Pilgrim of Beauty

Farid Gul Momand reviews an English translation of the great Pahstun poet Ghani Khan's poetry, an artist who blended his unorthodox ideas with work of genuine beauty

Pilgrim of Beauty
Whenever I tell my non-Pashtun friends interested in poetry how much I loved and still continue to love and get inspiration from Ghani Khan’s poetry, they often ask “Can you translate some of his poems into English?” The answer is no. Translation is not everybody’s job. My response is instead to talk to them about the great man’s poetic style, varying themes and the spirit of his poetry, and to give reassurances that with sufficient patience they too can understand him. They can find now, without going through the arduous task of learning a new language not only the poetry of the great poet but also his spirit and persona in Imtiaz Ahmed Sahibzada’s book, The Pilgrim of Beauty.

The book owes its title to the never-ending quest for beauty, truth, humanism and self-realization that lies at the centre of Ghani’s poetry. A selection of 141 of Ghani’s Khan’s poetic works is a representative, but by no means comprehensive, sampling of his poetry. The author attempts to translate poems on various themes such as, love, beauty, Pashtun Nationalism, humanism, love of the land and people, the mysteries surrounding life and death, the pain of separation and the joy of reunion; the mullahs and khans (landowners), and the quest to find the existence of God.


It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; however, something can also be gained

The difficulty of translating poetry is manifold: the words and meaning on the one hand, the flow and rhythm on the other. It may potentially create unavoidable divergence between the original and the translated.  This is mainly because the translator either focuses too much on the literal meaning, or takes too much liberty in the process of translation, instead of trying to sneak into the poet’s world or poetic imagination. In “The Pilgrim of Beauty”, Imtiaz Ahmad Sahibzada diligently and with measured liberty communicate to the readers, not only the poetry of Ghani, but with that, the poet.  It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; however, something can also be gained, since, we too, always remain in a state of translation or transformation.

Where necessary, the author has added explanatory notes or historical or literary contexts to the poems, at the ends of the book. It is next to impossible to translate a poet as complex as Ghani, also known as the “mad philosopher-poet” because of his earlier pen name, because his flamboyant style and metaphysical poetry are so unique to him.
“I am neither the gardener nor the owner of the garden So why burden me with your gardens' tales?”

The triumph of IA Sahibzada’s translation is that he remains faithful to certain paradoxical characteristics of Ghani’s poetry. The searching spirit of Ghani is unwilling to conform to divine matters as defined by the clergy:

Oh pious priest of logic and philosophy!

Oh pious priest of heaven and its tales!

Oh pious priest of reward and fate!

Oh pious priest of heaven and of hell!

Don’t tell me your tales of life

I am not attentive to what you say.

In the same poem, Ghani transcends amorous discourse to present the acute contrast between his thinking and that of the clergy.  He says:

I am neither the gardener nor the owner of the garden

So why burden me with your gardens’ tales?

In some very unusual lines of the poem, the master of wit and pride presents himself in a unique posture of humility:

I am, but a jingle of anklet bells

And know

Only the rhythm of dancer’s feet.

I am just a spark of pathos and grief

I only know pain (of separation) and joy of re-union.

So why burden me with your gardens’ tales?

Throughout his life, he remained in a tussle with the clergy, whose constant reminders of God’s wrath he found himself at odds with. He not only challenged the mental faculties of the Mullah, but also his fellow poets too, which, according to him, had turned into Mullahs in their creative endeavours. In one of his letters, Ghani writes to his poet friend, Benava :

My dear Benava,

I love your poetry except where you have turned into a mullah like Ulfat. I think the mission of a poet in life is quite different from that of a preacher. Man is essentially an animal. He wants food, sex and comfort and nothing else. I think a poet must worship beauty- in thought, words and deeds. I hate people preaching at me. As for suffering and pain of life, I think that is the price that we must pay, for the gift of creating beauty. You have to expose yourself to the pain of living in order to produce a work of art.

That being said, in his poem, Chemiaghar (the Alchemist) he expresses the beauty of the creator:

It seems - there is an alchemist

Seated in the sky -

Sometimes, he converts gold to dust

Sometimes, dust to gold.

He collects flowers of all fragrances and charm

Only to shape the beloved’s lips,

He collects thousand nights of piety -

Only to create a single moment of Ishq

Ghani Khan’s poetry has an extraordinary power to create, weaving together abstract paradises with powerful human experiences to form a world against the ideal world (paradise) of the Mullah. He not only has the power to give voice to things that are silent but also relies on images of warmth, ecstasy, and pleasure to call upon and empower the reader’s senses. In Da Jelkhani Khani Khob (A Dream in the Prison), the theme is presented in such a way the cornucopia of pleasure-inducing imagery and metaphors of heat, sound, and scent suggest that happiness involves a joining of the senses.

In my dream - I see it is evening.

I see flowers in the garden.

The dreamy- eyed Saki, who holds

In her rose-colored fingers, a goblet of red-wine.

Her hands upon a tuned Sitar,

Ecstatic like Khayyam - she plays on the responsive strings

The tale of love and longing…………..

Ghani Khan witnessed a number of important historical events first hand which had a great impact on him and his family’s personal life. A Pashtun nationalist to the core, he invokes the enlightenment of Pashtuns.

Power becomes a taunt -

When not combined with courage.

Of what use is a torch, after all

When it fails to light up in the darkness

Even in death he finds beauty. Death, according to Ghani, is the manifestation of the benevolence of the Khaaliq (creator). It is death which unites the creator with the created - hence, a symbol of God’s mercy upon us.

Let death overtake me

Whenever it will;

It will find me prepared

With a flower in hand

Or mounted upon

A snorting steed;

Or a gun in hand,

Or quill and ink;

And drowned in laughter.

Let death overtake me

Whenever it will

I hope that IA Sahibzada’s translation born out of his inspiration, fascination and admiration for Ghani will also be read by non-Pashto readers. Ghani is a phenomenon and through his selected poems, paintings, quotes, ideas, and confessions, the readers may get a chance to know that Ghani is to modern Pashtu poetry what Pablo Neruda was to Spanish, Nizar Qabani to Arabic, Baudelaire to French, Ghalib to Urdu, Pushkin to Russian and Yeats to English. Summarizing him, or trying to explain how one feels while reading Ghani is a hopeless task. This English translation will prove to be a worthy starting point for most.

Farid Gul Momand is a writer and a poet. His book of English poetry is call “Paris Hilton Vs the Poor Poet”