“You Had No Address”


Sumayya Kassamali in Caravan:

“AND WERE YOU POLITICALLY INVOLVED in Beirut?” an interviewer once asked Faiz Ahmed Faiz, arguably the greatest Urdu poet of the last century. “I was, indeed, yes!” he replied. “You had to be, if you were part of the suffering of the place and of the people.”

Today, the most visible signs of the subcontinent’s involvement in Beirut are the neon-green-uniformed South Asian men emptying plastic garbage bins into large green trucks on the street. Images of India abound in the city’s hip yoga culture, with Pakistan harder to find. The Arabic word for “Sri Lankan,” in its feminine adjectival form, is widely synonymous with “maid.” Diversity fares mildly better in elite liberal enclaves such as the American University of Beirut or the contemporary art scene, which are generally sprinkled with a few brown faces. There are moments, of course. An independent film festival recently screened the Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap’s crime drama Gangs of Wasseypur, a Palestinian refugee camp includes a grocery store stocked with imported ingredients for its Bangladeshi residents (cheap housing and limited state intervention attract the camp’s mixed occupants), and a Nepalese feminist organisation offers a stream of regular programming for its community of domestic workers. In Faiz’s day, Asians had just begun to enter Lebanon’s manual and domestic labour force. But for politically conscious intellectuals in Lahore or Delhi, the tiny Arab country bordered by Syria and Palestine was a closely followed news item in an era marked by the spirit of socialism and Third World solidarity.

In 1977, General Zia ul-Haq deposed Pakistan’s elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in a coup that would lead to over a decade of American-supported military rule. Soon afterwards, the 67-year-old Faiz—a former political prisoner, close associate of Bhutto and outspoken socialist—decided to leave his home in Karachi for Beirut. This seemed a curious choice.

More here.