by Atiya Batool Khan
I had the honor of meeting Ahmad Faraz 26 years ago in Washington. A local Urdu literary society, the Aligarh Alumni Association, had invited him to recite at a gathering they had organized in his honor—a Mushaira, or poetry reading. This was after he had left Pakistan under pressure from military strongman Zia-ul-Haq's government. My husband and I were asked by the Aligarh Alumni Association to host him for a week, but in that short time we became fast friends, so his stay turned first into a month and then it ended up being almost a year. This was the beginning of a lifelong relationship and he gradually became like a member of our family. We would visit with him at least once a year in Pakistan, and he visited us just as often. Though he became one of our closest friends, we always addressed him by the honorific name “Faraz Sahib” (Mr. Faraz) out of respect, and that is how I shall refer to him here.
As far as Urdu poetry goes, none of his contemporaries could touch Faraz Sahib, or even come close. The superiority of his poetry owes much to his personal qualities: the boldness of his thought, his willingness to fight oppression and his very costly (to himself) political activism, his rebellious nature, and of course his romantic worldview.
It was actually love poetry that first made him very popular at the tender age of 19 years. Here is one famous romantic poem of that early time which already announces the bold and beautiful lyrical rhythm in Urdu that would become characteristic of him later:
Ranjish hi sahi dil hi dukhaanay kay liyay aa
Aa phir say mujhay chhorr kay jaanay kay liyay aa
Pehlay say maraasim na sahi phir bhi kabhi to
Rasm-o-rahay duniya hi nibhaanay kay liyay aa
Kis kis ko bataayengay judaai kaa sabab ham
Tu mujh se khafaa hai to zamaanay kay liyay aa
Kuchh to meri pindaar-e-mohabbat ka bharam rakh
Tu bhi to kabhi mujh ko manaanay kay liyay aa
Ek umr say hun lazzat-e-giryaa se bhi mehruum
Aye raahat-e-jaan mujh ko rulaanay kay liyay aa
Ab tak dil-e-khush_feham ko tujh say hain ummeedain
Ye aakhari shammain bhi bujhaanay kay liyay aa
Come, even if only to break my heart
Come, even if only to leave me again
Yes, it is no longer like before, but still
Come, if only for the sake of convention
I cannot tell people the reasons for our separation
Come, even if unhappy, for public show
Respect just a little my love for you
Come, for once, just to appease me
For long I haven’t had even the pleasure of lament
Come, joy of my life, if only to make me weep again
My heart, the optimist, still retains some hope
Come, to extinguish even these last little embers
As a poet, he was as sensitive as an artist should be: he frequently observed and then took the time to reflect upon things that others did not notice. During one of his visits with us, my husband took him to see the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. The next day he wrote his famous poem “Kaali Deewaar” (The Black Wall), a meditation not only on the utter futility of that war and the destruction wreaked upon the Vietnamese, but also an outpouring of sympathy for the loved ones of the American veterans he saw placing flowers near their names on the wall.
On another occasion I took him to work, to the Johns Hopkins Hospital, with me, and he soon wrote a poem about the Eye Bank there. In this especially notable poem, he movingly describes the deprivation of blind people, offering his own eyes to them. But then he wonders if others would ever want eyes that have witnessed so much pain; whether such eyes, that have seen so many of their dreams shattered, would even be bearable to others.
His frustration and anger against inhuman practices and political oppression is obvious in a poem that he wrote in praise of the prophet Mohammad in which he also writes:
Mere zameer ne qabeel ko nahin bakhsha
Main kaise sulha karoon qatal karne walon se.
My conscience has yet to forgive Cain
How can I make peace with these killers?
And when he teaches us to be an activist he says:
Shikwae zulmate shab se to kahin behtar tha
Apne hisse ki koi shama jalate jaate
Rather than lamenting the darkness of that night,
We should have done our share and lit a candle or two
In a philosophical mood he would recite:
Ek diwana ye kehta hua hansta jata
Kaash manzil se bhi age koi rasta jata.
A lunatic, laughing, would go along, saying
I wish this path went further than my destination
For friendship he wrote:
Zindigi is se ziada to nahin umr teri
Bas kisi dost ke milne se juda honay tak
Life, your duration is easily measured:
From the moment of meeting a friend, to the moment of parting
He not only wrote well but also recited his poetry with a uniquely charming cadence. The audience was invariably mesmerized. He would always get standing ovations and uproarious applause. In person he was a very cheerful, friendly person, greeting all he met with a warm smile. We shared a love of puns and plays on words, and he loved to recite jokes and make people laugh. Using his love of language and his creative gift, he made any gathering he attended extremely enjoyable. He was a very progressive thinker, always eager to hear about new ideas or try out new inventions. He never hesitated to voice his opinions or inner feelings, even if they were different than the norms of his native culture or the time.
Faraz Sahib was a person of stature with charisma, glamour, wit, humor, kindness, caring and sensitivity who was also bold, vivacious, a true friend, poet, philosopher, human rights activist, agnostic, non conformist, an avid reader, humble, extremely patriotic and notably passionate. He had a palpable urge to create and write. He was a world-renowned Urdu poet and national icon in Pakistan. He died on August 25th of complications from a severe stroke and Renal Failure. He was 77 years old. He is survived by his wife, Rehana, and his sons, Saadi, Shibley and Sarmad.
He was a great person and an exemplary friend. He lived a full and happy life, and whoever met him once would not be able to forget his charming personality and will miss him. He called me his friend and that is my pride.
In short I would say that he cared for people more than others thought was wise, he took risks more than others thought was safe, and he dreamt more than others thought was practical.
Atiya B. Khan is a pediatrician practicing in Maryland and a social activist who has raised millions for the education of the poor. The Urdu poetry here has been loosely translated by her brother, S. Abbas Raza.