ILF: Finding flair in verse

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Umair Khan

In the last several years, literature buffs in Pakistan have been able to enjoy not just English prose, but also poetry by local writers. Understanding and appreciating poetry in any language requires an emotional association with that particular language at a subconscious level. The number of sessions at ILF on English poetry and the enthusiasm of the listeners pointed towards the fact that Eng-lish poetry by local writers is gaining audience at a remarkable pace. English poetry by Pakistanis is a bold experiment in the use of a language that is particular to the local speakers. It is an amalgamation of regular English with Urdu diction used, unassumingly, here and there, which is representative of cultural mores and values of Pakistani society.

‘The Muse among the Margallas’ was a poetry recitation session in English moderated by the ever graceful Ilona Yusuf. Eleven other poets, a majority of them quite young, participated. Among the well-known poets were Athar Tahir, Mehvash Amin, and Salman Tarik Kureshi. Yusuf started the session by reciting her poem ‘Two Voices and a Postcard’. One of the most well-received poems by the audience, however, was ‘Conversations about Love with the Therapist’ by Azka Khan. The theme of the poem was the misogyny and tyranny of men in relationships and the kinds of compromises that a woman is expected to make. Although the theme of the poem is not unique, the poem engaged the audience due to the masterful use of words, incredible style, and a deeply moving recitation by the poet.

The other two poets whose recitations were loved by the audience were Zaffar Kunial and Tahir. Both of them also had separate sessions dedicated to their work. Kunial read out ‘Hillspeak’, for which he has received the National Poetry Competition Award. The poem is about Potohari, his father’s native language, which, according to Kunial is, “too earthy and scriptless to find a home in books”. He describes the agony of “the close-by things I’m lost to say”.

Another poem of his, ‘Us’ describes the unique childhood experience he had because of the different origins of his parents. He highlights how a simply inclusive word like ‘us’ can be surprisingly exclusive when his relatives from the paternal or maternal sides used this word but their intention did not include his mother or father, respectively.

The exclusive session with Tahir, ‘The Poet Looks Eastward’, was based on his new book ‘The Last Tea.’ This book is a result of the admiration that Tahir has for Japanese culture and arts. His inspiration from Japanese poetry inclined him to write English verses in Haiku form, a traditional Japanese style of poems. Athar explained that he chose the Haiku form because in it the poet has to describe his thinking in just three lines. So it is the art of conveying one’s message in the shortest possible space. Therefore, he has also experimented with the Punjabi form of poetry, doha, which has just two lines.

‘The Last Tea’ celebrates not only Japanese people’s aesthetics but also their culture. It contains ‘Haiku Aviary’, a collection of poems on familiar birds among which the Hoopoe is present quite significantly. In mystic poetry, the Hoopoe was immortalised by the Sufi poet Fariduddin Attar through his masnavi ‘The Conference of the Birds’. Athar is inspired both by the beauty of the natural world as well as the mysteries of the inner soul explored by the Sufi tradition.

The session on Ahmad Faraz ‘Ahmad Faraz: The Poet as Witness to the Age’ was moderated by Mujahid Barelvi, and the panellists were Shibli Faraz (Ahmad Faraz’s son), Aitzaz Ahsan, Saima Jaffery and Afrasiab Khattak. Shibli stated that fans of Faraz remember his father as a legendary poet, but for him, Faraz was an upright, self-respecting, brave, and bold person who stood up for the ideals he believed in and never compromised on them. For that, he even had to go to jail, and then into exile. Ahsan compared the literary genius of Faraz with the poets Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Habib Jalib, and Sahir Ludhianvi, who were among his contemporaries. Jaffery shared some personal encounters that she had with Faraz. All the panellists also focused on the wonderful sense of humour that Faraz had, and shared with a highly engaged audience moments of brilliant wit that Faraz showed on several occasions. One thing that remained a constant throughout the session was that whenever a panellist narrated any verses of Faraz, the audience seemed to enjoy that more than any discussion on Faraz.

The session ‘Intoxicated with Love,’ on a selection of Bulleh Shah’s poetry translated into English by Taufiq Rafat was jam-packed. It started with an extract from Ajoka Theatre’s popular play ‘Bulha’. Athar Tahir proceeded with the discussion by lamenting the current situation in which Sufism has been alienated by mainstream religious belief, and violent strands have dominated the religious discourse. Furthermore, he elaborated that Sufism was close to the hearts of people because it used the language of the masses: Punjabi in the case of Punjab, Sindhi in the case of Sindh, and so on. The Sufis were not interested in hierarchies, whether social or religious. They were also against any kind of oppressive authorities, whether religious or political. Their message was transmitted through oral tradition for generations. In the words of Tahir, “there is a democracy of vision in Bulleh Shah’s poetry. You don’t have to look up to him; instead you look at him and he looks at you.”

Sarwat Mohiuddin and Tahir recited some verses of Bulleh Shah in Punjabi along with the English translations from Rafat’s book. Their renditions showed that Taufiq has not done the translations in prose or transliteration. Instead, he has translated in verse that tries to convey the emotional appeal of the original text. For example, the verse “Gal ik nuktay vich mukdi aey” has been beautifully rendered into “one point settles it all”. The session ended with a performance of Kaafi singing by Shaukat Manzoor, much enjoyed by the audience.

Umair Khan, “ILF: Finding flair in verse ,” in Dawn, May 3, 2015. Accessed on May 3, 2015, at:

The item above written by Umair Khan and published in Dawn on May 3, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on May 3, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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