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Monday, June 20, 2011

Two Loves — Faiz's Letters from Jail

“… for having once married a wonderful woman is a far greater distinction than having once edited a good newspaper. And, of course, producing no newspaper can compare with productions like Cheemie and Meezie. So every time you come I feel prouder of all of you than before.” — Faiz Ahmad Faiz - Letter from Jail to Alys

From Salima Hashmi’s Introduction: “Very recently sifting through many papers of documents being shifted to Faizghar (the small Faiz Museum in Lahore) I came across a plastic bag containing some scraps of paper. On a closer look, they appeared to be some of the jail letters; in poor shape but still readable … under her [Dr. Asma Ibrahim] careful supervision the process was carried out and twenty-five letters werte conserved. The decision to publish them to coincide with the Faiz Centennial seemed to be a fitting tribute to Faiz.”

What a lovely tribute this book is to one of our greatest poets. His period in jail was amazing in that it brought about loads of poems. But very few people could understand how he did all this in prison. Here, though there are only a small amount of letters from the collection he sent out, Faiz’s writing tells you of the way he and his friends lived. Those who have been through Faiz’s letters translated into Urdu
(Saleebayñ Meray Dareechay Mayñ), would be glad to see some of the original letters in English.

A lot of work went into the putting up
Two Loves, specially making sure that the original work is scanned and reproduced here (though the ‘Photoshop’ or equivalent effect has gone overboard, at times) along with the typescript text. Kyla Pasha needs to be thanked for making sure that she got almost all the stuff right. It was a labour of real love that put this 10” x 14” hardcover volume together.

Among other textual inputs in the book we have
Freedom Unbound: Faiz’s Prison Call, a tribute by Ayesha Jalal. Lots of people, today, would enjoy reading this to understand what happened in that case. In addition, three translations of prose pieces — by Syed Sajjad Zaheer, Major Ishaq, and Faiz — by Salma Mahmud, as well as an introduction to the transcription by Kyla, are wonderful to read. 

In addition to the 25 letters, of course, there are some photocopies and photographs. The first include letters by Salima (Cheemie) and Moneeza (Meezie) that I enjoyed a lot. 
The photographs of the jail, some taken recently, are a treat for many who may never have seen the way Faiz was forced to live. The family pictures are beautiful. Two Loves is a book that is really worth getting!

Faiz writes a lot about his life in jail, but never seemed to state (in life) how great a writer he was. In one letter, too, he says:
“For the first time after many years I have some justification because I am writing. Not writing enough it is true but still something is better than nothing and it is difficult to write poetry at will. Moreover even a few lines take a long time to mature and meanwhile your mind is excluded from other useful activity. This only happens to second rate writers like me whose productions tools are rather feeble and inadequate but there it is.”

Of course, he knows - as one can ‘see’ in this line - that he is going to be a great poet: “In the morning I awoke with a strange happiness in my heart and I wrote what I enclose with this letter [a poem he attached]. I was astounded to find that it took me hardly anytime at all and I had practically finished when we went down to breakfast. I am still feeling rather intoxicated with it and am beginning to fear that perhaps some day I might end up as a poet after all.”

But, finally, Faiz does accept his situation:
“Sorry to have kept you waiting ‑ explanation is enclosed. For the last few days I have been completely wrapped up, writing or trying to write … I feel particularly pleased with this one because 'I don't mind telling you' (to borrow Majid's pet phrase) that nobody else can write like this today and for a long time nobody will. This is not because of vanity regarding talent — mine is very limited and so many others possess more talent than I — it is merely a question of the capacity of taking pains, particularly in descriptive writing where the temptation to follow the line of least resistance and accept any cliché and any approximation to the image in your mind and have done with it. The reader, of course, can never tell how much effort has gone into each word, the final word that emerges after innumerable mental rejections. I am sure that you are laughing now because I am preening myself so much but I must do it some time.”

There is a mention of a book that we all waited for, but never got. Faiz says:
“I am at the moment busy compiling an anthology of Urdu verse from the beginning to the present day ‑ one of my age‑old ambitions. I work at it regularly for 2 or 3 hours every day and although it is a long job and will take many months when it gets done it will be something worth talking about. I can't hope to complete it here but if I can get the duller part done here I hope the momentum will carry it through later.” I wonder if any more ‘scraps’ that Salima finds will reveal some of its possible contents.

Despite being in Jail, Faiz is always thinking of the people of his country. At one point he says he wants people to celebrate life:
“It may sound funny to talk of festivals when people have little to eat but that is all the more reason why they should have some colour in their lives. There is, of course, the question of who will bell the cat which I cannot answer.”

But his greatest love, apart from his country, were his family: “Your presence and the laughter of the little ones still lingers here and I feel the happier for it. Only now that you are gone innumerable things come to mind that were left unsaid because it is so difficult to talk within a time limit. The mind is so preoccupied with the ending of the allotted time that one cannot make full use even of the little time that there is. It cannot be helped. Some day the barriers will come down and the long lost freedom of mind and body will return. Meanwhile there is nothing for it but to wait and to take comfort in the thought that we are sound and whole and that the life beating in our veins will some day triumph over the wilderness of its chains, which, however strong and irksome, are still lifeless and dead.”

For Salima, he has this to say: “What a lovely picture it is (the one with the servant girl 'unity of the proletariat and the intelligentsia' as Bunne calls it) and as I sit down on my table I contemplate it often, trying to read her future from her face. I think I have begun to see a good deal of it now. In her face there is not a streak, not a line of meanness, dishonesty or bad temper. It is open like a book. So I know what she will grow up into ‑ a frank, open, trusting, jolly, affectionate person but albeit silly like her father with no understanding whatsoever of the world's wiles. This means that she will hurt herself often and will be frequently imposed upon but she will retain her happy smile all the same and will never be really unhappy.”

I am happy to have this book with me, despite its small problems that could have been avoided with a little effort. In a book of under 300 pages, there were over 35 typos. Many of these would have been ‘caught’ by a simple spell-checking routine, specially the ones that were related to double-spacing and similar things. However, the ones that were mistakes in reading or re-writing could easily have been found after the first reading of the scripts. I saw then on many pages and found them without looking for them. The last page of the book even had ‘Salima Hahsmi’ … in her bio. Is this Sang-e-Meel … or the Editors? I suspect they both should have taken a look at it and changed it where they could. (A personal thought was that perhaps an empty page or a photograph - after Kyla’s Introduction - just before the letters begin, would have been nice.)

But, once again, I must repeat what I’ve said earlier: Get this book! It’s a treasure trove of good writing, family matters, life in jail, and much much more.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Today is the 80th Birthday of John Shelby Spong

J. S. Spong is a retired American bishop of the Episcopal Church Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, USA. Many churches have called him Atheist (when he was a Bishop) and many more have called him much worse things, including saying that they’d like to see him die and rot in hell.

Having talked to some Muslims who felt that Spong is a Sufi (or wants to be one!), I have met many others who think he is nuts and should not be allowed to say such things. I even met one who thought he should be tried for Blasphemy.

John Shelby Spong was regarded a fearless advocate for church reform, a heretic to some and a hero for others. The first to ordain an openly gay priest, he asked Christians to leave behind "premodern" religion in favor of liberal faith.

He has degrees from the University of North Carolina and the Protestant Episcopal Theolgical Seminary. Saint Paul's College conferred an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree on Spong and he has served as a visiting lecturer at many institutions, including Harvard Divinity School. He has published several books that I have loved.

I just thought I’d honor him by writing his ‘Prologue’ from his book, ‘Jesus for the Non-Religious’, in my blog today so that many of you could read what he says.

And think!


Ah, Jesus!
 Where have you gone?
   When did we lose you?
Was it when we became so certain that we possessed you
  That we persecuted Jews,
    Excommunicated doubters,
     Burned heretics,
      And used violence and war to achieve conversion?
Was it when our first-century images
 Collided with expanding knowledge?
Or when biblical scholars informed us that the Bible does
 Not really support what we once believed?
Was it when we watched your followers distorting people
 With guilt,
     And anger?
Was it when we noticed that many who called you Lord
 And who read their Bibles regularly
  Also practiced slavery,
   Defended segregation,
    Approved lynching,
     Abused children,
      Diminished women,
       And hated homosexuals?
Was it when we finally realized
 That the Jesus who promised abundant life
  Could not be the source of self-hatred,
   Or one who encourages us to grovel
     In life-destroying penitence?
Was it when it dawned on us that serving you would require
 The surrender of those security-building prejudices
  That masquerade as our sweet sicknesses?

We still yearn for you, Jesus, but we no longer know where
 To seek your presence.
Do we look for you in those churches that practice certainty?
Or are you hiding in those churches
 That so fear controversy that they make “unity” a god,
  And stand for so little that they die of boredom?
Can you ever be found in those churches that have
 Rejected the powerless and the marginalized,
  The lepers and the Samaritans of our day,
   Those you called our brothers and sisters?
Or must we now look for you outside ecclesiastical settings,
 Where love and kindness expect no reward,
   Where questions are viewed as the deepest
     Expressions of trust?

Is it even possible, Jesus, that we Christians are the villains
 Who killed you?
   Smothering you underneath literal Bibles,
    Dated creeds,
     Irrelevant doctrines,
     And dying structures?
If these things are the source of your disappearance, Jesus,
 Will you then reemerge if these things are removed?
   Will that bring resurrection?

Or were you, as some now suggest, never more
 Than an illusion?
By burying and distorting you were we
 Simply protecting ourselves
  From having to face that realization?

I still seek to possess what I believe you are, Jesus:
 Access to and embodiment of
  The Source of Life,
   The Source of Love,
    The Ground of Being,
     A doorway into the mystery of holiness.

It is through that doorway that I desire to walk.
 Will you meet me there?
  Will you challenge me,
   Guide me,
    Confront me,
     Reveal your truth to me and in me?

Finally, at the end of this journey, Jesus,
 Will you embrace me
  Inside the ultimate reality
   That I call God
    In whom I live
    And move
     And have my being?

For that, Jesus, is my goal in this book.


Lots of admiration and love!

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Saturday, June 11, 2011


Freezing in Lahore?

O, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?

Shakespeare - Richard II

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