Poetry Soothes the Pain in Pakistan
By Nahal Toosi for The Associated Press
The outrage was swift after Pakistani security forces shot dead an unarmed young man in the southern city of Karachi, an incident caught on videotape and broadcast widely. Editorial writers demanded justice. Television talking heads decried the brutality of the men in uniform.
And then, a few poets got to work.
“No regard of life! No fear of Allah! Animals in jungle are better than you,” one English-language poem posted on YouTube rails at the culprits in the June incident. Another, in Urdu and circulated on Facebook, mourned victim Sarfraz Shah, who had “told his mom he will return home early.”
Pakistan is a country that reveres poetry, gently weaving it into daily life, and the last decade has provided no shortage of material. The rise and fall of a military ruler, the demands of a foreign superpower, the devastation of Taliban bombs — these themes and more have crept into Pakistani poems.
Some of the resulting verses carry overt messages about specific events. Often, though, the approach is more subtle, and occasionally, it’s tinged with humor.
“Of course, everything which is happening around a poet, it has an effect,” said Shahzad Nayyar, a published poet based in the eastern city of Lahore. “Such … events, which are causing destruction, which are causing loss to man, material and property, they are affecting poets a lot.”
Although Pakistan is just 64 years old, its people’s poetic tradition is centuries old and is intertwined with that of the rest of South Asia, while also influenced by the Persians. Urdu is the most widely used language, but even regional languages, such as Pashto and Sindhi, have notable poetic histories.
Today in Pakistan, one can find poetic verses on the back windows of taxis, on the sides of delivery trucks and atop gravestones. Newspapers regularly publish poetry, while Pakistani politicians, such as the country’s ambassador to the U.S., post verses on their Twitter feeds or use them in speeches.
Poetry recitals — known as “mushairas” — can draw thousands of spectators and last deep into the night, with audiences shouting encouragement to the men and women onstage. Sometimes, mushairas are part of larger gatherings, such as weddings or trade conferences; others are intimate affairs.
The country even has a national holiday dedicated to a poet-philosopher, Allama Muhammad Iqbal. Iqbal’s writings were seen as an inspirational force toward the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland in 1947, though he died in 1938.
Of the 1,000 books published each year in Pakistan, there are some 50 books of poetry, said Saleem Malik, vice chairman of the Pakistan Publishers and Booksellers Association. While a handful of poets may earn enough to live on writing alone, at least for a while, most are engaged in other professions.
Many of the poetry books are self-published and distributed for free among friends. Still, that doesn’t account for the poetry that appears in other forums, such as magazines or websites such as Facebook, a popular setting for younger poets who can’t afford to publish their own books.
Perhaps the most popular form of poetry in Pakistan is the ghazal, which is made up of five or more units of two lines each and often sung.
Some of the most well-known Pakistani poets say that despite the material provided by the turmoil of recent years, they are careful about how they word their poems and often prefer to use indirect language and symbolism. This is in part to avoid being labeled a “propagandist.”
“It loses your emotional power when you are direct — it becomes like a slogan,” said Farhat Abbas Shah, a poet especially popular with younger Pakistanis.
Iftikhar Arif — a poet so famed in Pakistan that one section of his many, teeming bookshelves is devoted just to academic tracts written about him — said poets should aspire to write in a universal manner that can be appreciated beyond national borders and withstand the test of time.
There are poems written from other periods of turmoil in Pakistani history that are still relevant today because of this approach. “There is a history, perhaps more honest, more correct, more sincere, written by poets,” Arif said.
The line between direct and indirect is a fine one, however, and over the decades, some of Pakistan’s most popular poets have gone back and forth.
The late Habib Jalib, often described as a “revolutionary” or “the People’s Poet” raged against political tyranny, and even referred specifically to former U.S. president Jimmy Carter in his famed collection called “Ten Poems.”
Kishwar Naheed, a spry 71-year-old who is considered one of Pakistan’s pre-eminent feminist poets, is among those who occasionally embraces the direct approaches. In “A Mourning Poem for Bajaur,” Naheed decries the violence gripping Pakistan’s northwest regions bordering Afghanistan:
“Coffins have become so numerous, That the city is shrinking,” the poem begins.
A later verse: “We have the same court-yards, the same threshers. But bullets jump through them, Riddle holes in my fields, and in the bodies of my children.”
Naheed, who has published more than a dozen books of poetry, says every couple of months she receives threats because of her poems.
“They may say, ‘If you continue like this, you may have an accident in your car,'” she said, with a grin. “But I don’t mind having such reaction. If you don’t have a reaction, that means you have no appeal.”
Pakistani poets insist that their community is largely a peace-loving, liberal bunch — though many point out that they may feel just as much ire for U.S. actions toward Pakistan as they do for religious extremists.
Still, militant movements and their sympathizers also use poetry as a tool. After the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden in a nighttime raid in May, a group at Punjab University in Lahore advertised a poem and essay contest dedicated to glorifying the al-Qaida chief.
Taliban operating on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border, where the Pashtun ethnic group dominates, often use poems and chants, shared by way of CDs and cell phone recordings, to reach out to a largely illiterate population and persuade ordinary citizens to resist foreign troops.
Much of the poetry of Pakistan is not high art, but rather street-level verses exchanged by text messages, often with anonymous authors. Much of it is laced with the bitter, resigned humor of a people beset by poverty and downtrodden by corrupt elitists.
One popular Punjabi-language poem chastised former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who was eventually ousted in 2008.
“You rush to Washington all the time, and please Bush again and again,” it says. “Beg at his feet all the time, and threaten the oppressed. Why don’t you confront the oppressors?”