The Sublime Child in the Persona of Moses

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

First, because Moses, or the prophet Musa as we know him in the Quran, is an unusual hero— a newborn all on his own, swaddled and floating in a papyrus basket on the Nile— my brothers and I couldn’t get enough of his story as children. Second, it is also a story of siblings: his sister keeps an eye on him, walking along the river as the baby drifts in the reeds farther and farther away from home, his brother, the prophet Harun accompanies him through many crucial journeys later in life, another reason the story was relatable. Returning to the narration as a young woman, a mother, I found myself more interested in the heroines in the story: Musa’s birth-mother whose maternal instinct and faith are tested in a time of persecution, the Pharaoh’s wife Asiya who adopts the foundling as her own, confronting her megalomaniac husband’s ire and successfully raising a child of slaves and the prophesied contender to the pharaoh’s power under his own roof. As a diaspora writer, especially one wielding the colonizer’s tongue and negotiating the contradictory gifts of language, I have yet again been drawn to Musa. He is an outsider and an insider— one who carries a “knot on his tongue”— the burden of interpreting and speaking, not entirely out of choice, to radically different entities: God, the Pharaoh and his own people. Among the myriad facets of the legend, the most enduring is the innocence at the heart of his mythos, the exoteric quality of wisdom explored beautifully in mystic writings and poetry as a complementary aspect of the esoteric.

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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 »

Translations from Urdu: Three Poems by Majeed Amjad

by Ali Minai

299190_10150747706740262_6590189_nMajeed Amjad (1914 – 1974) is considered one of the most important modern poets in the Urdu language. He was born in Jhang, which is now in Pakistan, and spent most of his life in the small towns of Punjab, away from the great literary centers of Urdu. Perhaps this was one factor in giving his poetry a distinctive style and idiom that is impossible to place within any of the mainstream contemporary movements in Urdu poetry. Amjad's style is characterized by striking images, unexpected connections, and a very personal voice. He had a challenging life, with financial insecurity, domestic problems and literary frustrations. His philosophical and introspective nature drew upon these challenges to create a unique mixture of sweetness and bitterness that makes him one of Urdu's most original poets. Starting out with traditional forms, Amjad experimented extensively with new ones, and much of his later poetry is in free verse.

I have chosen to translate poems by Amjad because, despite the acknowledgment of his stature in literary circles, he is not as well known among general audiences as his great contemporaries, Faiz and Rashid. I chose these three poems based purely on personal preference, though they are also quite representative of his work. In particular, they capture his characteristically mysterious allusions, where he seems to refer to something particular without specifying exactly what it is, leaving the reader to infer multiple scenarios. Personally, I find this to be both aggravating and interesting – and a very modern aspect of his work, occasionally bordering on the surrealistic. The poems also have a lot of psychological nuance, which was another distinguishing feature of Amjad's poetry.

In the original, the first two poems are in metered verse and the third in free verse. While I have tried to follow the general structure of the poems, I have not attempted to translate strictly line by line, preferring to capture the thought rather than the form. In this sense, the translation is not literal, though it is quite close with minimal reinterpretation of metaphors, etc. As with all translations, it is impossible to capture all the nuances of the original. I just hope that the translated versions have sufficient interest in their own right and convey some of Amjad's uniquely mysterious, imagistic and elegiac style.


Poem 1: Superficially, this poem starts out as an elegy on the grave of some unknown poet, with the usual symbolism associated with such poems. But as one reads on, it becomes clear that this is not about any particular poet at all, nor is it an elegy. It is rather a fierce critique of that poetic tradition – long dominant in Urdu – that seeks to create art for art's sake, and has little time for the actual lives of individuals and societies. In this, Amjad is making the same point that many of his Progressive contemporaries – notably Faiz – made about the received poetic tradition in Urdu. But Amjad's allusive and imagistic style contrasts strongly with the explicit protests found in the work of the Progressives. The build-up through this poem culminates lines that send chills down the spine.

Amjad has been called a poet of brutal realism. In some of his poems, this realism is explicit, but here it is couched in a more symbolic – perhaps more appealing – form.

Voice, Death of Voice (1960)

No ornate ceiling, nor canopy of silk;

no shawl of flowers; no shadow of vine;

just a mound of earth;

just a slope covered with rocky shards;

just a dark space with blind moths;

a dome of death!

No graven headstone, no marking brick –

Here lies buried the eloquent poet

whom the world implored a thousand times

to speak out,

but he, imprisoned by his fancy's walls,

far from Time's path,

oblivious to the lightning upon the reeds,

drowned himself in the breast of a silent flute:

a voice become the death of voice!

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The Tangled Knots of History: A Trip Through Medieval Deccan

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Dargah2The relatively impoverished landscape of Zaheerabad, in rural Telangana in central India, transforms as we approach Humnabad town of northern Karnataka. Lush, verdant pastures straddle each side of the highway, and the pregnant monsoon air animated by a fey, impish wind, forces our brief stop into a leisurely meditation. This pleasing landscape remains a companion till the outskirts of Gulbarga, a prominent regional city. As we navigate the narrow lanes towards our destination, the dust and dirt of the city streets, the shrill horns of motor vehicles, jarringly forestall our approach. It has also begun drizzling faintly.

The “brooding basalt solemnity” of the medieval shrine of the influential Chisti saint Muhammad al-Hussayni Gesu Daraz (d. 1422), which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, stands a mute testament to a mobile, transformative 14th century Deccan. By all accounts, the saint's settlement in the region is a historical event of unmatched significance, linked in no uncertain terms to the broader settlement of Muslims in the region, progression of orthodox Sufism, matters of courts and kings, regional syncretism, not to mention, the curious, inevitable and fascinating birth of the proto-Urdu form, Dakhani. A prolific writer, Gesu Daraz, has an impressive number of literary works to his name (105 by some accounts), several of which are extant, and as KA Nizami informs us, “no other Indo-Muslim Cishti saint” had written that many. Syed Shah Khusro Hussaini, the current sajjada nashin, (‘those who sit on the prayer rug'), the living spiritual heir, ‘blessed descendent' of the famous saint, whom I met later that evening, speaks to me of his hallowed ancestor's love of the local tongue. A medieval mystical work, Miraj al Ashiqin, which he attributes to Gesu Daraz, is believed to have been the first literary work composed in Dakhani, and is dated to 1390 CE. He however, qualifies this by mentioning that the attribution is contentious and has been rigorously challenged by many. Khusro Hussaini has previously written that the saint's works can be generally classified into those that were composed before he came to the Deccan (he resided in Delhi & is believed to have been the chosen replacement to Shaykh Nasir al' Din), and those after his settlement down south. ‘Hindawi' verses (another contemporary proto-Urdu form) Gesu Daraz is believed to have said, writes the sajjada, a reputed scholar of Sufism, “‘ are usually soft, sweet and touching. The tunes are also soft and tender like the couplets, which induce humility and submission…”' However, the saint still asserted the primacy of Persian verse. Hindawi, one can assume, is what Gesu Daraz brought with him from Delhi (Amir Khusro also mentions his occasional propensity to compose in Hindawi) and the region, its flavours and tempers, did their bit. The spoken language (and the many dialects) carried down south by Sufis and soldiers alike mingled in curious ways and eventually, what was but spoken in an unpolished manner began to take sophisticated form. The spoken form began to be written, and eventually appeared in literary texts.

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