prominent writers and poets (Ahmed Faraz, Ehsaan Daanish etc.) in this video.

Yaa rab zamana mujh ko mitata hai kis liye
Lauh-e-JahaaN pe harf-e-mukarrar nahiN hooN meiN

Abida Parveen, the queen of Sufi music brings her uniquely spiritual style to Ghalib in this wonderful performance of "Ibn-e-Maryam hua kare koyee".

Jab Tawaqqo hee uth gayee Ghalib
KyuN kisi ka gila kare koyee

I will end with a reading by Zia Mohyeddin of his own essay "Ghalib aur MeiN". Zia Mohyeddin's literary readings are performance art themselves and he has done a great service in introducing younger audiences to the pleasures of Urdu literature. His multi-CD readings of Ghalib's letters ("Ghalib ke khatoot") are a masterpiece. Here's a little flavor of Zia Mohyeddin reading Ghalib's letter to Mirza Alauddin Ahmed. They introduce the listener to the cadences of the cultured, informal language of Ghalib's era. This was path-breaking writing at the time as epistolary prose in general tended to be ornate, formal and emotionally stunted.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Poem for this Eid - Faiz's "Dua" or Prayer

The Muslim festival of Eid-ul-Fitr (celebration at the end of the month of Ramazan) is being celebrated in North America on August 19th. In Pakistan, Eid will be celebrated on August 20th. For Muslims, Eid is a joyous occasion and I wish everyone a "Eid Mubarak" but would like to quote a friend who has channeled my feelings this year: "May this Eid usher in more peace, less extremism, and some common sense in the Muslim world".

Pakistan's great poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote a beautiful poem called "Dua" or "Prayer". This poem is in his collection titled "Sar-e-Waadi-e-Seena" and was written on August 14th, 1967 (the 20th anniversary of Pakistan's independence). I often read this moving poem and listen to poet Zehra Nigah's soul strirring tarannum ("a capella") rendition. (Unfortunately Zehra Nigah's reading of this Faiz gem is not on youtube even though there are postings of several other beautiful verses of Faiz she has sung). For a wonderful sample, here is Faiz's poem "Dareecha" read by Zehra Nigah preceded by a verbal tribute.

On this Eid, Faiz's "Dua" is my prayer. 

From left: Iftikhar Arif, Jameela Dehlavi, Shohrat Bukhari, Gopi Chand Narang, Faiz, Zehra Nigah and Ahmad Faraz at a  BBC Mushaira in London
Poet: Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911 - 1984) 

Aaiye hath uthaiyeN hum bhi
Hum jinheN rasm-e-dua yaad nahiN

Hum jinheN soz-e-mohabbat ke siwa
Koyee butt koyee khuda yaad nahiN

Aaiye arz guzaraiN keh nigaar-e-hasti
Zehr-e-imroz meiN sheereeni-e-farda bhar de

Woh jinheN taab-e-garaaN baariye ayyam nahiN
Un kee palkoN peh shab-o-roz ko halka kar de

Jinn kee aankhoN ko rukh-e-subh ka yaara bhi nahiN
Un ki raatoN meiN koi shama munawwar kar de

Jin ke qadmoN ko kisi reh ka sahara bhi nahiN
Un ki nazroN pe koyee raah ujaagar kar de

Jin ka deeN pairawi-e-kizb-o-riya hai un ko
Himmat-e-kufr milay jurrat-e-tehqeeq milay

Jin ke sar muntazir-e-tegh-e-jafa haiN un ko
Dast-e-qatil ko jhatak dainay ki taufeeq milay

Ishq ka sirr-e-nihaN jaan tipa hai jis se
Aaj iqrar kareiN aur tapish mit jaye

Harf-e-haq dil meiN khatakta hai jo kaante ki tarah
Aaj izhaar kareiN aur khalish mit jaye

Here is Iqbal Bano singing "Dua". This is not my favorite version. I don't particularly like this composition and Iqbal Bano is not at her best. However, those who want to see the words in Urdu can read them in this video.

Following is a (modified) English translation of the poem combining the translation from the Faiz Centenary website and a translation by Tariq Akbar who has uploaded, read and translated this poem in a youtube video. I have made modifications where, in my view, the meaning of the original felt distorted. Its a familiar lament but the translation doesn't don't do justice to the beauty and cadences of the original.

Come, let us raise our hands, as well - 
We, the ones who do not remember the ritual of prayer

We, the ones who [do not remember] anything other than the
warmth of love,
do not know of any idol, nor any God. 

Come, let us beseech that the Creator of existence may
fill sweetness in the morrow from the poison of today

Those who cannot bear the burden of passing day,
May their eyelids be unburdened of the day and night

They, whose eyes don't have the strength to see the face of dawn,
May someone light a lamp in their night

They, whose feet have nowhere to go, no path
May someone illuminate a way to their sight

They, whose religion is lies and deceit
May they get the courage to be heretics, and the audacity to question

They, whose heads await the swords of cruelty... to them
The power to ward of the hands that slay

The hidden secret of love is a burning soul... with which
Let's affirm today so the burning is eased

The words of truth.. which rankle the heart like a thorn
Let's proclaim them today to relieve the affliction

Saturday, August 11, 2012

David Rakoff - There Is No Answer As To "Why Me"

David Rakoff, the Canadian-born, American writer and humorist died of cancer in Manhattan on August 9th at age 47. He was the author of three books of essays (Fraud, Don't Get Too Comfortable and Half Empty) and widely known for his contributions to the popular National Public Radio show "This Amercian Life".

On NPR on August 10th, Terry Gross's interview program Fresh Air played excerpts of two interviews that Terry did with David Rakoff in 2001 and 2010. These excerpts provide a glimpse of Rakoff's personality and wit but it is his equanimity in the face of death that reveals the quality of the man. When asked if he ever asks himself "Why Me" about getting cancer he responds:

"Writer Melissa Bank said it best: 'The only proper answer to 'Why me?' is 'Why not you?' The universe is anarchic and doesn't care about us, and unfortunately, there's no greater rhyme or reason as to why it would be me. And since there is no answer as to why me, it's not a question I feel really entitled to ask.

"And in so many other ways, I'm so far ahead of the game. I have access to great medical care. My general baseline health, aside from the general unpleasantness of the cancer, is great. And it's great because I'm privileged to have great health. And I live in a country where I'm not making sneakers for a living, and I don't live near a toxic waste dump.

"You can't win all the contests and then lose at one contest and say, 'Why am I not winning this contest as well?' It's random. So truthfully, again, do I wish it weren't me? Absolutely. I still can't make that logistic jump to thinking there's a reason why it shouldn't be me."

In the interview with Terry Gross, David Rakoff beautifully reads Elizabeth Bishop's (1911 - 1979) poem "Letter to NY". After reciting the poem Rakoff wistfully says that "in my life I will never achieve anything this beautiful". (In the interview link above the recitation is from 37:40 - 38:53)

Letter to N.Y.

In your next letter I wish you'd say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays, and after the plays
what other pleasures you're pursuing:

taking cabs in the middle of the night,
driving as if to save your soul
where the road goes round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl,

and the trees look so queer and green
standing alone in big black caves
and suddenly you're in a different place
where everything seems to happen in waves,

and most of the jokes you just can't catch,
like dirty words rubbed off a slate,
and the songs are loud but somehow dim
and it gets so terribly late,

and coming out of the brownstone house
to the gray sidewalk, the watered street,
one side of the buildings rises with the sun
like a glistening field of wheat.

—Wheat, not oats, dear. I'm afraid
if it's wheat it's none of your sowing,
nevertheless I'd like to know
what you are doing and where you are going.