A short anecdote about Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of the most celebrated Pakistani poets.
By Gabriel Sanchez-Ortega, Staff Writer
In 2019, while living in a cramped basement apartment that only a student would rent, my furnace broke down in the middle of winter. After a few days, a middle-aged man came down into the basement to fix it. He appeared at my door one evening, with his tool bag in hand, asking me to show him to the furnace room. As he settled down to work, an old memory came to my mind.
When I was young, my father taught me that anyone who’d come into the house should be treated as a guest. I have memories of my father, inviting the people who would come into the house to fix things, often immigrant men like himself, to sit down to talk over tea or coffee. He would often ask them where they were from, or if they had any family in the country. If they came from Mexico like himself, they would speak about home.
At that time, I had neither tea nor coffee to offer the man who had just come into my apartment, so I decided to ask him where he was from.
“I’m from Pakistan.”
“From Pakistan? Can you read Urdu?”
When he replied that he could, I went to fetch a book of poetry from my library and handed it to him. The book was a collection of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry in English and Urdu. Of course, he knew about Faiz, so he offered to tell me which of the poems were his famous ones.
He began to flip through the pages of the book with his oil-stained fingers. He would stop from time to time to read a few lines aloud from the Urdu, sometimes bending the corner of a page. Then he flipped the pages back to one of the first poems which began this collection of Faiz’s poetry, a poem called Don’t Ask Me For That Love Again, and said:
“This one—every line is written in my heart.”
What does a poet mean to his people? At the time when Faiz wrote, India had just gained independence and been partitioned into the new nations of India and Pakistan. The political instability brought on by decades of British rule had divided the nation, resulting in the mass migrations of at least ten million people, and as many as two million deaths. Throughout this difficult period, Faiz wrote passionately about the human aspiration for freedom. Faiz was not only regarded as the greatest Urdu poet of his time, but also as an advocate for the voiceless and the oppressed.
After the man had finished working on the furnace, we only talked for a brief moment. He asked me about my life, about my family, and about my studies at the University of Toronto. He told me that he had young children at home, and that he was hoping that, like me, they would get a good education so that they wouldn’t have to bear the burden of hard work on their bodies—something my father had often said to me. He offered me words of encouragement, wishing that my hard work would pay off. Then we shook hands and parted ways.
To this day, I remember the words he spoke to me about Faiz’s poem—the corners of the pages of my book are still bent. It is a moment that I will cherish for all my life that to me represents the essence of poetry. He, like my father, had left his home country, like many fathers and mothers who hoped for a better life for their children. This longing for freedom, this hope for a better life and this struggle had been put into words through Faiz’s poetry.
I invite you to read the poem in question, which was translated by Agha Shahid Ali in his collection, The Rebel’s Silhouette. In the poem, Faiz breaks from the traditional way of looking at the Beloved–an archetype in Urdu poetry—which can mean friend, woman, or God. In his poetry, Faiz extended the metaphor of the Beloved to figure as the revolution.
In this poem, Faiz symbolically proclaims his social commitment as more important than his love. He gives the Beloved her due, but here and for all his life he declares his commitment to others and to the hope of freedom for his people.
DON’T ASK ME FOR THAT LOVE AGAIN
That which then was ours, my love,
don’t ask me for that love again.
The world then was gold, burnished with light –
and only because of you. That’s what I had believed.
How could one weep for sorrows other than yours?
How could one have any sorrow but the one you gave?
So what were these protests, these rumours of injustice?
A glimpse of your face was evidence of springtime.
The sky, whenever I looked, was nothing but your eyes.
If you’d fall into my arms, Fate would be helpless.
All this I’d thought, all this I’d believed.
But there were other sorrows, comforts other than love.
The rich had cast their spell on history:
dark centuries had been embroidered on brocades and silks.
Bitter threads began to unravel before me
as I went into alleys and in open markets
saw bodies plastered with ash, bathed in blood.
I saw them sold and bought, again and again.
This too deserves attention. I can’t help but look back
when I return from those alleys – what should one do?
And you are still so ravishing – what should I do?
There are other sorrows in this world,
comforts other than love.
Don’t ask me, my love, for that love again.
(Translated from Urdu by Agha Shahid Ali)