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by Bamber Gascoigne

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, pseud. of Faiz Ahmed (1910-1984)


Pakistani poet and journalist, who combined in his poetry the themes of love, beauty, and political ideals into a vision of a better world and goodness. Faiz's first language was Punjabi but he gained fame with his poems written in Urdu, a language similar to Arabic. Due to his opposition to the government and military dictators, Faiz spent several years in prison and was forced to go into exile at different times in his career. Next to Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), Faiz is one of the best-known poets of Pakistan.

The suspense that lasts between killers and weapons
as they gamble: who will die and whose turn is next?
That bet has now been place on me.
So bring the order for my execution.
I must see with whose seals the margins are stamped,
recognize the signatures on the scroll.

(from 'So Bring the Order for My Execution', translated by Agha Shadid Ali)

Faiz Ahmed Faiz was born in Sialkot in the Punjab, then a part of India under British rule. His family were well-to-do landowners. Faiz's father, Sultan Mohammad Khan, died in Sialkot in 1913. A self-made man, he had adventured in Afghanistan, studied in Cambridge, became a lawyer and was interested in literature. His friends included prominent literary figures, including Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1873-1938), the national poet of Pakistan. During his travels, he had accquired several wives; they spoke Persian. Upon returning to Sialkot, he married Sultan Fatima, Faiz's mother, known as "Bebe-ji" (respected mother). She was born in Jessar, not far from Faiz's home village Kala Qader.

At an early age, Faiz memorized the Quran. His father had built the local mosque. Faiz received his education at mission schools in the English language, but he also learned Urdu, Persian, and Arabic. While still at school, Faiz wrote his first  poems. He studied English and Arabic literatures at Government College, Lahore, receiving in 1932 his M.A. in English, and in Arabic from Oriental College, Lahore. After graduating he worked as a teacher in Amritsar and Lahore. In addition to his formal education, very important for Faiz's development, he participated in the activities of literary circles, which gathered at homes of established writers. 

In the 1930s, Faiz was drawn to the leftist Progressive Movement by Rasheed Jahan, who also introduced him to Marxism. The Communist Manifesto (1848) was a revelation for him, but he never joined the Communist Party. Until the late 1940s, Faiz was active in All India Progressive Writer’s Association. Under the leadership of Sayyid Sajjad Zaheer (1905-1973), authors were expected to follow the dictates of the Socialist Realism, but by the 1950s the movement had ceased to be an effective literary force.

During World War II, Faiz served in the Indian army in Delhi in the Public Relations Office, and in 1944 he was promoted to the rank of Lieut. Colonel. For his services he was awarded the M.B.E. in 1946. After the Islamic republic of Pakistan was established in 1947, the country experienced an era of chronic political instability, heightened by tensions between Hindus and Muslims. Following the division of the subcontinent, Faiz resigned from the army, opted for Pakistan and moved there with his family. He famously called the Partition of British India into India and Pakistan "leprous daybreak" in his poem 'Subh-e-Azadi' (The Dawn of Freedom). At the time of writing it, Faiz was in Hyderabad Central Jail. "This leprous daybreak, this night-bitten dawn / this is not the dawn we awaited with longing sighs; / this is not the dawn that drew our friends on / believing that, somewhere in the desert of these skies, / they would find the resting-place of the stars, / sokewhere find where night's sluggish tides reach shore, / somewhere find the boat of heartache and drop anchor." ("Let Them Snuff Out the Moon": Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Prison Lyrics in Dast-e Saba by Ted Genoways, in Annual of Urdu Studies 19, 2004, p. 111)

In the poem 'Siyasi Leader Kay Nam' (To a Political Leader) Faiz criticized Mahatma Gandhi, warning of the dangers lurking behind his 'Quit India Movement,' but when Gandhi was assassinated he traveled to India to attend his funeral.In 1947, Faiz was appointed chief editor of the leftist English-language daily, Pakistan Times, founded by the wealthy landowner, businessman, and politician Mian Iftikharuddin. The main aim of the paper was to promote the Muslim League's cause. 

Alys Faiz, a fellow socialist from London whom Faiz had married in 1941 at Pari Mahal in Srinagar, later published a book of memoirs, Over My Shoulder (1993), about her life as a British expatriate living in Pakistan. Alys, like her husband, was committed to India's struggle for freedom. She died in 2003. 

Faiz also worked as managing editor of the Urdu daily Imroz, and was actively involved in organizing trade unions. (The Communist Party of Pakistan was banned in 1954.) Faiz's criticism of the governmet in the Pakistan Times did not go unnoticed; he was commonly termed a "protest poet." On the night of 9 March 1951, Faiz along with Sayyid Sajjad Zaheer, Major-General Akbar Khan, and many others were arrested under Safety Act. They were implicated in the so-called Rawalpindi Conspiracy case. The goverment authorities alleged that Faiz and others were planning a coup d'etat. Faiz was cast in the London Times in March 1951 as one of "the most dangerous and influential leftist figures in Pakistan".

Although the charges against Faiz were partly baseless, he spent more than four years in prison under a sentence of death. Upon the appearance of Faiz's prison poems  Dast-e-Saba (1952, Fingers of the Wind), the inmates within tha walls of Hyderabad threw a party. Meanwhile, to support her family Alys Faiz, worked for the Pakistan Times. Faiz was exonerated and released in April 1955.

During the military regime of Ayub Khan, Faiz was arrested again, but released quickly. Recalling a visit to a dentist, in chains, Faiz wrote in a poem: "Let's walk the streets, feet chained! / Walk with chained hands, / Walk with swagger and swank / with muddied faaces, blood-stained clothes– / Don't keep the streets waiting, / Friends, let's all walk." Noteworthy, after the outbreak of the Indo-Pakistan war, which led to the separation of East Pakistan and establishment of Bangladesh, the patriotic Faiz sided with Ayub Khan, who had imprisoned him.

After his second incarceration, Faiz went to exile in London, where he wrote in a poem: "To the city of my friend, / my respects to your intense / passion, / My country, bless your / threadbare clothes!" (in 'Bravo, Security Against Pain,' translated by Riz Rahim)   Faiz was awarded in 1962 the Lenin Peace Prize by the Soviet Union, which made him even more a persona non grata in the eyes of Pakistani authorities. In 1963 he travelled Europe, Algeria, the Middle East, the Soviet Union, and China. Upon returning from Britain to Pakistan in 1964, he settled in Karachi. There he was made Principal of the Haroon College, a private institution. He also held administrative posts, and wrote plays for the radio. His poems, which renewed the traditional romantic imagery of Urdu poetry, gained a huge popularity. Faiz also spoke for the use of regional languages of Pakistan in education, the media, and literary expression. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became the prime minister, he appointed Faiz as an advisor to the ministry of education in Islamabad.

Between 1978 and 1982, rather than live under the rule of the ultraconservative General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, Faiz traveled in Moscow, London and other places. The Zia regime imposed a ban on Faiz's poetry, which did not stop students from singing his 'Hum Dekhenge' (1979) as an act of resistance: "We will witness it / It cannot be but that we too will witness it / That day which has been promised to us / That which has been inscribed on the parchment of life / We too will witness it". (Anthems of Resistance: A Celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry by Raza Mir & Ali Husain Mir, 2006, pp. 43-44)

While in the war-torn Beirut, Faiz edited the Afro-Asian writers' magazine Lotus, which was sponsored by the Soviet Union. After a period of stay in Lebanon, Faiz ended in 1983 his self-imposed exile at the personal insistence of the general, who promised that he wouldn't be imprisoned. Faiz died of a heart attack in the Mayo Hospital in Lahore on November 20, 1984. He was buried in Model Town, Lahore. Since his youth, he had been a chain-smoker.  In 1982 Faiz had a heart attack. His physical health had declined during the last year of his life, which he spent traveling around his country and seeing old friends. Just a few days before he died, Faiz wrote: "Whetever we have received from life, why fret. / As long as the treasure of pain is ours, why bother about more or less." (Love and Revolution: Faiz Ahmed Faiz: the Authorized Biography by Ali Madeeh Hashmi, 2016, p. 7)

Faiz published seven books of poetry; the posthumous Nusqa-ha-e-wafa (1984) contained the volumes which came out during his lifetime. Dast-e Saba, and Zindan Namah (1956) include some of his most famous poems based on his prison experiences. Faiz describes his life behind the walls, in confinement, finding consolation in the thought that "though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed / in rooms where lovers are destined to meet / they cannot snuff out the moon..." (from 'A Prison Evening') When Faiz was refused pen and paper, his fellow prisoner, Major M. Is'haaq tried to memorize as many poems as he could.

Faiz's tone is introspective along the conventions of ghazal, the favorite form of traditional Urdu poetry. But Faiz also expresses feelings of other political prisoners when he writes: "I make a toast to my friends everywhere, / here in my homeland and scross the world: 'Let us drink, my dear ones, to human beauty, / to the loveliness of earth.'" (from 'Solitary Confinement') Through his own suffering, he senses the plight and suffering of others: "What if I'm unhappy? / The whole world is unhappy; / this pain isn't just yours or mine, / this is our heritage, my dear." In 1984 Faiz revealed in a lecture, that he had used traditional symbols, like sayyaad (captor) and qafas (prison), as a means to escape censorship. He said that when a poem speaks of ehd-i-junoon (period of obsession) or chaman ki udasi (sorrow of the garden) it may actually refer to oppression and injustice. ("Let Them Snuff Out the Moon": Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Prison Lyrics in Dast-e Saba by Ted Genoways, in Annual of Urdu Studies 19, 2004, pp. 98-99)

The Marxist critic Fredric Jameson has argued that "the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society". ('Third World Literature in the Era of Mulatrinational Capitalism' by Fredric Jameson, in Social Text, No. 15, Autumn, 1986, pp. 65-88) In one of his prison poems Faiz paralles his own fate with the authoritarian system outside the prison: "If you look at the city from here / there is no one fully in control of his senses. / Every young man bears the brand of a criminal, / every young woman the emblem of a slave." (from 'If You Look at the City from Here') A supporter of the Palestinian cause, he dedicated Meray Dil, Meray Musafir (1980) to Yasser Arafat.

In spite of his Marxist beliefs, Faiz did not burden his poems with ideological rhetoric. While he opposed religious orthodoxy, his verse embraced Sufi thought, resistance to authoritarianism and freedom of the spirit and soul. Classic traditional forms are fused with new symbols derived from Western political ideas. In an interview Faiz has criticized the view that a poet "should always present some kind of philosophical, political or some other sort of thesis..." Like Muhammad Iqbal, he reinterpreted the most important theme in the Urdu ghazal, the theme of love. The word ghazal comes from Arabic and has been translated as "to talk with women" or "to talk of women."

Faiz often addressed his poem to his "beloved," who can be interpreted as his muse, his country, or his concept of beauty or social change. "Your beauty still delights me, but what can I do? / The world knows how to deal out pain, apart from passion, / and manna for the heart, beyond realm of love. / Don't ask from me, Beloved, love like that one long ago." (from 'Don't Ask Me Now, Beloved') The traditional beloved of ghazal cannot offer an answer to human suffering and social problems – "Bitter threads began to unravel before me / as I went into alleys and in open markets / saw bodies plastered with ash, bathed in blood. / I saw them sold and bought / again and again. / This too deserves my attention."

The Palestinian American literary theorist and critic Edward W. Said wrote: "Real problems of democracy, development, and destiny, are attested to by the state persecution of intellectuals who carry on their thought and practice publicly and courageously– Eqbal Ahmad and Faiz Ahmad Faiz in Pakistan, Ngugi wa Thiongo in Kenya, or Abdelrahman el Munif in the Arab world – major thinkers and artists whose suffering have not blunted the intransigence of their thought, or inhibited the severity of their punishment." (Culture and Imperialism by Edward W. Said, 1993, p. 18)

For further reading: Romancing with Revolution: Life and Works of Faiz Ahmed Faiz by Zaheer Ali (2020); Love and Revolution: Faiz Ahmed Faiz: the Authorized Biography by Ali Madeeh Hashmi (2016); Poetry, Protest and Politics: a Study of Progressive Urdu Poetry: with Special Reference to the Works of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ali Sardar Jafri, and Kaifi Azmi by Supriya Chowdhary (2016); The Way It Was Once: Faiz Ahmed Faiz, His Life, his Poems, biography by Ali Madeeh Hashmi; poems translated by Shoaib Hashmi (2012); Celebrating Faiz, editor in chief, D.P. Tripathi (2011); Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984) : Presentation for the Centenary of the Poet's Birth: Fifty Poems in Three Languages: Bilingual Translation into English and French from the Original Urdu Written by Hand by the Author, translated by Sarvat Rahman (2011); 'Preface' by Riz Rahim, in In English: Faiz Ahmed Faiz, A Renowned Urdu Poet (2008); The Times and Trial of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy 1951: The First Coup Attempt in Pakistan by Hasan Zaheer (1998); Over My Shoulder by Alys Faiz (1993); 'Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case' by Estelle Dryland, in Journal of South Asian Literature, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Summer, Fall 1992); The Tradition and Innovation in the Poetry of Faiz by G. Ch. Narang (1985); Dear Heart: To Faiz in Prison, 1951-1955 by Alys Faiz (1985); 'Tradition and Innovation in Urdu Poetry' by G. Narang, in Poetry and Renaissance: Kumaran Asan Birth Centenary Volume (1974); 'The Pakistani Poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz' by M.A. Malik, in Afro-Asian Writings, 22 (1974); A History of Urdu Literature by M. Sadiq (1964) - Note: The exact date of Faiz's birth is unclear – he used the date 7th January 1910, in some sources it is February 13th, 1911; or the year 1912.

Selected works:

  • Naqsh-e-Faryadi, 1943 [Imprints]
  • Dast-e-Saba, 1952 [Fingers of the Wind]
  • Zindan Nama, 1956 [Prison letters]
  • Mizan, 1964
  • Dast-e-tha-ey Sung, 1965 [The hand beneath the rock]
  • Harf harf, 1965
  • Sar-e Wadi-e Sinai, 1971 [In the Sinai Valley]
  • Poems by Faiz, 1971 (translated by V.G. Kiernan)
  • Rat di rat, 1975
  • Sham-e-Shahr-e-Yaran, 1978 [The evening of the city of friends]
  • Mire dil mire musafir, 1980 [My heart, my traveling heart]
  • Ghubbar-e-Ayyam, 1984 [The dust of passing days]
  • Nusqa-ha-e-wafa, 1984 [Leaves of fidelity] 
  • The True Subject: Selected Poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, 1987 (translated Naomi Lazard)
  • The Rebel's Silhouette: Selected Poems, 1991 (translated by Agha Shahid Ali; rev. ed., 1995)
  • Poems of Faiz Ahmad Faiz: A Poet of the Third World, 1998 (translated by Mohammed Zakir, and M.N. Menai)
  • 100 poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, 1911-1984, 2002 (ed. by Sarvat Rahman)
  • Selected poems of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, 2002 (with original Urdu text, roman and Hindi transliteration and poetical translation into English)
  • Culture And Identity: Selected English Writings of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, 2006
  • In English: Faiz Ahmed Faiz, A Renowned Urdu Poet, 2008 (translated by Riz Rahim)  
  • Faiz Ahmed Faiz : Last Night: the Quatrain in Multiple Translations, 2011 (translated from the Urdu; edited by K.K. Mohapatra, Leelawati Mohapatra, Paul St-Pierre)
  • The True Subject: Selected Poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, 2012  (translated by Naomi Lazard)
  • A Withered Spring : Selected Translations from the Poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, 2013 (by Mahbub ul Haq)
  • Faiz; Romance to Revolution: a Selective Anthology, 2014 (translated by Dr. Nazir Khaja)

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