Reading Pakistan

by Blaine Marchand

Two significant events marked the beginning of my posting to Pakistan and they both influenced my thinking about the country and the status of poetry in that nation.

Having arrived in the capital city in late August 2008, I quickly and voraciously scoured the media, hoping to gain insight into its cultural life and ways in which I might enhance and enrich my two-year assignment with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). It seemed almost every day in the English papers and television, there were stories and documentaries about the famous Pakistani poet, Ahmed Faraz, who had died on August 25th, the day after my flight touched down. Even when I surfed the non-English television channels, I would come across programs about the poet, sometimes footage of him reading before crowds, sometimes panels of academics and poets discussing his work. While I do not speak Urdu, I could tell the panelists were talking about Faraz as his photo was a backdrop. But what really amazed me was that, despite my severe language limitations, I could instantly tell from the musicality of what was being said that a poem was being recited. It struck me that in Canada, when a famous national poet dies, the best one can hope for is a 10-second sound bite and perhaps a lengthier obituary and a photo in one of the more serious national papers. But here was a country that revered its poets and the words that their imaginations spun.

The second event occurred in the early weeks of Ramadan, the month-long period of fasting that Muslims practice, a period for spiritual renewal and reflection. It was a Saturday evening, September 20th. I, as a sign of respect for the Muslim culture, had decided that I would also try and fast for the entire month. It was just past sunset when iftar, the meal that breaks the fast, had taken place. Suddenly, the entire house shook with such force that I thought a tree had fallen on it. I ran outside and asked the security guard what had happened. “A bomb has gone off,” he informed me, his voice quivering. My phone started ringing and I tore into the house to answer it. It was security calling to make sure I was at home and safe. The wavering voice at the other end informed me that the Marriott Hotel, a mere five kilometres away, was engulfed in flames following the detonation of a massive bomb in a truck. This marked the beginning of a two-year period where there would be unfathomable acts of violence, which maimed innocent citizens, in Islamabad. I was aware of such deeds being done in other regions of the country but never expected it to happen so frequently in the capital city.

The poet Faraz, I learned, began as a romantic poet. In fact, his love poetry has canonical status and is taught to children in school, who, having memorized it, continue to cite and recite it when they become adults. (Pakistanis, including politicians, frequently quote stanzas of poetry in their conversations when they want to emphasize a point or convey a feeling. Not surprising, given that the concept of the independent Muslim nation of Pakistan many say, was the idea of famed poet, Muhammad Iqbal.)

It was when Ahmed Faraz became a member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, which had as its manifesto writing for the oppressed, for freedom, justice and liberal ideas, that Faraz melded politics to his innate romanticism, transforming him into a poet of protest. It was at this point that he took on the status of a reformer, almost a prophet. It was a role he continued even in the weeks before he died – speaking out about the dismissal of the Chief Justice, lending his voice to the lawyers, activists and ordinary citizens who rallied and marched against the government’s action.

Faraz had been part of a wider circle of poets whose work spoke out against the military regimes, which have ruled Pakistan almost as long as have democratic governments. He wrote in a time when many poets would be banished by military dictators infuriated by their poems of protest. Faraz went into exile after reading poems against the dictator   General Zia-Ul-Haq at a mushaira (a poetry soirée where poems, usually ghazals are recited and sung.). His enforced expulsion was a six-year journey that took him to the UK, Europe and Canada before returning to Pakistan in the early euphoric days when Benazir Bhutto was first elected.

I often attended mushaira during my two years in Pakistan, a time when frequently the movement of Canadian diplomats was restricted due to insurgency in the city. I would sneak off the diplomatic enclave, where all Canadian diplomats were housed following the Marriott incident, and go with Sadia, a Pakistani colleague and friend, to these poetry gatherings where, as is the tradition, a host would invite a featured poet who would read his or her work to a gathering. While frequently mushaira can be large gatherings, and which during periods of dictatorship provided venues to foster the voices of underground protest, the soirées I took part in were more intimate affairs, held in private homes.

Two particularly memorable evenings celebrated the writings of Kishwar Naheed, a child-witness to the violence that took place during Partition in the 1940s, including the rape of women. A mixture of humility and self-assuredness, Kishwar’s poems demonstrate why she has been so successful as a female poet in a culture (both national and literary) that is dominated by men. Despite a traditional upbringing, her defiant voice across 30 years of writing has been, in turn, rebellious and political within the sphere of social issues and female sexuality. Her poem, We, sinful women, became the title for an unparalleled anthology of contemporary Urdu feminist poetry in 1991.

These evenings of readings were solely in Urdu. While at times Sadia would provide simultaneous translation for me, there were moments when I indicated I preferred simply to absorb the cadence and rhythm of her voice and the musicality of her lines. Due to the pattern of Urdu verbs, the poetry is innately melodious. The Pakistanis in the room would respond to certain of her lines with cries of wah-wah, a sibilant whisper much as if an electrical current was shivering their bodies.  Or they would repeat out loud the lines she had just uttered.

It often struck me that, in many ways, the oral tradition is still very much alive in Pakistan. With a low literacy rate and an education system that relies heavily on memorizing, this is not surprising. The origin of poetry and stories is in them being told and repeated, rather than them being read on the page. This is being continued today, even among the educated, as these mushaira demonstrated to me.

Transforming the oral quality of Urdu poetry into another language is daunting for any translator. How can both the sense and flow of the original imagery be best approximated – through rhyme, through assonance or through images? As Waqas Khwaja, a noted poet and anthologist, has rightly said in a recent interview on the Asia Society website about his anthology, Modern Poetry of Pakistan, translation is an impossible task, which requires not only sensitivity to both cultures but must go hand-in-glove with open-mindedness and the capacity to listen carefully and read closely. Complexity is inherent when one is crossing cultures and borders, he noted.

Indeed, translations of Kishwar’s poetry suffer, as do many of the translations into English of Pakistani poets I have read. I was never certain how I could judge this, not speaking the original language. But often it seemed clear that the awkward phrasing might be that the translator was not sufficiently versed in English. Sometimes there was a nagging sense to me, as a poet, that the original might be attempting to convey a different or more subtle idea based on the flow of the poem. The best translation of her work, I believe, is The Scream of an Illegitimate Voice, with translations by three Canadian translators – Baidar Bakht, Leslie Lavigne and Derek M. Cohen. This association with Canadians may have come about as Kishwar lived in Montreal for a period of time.

I came across this translation of her book in the Saeed Book Bank store, the largest in Islamabad. This was another of my places of refuge during my time there. It has a good holding of poetry titles, despite the fact that publishing in Pakistan is fraught. Literary magazines are rare and often appear briefly and then disappear. Once poetry was published in college and university magazines. There were poetry competitions, organized by the British Council. But times have changed.

Publishing is a business, as is the case around the world, increasingly governed by economics rather than aesthetics. Poetry simply does not sell and publishers are reluctant to publish it. So it appears that many writers in Pakistan, of both poetry and prose, look abroad for publishing opportunities. Oxford University Press was an option in earlier decades, but less so today. A lingering factor is that the 1970s and 1980s was marked by censorship and self-exile of key Pakistani writers. Securing a publisher abroad was the only option. Today, authors believe, as many do in Canada, that publishing beyond one’s borders ensures a wider readership, which in turn can bring more financial return.

Pakistan has a thriving media, with numerous papers and television stations in most of its six major languages. Pakistanis are informatics-savvy, very much a part of the electronic highway. Not only can one easily access poetry and book reviews on newspaper websites, one can find publishing opportunities beyond censorship, such as Chay Magazine, a electronic magazine that pushes the envelope for South Asian writers exploring sex and sexuality.

In Canada, where a language divide exists between Francophone and Anglophone writers; in Pakistan, with more than 600 languages, this is very much more so.  Although many poets speak English in addition to their mother tongue, be it Urdu, Punjabi or Sindhi to name just three, it appeared to me that few writers express themselves creatively in both languages. One poet who does is Harris Khalique. In a conversation, he told me that while his first language for creative expression is Urdu, he feels it brings with it linguistic moulds, literary traditions and associated culture. For Khalique, writing in English has been a liberating experience, as he feels more uninhibited and unencumbered by the past.     

This underlines how writing poetry intrinsically demands high language skills, which each poet explores and subverts to create his or her own unique voice. In addition, as words inherently carry judgment and values within their nucleus, it is the language we learn to speak as children that fundamentally shapes our response to the world around us, creating emotional memories. And the intertwining of language and those emotional memories shape the wellspring poets draw upon throughout their careers.

Despite, the widely held belief that poetry is universal, language and poetic techniques used are closely intertwined. For example, Punjabi poetry uses a form of telegraphese: nouns follow each other with nary a connecting verb, conjunction or preposition. In English, this would be confusing. In Punjabi the meaning of this enjambment remains apparent to the listener or reader. The compounded nouns build resonance in the poems. English poetry draws upon rhyme that is subtle and unobtrusive. The Punjabi poet strives for exactly the opposite effect.

Linguistic differences aside, sound is at the core of poetry and is perhaps why public readings or mushaira remain a vital force in the poetic world, no matter which side of the globe you live on. At the ones I attended in Islamabad, I could put aside language and be absorbed into the musical theatricality of the poems. It allowed me to live in that moment completely, to be a child once again, before language began. It was at such times that the senses and impressions were fully potent and intoxicating.

Canada is a stable country. Poets write against conformity, mildness and despite on-going indifference. In Pakistan, writers live in a world of chaos, seemingly constant violence, intolerance and gender discrimination. Frequently, their lives are under threat. The poets and their poetry are forged in this cauldron. Their images chronicle this world, whether their intent is to speak out against it or re-imagine it. It was a reality that, as were the languages in Pakistan, was foreign to me as a Canadian.

It was for this reason that reading Pakistani poetry in English, in books, was particularly pleasurable because it permitted me entry into the poets’ world in my own mother tongue. I could scan across the generations of poets and glimpse a Pakistan at various periods in its history and learn what had been forged in the writers’ imagination.

Similar to the evolution of Canadian literature, Pakistan literature gradually defined itself in the years following independence. Its origins lay in the traditions of subcontinent India, but it equally drew upon long-standing Urdu and Persian forms, in particular the ghazal. In the early years, it was assumed that Pakistani poetry would celebrate the new nation. But poets being poets, they do not follow the dictate of the establishment. They found fodder in the Partition conflict and the need to address issues in the nascent nation.

Taufiq Rafat was the first poet in English who wrote in what is referred to as the modern Pakistani idiom. He also mentored other younger poets, such as Omer Tarin. Keeping with this tradition, a Foundation has been created to promote the teaching of Pakistani poetry in English in schools, hold annual poetry competitions, organize educational and literary opportunities so that Pakistani poetry in English has its rightful place. In addition, it keeps his work in print. His poems are seen as being progressive in tone and spirit. Those he mentored and newer poets continue to push this further.

Modern poets who live in Pakistan look deep into the complex reality of their country. They portray the challenges and difficulties facing their fellow citizens. The Progressive Writers’ Movement remains very active. Those living abroad often draw upon the memories of their early lives there to make sense of the country it was and the one it has become. The poets pick and choose their influences, whether these are from Pakistan or their adopted counties. Together, Pakistani poets around the globe are shaping the country’s collective memory.  Increasingly, Pakistani writers are gaining worldwide attention.

My reading of Pakistani poetry enriches and deepens my understanding of this contradictory country, which at times seemed to me to be a whirling dervish always on the edge of spinning out of control. The poems I read and continue to read imaginatively define the country I have come to love very much, despite it being labeled the most dangerous country in the world. But then perhaps this is why its poetry is so alive and vivid.



Blaine Marchand is the author of eight books, six of poems. His most recent are Aperture (poems, prose and photos written while travelling in Afghanistan, 2008), and The Craving of Knives (2009), both of which were short-listed for the Archibald Lampman Poetry Award. He wrote over 800 pages of a journal during his two-year (2008-2010) posting to Islamabad, Pakistan.


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