December issue 2018
An Age of Awakening
The Faiz International Festival (FIF) has become an annual fixture on Lahore’s cultural calendar, different from the other literary festivals in Pakistan not only because unlike the latter, it heralds the arrival of winter in the city, but also because it coincides with Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s death anniversary. However this year, two events cast a deep pall over this otherwise much-anticipated festival: one, the virtual chucking out of four prominent speakers from the festival programme on the last day, and two, the passing away of feminist and literary icon Fahmida Riaz in Lahore just three days after the festival ended.
A cursory look at the festival programme this year would reveal a mixture of the popular and the highbrow, the glamorous and the plebeian, and contributions from the genres of art, literature, dance, drama and music. The highlight of the FIF this year was a conversation on day one between the daughters – Salima Hashmi and prominent actress and activist Shabana Azmi – of two prominent Progressive poets who were also contemporaries, namely Faiz and Kaifi Azmi. There was much to learn from the wide-ranging conversation, especially about Kaifi Azmi, who despite his towering stature in South Asia, is not too well-known to the younger generation in Pakistan; and less so about Faiz, whose personal and political life and work has been fully documented. Azmi sought to make amends by reciting one of her father’s most well-known poems Aurat (Woman), which was rapturously received by the audience. One could perhaps object why, when asked to define the ideology of both Faiz and Kaifi, rather than mention communism or socialism – which both poets unapologetically and steadfastly adhered to – the response was “humanism, love and socio-economic justice.” However, it was a sheer delight to listen to Azmi’s husband, the poet Javed Akhtar, come on stage and recite his poems, especially the timely and relevant Naya Hukumnaama (New Order). It should have been also mentioned at the beginning of the session that 2019 is being celebrated as Kaifi’s birth centenary year, hence the need for the panel.
It was equally exhilarating to attend the session on day two on the eminent satirist, diplomat, teacher and writer Patras Bukhari, who was one of Faiz’s teachers. This year marks his 120th birthday, as well as the 60th anniversary of his death, something which was left out in the discussion. Nevertheless, the session brought together distinguished names from the worlds of teaching, acting and literature to pay tribute to Patras, like the Vice Chancellor of Government College University, Dr Hasan Amir Shah, and the veteran actor, Usman Peerzada. The panel deliberated on the complex and rich career of Patras, and one got to know little-known aspects of his life such as when he ascended GCU’s clocktower as a student on a bet and couldn’t come down, and subsequently the fire brigade had to be called to help him descend; his pioneering roles as a diplomat at the United Nations and involvement in the freedom struggles in Tunisia and for the sustenance of UNICEF; and his mentoring of Faiz and Noon Meem Rashid, two towering Urdu poets of the 20th century. The session was enlivened by a short video which highlighted various aspects of Patras’s life, and the important people in his life, as well as his own speech regarding the Tunisian war of independence, and superb dramatic readings by Shahnawaz Zaidi from Patras’s humorous prose on bicycles.
The poet-actress couple Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi were in Lahore for only a couple of days, hence their panels took place on the first two days of the FIF. A session on the art and craft of Akhtar moderated by Yasmeen Hameed revealed the former’s dislike of prose poems, to the apparent dislike of the moderator, but who decided to ‘forgive’ Akhtar for the solecism. Akhtar also emphasised that poetry cannot only be serious and about emotions, and like the work of Sahir Ludhianvi and Majrooh Sultanpuri, should be about issues and politics. He recited his famous poems Ye Khel Kya Hai (What Game is This), Waqt (Time) and Saazish (Conspiracy), though not the aforementioned Naya Hukumnaama, perhaps on the advice of the organisers, in the light of subsequent events at Day three of FIF.
One of the best panels at the FIF this year was the book launch of Syeda Hameed’s book on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Born to Be Hanged. In a sense it was gratifying to attend this event, because the book was out at the beginning of the year, but no review has so far been forthcoming in the Pakistani press. Written by an Indian, is a fresh, dispassionate look at one of South Asia’s most flamboyant political personalities, away from the usual hagiographies on the man, and relying significantly on archives kept in Pakistan, most notably with Ghinwa Bhutto in Karachi and the writer’s cousin, Dr Mubashar Hasan, one of Bhutto’s closest friends and confidantes, in Lahore. Syeda Hameed has impeccable credentials: a great-granddaughter of Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali, she has also previously written a book about Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. The panel, comprised the writer, human rights veteran I.A. Rahman, veteran politician of the Pakistan People’s Party, Aitzaz Ahsan, and Dr Hasan. The session began with Hameed reading out an extract from the book depicting the harrowing last hours of Bhutto leading up to his execution. The discussion then moved on to why Bhutto was ‘born to be hanged’ and all the panelists seemed to agree that not only was Bhutto punished for daring to challenge the status quo, but that he himself was a contradictory character with his Savile Row suits and simultaneous popular appeal, democratic on one hand and autocratic on the other. Indeed, the author labelled the tragedy of Bhutto a ‘Greek tragedy.’ The discussion then moved onto the finer aspects of the trumped-up case against Bhutto, by Ahsan – who was one of the actors in the court petition in favour of Bhutto – and Dr Hasan, who was also party to the case. Both Rahman and Hasan talked knowledgeably about Justice Anwarul Haq, who became the Chief Justice by acceding to the law promulgated by General
Zia-ul-Haq; and Maulvi Mushtaq,
who had been especially invited from London to hear the case.
Day three of the FIF began with what was billed as a session with noted feminist poet, Zehra Nigah, and literateur Dr Arfa Sayeda Zahra, but was effectively reduced to being just a session with the latter, since the former could not make it to Lahore because of illness. Nigah has, of late, been a fixture in Lahore’s literary festivals and the session began with Zahra reciting one of the former’s naats. After a recitation of Nigah’s poem Hai Adab Shart (On the Condition of Respect), the discussion focused on Zahra’s witty anecdotes regarding her trip to the Writers Conference convened by the Zia-ul-Haq regime and which the aforementioned poem humoured. Further noting that Nigah no longer recites with music in her voice, because, according to her, her head is not in sync with the tune, Zahra recited another poem of the former, Mataa-e-Alfaaz (The Wealth of Words), then a poem from her latest collection Gul Chandni titled Hazaron Abu Jahl; and her famous poems Men Bacch Gai Maa (I Am Saved Mother) and Janglon ka Dastoor (Law of the Jungles), which Zahra quipped, only half-comically, should be the national anthem of Pakistan. The session ended with a rendition of Faiz’s famous poem Subh-e-Azaadi in Nigah’s voice.
The fact that two of the bigger Halls at the FIF venue at Alhamra were perennially packed with screen and literary celebrities, it was a pleasant surprise to attend Iraqi novelist Ahmad al-Saadawi’s session on his intriguingly titled novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad. The novel set in contemporary Iraq is a frightening homage to the classic novel by Mary Shelley written two centuries ago. It is about a trash collector who collects organs of bodies which have been shredded by bombs and sews them together. He then requests the cemetery and then the hospital to own the body that is created, and bury. However, the body subsequently vanishes, and then people in the city also start disappearing and getting displaced. Discussing the novel, the writer said that it is based on his experiences of the city of Baghdad between 2005 and 2006 as a BBC correspondent when there were sectarian troubles in Baghdad and al-Qaeda was killing civilians, cutting them and scattering their organs throughout the city. The otherwise sombre discussion around the novel turned a bit lighter when the writer, in response to a question about whether his novel was not written by a woman, since Shelley’s novel was presumedly written by a man, confessed that the novel was indeed his own creation.
One of the most well-attended sessions on Day three of FIF was the Punjabi session comprising distinguished actors Irfan Khoosat and Rashid Mahmood, poet Rakhshanda Naveed, and the vetereran singer Shaukat Ali. The panel began with Ali reminiscing about his meetings with Faiz and the latter’s request to the former to perform Faiz’s Punjabi poem Kidhre Na Paindiyan Dassaan in London. Khoosat talked about his memories as a student of Sufi Tabassum, who was Faiz’s teacher. He went on to beautifully recite Faiz’s lyrical Punjabi poem Rabba Sacchiya Tu Te Aaakhiya Si (O True God You Had Said So). Naveed also recited her own poetry, including the poem ‘Vitamin D.’ Ali enthralled the audience with his soulful renditions of Faiz’s aforementioned poem, as well as sufi poet, Mian Muhammad Baksh’s verses.
There was also a session devoted to Baaqiyaat-e-Faiz, uncollected writings of and related to the great poet, the subject of a huge tome by D. Taqi Abidi, a Canada-based scholar. The session was moderated by Asghar Nadeem Syed. The session traced Abid’s painstaking journey as the only writer to have written 50 essays on Faiz, and as a collector of memorabilia and documents related to the poet, which also included the original report of the poet’s physician from the night before his passing away when he came to hospital, and was reportedly suffering from asthma for 14 hours; as well as the poet’s initially unsuccessful application to Habib Bank for a credit card. The author claimed that he was helped in this endeavour to document little-known aspects of Faiz by many ordinary people, and he himself did not have to spend any resources for the purpose. There were also letters Faiz wrote to his daughters from jail, as well interviews he gave in India which negate the conception that he became famous because he was jailed, as well as about his ideology of love and peace.
One of the last sessions at the FIF was also one of the most fulfilling, a wide-ranging conversation between renowned poet and essayist Harris Khalique and renowned writer and journalist Mohammed Hanif about the latter’s non-fictional writings. One felt that perhaps Khalique’s own no mean writings on the themes of censorship and suppression of dissent should also have been made a focus of discussion, but the discussion was solely focused on the novelist’s perception of these issues. Hanif began by asking the audience why one of the panelists at FIF (Dr Ammar Ali Jan) had been unceremoniously chucked out of the panel from where he was scheduled to speak. He then went on to talk candidly about his own journey, beginning with his stint as an “intrepid journalist at a fashion magazine,” and spoke of the comparison between reportage as it existed in the past, with that of the present. The highlight of the session was Hanif reading his extremely witty and sobering column on Khadim Rizvi and Asma Jahangir, which he said was prompted by watching a video of the former; Hanif felt that a response was needed.
The FIF is a valuable and unique addition to the cultural calendar of Lahore. However this year it became the victim of an unnecessary controversy when four prominent voices of dissent, namely, veteran journalist Rashed Rahman, activists and teachers Ammar Ali Jan and Taimur Rahman, and an MNA of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, Ali Wazir were barred from speaking at their scheduled panels, for reasons unspecified. Ironically, at an event devoted to the life and legacy of a poet who spent his life crusading against censorship and for the freedom of speech. Ammar Ali Jaan took to twitter to comment on his rescinded invitation, detailing that the organisers stated an ‘external pressure’ to justify their decision. It is also peculiar why in all these years literary and feminist icon Fahmida Riaz had never been invited by the festival organisers to speak at one of its panels. One also feels that some of the panelists have become repetitive over the years; and the preponderance of screen and literary celebrities at such an ideologically-driven event means less space is given to languages other than Urdu and English; after all, Faiz had an enviable link with all the major languages of Pakistan. One would have liked to see panels on other languages like Balochi, Seraiki, Sindhi and Pashto, as well as more panels on translations, whether between Pakistani languages, or internationally. After all, can having a token panel on/in Punjabi or the odd Arabic novel in translation really lend the event an internationalist flavor, something that Faiz had cultivated with relative ease while he was alive, whether in Lahore, Beirut or Moscow?
The writer is a social scientist, translator, book critic and a prize-winning dramatic reader based in Lahore.