Controlled Passion: On the Ghazal

by Claire Chambers

Ghazal poetry is an intimate and relatively short lyric form of verse from the Middle East and South Asia. The form thrives in such languages as Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and now English. Like the Western ode, these poems are often addressed to a love object. Influenced by ecstatic Sufi Islam, the ghazal’s subject matter concerns desire for another person and, figuratively, love for the Divine. 

Indeed, a mixture of sacred, profane, romantic, and melancholic elements are frequently stitched into the ghazal’s poetic fabric. Many ghazals revolve around the theme of lovers’ separation. This topic also functions as an image for the Muslim worshipper’s longing for Allah. In doing so, the ghazal draws comparisons with seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry. Like ghazalists, John Donne would ostensibly write about love for a woman but also shadow forth devotion to God. 

Sound, rhyme, repetition, and rhythm come to the forefront in this form. This makes it unsurprising that many ghazals have been turned into songs. For instance, during the course of his illustrious poetic career, Mohammad (‘Allama’) Iqbal (1877–1938) wrote dozens of ghazals. Some of these poems have been set to music. They were sung by popular South Asian musicians including the late Mehdi Hassan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, as well as contemporary singers Lata Mangeshkar and Sanam Marvi. I also think of the famous playback singers Noor Jehan’s and Nayyara Noor’s renditions of the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911–1984). This crossover often surprises Westerners: it’s as though Carol Ann Duffy’s poems were being sung by Rihanna!  Read more »

Expressing Fidelity Through Sorrow’s Hope

By Maniza Naqvi

Faizphoto Separated for now, from Ami, in this journey of life and death, I feel myself displaced: trying to find meaning in everything, wanting to be able to express her being in everything that I do and struggling to not feel muted and exiled. I feel her touch each time that sorrow becomes overpowering as though to say—I am here with you:

With such love, oh beloved, at this time, the memory of you has placed its hand on my heart’s visage/ A sensation, still, though now it is the morning of separation, set the day of exile, arrived reunion’s night.”

Is qadr piyaar sey, eh, jan e jahan rakha hai/Dil ke rukhsaar par is wakht teri yad nay hath.

Yun guma ho tha hai garchey hai abhi subhay firaq/Dhal, gaya hijr ka din ah bhi gayee wasal ki raat.

And in this moment as I write this piece which is meant to be about this photograph and about the immortality and intensity of poetry and poets, I search for Ami’s gentle touch. Ami with her perfection in relating her understanding of meanings, her precision of thought, her clarity of language and her passion for prose filled my life with poetry. My understanding of Urdu poetry was through Ami and my father. Ami recited poetry to me and helped me read it in my mother tongue—she explained and translated the difficult vocabulary and gave meaning to its detailed and often culturally specific symbolism and context of my motherland. With Ami’s help I read and understood a handful of shers contained in Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s book of poetry called Nuskhaye Wafa, on the inside cover of our copy of the book I had scrawled in pencil my own alternative title:—“A Prisoners and Exiles Guide to Survival.” One of my favorite poems or ghazals of Faiz begins with:

Merey dil merey musafir, Huwa pir sey hokum sazir key watan badar hon hum tum.

My heart, my traveler, Once again we are ordered into exile you and I.

It is this photograph of Faiz Ahmed Faiz that I want to write about. But in this moment I cannot see it through any other lens then that of the sorrow and loss of Ami, my mother whose intekal or transition from this life occurred January 17, 2011.

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