Translations from the Urdu of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984) is among the most famous poets of the subcontinent. It is said that the more famous Pakistani singers drew live audiences of tens of thousands, when singing his poetry---particularly while he was in prison. A famous live recording of Iqbal Bano singing hum dekhenge has a loud, approving crowd in the background, their shouts gathering momentum as she sings of justice, the toppling of kings, and the victory of the people, finally drowning her out with "inquilab zindabad"---long live the revolution. Meanwhile, a military dictatorship held Faiz sahab in prison.

Faiz sahab wrote a considerable fraction of his poetry from prison (1951-55), and some of it indicates his disillusionment with the direction taken by Pakistan after Independence (1947). He was awarded the Lenin peace prize in 1963, and, besides Lahore and Amritsar in the sub-continent, spent time in London, Moscow and Beirut. He worked initially for the Pakistani army, but was a journalist or editor for most of the rest of his working life.

Urdu poetry makes extensive use of metaphor, and poets before Faiz sahab had used the beloved to symbolize death and God; life was often presented as the wait for union with the beloved. Faiz sahab took the metaphor a step further, using the beloved to symbolize also the country, the revolution, and the fight for economic justice for all. His poetry can hence be read at many levels simultaneously: as love poetry, as poetry of the conscience, and sometimes as an address to the divine. It is futile to try to separate the strands, just as, in Sufi poetry and prayer, and in the earlier and more traditional forms of Urdu poetry, it is futile to try and separate the lover from the divine. The reader is not meant to separate the strands, and is meant to read all strands simultaneously, appreciating that the same words can mean all this and more. Though Urdu scholars might disagree with me, I feel that attempts to determine what the poet really meant (whether the poet meant this to be an address to the divine or the over, etc.) distract from the richness of the poetry and all its implied meanings.

Faiz sahab was himself an agnostic communist. His poetry should be read in the context of the Urdu literary tradition that drew significantly from religious literature and history, often challenging the religious norms of Islam and other South Asian religions. Like all other Urdu poetry, Faiz sahab's liberally employs allusions to Islamic myth and religious thought, knowledge of which greatly enhance the pleasure of reading it. For example, the aforementioned hum dekhenge says "and the cry of ana 'l haq shall rise" [when the political revolution happens]. Literally, ana 'l haq means: "I am Truth/I am Reality", and "Al-Haqq" is one of the 99 names of the monotheist God in Islam. Its use brings to mind the following story. A thousand odd years ago, Sufi thinker Mansur al-hallaj knocked on the door of his (spiritual) teacher and was asked "who is there?". He responded, blasphemously, Ana al-Haqq. After many similar pronouncements that God was in one's self, he was executed; scholars disagree whether this was for religious or political reasons. Today, Ana al-Haqq is the most famous of Sufi phrases; Sufism being the subversive Islam that dared to consider man in the same light, breath, sentence, status, as the divine, and is still considered heresy by conservative Islam. Its use in the poem communicates a political and religious subversiveness, while also alluding to the Islamic promise of justice for all on the day of Qayamat (Judgement Day).

I have tried to retain the starkness of Faiz sahab's verse - in my opinion it's most attractive quality. Follow my attempts at translating those of his poems that I love most. All originals in Devnagari from: Faiz Ahmed Faiz, SAre Sukhan HamAre, second edition, Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi, 1991. All translations with permission from his estate.

  1. .DAkA se wApasI par (1974) - On My Return from Dacca (1974). Also appeared in To Topos Poetry International, PACIFICA: PEACE & the SEA, Vol. 5, pg. 50, 2003.

  2. agast '52 - August '52. Also appeared in To Topos Poetry International, PACIFICA: PEACE & the SEA, Vol. 5, pg. 48, 2003.

  3. Aj bAzAr me.n - Shackles on your feet. A slightly different version appeared in To Topos Poetry International, PACIFICA: PEACE & the SEA, Vol. 5, pg. 49, 2003.

  4. lAo to katalnAmA merA - The Order for my Execution (with Neha Dave). Coming soon.

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Last modified: 2 July, 2003