Feasting on Faiz

Raza Naeem offers a critical overview of one of the most significant events in Lahore's cultural calendar, the Faiz International Festival 2017

Feasting on Faiz
The 2017 edition of the Faiz International Festival (FIF) took place on a bright, chilly weekend in mid-November, at the Alhamra in Lahore, coinciding with eminent poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s death anniversary. What one noted at the outset from the program of the third edition of the FIF was the absence of any keynote lectures, which was the hallmark of the FIF in the preceding two years. Given the progressive credentials of the legendary poet himself as well as the festival associated with his memory and legacy, one felt that in a year celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia as well as the bicentenary of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, this was a missed opportunity.

Going by past practice, this scribe consciously decided not to venture into Hall I and Hall II this year, where all the big-ticket speakers and performers were, ranging from political bigwigs to Bushra Ansari and Mahira Khan. One of the inaugural sessions was on ‘Hope and Despair in Faiz’s Poetry’ where Dr Amir Jafri held forth on the themes headlined in the session title. He began with Joseph Brodsky’s claim that “Poetry is not entertainment, but our anthropological, genetic goal” and the caveat that he had organised the aforementioned poems in a pattern of how his life had been transformed by Faiz’s poetry.

Jafri shared personal anecdotes relating Faiz’s poetry to his own life – like a poem he wrote while in exile in Moscow in 1967, at which point in time it was a war-ravaged city; which reminded the speaker ofthe ecological destruction of Rawalpindi causing estrangement while on a visit to that city. Or the ubiquity of the word phir (then) in Faiz’s poetry, which he shared with Ghalib. The speaker went on to share themes of hope and despair in Faiz’s political and exile poetry.

Another panel featuring historian Dr. Tahir Kamran, author Anam Zakaria and Pran Nevile came together to launch the third edition of Nevile’s book A Sentimental Journey. The panel talked about Lahore’s identity, nostalgia and different images of the city (experienced versus imagined), Partition memories of Lahore and the universality of cities. Nevile, a nonagenarian, set the tone for the rest of the session by saying that Lahore was an eternal city, something to be felt. He considered it his hometown and could not visit it for 50 years after the Partition of India. Having been born and educated in Lahore, he had an in-born desire to write a book on the city. He was not interested in politics; but rather in the ways of life, art and culture of Lahore in his days. He shared a moving and interesting anecdote regarding his return to Lahore for the first time in fifty years in 1997. He had been told that his dear friend Said Hasan Khan had passed away. But when his friends made enquiries, he turned out to be alive. Khan later told Nevile that it was his brother who had passed away. So Nevile tore off the first page of his book, where he had dedicated it to his ‘late’ friend and presented it to the latter. Nevile also shared that for his Pakistani readers, he had included a chapter on Tamancha Jan, who was a professional singer in the Subcontinent in 1934. Nevile and Khan went to visit her in her home near Model Town. She remembered Nevile more than fifty years afterwards. Later, it was reported in India that the only person who was able to meet Tamancha Jan was an Indian, Pran Nevile. He also said that he did not want to glorifynostalgia. Responding to the moderator’s question regarding whether Lahore was culturally open in Nevile’s youth for women too, Nevile said that when the film Khanzanchi was released in 1941, showing girls riding bicycles, it became a sensation; furthermore there were women’s colleges in the city like Lahore College for Womenand Kinnaird College, while Forman Christian College was co-educational.

Mustansar Hussain Tarar

Kamran observed that the Partition of India was fatal to plurality and syncretic values on both sides of the border. He differed with Nevile, saying that while going through the historical record, contradictions had already started erupting in Lahore in the 1920s and 1930s; and the city changed after the failure of the Non-Cooperation Movement and the onset of separate electorates in Punjab in the 1920s. There wasa Hindu-Muslim dichotomy in urban Punjab. Puritan Islam and puritan Hinduism were the realities; and here one had to differentiate between political and cultural trajectories, which were divergent from each other. However, Muharram as an annual practice had started in Lahore in the 1860s and the sabeels were organised by the Hindus. However later in the last quarter of the 19th century, there was a shift in Lahorefrom the dargah and saint to maulvi and masjid, exemplified by the change in Lahore’s patron-saint from Shah Hussain to Data GanjBaksh.

Day 1 of the FIF also featured the lone panel on 70 years of Partition titled ‘Subh-e-Azadi’, paraphrasing Faiz’s famous poem on the subject. It featured a cross-disciplinary focus with presentations by an educationist, an economist, a historian and an architectural historian, all associated with the Harvard University Partition Project. The educationist, Maryam Chughtai, held forth on ‘A History of Pakistan’s Education Policies and Islamic Identity since Partition’ noting at the outset that in the four different time periods beginning from 1947, and ending with, 2012, “Pakistan could be four different countries”. In the period 1947-58, it was noted at the policy planning level that the meaning of Islam changes. It was also during this period that the first education conference was held in Pakistan, which interestingly mooted the question ‘whether instruction in fundamentals of religion should be imparted in schools?’ In the second phase, from 1959-76, essential but limited space was given to Islamic education. Chughtai noted, in passing that no new education policy was promulgated in both the terms of the late Benazir Bhutto, while there were new education policies in both the terms of Nawaz Sharif. She also compared the education policy issued in 1979 – when education for females was to be imparted at private residences – to thatissued in 1999 which called for removal of political Islam; the replacement of the word ’Muslim’ by ‘citizen’; and the elimination of all types of gender bias from textbooks. Shahram Azhar, the economist, said that his own interest in Partition stemmed from the fact that both his paternal and maternal sides were migrants. He challenged mainstream accounts of the Partition which only depicted the event as a movement of religious groups – thus homogenising and communalising it, for instance, the idea that it was only a movement of Hindus and Sikhs in one direction. However migrants belonged to different classes, genders and ethnicities. Azhar was more interested in these structural identities and how they impacted the experiences of individuals during Partition. Further contextualising his remarks, Azhar said that the experience of Partition was complex; for example, the type of violence faced by foot convoys was different to people who flew or travelled by train. He wanted to convert oral testimony to a quantitative map, mapping the origin-destination relationship onto structural identities.

Yousuf Salahuddin (centre) at the FIF

Yaqoob Bangash, the historian, began by wondering aloud how many literature festivals and events had been organised in Pakistan discussing seventy years of Partition. He framed his presentation by referring to his friend who had remarked that Punjabis used the word ‘Partition’ rather than independence. But we often forget about the partition of Bengal. From an Islamic lens, if we feel that important Muslim sites of the Subcontinent went to different countries, then we should also remember that the cities of Nankana and Amritsar, which are Sikh holy cities, were also divided. After all, Lahore itself had developed a syncretic culture after being captured by the Sikhs in the 19th century. Bangash further stated that the largest percentage of Christians in North India was in Lahore. The city had a mixed, cosmopolitan culture where four major communities came together. In the 1400s, Lahore even had an Armenian colony.

Nadhra Khan, the architectural historian, began her presentation by observing that buildings were an integral part of our lives. They are permanent and become part of our identity; people come and move on, but buildings stand. She emphasised the idea that we must revise history and re-celebrate everyone’s contributions. Humanistic geography talks about the significance of space. In this context, one needs to recall the history of, for instance, Bradlaugh Hall – which stood at the centre of the city of Lahore and whose attendees included the revered revolutionaries Bhagat Singh and Lala Lajpat Rai.

If this scribe were asked which session at the FIF 2017 was the most invigourating, it would have to be the one titled ‘Cities in Literature’ with eminent writer Mustansar Hussain Tarar. Over the years, Tarar has acquired the importance and reputation of a talisman, not only in Lahore, the city of his birth, but also in Urdu letters. This feeling seems to be growing palpably strong with the loss in recent years of such stalwarts as Intizar Hussain and Abdullah Hussein, both longtime residents of Lahore. Here I must confess that this was the first time I had ever attended a literary session featuring the legendary writer. It was not a disappointment, judging by the crowd gathered there. A minor glitch in the program occurred when the moderator could not show up on time. However, mercifully, that was a blessing in disguise as the audience was treated to Tarar in his element. He began with the disclaimer that when the organisers asked him to review seventy years of Pakistani writing, he apologised because in his opinion, he lacked the critical attitude required for such an exercise. According to him, critics are like munshis; they are experts at compiling lists. However, he had his own likes and dislikes. Discussing the topic, he said that there were so many cities in world literature. Our fiction writers have a great problem in that they are not aware of the background that they wish to write about. The city was not present in any great detail; our writer had no experience of it. Tarar further elaborated that the city is a huge character and it breathes through all the characters; without the city, the characters are lifeless. Lahore had pillars like Ataullah Shah Bukhari and Gama Pehlvan, but the biggest pillar was Allama Iqbal. He wondered aloud as to why there are fewer cities to be found in our literature. Perhaps we know these cities less? Talking about his own work, he said that all of his novels featured rivers and most of his novels were about Lahore city. He gave the examples of his novels Khas-o-Khashak Zamane and Raakh. Narrating a personal anecdote, he said that when the celebrated Urdu writer Quratulain Hyder came to Lahore, he took her to the Walled City and she peered into every street and remarked that the city was just like Lucknow. Tarar replied by saying “Lucknow is dead, but Lahore is alive.” Hyder agreed. We are fortunate to have a livingcity like Lahore. Tarar then went on to discuss three novelists who could not be classified as great novelists of the 21st century without the mention of cities in their work: Ismail Kadare, an Albanian all of whose works are set in Tirana; Orhan Pamuk, more than half of whose novels are set in Istanbul (“If he didn’t have Istanbul, he neither would have won the Nobel nor become a great writer”); and Pamuk’s fellow-Nobel winner, the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, who never set foot out of Cairo his entire life and all of whose novels are set in the quarter of Khan el-Khalili. According to Tarar, novelists breathe greatness into cities and there are many creative possibilities in depicting Lahore.

Another headliner for Day 1of the FIF was a conversation with seasoned journalist and cultural critic, Nadeem Farooq Paracha or simply NFP. The writer had flown into Lahore to discuss his latest book The Pakistan Anti-Hero, but ended up discussing quite a lot of other matters with his ever-too-obliging moderator. Topics discussed were citizenship, ‘Islamic modernism’, tensions of cultural change, Pakistan’s identity, conspiracy theories, development of political parties and the development of the Left in Pakistan. NFP came out as a supporter of civic nationalism as defining Pakistan’s identity in the 21st century: meaning if someone is a member of a region with nationalist boundaries, they are a citizen of Pakistan. Asked to pick a pivotal moment that defined Pakistan in every decade since the last seventy years, NFP picked out the death of Jinnah; the inception of the Objectives Resolution; the Ayubian martial law; and the rise of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. NFP was especially scathing about the historical role of the Left in Pakistan, accusing them of ‘hollow arrogance’, being undemocratic, being anti-Punjabi and anti-Muhajir, being confused and non-serious. He managed to ruffle quite a feathers by observing that “leftists who don’t do anything organise festivals like the FIF” – remarks which were seen to be in rather poor taste by some!

One of the last sessions on Day 1 of the FIF was devoted to ‘Faiz Shanasi’ or knowing Faiz, moderated by Ali Madeeh Hashmi, who is not only a grandson of the poet, but the author of a very readable recent biography of his illustrious grandfather. The panel also featured Dr. Imran Zafar, a Faiz scholar and Safia Kausar, who was clearly uncomfortable and unknowledgeable about most of the aspects of Faiz discussed in that session. Hashmi began by wondering out loud whether there is a need to say anything further with respect to knowing Faiz. In the course of the discussion multiple, unheralded aspects of the legendary poet were revealed e.g. Faiz as a playwright, columnist, poet, journalist, etc. What also came out was the fact that a poem called ‘Masoom Qatil’ (Innocent Killer) hitherto attributed to Faiz as his first poem, did not actually exist; and that he preferred writing ghazals to poems initially, later switching to poems as his worldview expanded. What distinguished Faiz from other great fellow poets of the last century like Iqbal, Rashid, Majeed Amjad and Miraji was his easy language and popular message. This scribe’s own quibble with this formulation is that onecan say the same thing about other revolutionary poets like Josh Malihabadi and Habib Jalib! What forcefully came out towards the end of the session was the need to re-compile the complete works of Faiz; a separate volume on ‘Baqiyaat’ or remnants of Faiz; and to work on further aspects of Faiz’s prose, especially his letters, radio dramas, travelogues and children’s stories and poems.
When Quratulain Hyder came to Lahore, Mustansar Hussain Tarar took her to the Walled City and she remarked that the city was just like Lucknow. Tarar replied "Lucknow is dead, but Lahore is alive." Hyder agreed

Day 2 at the FIF was made more eventful by the launch of Harris Khalique’s book of essays Crimson Papers, and panel discussions on the roles of resistance poetry and the Left. The day began with a wonderful dramatised reading of Krishan Chander’s satirical essay ‘Aaine ke Samne’ (Before the Mirror) by Shahnawaz Zaidi in a panel exclusively devoted to readings from literature. Khalique’s well-received book of essays dwells on the story of the struggles of ordinary people and political workers in Pakistan in excruciating circumstances and the writer’s creative response to these dilemmas. The panel also featured Salima Hashmi, Faiz’s daughter and a distinguished artist and activist in her own right. The moderator discussed themes of suffering, politics and the role of art in history and society.

Paraphrasing her late father, Hashmi remarked that by writing this book, Khalique has contributed his own share. The discussion then moved to the selective politics of memory and remembering. Calling himself ‘a socialist trapped in an intensely capitalist world’, Khalique said that his book was about the erasure of memory and he has challenged the competing narratives of the successor states of 1947, especially when it comes to what happened in East Pakistan in 1971. Khalique ended the discussion by observing how in Pakistan today there is insistence on ethnic rather than class politics. There is a disconnect between artists and workers; and the propaganda that nothing is being written in Pakistan is a very urban view: there are young writers in Pashto, Sindhi, Seraiki, etc. – “You can’t have a Faiz or Rashid every five years.” He commented on how Urdu unifies and dividesus in interesting ways; and how writing itself has become resistance in Pakistan, thus proving that ‘art has a healing and subversive nature.’

The panel on resistance poetry was moderated by Khalique and featured noted Sindhi resistance poet and intellectual Amar Sindhu and critic Nasir Abbas Nayyer. Khalique opened the discussion by nodding at the titleof the panel, as to whether resistance poetry was a diminishing genre or not. From the definition of resistance, the discussion veered towards the role of political movements in shaping resistance poetry, class struggles versus national struggles, the ‘historical oppression of the Urdu language’ (Nayyer’s phrase), the position of resistance poetryin the world, the absence of platforms, etc. Sindhu shared some very interesting examples of resistance poetry emerging from the deserts of Thar concerning CPEC, with respect to coal deposits and current debates in Sindhi circles regarding acceptance of state awards by intellectuals. Then there was resistance which galvanised the writers’ community in the case of Bhoro Bheel, a Hindu from Tando Bhago whose corpse had been forbidden to be buried by fundamentalists and it was dragged out of the grave, which led to resistance on social media in the form of poetry and almost every Sindhi writer apologised to Bhoro’s mother on behalf of the Sindhi nation. She also names Munavvar Halepoto, who is a construction worker by profession working in Karachi, and a poet hailing from Thar. There seemed to be some disagreement between Khalique and the speakers regarding a shift in the centre of oppression from state to society; although the former thought that the greatest danger had been to journalists, and that the fear of society had been created by the state.

The panel on the Left in Pakistan was surprisingly jam-packed, mostly young people, though it was difficult to tell how many of them belonged to the Barabri Party led by one of the panelists, prominent singer Jawad Ahmed; and how many belonged to the Awami Workers Party, arguably the largest left party in Pakistan, which supplied the moderator of the panel, Asim Sajjad Akhtar. One of the panelists was Ammar Ali Jan, from the People’s Solidarity Forum. The lone Baloch voice was that of Abid Mir.

Akhtar began the discussion noting the contradictions between the principles for an idealised world which the Left wanted to create versus the demands of entering a type of politics which had been labelled ‘post-ideological’ by mainstream Pakistani politicians. The topics discussed were the methods for popular politics, the question of Balochistan, the reasons for its isolation from other progressive movementsin Pakistan, the apparent contradictions of ethnicity, gender among the issues raised by the Left, the question of ‘development’ in Balochistan, etc. The role of the state in Balochistan caused much controversy and debate. Eventually, the panel descended into a shouting match on the stage between Ahmed and one of the Baloch students in the audience, who took exception to the somewhat harsher remarks on Balochistan by the former. Perhaps to answer the question on which this panel had been set up, i.e. ‘What is to be Done?’, one would want to develop and deepen the capacity to listen to the ‘other’ leftist’s point of view. In any case, the resultant chaos and the limited time meant that the panel ended without a conclusion.

So by the end of the Day 2 of the FIF, one was ready to surrender to the charms of the only musical session that this scribe attended, featuring the Syrian Nahel al-Halabi and Pakistani ustad Nafees Ahmed, moderated by senior musician and composer Arshad Mehmood. The three pieces which the Syrian-Pakistani duo collaborated on consisted of Raga Madhuvanti; then a classical Pakistani-Mediterranean-Middle Eastern tune featuring brass instruments and harps; and finally a thumri in Raga Peelu.

The FIF 2017 was an aesthetic treat and a moveable feast for the senses but one noted that there were far too few panels on the vernacular languages. For example, there was just one panel on Punjabi but nothing on Sindhi, Pashto, Seraiki or Balochi languages (though there were individual speakers from these other provinces).Faiz was a great champion of other ethnic and linguistic groups and for making international connections with other oppressed nations and peoples. It was a treat to see the FIF collaborating with Middle Eastern artists from Palestine and Syria.Also, I believe a celebration of seventy years of Partition this year was too great and important a topic to be left to a lone panel. There should have been a few panels on Partition literature across the geographical divide. I strongly believe that the keynote speaker/lecture needs to be brought back to provide a theme and a focus to the FIF – like the previous edition dedicated itself to celebrating the centenaries of two stalwarts of the Progressive Movement, who also happened to be dear friends and comrades of Faiz himself.

Perhaps the next edition of the FIF could be dedicated to the bicentennial of Karl Marx?As the organisers have promised that the biggest edition of FIF so far will be in 2018, we live in hope. For as Faiz himself said, “Carry on, for the destination has still not arrived.”

The writer is a social scientist, academic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: razanaeem@hotmail.com and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979