A review of Naveeda Khan’s book Muslim Becoming published in “The Book Review”
I wanted to learn what it meant to know Islam in Pakistan and why this knowing was so easily brushed aside.
It is a welcome addition to the rather scant literature on Islam, identity and Muslimness in contemporary Pakistan. Khan begins by presenting a debate between four librarians of differing religious persuasions. Deep within the stacks of the Provincial As- sembly Library, four men take part in a dis- cussion that highlights the marked differ- ences in their belief systems. Of the four, one is a Shia and the other three Sunni. Among the Sunnis, one identifies himself as a Deobandi, one as a follower of Ahl-e-Hadis sect, and the third as a Barelvi. Akbar, the follower of Ahl-e-Hadis school of thought, speaks at length of the superiority of their mosques as ‘they allowed laymen to give ser- mons and encouraged women’s participation in congregational prayer’. Despite his reverence for mosque culture, Akbar is derisive of the thought of praying at the Prophet’s mosque in Medina.
It is commendable to pray at the Prophet’s mosque, but it isn’t necessary. Some among us have made it into a re- quirement by saying such things as, the Prophet is alive there, he can hear your prayers and he can grant you your wishes. Such claims are bid’a. One cannot pray there until such time as this bid’a has been vanquished… Continue reading →
Author with Izzeldin Abuelaish Photo by Sara Faruqi/Dawn.com
The third Karachi Literature Festival concluded recently. I am posting a short piece of mine which was published by the News on Sunday. Another report that I wrote for TFT can be found here. Faiza S Khan’s review is most interesting. Another review by Umair found it sterile and comments on the technocratic discussions that took place on ‘national’ issues. And a comprehensive round up at DAWN’s Books & Authors magazine here.
“When our lives are written about in the English language, the books become best sellers,” thundered Pakistan’s rebel poet Kishwar Naheed at the Karachi Literature Festival. This was a session where I had the rather undeserved honour of introducing and talking to Naheed and the other master poet, Iftikhar Arif. She added that there was little emphasis on quality as the books you were supposed to buy at the airports for light reading were now ‘high’ literature. This was an oblique, yet unambiguous reference to the Pakistani writing in English. The two worlds — “native” and English — remain quite separate in a manner that Kipling had envisioned. English writing from Pakistan has received global attention and is celebrated at festivals across the globe. Yet how many Pakistanis have an idea of what it is all about? This is an uncomfortable question that we need to ask and perhaps keep on asking.
The Karachi Literature Festival has now evolved into a serious annual festival where writers gather and interact with thousands of readers each year. To be fair to the organisers, they have been mindful of the principle of inclusiveness from the very start. Asif Farrukhi, an eminent writer (who is my actual role model for his supernatural powers to write, edit and think with a full time job) has been organising the “regional” side of the literary ramblings at the festivals. Big names such as Fahmida Riaz and others are given due acknowledgment by holding sessions with them. Yet, the emphasis, for obvious reasons, is on the universe of English writings — both by Pakistanis and foreigners. This year, Vikram Seth, William Dalrymple, Hanif Kureishi, Shobha De, Anatol Lieven and several others attracted much attention by their readers, fans and critics. There were a few sessions on Urdu and regional languages’ literature but it was obvious that the attendees were not always the same.
As a young woman confessed at the festival, “I hardly read Urdu, but do you consider Initizar Husain a great writer?” Despite the shocking nature of this statement, I was hardly surprised. The apartheid that exists in Pakistan’s education system marginalises the local and the vernacular compared to the more market-oriented, global English. Aside from its potential “benefits,” English language, for some, remains an odious status symbol. A colonial legacy, a preserve of the postcolonial elites, and a stepping-stone for entry into the deliberately constructed, globalised monoculture. Continue reading →
In a few days, Mohammad Hanif’s new novel will be available in Pakistan. Last week, I met him at his house in Karachi. The grand dame of Urdu literature, Qurratulain Hyder, used to make fun of people who would ask writers what were they writing about. “Are writers cooks that they should be subjected to senseless questions,” she remarked in one of her essays. With this sentence lurking somewhere in the corner of my mind, I was most hesitant to ask Hanif questions about his new novel. In any case, Hanif is not known for responding to inane questions either. We found ourselves locked in this battle: me not wanting to ask; and Hanif avoiding to pontificate about his latest book. Awkward? No. Funny, Yes.
We found ourselves locked in this battle: me not wanting to ask; and Hanif avoiding to pontificate about his latest book. Awkward? No. Funny, Yes
Dressed in a flamboyant pair of shorts and a funky T-shirt, Hanif and I spoke about everything under the sun. He had been to an Iftaar party in North Nazimabad and a part of him was terribly inspired by the event. This was the ‘roza-kushai’ (breaking the first time fast) of a child and a wedding hall was the venue for a lavish Iftaar. He cited the discussions he had with a ‘buzurg’ (an elder) and quoted him. Writers play with their memories and recreate them in a most innovative manner. Thus the delightful tales of the elderly gentleman’s commentary on Karachi, its random violence, literature and society was most amusing. Continue reading →
The first half of the 20th century witnessed a transformation in Urdu literature with the emergence of the short story as the choicest medium of literary expression, reflecting the shifting contours of Indian society. Urdu was not a communal language then. The Muslims and Hindus of pre-1947 India preferred the language for its subtlety, richness and aesthetic qualities. This was the age of Prem Chand’s realism, the romanticism of Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishna Chandar, the irony and brutal directness of Ismat Chughtai and Manto and of course the prescient visions of Ghulam Abbas.
Coffee House By Irfan Javed Sang-e-Meel Publication, Lahore, 2011 Price Rs. 400
The art of storytelling and creating ‘real’ characters was a huge shift from the idyllic, escapist and courtly expression of the 18th and 19th centuries. These new storytellers were children of Syed Ahmad Khan, Hali, Shibli and the modernists who modernized the Urdu idiom and brought it closer to the people and their evolving everyday dialect, now interpreted as Hindustani. The 20th century was also a time of ideological upheavals and movements inspired by the October 1917 revolution, leading to the creation of the first Communist state. Therefore, the realism of later writers like Ahmad Nadeem Qasimi was inspired by the literary debates on what literature ought to be doing and saying. This genre of short story gradually gave way to post-Partition traumas and the emergence of other styles that relied on symbolism and allegory, especially when Pakistan was pushed into martial rule in the 1950s. Continue reading →
What makes translating Urdu literature a rare indulgence has also kept it closeted from global appreciation.
Ralph Russell, the legendary British scholar of Urdu literature, whose tireless efforts to explore the Byzantine layers of Urdu will always serve as a reference point for global Urdu-walas, once summed up the eternal dilemma of achieving a perfect translation of Urdu literature into English. He pointed out that the work of Indian and Pakistani translators suffered from a lack of command in either language. “The English-knowing products of what in India and Pakistan are generally called ‘convent schools’ have acquired their nearly (but not quite) perfect English at the cost of losing full command of their mother tongue,” he wrote in 1996.
This is not to say that translations of Urdu literature have not been accomplished. In fact, there are many 20th century writers whose works have been translated by competent men and women. Key examples are the translations of the short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai. Their poignant and non-conformist writings have found a wide readership in predominantly English-reading Indian middle classes and western readers attempting to understand the nuances of South Asia’s literary output. The contribution of The Annual of Urdu Studies – edited by Muhammad Umar Memon and published every year from the US – has been immense in this regard. Some writers and poets whose works have been translated include Abdullah Hussein, Patras Bukhari, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ghulam Abbas, Hajra Masroor, Premchand, Qudratullah Shahab, Intizar whose contribution and devotion to the translation of Urdu literature remains unparalleled and who has provided fine examples of literary translations, leaving out no major contemporary Urdu writer. His academic journal, The Annual of Urdu Studies, continues to publish translated works from Urdu every year.
Literary magazines are a great introduction to young and fresh voices in Urdu. One can observe a constant process of experimentation in language and expression. Short story writer Ali Akbar Natiq, one of Urdu’s most important new voices, and Mohammad Khalid Toor, who is critical newly- rediscovered voice, have been introduced to readers by Urdu literary magazines. Continue reading →
Who says Pakistani literature was a relic of the past? If anything, Pakistani authors have a global audience today, and our writers are now the greatest harbingers of Pakistan’s complexity and nuance in a way that the embedded media can scarcely fathom.
The first literary festival took off in our cosmopolitan melting pot, Karachi, in March. The Oxford University Press’ dynamic head Ameena Saiyid, and the British Council, together organised this event. Asif Farrukhi, the premier litterateur of the metropolis was central to the festival. Farrukhi’s comprehensive command of Urdu and English literary currents, and the stature which he has earned with his hard work, ensured that we were all set for a fabulous gala.
Earlier, the festival faced the usual hurdles: the Indians were issued visas rather late in the day and my friend Sadia Dehlvi was denied a visa at the last minute, despite earnest efforts by the organisers. The iron curtain was rigidly in place. But the other regional and international delegates arrived as planned. The last minute finalisation of the schedule meant that due notice could not be given to many participants. However, the OUP team, especially Raheela Baqai, were adept at getting things done. Saiyid herself used Facebook to advertise the event. She’s obviously keeping up with technology and its changing frontiers.
We arrived just in time for the launch ceremony that was held at the British Consulate. It was quite a journey from the Carlton Hotel to old-world Clifton – a mini-bus that dazzled with literary icons of our time: Iftikhar Arif, Intezar Hussain, Masood Ash’ar and Shamsur Rehman Farooqi from the world of Urdu. The front seats were occupied by the petite and resplendent Bapsi Sidhwa, the contemplative Zulfiqar Ghose and the younger British Pakistani writer Sarfaraz Manzoor, whose book ‘Greetings From Bury Park’ has created waves across the English reading Continue reading →
As Indian TV channels broadcast stories on Pakistan’s domestic infighting, and rumours of a new coup d’ etat, my less perturbed alter-ego is calmed by Agra – the run down city that was once the capital of the Mughal empire. I have spent three days with a delightful group of South Asian writers, poets and academics who have congregated to celebrate the SAARC writers’ festival organised by Ajeet Caur, the legendary Punjabi writer whose love for Lahore has not waned despite the iron curtain erected sixty one years ago. Caur has been managing the Foundation of South Asian Writers and Literature (FOSWAL) since 1992 and single-handedly she has challenged the many geographical and political barriers that have been erected. FOSWAL is now a platform for writers and poets on the margins of power-drama, lighting little lamps of hope. (picture above left : SAARC writers with Pakistani delegates Ustad Akhtar (middle), Parveen Atif (second from left) and Zahid Nawaz (extreme right)
I had been reading Caur’s earthy, profound stories for decades, and always wondered if I would ever meet her. Therefore, receiving an invite from her a month ago, was a long cherished wish come true. In a few, scattered and sparkling conversations she told me how she had found me through my writings urging for Indo-Pak amity which, in the words of my cynical friends, are dreamy rants asking for the impossible. This March, the gods overseeing visas and border crossings were not too cantankerous. So I made it to Delhi the day before the conference was due to start. Continue reading →