Thus Alone, and Always, Have People Resisted Tyranny: Remembering Faiz on his Birth Centenary

Today is the first birth centenary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz: one of South Asia’s most beloved radical Urdu poets. Today is also, just two days after Mubarak’s resignation as a result of the inspiring revolution in Umm al-Duniya, Mother of the World, Egypt; and almost a month after Tunisia’s courageous revolution. How ecstatic would Faiz have been today?!

by Huma Dar

Today is the first birth centenary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz: one of South Asia’s most beloved radical Urdu poets.  Today is also, just two days after Mubarak’s resignation as a result of the inspiring revolution in Umm al-Duniya, Mother of the World, Egypt; and almost a month after Tunisia’s courageous revolution.  How ecstatic would Faiz have been today?!  Faiz, who had lived in Beirut, in exile from Pakistan — when ruled by the US-bolstered military dictator, General Zia-ul Haq.  Faiz, who wrote a beautiful lullaby for a Palestinian child, and a poem for those who were martyred outside their beloved Palestine.  Faiz, whose poem commonly mis-titled, “Ham Dekhenge,” is a battle-song for people fighting for social justice from Sindh, Pakistan to Kashmir to Chhattisgarh, India.

The title of this particular poem of Faiz is in Arabic: “Wa Yabqaa Wajhu Rabbika.”  It is most often brushed aside as it does not fit the simplistic profile of the “avowed atheist” assigned to Faiz.  Being a socialist does not preclude belief in Islam, but this nuance is lost on many who cannot easily imagine Faiz being a Muslim, leave alone leading a prayer in the mosque of his ancestral village, especially given the subtle Islamophobia that pervades élite political and literary discourses, both within and without South Asia.  For some, even more difficult “to reconcile [is] the glowing tribute [that Faiz wrote] to Muhammad Ali Jinnah,” but this has to do with the rigorous demonology of Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, in Indian historiography, and the hegemonic status of India and Indian academics, even those who vigorously critique nationalisms of all kinds, within South Asian Studies.

Since last summer, when Kashmir was once again in revolt against the most militarized occupation in the world, some verses of Faiz have been whirling in my mind, and I am translating them here as a humble offering for Faiz’s birthday, and as particularly pertinent to the contemporary moment.  Like all translations, this, too, cannot but be insufficient, incomplete, yet there is urgency to share and celebrate.

“yuheeN hamesha ulajhti rahi hai zulm se khalq
na unki rasm nayi hai, na apni reet nayi
yuheeN hamesha khilaaye haiN hamne aag meN phool
na unki haar nayi hai na apni jeet nayi”

(Faiz Ahmad Faiz, from a poem, “Nisar maiN teri galiyoN ke, ai watan”)

Thus alone, and always, have people resisted tyranny
Neither their ritual is new, nor our tradition
Thus alone, and always, have we nurtured blossoms in flames*
Neither their defeat is new, nor our triumph

* A reference to the iconoclast Abraham being thrown into fire at Nimrod’s orders and coming out unscathed, poetically surrounded by flowers…

Bol Keh Lab Aazaad HaiN Tere

bol keh lab aazaad haiN tere
bol zubaaN ab tak teri hai
tera sutvaaN jism hai tera
bol keh jaaN ab tak teri hai
dekh keh aahaNgar ki dukaaN meN
tuNd haiN sho’le surKh hai aahan
khulne lage qufloN ke dahaane
phaila har ik zanjeer ka daaman
bol ye thoRaa vaqt bohat hai
jism-o-zubaaN ki maut se pehle
bol keh sach zinda hai ab tak
bol jo kuchh kehna hai keh le

(In Faiz’s own voice)

Speak!  Your Lips are Free!

Speak!  Your lips are free!
Speak!  Your tongue is still yours
Your virile body is yours alone
Speak!  Life is still yours!
See!  In the blacksmith’s shop:
the flame is high, the iron crimson
the mouths of locks are beginning to open
each shackle spreads its hem**
Speak!  This little time is plenty,
before the death of body and tongue
Speak!  Truth is still alive
Speak!  Whatever you have to say, say

** In Urdu poetic tradition, one “spreads the lower hems” of one’s tunic and raises them to beg for mercy, forgiveness, to pray for intercession, or to pray in general… So the image is of mouths of the oppressive locks and chains opening up and begging for forgiveness!

Wa Yabqaa Wajhu Rabbika***

ham dekheNge
laazim hai keh ham bhi dekheNge
woh din keh jis ka wa’ada hai
jo lauh-e-azal meN likha hai

jab zulm-o-sitam ke koh-e-garaaN
roo’ee ki tarah uR jaayeNge
ham mehkoomoN ke paa’oN tale
yeh dharti dhaR dhaR dhaRkegi
aur ehl-e-hakam ke sar oopar
jab bijli kaR kaR kaRkegi
jab arz-e-Khuda ke ka’abe se
sab but uThwaaye jaayeNge
ham ehl-e-safa mardood-e-haram
masnad pe biThaaye jaayeNge
sab taaj uchhaale jaayeNge
sab taKht giraaye jaayeNge

bas naam rahega Allah ka
jo Ghaayab bhi hai haazir bhi
jo naazir bhi hai manzar bhi
uThega ana al-haq ka na’ara
jo maiN bhi hoon aur tum bhi ho
aur raaj karegi Khalq-e-Khuda
jo maiN bhi hooN aur tum bhi ho

(Faiz Ahmed Faiz, America, January 1979)

The most memorable rendition of this poem is by the celebrated ghazal singer, Iqbal Bano — one can hear people’s loud cheering, clapping, and slogans for “Inquilab Zindabad” or “Long Live Revolution” in the background!  Along with the legend about Iqbal Bano singing this song in Lahore’s Fortress Stadium dressed in a black sari, at the height of General Zia’s rule, there is another one recounted by the Pakistani poet, Kishwar Naheed.  Kishwar Apa told me how the first time Iqbal Bano recited this nazm (poem) was in a café on Lahore’s Mall Road, and both the poem and the rendition were so magnificent that people on the road stopped on their scooters, motorbikes, rickshaws, taxis, and cars, causing a traffic jam on one of Lahore’s busiest roads!

“But Will Abide the Face of Your Lord”

We shall witness!
Certainly, we, too, shall witness
The day that has been pledged
The one engraved on the slate of eternity
When mountains heavy of tyranny and oppression
Shall take flight, wisps of cotton wool
When we, the oppressed, shall find
Beneath our feet, land palpitating, pulsating
And over the heads of the rulers
When lightning crashes, crackles
When from this Ka’aba, God’s Earth,
All false gods shall be removed
We, the intimate, the faithful
Rejected by the holy
Shall be seated with respect
All crowns shall be tossed
All thrones toppled
But, will remain the name of Allah
Who is both Invisible and Presence itself
Who is both Scene and Seer
There shall arise the slogan of “I am Truth”
Which I am, and so are you
And God’s creation will reign
Which I am, and so are you!

*** This title is actually from a Qur’anic verse 55:27 (Sura Ar-Rahmân).  Here’s the citation in full:
26 Kullu man alaihaa faanin
27 Wa yabqaa wajhu rabbika zul jalaali walikraam
28 Fabi ayyi ala’ai rabbikumaa tukazzibaan
26 All that is on earth will perish;
27 But will abide the face of your Lord, full of majesty, bounty, and honor.
28 Then which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?
The rest of the poem is also replete with references not only to 9th cent. C.E. Sufi, Mansoor Hallaj’s “Ana al-Haq” (I am Truth), but also to Qayaamat or the day of reckoning — the mountains flying away, meek inheriting the earth — all steeped in a liberatory paradigm very much a part of Islam.

20 thoughts on “Thus Alone, and Always, Have People Resisted Tyranny: Remembering Faiz on his Birth Centenary”

  1. Wow – How inspirational!

    Thank you for remembering such a memorable personality here and sharing his work.

    One world, one message!

  2. Faiz wrote this poem during an India/Pakistan war.

    Lament for a Soldier

    Rise now from the dust
    My darling young one. Wake.
    Wake now. Wake now.
    We’ve your life’s bed to make.

    Look how the dark night
    Comes wrapped in a long blue shawl
    Where these crying eyes
    Have heaped up pearls—
    So many pearls whose light
    Casts on your wedding rite
    A shimmering tonight
    To brighten your name.

    Rise now from the ground
    My darling young one. Wake.
    Wake now. Wake now
    While in every house is gold new dawn
    But at ours a pitch-dark yard.

    Wanton, heroic, how long
    Has your young bride to wait
    Knowing your time is come?
    Look, there is work to be done.
    The enemy lords over the throne
    And you lie in the dust, young one.
    Rise from the ground. Wake.
    Don’t leave. Rise from the dust.
    Wake, my darling young one.

    1. Thanks for a lovely translation of Faiz’s “Sipaahi ka Marsiya” (Oct ’65)! Here’s a wonderful rendition of the same by Nayyara Noor:

  3. Absolutely brilliant. Thank you Huma for sharing Faiz Saheb in such a truthful manner. In pursuance of some fake ‘ism’, we have often tried to diminish the profund insights of his work. I loved the whole tone of your piece and can’t thank you enough for this immensely passionate and timely piece.

  4. Huma, thanks for this illuminating post. Whenever I read the following poem of Faiz, I always thought of it as his ‘mystical murmurings’. As you also said, this aspect of Faiz’s works problematizes his simplistic characterization as a ‘godless leftist’.

    Mera dard, naghma-e be-sada
    meri zaat, zarra-e be-nishaan

    Mere dard ko jo zuban mile
    mujhe apna naam-o nishaan mile

    Meri zaat ka jo nishan mile
    mujhe raaz-e nazm-e-jahan mile

    Jo mujhe ye raz-e nihan mile
    meri khamoshi ko bayan mile

    Mujhe ka’ynaat ki sarwari
    mujhe daulat-e do-jahan mile

    – Faiz

    1. Thanks for transcribing this beautiful poem of Faiz’s! Apparently “meri zaat, zarra-e benishaaN” is also the title of a Pakistani drama serial, with Faiz’s poem in the opening and ending credits. Haven’t seen it so far, but from what I’ve heard the serial also has a mystical theme…

    2. thank you for sharing asr. what an exquisite poem. and yes, the drama based on the novel by umera ahmed is one of the best television serials to come out of pakistan in recent history. someone needs to do a study of umera ahmed’s novels as they all hold feminist themes! it’s quite amazing stuff that nobody is paying attention to.

  5. Moreover, here is a couplet from a famous marsiya of Faiz paying tribute to Imam Hussain’s uprising:

    jo zulm pe lanat na karay aap laein hai
    jo jabar ka munkir nahi woh munkire deen hai

    Cursed is he who imprecates not the oppression
    By not negating suppression/fatalism, he negates the religion

  6. huma! it was so reinvigorating to speak with you over the phone! thank you for your time and thoughts. i love your translations above. it is so difficult to find well-done translations. i enjoy working on urdu and punjabi sufi poetry and song lyric translations. especially contemporary song lyrics, which if made more accessible, hold a world of feminst theory to be discovered :)

  7. Well … I was googling for the poem “Mera dard, naghma-e be-sada” of Faiz and suddenly got excited to see this whole article about Faiz…. Research, Information, Poems, translations, memories and comments – basically the whole package has showed that people still stop and smell the roses.
    Thanks for sharing Huma… stay blessed and keep the good work up…

    Mujhe kainat ki sarwarii
    Mujhe dolat-e-do jahaN mile

    Saad Dar

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