PEN WORLD VOICES – The Chador and the Walled Homestead:
Modern Poetry of Pakistan
Editor's Note: This interview is part of an ongoing series that has grown out of Wild River Review's coverage of the World Voices Festival. The Modern Poetry of Pakistan was one of the many memorable events of the 2011 PEN World Voices Festival.
"Religion is my very soul.
Sindhi Poet, Pushpa Vallabh, "People are the Same"
Translated from Sindhi by Azmat Ansari and Waqas Khwaja
From Modern Poetry of Pakistan (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011)
Pashto Poet, Hasina Gul reading her work at the Asia Society: Photo by Joy Stocke ©2011
On the day before the U.S. Military found al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a suburb outside of Islamabad Pakistan, I sat in a sun-flooded room at the Asia Society in New York City and listened to three Pakistani poets read openly about house raids, chadors, “beautiful books,” “intricate wombs,” religion, prison, and love. As the rhythms and tones of multiple languages filled the air, I could not have imagined that in less than twenty-four hours, Pakistan would be in the headlines. What occurred to me, though, was that most Americans may never know the names of, let alone hear, these poets read their work.
Part of the seventh annual PEN World Voices Festival, “Contemporary Writing from Pakistan” gathered three authorities on the modern poetry of Pakistan: Hasina Gul, a broadcaster at the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation’s Peshawar station and a well-known Pasto poet of the younger generation, Fahmida Riaz, a leading Urdu writer, poet and feminist from Pakistan who also serves as head of the Urdu Dictionary Board of Pakistan and Waqas Khwaja, author of several collections of poetry, editor of three anthologies of Pakistani literature, and translation editor of the first anthology of Pakistani poetry published in English - Modern Poetry of Pakistan (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011).
The event celebrated the completion of Modern Poetry of Pakistan, an ambitious collaboration and translation project with seven languages (Balochi, Kashmiri, Punjabi, Pashto, Seraiki, and Sindhi), forty-four poets and fifteen translators. Supported by organizations such as the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) and publications like Granta, the event was also part of Asia Society’s Creative Voices of Islam in Asia, a three-year initiative made possible by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.
Translation Editor, Waqas Khwaja (Left) Hasina Gul (Right) Photo by Joy Stocke ©2011
In his introductory remarks, translation editor Waqas Khwaja traced the origins of the book to Dana Gioia, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts who envisioned a reciprocal project between Pakistani and American poets and readers, in which people of both nationalities could exchange their views and work. “The goal of the project,” said Khwaja, “was most remarkable in its aim to bring people together, to find common ground where people share not just the cultural artifacts but imaginative possibilities that poets open up in both countries."
Pakistan is home to 180 million people of diverse ethnic and cultural background. ”It would be unfair to generalize about the country on the basis of the small number of poets represented in this anthology,” said Khwaja in an interview with the Asia Society, but he later added, “the anthology, in its own small way, does show that the writers of Pakistan are not silent in the face of adversity, tyranny, military rule, extremism, religious intolerance, gender discrimination, acts of violence and terror.”
To critics of the book, Khwaja spoke directly. “Some have complained that these poems all deal with weighty matters or have asked, why isn’t there more humor in these poems?...These poems are the way they are because of the political context and social conditions...These are real life stories. These writers look at their expressions of poetry as responsibility, not frivolous word play...” As a reminder of that context Waqas revealed that Hasina Gul’s brother had been assassinated in 2003 for his support of his sister’s writing.
Khwaja began the readings by reciting a poem entitled, “A Prison Evening,” by one of the most famous poets of the Urdu language, the late Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a lifelong crusader against injustice. “This may highlight the hope as well as tragic situation with in which the Pakistani peoples live,” said Khwaja.
Faiz wrote the following lines in prison:
“Constantly thought reassures the heart: / so sweet is life at this moment./ Those who stir tyranny’s poison/ will succeed neither today nor tomorrow./ So what if they have already extinguished/ the candles in the bridal chamber of love?/ Show us if they can put out the moon!”
One of the foremost feminist poets in Pakistan, Fahmida Riaz: Photo by Joy Stocke ©2011
Smoothing her gold and crimson scarf across her shoulders, Fahmida Riaz next took the podium. A woman with bold, impish eyes, Riaz is one of the foremost feminist poets in Pakistan. Threatened for her work as a writer, editor, publisher and social activist, she spent seven years in exile and her house was frequently raided. ("Never have I seen my home this way before./ I hear heartbeats throb in its doors and walls." "Search Warrant"). Riaz won the Hellman-Hammett award by Human Rights Watch in 1997. As she read her work in Urdu, the sounds of her native language washed over me until the translation made the murmurs of assent I had heard from the audience clear.
“Look carefully at the imprint in the stone/Above the slender thighs/ the intricate womb/ Aqleema has a head, too/Allah, speak sometimes to Aqleema too/ask something!” insists Fahmida Riaz in her poem, “Aqleema.”
"What feminism means for me is simply that women, like men, are complete human beings with limitless possibilities," explained Riaz in an interview with The Hindu: Literary Review.
Hasina Gul walked up to the podium with a more wistful yet no less confident presence, the quiet air of a philosopher. Gul lives in Nowshera (described as “the land of flowers, peace, knowledge and values” on Nowshera.com) not far from Peshawar, in Pakistan’s Kyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. Gul read her poetry in Pashto.
“I no longer even exist in the islands of your words./ Even so, I make a claim on the house that is your heart?/ How is it possible! It’s a lie, dear./ With all these signs, tell me,/ in the ground plan of your life, my love,/ where is my place?” Gul wonders in “Where, in the Ground Plan of Your Life, Do I Stand, My Love?”
“How many questions did I have to ask/to discover the secret of your heart?” Gul asks in her poem, “Beautiful Book.”
As the poets' voices rose in a tapestry of languages, I felt a deep rising softness within my ribs, a sensation I equate with reading or hearing an author share good poetry, the ability to listen and feel with my whole body.
“From the winding maze of evening stars, step by step descends the night.” (Faiz, "Prison Evening")
But the driver of good poetry is equally potent for me when the language abruptly shocks me and I feel my heartbeat quicken. “Show us if they can put out the moon!” (Faiz’s “Prison Evening”) “Wound them, and the color of their blood is the same.” (Pushpa Vallabh, “People are the Same,” read by Fahmida Riaz) “O passing moment, I swear by your trampled honor.” (Fahmida Riaz, “Search Warrant”)
Often those seated around me sighed and/or gasped as the poets chronicled a living, breathing multi-ethnic Pakistan through poignant social observations and political history juxtaposed with tender relationships and forbidden wishes. Perhaps, in context of the brave work of these poets and their translators, Plato said it best, "Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history."
The Chador and the Walled Homestead
By Fahmida Riaz
Translated from Urdu by Yasmeen Hameed
My Lord, what shall I do with this black chador?
If my life be spared,
Listen, its heartrending screams
Poem Credit: Published in Modern Poetry of Pakistan (Dalkey Archive Press)
Edited by Iftikhar Arif
Translations Edited by Waqas Khwaja
RESOURCES AND FURTHER INFORMATION:
For more information about Modern Poetry of Pakistan, Click Here.
To watch the video of the event, Click Here.
For more information about the Asia Society, Click Here.
For more information about PEN World Voices Festival, Click Here.