Were he alive today, Faiz Ahmad Faiz would have, all at once, been thrilled and alarmed by the fast-changing world order and the shaking hegemony of Western imperialism and its local linchpins.
How indeed can a lover of Faiz's poetry, even a very imperfect one as myself, witness the so-called Arab Spring and the toppling of dictators like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali without thinking of his famous poem Hum Dekhenge (We Will See)?
Especially when this awakening, reminiscent of his very early poem Bol written in 1941, coincides with the systemic crisis of capitalism, and with incessant wars that don't sustain capitalist economies anymore but instead sap them from within? Hence the widening Occupy movement in North America and Europe.
After his late 1970s and early 1980s exile in Beirut, where he wrote poetry under Israeli bombs and siege, Faiz would have rejoiced at the fact that Israeli civil society is supporting the cry for justice of the Palestinians, through the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign, that Palestine is gaining inescapable international recognition -- and that growing Israeli isolation has forced the Netanyahu government to negotiate a prisoner exchange with Hamas!
The famous poem Mere Dil Mere Musaafir (My Heart, My Fellow-Traveller), which gave its title to one book of poems, was written more for Yasir Arafat, the beleaguered, Wandering Palestinian, to whom the book was in fact dedicated, than for Faiz himself.
But before all this, Faiz would have been dismayed by the fall and break up in 1989 of the Soviet Union, which awarded him the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962 -- where he found himself in good company with the likes of Louis Aragon, Miguel Angel Asturias, Pablo Neruda, Nezim Hikmet, Mahmoud Darwish, and so many others.
He would also have been shaken by the apparent total triumph of imperialism after 1989 and the ideological fog of The End of History which benighted the 1990s -- and which spawned George W. Bush and his Project for a New American Century in 2000.
Faiz was in no way a dogmatic Marxist -- which is why he is such a universally great poet -- but he gravitated towards leftist and resistance politics since his early 20s.
In 1936, in the still undivided India, he started a branch of the Progressive Writers' Movement in Punjab with comrades like Sajjad Zaheer and Mulk Raj Anand. He had resolutely staked his path as a poet of the Oppressed.
Soon after, he fell in love with Alys George, a British communist and anti-colonial activist, whose sister Christobel had married Prof MD Taseer, a well-known educator of Amritsar, and later of Lahore.
For Faiz, this early leftist option became a life-long commitment.
He joined the British army in 1942, under the instruction of the Communist Party of India -- in the Great War against fascism. He attained the rank of Lt.-Colonel but resigned from the army in 1947 as the struggle for independence reached its peak.
With Partition, Faiz, who was 37, returned to Lahore and took up journalism and trade unionism. He also became a member of the Soviet-inspired World Peace Council in 1950, as the Cold War was heating up -- until his arrest in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case in 1951.
This was an alleged coup attempt against the government of Pakistan. A secret trial dragged on for 18 months. Faiz was jailed for four years. His co-conspirators included General Akbar Khan and Syed Sajjad Zaheer, writer, revolutionary thinker and founder of the Communist Party of India, and later of Pakistan.
Losing no time, the Pakistani government banned the Communist Party in 1953 and the Progressive Writers' Association in 1954. In 1955, Pakistan became a founding member of CENTO, tying itself formally to the military network of imperialism.
At the same time, India, China, Indonesia, Egypt, Yugoslavia were calling for Non Alignment, an idea which crystallized in 1955 at the Bandung Conference.
Faiz was released from prison that same year. He went to London, from where he attended conferences of Asian and African writers in Delhi and Tashkent, an activity he pursued till his death.
Beyond Faiz's Aa Jaao Afriqa (Come Back Africa), Third World solidarity expressed itself through Sahir's poetry on the Russian revolution, Makhdoom's elegies on Patrice Lumumba and Martin Luther King, Ali Sardar Jafri's odes to Paul Robeson, Kaifi Aazmi's denunciation of the US War on Vietnam.
He returned from London in 1964 to work as educator. He served in the Department of Information during the war of 1965. He went through a brief rehabilitation under the Bhutto government from 1972 to 1977, when General Zia ul-Haq seized power in a coup.
Faiz went back into exile, but returned in 1982 to Lahore, where he died two years later. General Zia, who had signaled himself in the brutal military repression of Palestinians in Jordan in 1970, known as Black September, was still in power in Pakistan.
Writing in Himal Mag, published by the South Asia Trust out of Kathmandu, Afsan Chowdhury, a well-known Bangladeshi media specialist and admirer of Faiz, asks very eloquently whether Faiz was subsumed by History and Nation. Why, he asks, did he choose Pakistan after Partition? The answer is simple enough: because his home was there. And maybe he was instructed to do so by the Communist Party!
Chowdhury also asks, though more disturbingly, why Faiz kept quiet during the 1971 war when the Pakistani army and Islamist groups were massacring Bangladeshi students and intellectuals, including revolutionaries and admirers of Faiz himself.
The answer here is far from obvious. The fact is, writes Chowdhury, that when Faiz visited Dhaka in 1974, he came with a Pakistani mission as advisor on culture. The reception was cold. Most of his friends had been "disappeared". On his return, Faiz summed up his agony in the poem Hum Ke Thehre Ajnabi (We who have become strangers).
Writing In his defence in the same Himal Mag, the brothers Ali Mir and Raza Mir, both university professors in the U.S., stress that "Faiz was an internationalist" whose "relationship with the nation-state was doomed on 15 August 1947", the day Pakistan was created, as illustrated by his famous poem Subh-e-Aazaadi (The Dawn of Freedom), written on that very day.
This poem "was an anthem for the defeat of progressive politics at the moment of decolonization," they believe, noting that the poem ends "with the call to continue the unfinished journey."
To further stress Faiz's internationalist humanism, they quote his poem Aa Jaao Afriqa (Come Back Africa) written from jail in 1955.
This cry of Come Back Africa, which Faiz heard in his prison cell, was to become the title of a cult film by US independent film-maker Lionel Rogosin, depicting the harsh life in the black townships of Apartheid South Africa in the 1950s.
Indeed the many travels of Faiz brought him fertile contacts and rich friendships with progressive writers of the South, including Aimé Césaire, Ali Sardar Jaffrey and, perhaps, even Yashpaal, the Indian revolutionary and great Hindi novelist and short story writer.
His son Anand, who lives in Montreal, has just brought out an English translation of Yashpaal's famous magnum opus of the Partition, the 1,100-page novel Jhootha Sach (The Lying Truth), which he has chosen to title "This Is Not That Dawn", (Yeh Vo Sahar To Nahin), a famous line from Faiz's Subhe Aazaadi.
In this vein, one needs to point out the warm friendship that linked 20th-century progressive intellectual giants like Eqbal Ahmad, Edward Saïd and Noam Chomsky with Faiz. And one imagines that Eqbal, who knew Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X personally, must at some point have discussed them with Faiz.
By the way, this year 2011 is not only the Birth Centennial of Faiz Ahmad Faiz. It is also the 50th Death Commemoration of Frantz Fanon, born in the French-Caribbean territory of Martinique, who devoted himself to the Algerian War of independence and, more importantly, to articulating the Third World urgency for mental, psychological and cultural decolonization.
Interestingly, in his interviews with independent U.S. journalist David Barsamian, published in book form under the title Confronting Empire, Eqbal Ahmad notes that both Fanon and Malcolm X came from racist perspectives before arriving at class consciousness and internationalist humanism.
In a tribute posted on Eqbal Ahmad's website in 2000, Noam Chomsky quotes him, finding that Faiz was "so prescient in catching the mood of disillusionment with the decolonized post-colonial states." As Shelley said: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."
This is where Faiz's alarm with the changing world order would come into play: as the Empire fights to reconstruct its hegemony, it builds up new national bourgeoisie, backed, where necessary, by religious fanatics, in order to reinvigorate sectarianism and nationalism everywhere to always better divide and rule.
Faiz's progressive, humanist internationalism would never brook such manoeuvres. As much as he would cheer the peoples on for greater freedom, he would not have countenanced the invasion, occupation and destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, nor would he accept the brutal hijacking of the Libyan Spring by NATO or the insane drumbeats of war against Syria and Iran.
But he would be thrilled to witness the rise of the BRICS countries and the birth of the new Latin American CELAC. He would busy himself with the cultural and literary space of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the new Pak-o-Hind and south Asian rapprochement.
He would also maybe compose rap and hip-hop songs for the Facebook generation of the Lahori group Laal, and preferably in an Urdu that would be less and less elitist, and would embrace more and more the peoples' vernacular in the whole of the South Asian subcontinent.
Eqbal Ahmad once dubbed Chomsky a "Secular Sufi." Chomsky returned the compliment to Eqbal Ahmad in that article. This is a sobriquet that could well apply to Faiz himself: a Secular Sufi for the New World Order. A Secular Sufi for all times.
This presentation was given at a Faiz Centennial Commemoration organized by the Kabir Cultural Centre in Montreal on Dec. 11, 2011.
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