The End of Gustakh Ki Kitaab

Dear visitor,

As of January 24th, 2017, this blog will no longer be updated. I started this blog four years ago in an attempt to understand both myself and the world around me. Yet, somewhere along the line, I erected a neat delineation between my theory and my practice. With time, I receded completely into the realm of theory forgetting that theory, itself, springs from our existence. This realization has been late, and costly, but a welcome one. As I start a new journey to understand, again, myself and this world, I think it is only fair that I do so under a different blog. Hereafter, I will be posting (irregularly as always) at Insaan-numa. I am leaving this site up because it attracts a dedicated Aziz Mian following. It is my hope that someone else takes up the mantle of working on Aziz Mian and learns, as much as I was able to, from him.

Best,

Nabeel

The Politics of Representation: Visual Recognition of Images and The Agha Khan Museum

 

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Figure 1: A Young Prince and a Dervish

a-prince-and-a-dervish

Figure 2: Label accompanying the image

The object that I have chosen to examine is an image titled ‘A Young Prince and a Dervish’. (Figure 1) It is displayed in the permanent collections of the Agha Khan Museum in Toronto. Little to no information beyond its name, geographic origins and the approximate year of its creation are listed on the description that accompanies it. (Figure 2) This is not an object that catches the visitor’s eye; indeed, at the time of the review, it was displayed on a side wall, with poor lighting, almost as an afterthought. Yet, I argue in this essay that it is this very lack of attention to it that belies the real importance of the object- the easy visual recognition it provides to the viewer as a distinct object with an Islamic[1] past. This quantitative reinforcement of the magnitude of the collection, through the display of objects that would otherwise not serve as an attraction on their own, is instrumental to the Agha Khan museum’s assertion of the ownership, as well as a dedication to preservation and maintenance, of artifacts from Islam’s past. The display of the control over these objects serves an ideational purpose- it validates the Agha Khan museum’s (and by extension, the Ismaili school of thought) claim to being a primary contender to represent Islam in the modern world. I begin with an analysis of the image itself, move on to an analysis of the material used in its creation, and conclude by positing that the image’s significance lies in the role it plays in helping the Agha Khan museum cultivate a specific, deliberate representation of themselves as caretakers, and therefore representatives, of Islam’s pasts and presents.

The image itself is rich in details. As the title suggests, the depiction is centered around a prince and a dervish. The prince appears engrossed in a book, while the dervish’s gaze is focused squarely on the prince. Quite noticeable is the absence of hair which serves two distinct purposes for the prince and the dervish respectively. For the prince, the absence of facial hair indicates his innocence and youthfulness. Indeed, the figure of the prince evokes the both the historical persona as well as the literary trope of the moon-faced youth. (Ridgeon 2012) For the dervish, the absence of any hair indicates his piety and renunciation of social norms. In terms of attire, the image is honest to the social conventions prevalent at the time of the painting- the prince is wearing colorful clothing with appropriate headgear whereas the dervish is dressed relatively simply in white. Further, prominent on the dervish is an animal skin (pūst) draped over his right shoulder while he slings his staff (ʾaṣā) over the left shoulder with the begging bowl (kashkūl) attached to it. We can also make out what appears to be a felt hat (tāj) and a short axe (tabarzīn) hanging from the belt. Indeed, the only thing out of place for this dervish is that he is fully clothed. All the objects on his person, otherwise, align fully with those of a qalandar. (Karamustafa 2007; 2015)

It is not clear what the relationship between the prince and the dervish is. Is this a regular interaction between these two where the prince is officially under the tutelage of the dervish? Or is the dervish officially under the prince’s patronage? Perhaps this is a chance encounter and the dervish has simply provided the book to the prince so that the prince may acquire a moral lesson that will serve him in good stead later. The prince’s person appears elevated above that of the dervish- this can be contrasted with the other depictions where the royalty is thrust into prominence by virtue of the miniature size of their audience. Enlargement, not elevation, serves as a marker of social status. It is possible that the elevation instead of the enlargement of the prince was a conscious choice and illustrates the transient and flexible nature of the social roles themselves. Regardless of how we view the ontology of the relationship between the two figures, what cannot be dismissed is the close proximity in which the prince and the dervish appear as well as the anxiety that the image poses for the curator. The image is successful in portraying both roles as intertwined, but the ambiguous nature of the relationship allows the viewer to speculate over the level of intertwinement.

A brief mention of the other aspects of the image is in order- namely, the landscape and the objects that dot it. The depiction of the image in a natural landscape is in conformance with established themes in medieval Persian art. Floral motifs adorn the matte and the landscape itself is also dotted with a variety of flora. A lone flask evokes the presence of wine, a common literary trope in both Persian art and literature. These objects, along with the figures discussed above, combine with the miniature style of painting prevalent from Turkey to India[2], to evoke distinctly Islamic associations in the viewer’s mind.

Beyond the overtly distinguishing miniature style of painting, there is not much in the image that could stand on its own. Thus, to inquire into why it is displayed at all, I turn towards the manner in which it is displayed. The image is found towards the very end of the permanent collection. It is lumped under a section titled ‘Northern Iran’. It shares a small wall with an image from the divan of Sanaʾi. Such an illustrious image as a neighbour only serves to further highlight the lack of information we have about the image that is the focus of this essay. The lightning in this section is dim to prevent a diversion of the viewer’s attention from either the main display area in the middle of the room or the main sidewalls where individual lights illuminate other more prominent images[3]. These curatorial choices lend credence to the argument that the only redeeming aspect of the image, at least according to the curators, is that it is visually identifiable as an adequate representative of medieval Persian art. Beyond such a recognition, the content or the materiality of the image is irrelevant or else it would have been highlighted either in the description of the image or in the manner in which the image was displayed.

The placement of the object in the museum is best read in conjunction with the wider politics of representation within which the Agha Khan group operates. The immediate visual recognition that the image provides is critical to the overarching aim of the Agha Khan museum. If we accept Flood’s (2002) argument that museums serve to reinforce and uphold state ideology, then we can view a museum with religious motivations as laying claim to a specific kind of religious interpretation, visible broadly through both its content- the objects that it catalogues and displays- as well as the form- the manner in which they are displayed. In this light, the Agha Khan museum appears to be vying to be a, if not the, primary representative- contemporaneously through the museum and historically through the objects displayed in the museum- of the Islamic traditions. This claim can be reinforced by the heralding of the museum as the first Islamic art museum in North America in popular press[4]. For the Agha Khan group that funds the museum, such pioneering activity is not unusual. Even as they make up a tiny minority of the Islamic population globally, their philanthropy, outreach and social programs all identify broadly with ideals of Islamic charity[5]. Thus, the museum is but one similar extension of this politics of global representation. The group is therefore no different than any of its competitors that includes states such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran to militia such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Though the aforementioned groups differ significantly in both the motivations of representation as well as the methods through which they engage with each other as well as the external world, they all share a preference for the deployment of symbols that can be easily identified with the tradition that is being laid claim to. The distinctly Persian style of the image makes it perfect to be deliberately deployed in service of such a normative claim. There is nothing interesting or unique about the image that deserves separate, individualized recognition. However, as the Agha Khan museum recognizes, it is the memory of a specific past that the image evokes in the viewer that nonetheless makes it valuable for any collector to hold on to.

Bibliography

Flood, Barry F. 2002. “Between Cult and Culture: Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm and the Museum.” The Art Bulletin 84 (4): 641-659.

Karamustafa, Ahmet T. 2015. “Antinomian Sufis.” In The Cambridge Companion to Sufism, by Lloyd Ridgeon, 101-124. New York: Cambridge University Press.

—. 2007. God’s Unruly Friends. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

 

 

[1] I use the words Islam and Islamic as an overarching category within which a variety of traditions are subsumed. I use the term descriptively, and it is best understood as an encompassing and dynamic category.

[2] See F. R. Martin’s The Miniature Painting and Painters of Persia, India and Turkey from the 8th to the 18th Century (London: Holland Press, 1968)

[3] It could be argued that the curatorial choice, coupled with the contents of the image, actually serves to disguise an anxiety insofar as representations of the relationship between the dervish and the moon-faced youth are concerned. Such an argument is perfectly valid on its own, but due to the restrictions on length in this paper, I do not pursue this argument here.

[4] See The Guardian’s ‘Agha Khan Museum: North America finally gets a home for Islamic Art’ from September 16th, 2014

[5] See the official Agha Khan Development Network factsheet for more details.

A Sudanese rendition of Ibn Al-Farid’s قصیدۃ الخمریة (The Wine-Song)

On Monday, June 27th, I encountered my first experience with Arabic music. It was Fairuz’s حبیتک بالصیف (I loved you in the summer) and it blew me away.

For a new student of Arabic who was already spending 4-5 hours everyday outside of class in learning the language, this was a song simple enough for me to understand (with some struggle!) and to fall in love with. Since then, I’ve listened to Fairuz’s beautiful voice everyday when I wake up, at work after class, and before I fall asleep. My listening skills have come to appreciate her words and every time I listen to her I recognize just a bit more of what I have already studied. Of course, after the initial euphoria that her music brought me, I have returned to the original purpose which led me to pursue the study of Arabic- that of early and medieval Arabic poetry.

I was lucky enough to stumble across a beautiful Sudanese rendition of the Ibn Al-Farid’s قصیدۃ الخمریة (The Wine-Song). My searches on YouTube for the same did not lead anywhere, so I sat down and transcribed the verses that appear in this rendition and uploaded them on to YouTube. I recommend using the Matheson Trust website (linked in the sentence prior to the last one) to access the English translation. I am grateful that they had this online, and I hope that through my upload on YouTube more people will have the chance to appreciate the beautiful poetry of Ibn Al-Farid.

Art and Us

Over the last few years, I have come to dread the social media in the aftermath of a violent attack. This fear has eclipsed the fear of the violent attack itself. While violence erupts, and in some cases is caused to erupt, almost everywhere in the world, my social media circles tend to go into overdrive in one of two cases. First is the violence that happens in Pakistan. This violence is very encompassing- it could be a bomb attack, a political fistfight, an armed student militia encounter or anything else. However, even within such an inclusive category, there are exclusions. The violence against sub-nationalists groups is, for the large part, often ignored by the social media. This has, of course, changed in the last few years. Second is the violence that happens elsewhere in the world but is linked to Islam. This is violence under the cover, and through the use of, religion. This can also be violence where all the involved parties claim membership to one sect or the other of Islam, as well as violence where only one side makes such a claim. Even though these are broad categories that I have constructed based on the manifestation of violence, I think that a rigorous elucidation of categories of violence must focus not on the manifestation of violence but on the motivation behind it. The reason that I only focus on the manifestation here is because it allows me to succinctly provide the casual reader with a general idea of a topic that is mentioned frequently in this piece. In what follows, I will focus on the reactions to the first type of violence that I have identified above- that in Pakistan.

The unfortunate death of Amjad Sabri serves as a recent example for such analysis. Amjad Sabri was a popular singer of devotional music and a recognizable face for a large number of Pakistanis. His father was one of the two Sabri brothers who, together, form a duet that is undoubtedly one of the best to have ever come out of Pakistan. While it would be hard for anyone to live up to such a prestigious status, whether Amjad would have done so will now forever remain a matter of debate. Death came for him, as it does for everyone else, with little regard for his family, his career, his art or anything else. The unfairness with which death comes begs the age old question of how could a fair god be so unfair to its creatures? As news filtered through of Amjad’s assassination, social media gradually started responding in a manner that we have all become so accustomed to.

Amjad Sabri was first claimed by the Twelver Shi’ites, even though he himself does not come from such a family. Posts and images began to circulate in these spheres that highlighted Amjad’s affection for historical figures that the Twelver Shi’ite cosmology revolves around. These posts highlighted Amjad’s devotion to these figures. It was significantly above the regular veneration that an average Sunni would be expected to hold. This, of course, was endearing to the Twelver Shi’ites since their religion is predicated on a perennial struggle for recognition of (what they claim to be) a historical wrong done fourteen hundred years ago. If Amjad, as a member of the same Other that the Twelver Shi’ites define themselves in opposition to, could have affection for the dearly beloved of the Twelver Shi’ite imagination, then it serves, for the Twelver Shi’ite, to reinforce their own truth claims. These posts also claimed that Amjad was killed for his pro-Shi’ite leanings, especially because such veneration invites the scorn of religious fundamentalists like the Taliban etc. So, in claiming Amjad as one of their own, the Twelver Shi’ites were not just validating, through the Other, their own understanding of themselves and their history, but also highlighting the ever-present persecution and targeting that continues in present day Pakistan.

Of course, such a claim by the Twelver Shi’ites could not possibly go unchallenged by the Sunni majority. In what I would wager was a direct response to the actions of the Twelver Shi’ite activities on social media, posts began emerging that highlighted Amjad’s contributions to the genre of Qawwali (this, I think, ought to have been the popular Qawwali that I have talked about elsewhere) and the pluralism that the Qawwali represented. These posts claimed that the attack on Amjad was an attack on the pluralism intrinsic to Pakistan and/or Islam and was done by fundamentalists who do not wish to let this pluralism flourish. Thus, these types of posts promoted a distinct conception of society and religion and one that is under threat. In adhering to a principle of pluralism, however, such a conception does not so much as ignore, but rather whitewash completely, the claims of the persecuted minorities present in the same society. So, it responds to the allegations of violence against minorities not by saying that the violence is wrong, but by saying that the violence is not what this society does and that it comes from elements external to the society. Such a response, in turn, is criticized by the minorities as being inaccurate to the facts on the ground. This eventually turns into a back and forth with parties talking past each other rather than with each other.

Of course, given that this specific incident happened in Karachi, other political factors also come into play. For some, the responsibility lay squarely on the failure of the rangers that have been stationed in Karachi for just over two decades. For some, the responsibility lay solely on the provincial government that is formed by a party which enshrined into the constitution the non-Muslim status of the Ahmadis. As further news filtered through of the Taliban claiming the responsibility for the attack, many other came forwards and blamed the establishment that gave rise to these factions. As has been the case for much of Pakistan’s history, religion is intrinsic to the politics. Thus, as these political posts increased in number, brief commentaries on the role of religion also tagged along. Do the many incidents like this indicate the necessity of a separation between the religion and the state? Or do these incidents indicate instead a religion that has been twisted by the state and thus needs to be brought back to its original form? Of course, these questions and more, by virtue of their timing are predicated on adrenaline rather than reason. Similarly, the medium of social media that they emerge in is not necessarily conducive to a detailed and structured analysis of the issue on hand. The worst, however, is that the attention span of the social media is too short in duration. So, before one can even take stock of the right questions or figure out how, exactly, to word a question, the conversation has moved on. There is always something new to talk about and those that make the mistake of persisting on an old topic run the risk of being left behind.

Yet, this is not a new topic. Pakistan has been at this juncture- losing a committed individual to violence- before and is likely to be back here many times in the future.  The conversations following such an incident do not change- they remain static and inflexible. It seems that those that engage in these conversations already have fixed notions of what to say- it is just that every new incident is simply a new opportunity to flaunt one’s opinion. This can range from sponsored hyper-nationalism to radical anarchy. It is almost irrelevant who has been targeted where, when, why and how? Indeed, it could be anyone but as long as they are someone half-recognizable, the social media will take the issue up, regurgitate the same old euphemisms and analogies, and then spit it out.

Since yesterday, I have seen the attack on Amjad heralded from an attack on Pakistan’s cultural values (to which I ask the questions that many have before me- have we defined Pakistan already that we can define its cultural values?) to an attack on specific religious point of views to an attack on art that will inevitably end it. Of course, similar proclamations have been made for many decades now. I think that such statements betray a superficial analysis of the situation at hand. Indeed, the latter is disrespectful to both the artist and the art to make such an analogy. Though art lives on because of what the artist has given it, it does not just die when the artist is taken away from it. Further, as crude as it may sound, I do not think that an artist being shot in cold blood amounts to the end of a genre. The real threat to art comes not from the violence that I described in the opening paragraph but from the ideological attitudes to art that have gradually become more prominent in our societal consciousness.

Amjad was an artist who came from an artist family. However, there are not many artists who come from non-artist families. Similarly, there are also many non-artists who leave their artist familial professions. Because of the movement of our society to a capitalistic economy, the type of individuals who pursue arts has been restricted to three. First, there is the socio-economically privileged individual who can afford to pursue arts without the pressure of having to succeed or having to worry about economic survival etc. This type of individual is thus able to focus solely on their art. Second, there is the talented individual who is peerless. This individual can be found across different social classes, including the socio-economically privileged one. The talent of this individual almost makes it irrelevant what class they come from. However, this is a rare type of talent and one that succeeds even in the face of institutional and social barriers. Third, there is the devoted individual. This individual eats and breathes art. This individual can also be found in any class. What distinguishes this individual from everyone else who claims to be devoted to art is that it is willing to be consumed by his passion for art. The commitment is independent of the class this individual hails from. It should be clear that the latter two can types can be found merged into the first one, or with each other, while also being able to stand on their own. But the theoretical refinement is a topic for another time.

Beyond these rare ideal-types, however, it is rare to find individuals who pursue arts. Thus, a kid whose talent falls just short of the rare type talent discussed above would never actually pursue arts because of the lack of encouragement (or, indeed, active discouragement) that it receives from those around it. The kid is instead diverted into the more acceptable professions of medicine, finance, law, etc. and forced to spend a life that does not quite do justice to his talents. Thus, the talent that could have been honed and sharpened and transformed into great art instead becomes a slave to the society around it. In doing so, it does not simply conform to and maintain these norms, but through its actions it reproduces them for the future generations. This is the case in not just my immediate and extended family, but also the rest of the Pakistan. My family would like to think it is educated because it can list the following, among many others, as titles that the members occupy- a doctor, a teacher, a corporate banker, an engineer, etc. Yet, what good is education if it is merely instrumental to the goal of breaking free of the class boundary? It is useless and ought not be considered education. Members of my family will die in middle-class mediocrity, having lived unfulfilled lives, and always having been too scared of committing fully and wholly to anything- whether an idea, or a love, or an art. Yet, their consciousness is shaped by the society around them and thus they are not, unfortunately, an isolated example. The entire society can said to be one that discourages breaking free of these structures- including pursuing arts. Thus, even as these members of the society wage an invisible, ideological war on arts by heralding it as being a useless  pursuit, they are the first ones to throw their arms in the air and proclaim an attack on Amjad as an attack on arts. The physical attacks, like those on Amjad, do not have the power to threaten art for art is bigger than the perpetrators of this violence. The extremists will die with time, then rise again, then die again but art is permanent. It does not ebb and flow. It exists despite the attempts to eradicate it. Art will outlive this country, this society, and this religion and its god. Art is the domain of ideas and ideas cannot be fought with physically- they must be combated against on an ideological level alone. So, art can deal with guns and bombs, but it cannot deal with a consciousness that seeks to defeat it. The war against art is not the one waged by the extremists, but the one waged by this society. Every person who forces a child to give up a crayon for a stethoscope, a guitar for a calculator, and a sport for a grade is complicit in this war. It may be convenient now to simply shrug and say that scenarios do not permit us allowing our children to pursue arts, but history will show that it was only because we willingly made ourselves subservient to the scenarios that we ourselves had created.

Yeh he mehkadah yahan rind hain lyrics

(A note: I am transliterating ے as ‘e’ so words like ہے are transliterated as ‘he’, کے as ‘ke’, etc. I am doing this to standardize the lyrics going forward. The next step is to incorporate ‘v’ for و instead of ‘w’…)

 

Badakharon ke darmiyan saqi

Kuch masail ulajh gaye honge

Jab teri zulf khul gayi hogi

Sab yaqeenan sulajh gaye honge

 

Yeh he mehkada yahan rind hain

Yahan sab ka saqi imam he

 

Gham-i zamana bohat ihteram karta he

 

Mehkadah he yahan sukoon se baith

Koi aafat idhar nahi aati

 

Yeh saqi ki karamat he

Ke faiz-i mehparasti he

Ghata ke bhais mein mehkhane pe

Rehmat barasti he

 

Jise pee ke bazm-i rindan sar-i arsh jhoomti he

Woh sharaab aaj saqi tere ghar baras rahi he

 

Aray kayi bar doobe, kayi bar ubhre

Kayi bar tufan main chakkar lagaye

Tumhare takhayul nay aisa duboya

Bohat koshishen magar ubharne na paye

Kayi bar tufan se takrai kashti

Kayi bar takra ke sahil pe aye

Talash-e-talab mein woh lazzat mili he

Dua kar raha hoon ke manzil na aye

Yeh kis ki nigahon ne saghar pilaye

Khudi par meri bekhudi ban ke chaye

Khabardar aye dil, maqam-e-adab he

Kahin bada noshi pe dhabba na aye

 

Kuch is ada se karishme dekhaye jate hain

Ada shanas bhi dhoke mein aye jate hain

Hamara haal toh dekha, hamara zarf bhi dekh

Nigah uthti nahi, gham uthaye jate hain

Yeh mehkada he tera madrasa nahi waiz

Yahan sharaab se insan banaye jate hain

 

Pehle toh shaikh ne zara dekha idhar udhar

Phir sar jhuka ke dakhil-i mehkhana hogaya

 

Kuch soch ke shama pe parwana jala hoga

Shayad isi jalne mein jeene ka maza hoga

Jis waqt yeh meh tu ne botal mein bhari hogi

Saqi tera masti se kiya haal hua hoga

Mehkhane se masjid tak paye gaye naqsh-i pa

Ya shaikh gaya hoga ya rind gaya hoga

 

Are jhoom jhoom ke la, muskara ke la

Phoolon ke rasm-e chaand ki kirnein mila ke la

Kehte hain umr-e rafta kabhi laut ti nahi

Ja mehkade se meri jawani utha ke la

 

Saqi ki har nigah pe bal kha ke peegaya

Maujon se khailta hua lehra ke peegaya

Aur peeta baghair izn yeh kab thi meri majal

Dar pardah chashm-i yaar ki sheh pa ke peegaya

Aye rehmat-i tamam, meri har khata ma’af

Mein inteha-i shauq mein ghabra ke peegaya

 

Tauba ko tor tar ke ghabra ke peegaya

Yeh sab samjhane wale mujhe samjha ke rehgaye

Laikin mein aik aik ko samjha ke peegaya

 

Sheesha bhi bohat wasf o hunar rakhta he

Asraar-i nehufta ki khabar rakhta he

Rindon mein bhi milte hain allah wale

Nasha bhi bari tez nazar rakhta he

 

He mehkade ka khaas maqamat mein shumar

Jo rind bhi mila woh humein parsa mila

 

Khula na hota agar mehkade ka darwaza

Toh roshni ke liye hum kidhar gaye hotay

 

Yeh ghalat he sharaab ki tarif

Is ka zehnon pe raj hota hai

Sirf hiddat sharab deti hai

Are baqi apna mizaj hota hai

 

Har ranj ko khafif tabassum se taal de

Nazil ho koi barq toh saghar uchal de

Tu jam mein sharaab ko mat daal saqiya

Is ko bara-i rast mere dil mein daal de

 

Are bol meethe, nazar nashili he

Mein ne to mehkadon se pee li he

Mein ne thori se paish ki thi magar

Sheikh ne behisab pee li hai

 

Yahan sab ka saqi imam he

 

Jari hein roshni mein do sarmadi lakirein

Aik jaam ja raha he, aik jaam aa raha he

 

Bari haseen he zulfon ki shaam pee lijiye

Hamare haath se do char jam pee lijiye

Aur pilaye jab koi mashooq apne hathon se

Sharab phir nahi rehti haram pee lijiye

 

Aks-i jamal-i yaar bhi kiya tha ke deyr tak

Aine umrion ki tarah bolte rahe

Kal mehkade mein rind tawazun na rakh sake

Khat-i subooh pe kon-o-makan dolte rahe

Hum muttaqi-i shehr-i kharabat raat bhar

Tasbih-i zulf-i seen tana rolte rahe

 

Agarcheh banda nawazi ki tujh mein boo hoja

Kasam khuda ki khudai mein tu hi tu hoja

Agar baghair tere mehkashi karoon saqi

Sharaab jaam mein ate hi bas lahu hoja

Aur wuzoo sharab se kar ke sharaab khane mein

Namaaz jab parhon saqi imam tu hoja

 

Yeh he mehkadah yahan rind hain

Yeh haram nahi aye shaikh ji

Yahan parsai haram he

 

<Persian phrase, cannot make it out>

 

Peena haram he na pilana haram he

Peene ke baad hosh mein ana haram he

Likha hua he pir-i mughan ki dukan par

Kamzarf ko pilana haram he

Jo zara si pee ke behak gaya

Use mehkade se nikal do

Are yahan kamnazar ka guzar nahi

Yahan ahl-e zarf ka kaam he

 

Sharab ka koi apna sarhi rang nahin

Sharab tajziya o ihtesaab karti he

Jo ahl-e dil hain barhati he abru on ki

Jo beshaoor hain unko kharab karti he

 

Yeh janab-i shaikh ka falsafa

Jo samajh mein meri na aa saka

Jo wahan piyo to halal he

Jo yahan piyo to haram he

 

Are patti patti gulab hojati

Har kali mehv-i khawab ho jati

Tum ne dali na mehfashan nazrein

Warna shabnam sharab hojati

 

Yeh janab-i shaikh ka falsafa

Jo samajh mein meri na aa saka

Jo wahan piyo to halal he

Jo yahan piyo to haram he

Sex and Sadness in Khurshidul Islam’s poetry

Today I want to talk about the relationship between sex and sadness in Khurshidul Islam’s poetry. Islam is a very peculiar author. He was trained as a scholar of Urdu literature and poetry and his work is monumental within literary criticism in Urdu literature. We know that the greatest of Urdu poets, of course, are aware of the corpus of work behind them and this surfaces in their explicit references to the poets from the past generation that they perceive to have been great. Islam, however, is not just aware of the body of work but he is able to critically approach it with a variety of methodologies. Whereas a poet might only approach the work before his time from within a certain methodological framework (romanticism, formalism, post-modernism) etc, Islam was well versed in different epistemologies and made no secret of his rigid belief that a Marxist approach to literature and poetry was the best one possible.

Substantial shifts were happening within Urdu poetry as Islam was wrapping up his doctoral studies. The most vocal of these shifts was the progressive writers who want to use poetry to motivate social action. A more quieter shift (at least at the time) was the modernist breakaway from the structure of the ghazal. Islam only published three books of poetry but these books engage significantly with the themes mentioned above. Noticeably, his first two books (the second of which includes a large overlap with the first one) followed the traditional ghazal parameters with some emergence of free verse towards the end of the book. The third book was a complete breakaway and only included free verse. Remarkably, his work does not quite call for social justice. It merely confirms his own personal views of state and societal relationships. However, there is a constant theme of moral existentialism within his poetry. The closest parable from the pantheon of well-known philosophers would be that of a hybrid between Camus and Sartre. Islam laments the absurdity of human existence while also holding the human responsible for its action. For Islam, much like Sartre, the question of the existence or lack thereof of a divine being is not important. What is important is the “condemned freedom” of the humans and the repercussions it entails.

Islam’s poetry is provocative. Indeed, it is meant to be provocative much like N. M. Rashid’s is. Whereas Rashid delves deeply into a psychoanalytic examination of the self, Islam restricts himself to much simpler observations. So while Rashid talks about sex as an action with a remarkable variety of motivations (in his Intiqam, for example, the primary motivation for sex is avenging the colonial domination of the subcontinent!!!), Islam talks about the same desires from a more relatable perspective. Consider the following verse where Islam posits loneliness as the most basic, and common, motivation of desiring sex.

یہاں تو کوئی نہیں، دل تک اکیلا ہے

 قبا کے بند تو کھولو، ہمارے پاس تو آو

There is no one here, even my heart is lonely,

Come near me, open the knots of your robe

Islam here deploys the traditional idioms of loneliness and a sad heart. It is not clear who he is speaking to- is it the beloved or a mere stranger? Perhaps it doesn’t even matter. While the first line shows Islam as lonely, the second depicts him as active about seeking an end to this loneliness. For Islam, the solution to this loneliness does not lie in being content with imagining the beloved as many of the earlier poets preferred to. He also does not want to stay aloof from a stranger if that is indeed who he is addressing. Islam is also not interested in cultivating an ethic of forlornness as many poets might have instead ended up doing in such a situation. He is upfront about nudity and sex as a viable, practical solution. So sex, in such a situation, is merely instrumental to ending Islam’s loneliness. It is not a form of intimacy at all- merely the means by which Islam wants to address his own lonely state.

Many questions emerge from such a reading. What kind of a sadness is Islam talking about? Is it existential sadness as he alludes elsewhere in his work or is it heartbreak? Is sex only ever a means of addressing one’s sadness and not a primal instinct? Or is it perhaps a primal instinct and one that best addresses a state of sadness? These are some of the lines of inquiry that I will try to develop over the summer as I return to his body of work. For now, I will continue with a brief summary of how his conceptualization of sex progresses through his work.

As Islam shifts to free verse, he is able to express more of what he is thinking. At this point, the loneliness he feels as well as the prevalence of sex as a means of fighting this loneliness is constructed as a wider, societal phenomenon. Consider the following poems (I apologize for the horrible translation and would thank you if you can provide a better version).

اُس گیت کی دھن ابھی تک میرے

بستر میں ہے

جو کل رات کو

کسی رنڈی نے میرے پڑوس میں

گایا تھا

The tune of the song is still in my bed

That was sung last night

By some prostitute in my neighbourhood

Here, Islam talks about the presence of a prostitute in his neighbourhood. Given what we know about Islam as a scholar, it is safe to assume that a neighbourhood like his would likely morally disapprove of prostitution. Yet, Islam insists on not just acknowledging the existence of prostitution but also the public revelation that it is a more regular occurrence than what one might concede. Alternatively, we can also say that perhaps we have no idea of the type of the neighbourhood that Islam lives in. Indeed, the only thing that the verse tells us is that it’s a neighbourhood frequented by vocal prostitutes! (If it was only the single prostitute, then Islam (or other neighbours) would have recognized who it was. The use of کسی shows that it is but one from many). This verse, in distinction to the first, posits the instrumental use of sex as a pervasive phenomenon and one that is not limited to Islam himself. In doing so, Islam is not providing excuses for his own behavior, but instead highlighting how such behavior is actually very common. What also jumps out is Islam’s own loneliness that remains unaddressed in this verse. Thus, in his loneliness, he is able to be attentive to what’s going on around him. Does this signal an acceptance, on Islam’s part, that on some nights he is consigned to loneliness because others in the vicinity are making use of the same remedy?

The last verse I want to mention is also the lengthiest.

مانا کہ تو فاحشہ ہے

مگر تو سب کو راحت

کا سامان بہم پہنچاتی

ہے، میں تیرا

احترام کرتا ہوں

تو آج مجھے بھی اپنے پاس

سلا لے، میں

تنہائی میں مرنا نہیں چاہتا

میں تیرے حق

میں دعا کروں گا

I acknowledge that you are a promiscuous woman

But you provide comfort, one without parallel, to all

For that, I respect you

Will you, today, let me sleep next to you?

I do not wish to die alone

I will say a prayer for you

Here, Islam continues with the theme of sex as instrumental to getting rid of sadness but changes how he approaches it. Instead of talking about the motivation for the act itself, he talks about the admiration he has for the person providing this service. The term فاحشہ is not how Islam views the woman in this poem- it is only the label given to her by the society that Islam is a part of. Islam makes clear his respect both in expressing his admiration for her as well as asking her to allow him to sleep with her. He is impressed by her ability to provide comfort to all with no discrimination. This equality, Islam laments elsewhere, is sorely missing from the world. The insistence by Islam that he would pray in favor of this woman is intriguing. He does not say he would advocate for her in this world likely because Islam knows that the society is unforgiving (He says elsewhere that ‘It is a pity that the society forgives the weak, but never forgives the brave’) towards those brave enough to upset it. Islam also does not concern himself with whether there is a divine or not so instead of arguing one way or the other, he agrees to pray knowing that should there be a divine, the prayer will carry some support for the woman but that if there is no divine, the act of praying would suffice as a gesture of his admiration for this woman. However, much like the earlier verses, not much is revealed about the type of sadness that Islam is undergoing. Though, for this verse, it could be because the focus is on the فاحشہ and not on the poet himself.

This has been an informal blog post- a skeleton really. I have sought to connect and link some of Islam’s work from across this three published works. I find the consistency and continuity of this thoughts remarkable. A lot of what I wrote above has been in my mind for a few months and there is lots more. I think another theme I want to explore in his work is the idea of a man squaring up to a diving being. As always, if you have any thoughts or critiques of what I wrote above, please comment or drop me an email and we can continue the discussion.

Some excerpts from N. M. Rashid and Khurshidul Islam

It’s been a long and busy school year. Between work and school, I have rarely had time to work on Aziz Mian at all. However, most of the ideas that first sprang on this blog have now been subsequently developed more substantively. I have also had the chance to expand beyond Aziz Mian and into the works of N. M. Rashid and Khurshidul Islam. These are two poets who I’ve mentioned previously on here as poets who inspire me as not just a poet but also as a person. Below are some pictures of works by them that I have found myself unable to stop thinking about over the last few months. I will return to these over the summer to comment. For now, I present them as they are.

N. M. Rashid

2016-04-15 17.21.03

2016-04-15 17.20.45

2016-04-14 17.40.44

2016-04-14 17.41.00

2016-04-14 17.41.05

2016-04-14 17.41.14

2016-04-14 17.41.24

Khurshidul Islam

2016-04-08 01.39.38

2016-04-08 01.41.59

2016-04-08 01.58.31

2016-04-16 23.50.10

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2016-04-16 23.51.23