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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 was a lawyer, who was interested in literature, and whose friends included several prominent literary figures, including Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1873-1938), the national poet of Pakistan.

Faiz received his education at mission schools in Sialkot 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. Besides formal studies, very important for Faiz's development was participating in the activities of literary circles, which gathered at homes of established writers. After graduating he worked as a teacher from the mid-1930s in Amritsar and Lahore.

In the 1930s Faiz came under the influence of the leftist Progressive Movement. Under the leadership of 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. 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. Alys Faiz, a fellow socialist from London whom he had married in 1941, later published a book of memoirs, Over My Shoulder (1993), about her life as a British expatriate living in Pakistan. Alys died in 2003. India's awakening Faiz called a ''night-bitten'' morning, a ''pockmarked'' daybreak. Faiz became editor of the leftist English-langauge daily, the Pakistan Times. He also worked as managing editor of the Urdu daily Imroz, and was actively involved in organizing trade unions.

Faiz's criticism of the governmet did not go unnoticed. In March 1951 Faiz and a number of army officers were implicated in the so-called Rawalpindi Conspiracy case and arrested under Safety Act. The goverment authorities alleged that Faiz and others were planning a coup d'etat. He spent four years in prison under a sentence of death and was released in 1955. To support her family Alys Faiz worked for the Pakistan Times. During the military regime of Ayub Khan, Faiz was arrested again. However, after the outbreak of the Indo-Pakistan war, which led to the separation of East Pakistan and establishment of Bangladesh, Faiz sided with Ayub.

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)  In 1962 Faiz was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize by the Soviet Union. During his years in exile he traveled in Moscow, London and other places. In Pakistan 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 in the ministry of education. Rather than live under the rule of Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, dictator of Pakistan, Faiz went to the war-torn Beirut, where he edited the Afro-Asian writers' magazine, Lotus. After a period of exile in Lebanon, he returned to his home country. Faiz died in Lahore on November 20, 1984.

Faiz published eight books of poetry. His first collections, A Naqsh-e Feryadi(1943), Dast-e Saba (1952), and Zindan Namah (1956), an antohology of prison poems, were politically motivated, and 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."

Fredric Jameson has argued in his essay 'Third World Literature in the Era of Mulatrinational Capitalism' (Social Text, fall 1986) that "the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society". 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. He fused classic traditional forms with new symbols derived from Western political ideas. However, 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."

For further reading: 'Preface' by Riz Rahim, in In English: Faiz Ahmed Faiz, A Renowned Urdu Poet (2008); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Over My Shoulder by Alys Faiz (1993); 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 Feryadi, 1943
  • Dast-e-Saba, 1952
  • Zindan Nama, 1956
  • Mizan, 1964
  • Dast-e-tha-ey Sung, 1965
  • Harf harf, 1965
  • Sar-e Wadi-e Sinai, 1971
  • Poems by Faiz, 1971 (translated by V.G. Kiernan)
  • Rat di rat, 1975
  • Sham-e-Shahr-e-Yaraan, 1978
  • Meray Dil, Meray Musafir, 1980
  • Ghubbar-e-Ayyam, 1984
  • Nusqa-ha-e-wafa, 1984
  • 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)   

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