‘I know how men in exile feed on dreams’

To the accompaniment of songs, poetry and history, Raza Rumi spent a bittersweet evening with fellow exiles exploring the state of his banishment

“Our native soil draws all of us, by I know not what sweetness, and never allows us to forget” ? Ovid

I sat there, on a wooden deck with a motley crew under the summer sky. Deep into the suburbia of Maryland this was a spontaneous get together with a diverse group of Pakistani-Americans. The sorted, integrated types not at odds with the ‘evil West’ as we know it back home. Yet, they were exiles, dislocated in their own way. This was a strangely intimate evening with so many stories that merged into a moment of connection, a nameless bond.

Noreen and Amjad Babar – old residents here – are great hosts. Their home, an open house in all senses, hosts all the progressives across the length and breadth of the United States. That evening when we all congregated perchance, it was a melee of writers, poets, doctors and journalists of Pakistani origin. This was also the weekend when the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA) was holding its annual convention.

Pakistani American doctors hold a huge festival every year where they congregate, network, vent and even make matches for their hybridized children.

This year’s event was dedicated to hundreds of doctors who have been killed for their ‘wrong’ faith in Pakistan

I was invited to speak at a panel organized by Karachi’s Dow Medical College Alumni (formally known as the ‘Dow Graduates Association of North America’) that attempts to raise the unpopular issues of extremism and progressive change in Pakistan. This year’s event was dedicated to hundreds of doctors who have been killed for their ‘wrong’ faith in Pakistan. Most notably, Dr Mehdi whose assassination did not even invite a simple statement of condemnation from Pakistan’s so-called ruling ‘democrats’. The panel was great: Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, poet-writer-journalist Hasan Mujtaba and the bold columnist Dr Taqi. Haqqani amused the audience with his wit and exceptional command over Pakistan’s history. Only a few bilingual speakers can match his erudition.

So after the event, we all gathered around a table on a perfect summer afternoon and gradually a dozen of us had banded together. Writer and poet Neelam Ahmad Bashir who was visiting Washington DC had come earlier in the day to attend the Mushaira organized by APPNA and to read her stories at what is rather affectionately termed as Society of Urdu Literature (SOUL). The firebrand physician-activist turned politician Amna Buttar was there, as well as Masood Haider, a veteran journalist from New York. We all moved to Amjad Babar’s house, huddled in cars in desi style, oblivious of time and busy in cracking pleasant and morbid jokes about the state of the dear homeland.

As if charged by the ‘mehfil’, she started to sing

When we arrived at the Babar residence, we were joined by another fine poet Irfan Malik and Ijaz Shah who used to work for the old-school progressive magazine View Point (and left Pakistan during the Zia era), among others. I wanted Neelam Bashir to recite her new poem on Bhai Columbus – a hysterically funny satire on America and Pakistani-Americans which I had heard at the SOUL event a day earlier – but she was in a different sort of a mood. As if charged by the ‘mehfil’, she started to sing. And this was a few hours of soulful singing in the appropriate sur.

When she came to the best known ghazal of Munir Niazi – Uss bewafa ka sheher haye aur ham hayn dosto – the evening turned molten

Starting with Madam Noor Jahan’s ‘Ja Apni Hasraton Pe Aansoo Baha ke So Ja’ , Neelam was unstoppable. When she came to the best known ghazal of Munir Niazi – Uss bewafa ka sheher haye aur ham hayn dosto – the evening turned molten. Everybody joined in as if this was a group catharsis. Niazi’s ghazal is wistful, nostalgic and utterly sad:

ye ajnabi si manzilen aur raftagan ki yad

tanhaiyon ka zahar hai aur ham hain dosto

(These strange destinations and the memory of lost companions/The poison of loneliness is what we live with, dear friends)

Aankon mein urr rahi lutti mehfilon ki dhool

Ibrat sarai-deher hai, aur ham hayn dosto

(The dust of abandoned congregations hurts the eye/ We exist with the repentance from a ruined serai of life)

Buttar was a member of the Punjab Assembly until the xenophobic campaign against dual nationals was launched

Amna Buttar followed with her repertoire of ghazals and folk songs. She sang in Punjabi, Urdu and Seriaki and transformed into another person. That was my true discovery of the evening. Buttar left her successful medicine career to join politics, was elected as a member of Punjab Assembly until the xenophobic campaign against dual nationals was launched during the PPP government joined in by the ‘free’ and ‘independent’ media and judges. In short, Pakistan spurned her effort to make a contribution. She is now back as an accomplished medical professional and continues her activism. But this is a loss for her country.

Dr Taqi knew almost every verse of the ghazals and geets and displayed a remarkable knowledge of Indian cinema music. On the sidelines of this music-fest, Taqi and Aijaz Shah also discovered that they were neighbours from the old city of Peshawar and continued to refresh their spatial and cultural memory. And then came a post-mortem of the Left movement. They spent an hour comparing notes on who contributed or betrayed the Left. While they were at it, Masood and I could not help laughing; and I jokingly referred to this history-digging as a tribute to the shrine of the Left that still remains alive in the consciousness of many progressive Pakistanis. Every now and then, comrades and commissars are remembered, anecdotes exchanged with splashes of theoretical tidbits to understand why Pakistan, once fertile ground for progressive politics, has become a graveyard of ideology except the one sanctioned by the martial state.

The singing was only interrupted by a desi spread – mostly home-cooked. Upon my insistence, the poetry session started in the early hours of the morning. The clear, deep-blue starry sky and a soft breeze made it a peculiar setting for the recital. Irfan Malik is an accomplished Punjabi poet and I was a little upset at myself for not having read him extensively or for that matter the other contemporary Punjabi poets. A poem called ‘Pakistan’ haunted everyone for its stark images and powerful impact.:

The darkened lane

Has pierced deep into the hearts

In Polythene bags


Stuffed like refuse

The demons of blood

adrift on old rivers

Lives, trampled like rubble

On the chowks of my land

In the dips of lanes defined faith and belief

In the potholes of pavements marked by patriotism

Hands, feet, eyes, tongues, breasts

All deceiving the hearts

The dark lane has jammed into our throats

Like a poisonous lizard

The darkened lane

Was always dark

(translation by RR)

His Punjabi accent is quintessentially Lahori

Irfan Malik, a pucca Lahori, lives in Boston and teaches and practices theatre. His Punjabi accent is quintessentially Lahori where ‘r’s are pronounced with a hint of ‘d’ and vice versa. Another remarkable poem also deals with the intractability of exile:

I search for my home in your house

From my own back

There is no hope of this exile ending

What grave is this?

How could I bury the union?

Helpless waiting, giving up..

What kind of a calamity is this?

The absence of separation

Is more luscious than love

(translation by RR)

But it was Hasan Mujtaba, a poet of original expression from Sindh who also writes for the BBC who enthralled everyone with his poem ‘Sab kujj vikda’ (Everything is for sale). With a poetic expression to transcend linguistic boundaries, Mujtaba only echoes the Sindhi masters who knew the languages of the soil. When the progeny of great Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam put up her house for sale – a unique venue where Amrita and her lover Imroz lived and worked; and where poet Sahir Ludhianvi visited – Mujtaba was moved beyond repair. He composed a long poem invoking multiple metaphors from Punjabi Sufi poetry and folk tradition lamenting how every value and reference in our times was a victim of greed. And the poem was a scathing attack on devaluing our heritage by a society adrift, by a people who had lost direction.

“O’ Waris Shah

What all is sold

In the marketplace

Graves are sold

Friends get auctioned,

Each leaf of love’s book

And promises, assurances are traded

O’ Waris Shah..”

Mujtaba’s poem – ‘Exilic’ experience on the streets of NYC – is a universal song of separation:



You mean

Suicide’s stepsister

The poet’s beloved…

Exile is not even Broadway

Where drama runs, night after night, week after week,

Month after month

Main attraction of the children and the tourists

The Lion King!

Exile is not even the Mayor of NYC.

Exile is like an old newspaper

On the streets of the City in autumn

Trying to walk

With the flying dried Maple leaves.

Exile is a gush of wind

Accompanying a torrential storm.”

(Translated by Zafaryab Ahmed )

I sat there, under the open sky and marveled at the ability of these men and women to poeticize exile, to celebrate separations in such a manner. My own liminal state of being just fitted into the collective mood. Having left my home, my land and people – even though not forever – this was the ultimate, cathartic moment. Wajid Ali Syed, my old friend and a longtime journalist kept filling in the forgotten lyric or verse and kept us amused with his timely interventions.

But the personal stories intersected that night. Neelum Ahmad Bashir lived in the US for decades as an exile. She now divides her time between Pakistan and the US. Two other friends, journalist Khawar Rizvi (who escaped after life threats) and Hamza, a former human rights activist also sat there and found their own story narrated through poetry.

And saddest was the fact that that the host, Amjad Babar, is battling cancer with an amazing will to live every day of his life in a fulfilling manner. So the parties and mehfils at his place have become even more regular. Such a confluence of personal histories made this evening way more than a regular music and poetry soiree. At Babar’s house the late Khalid Hasan was also an occasional visitor. We did talk about him as Washington DC remembers him well. There are many an anecdote about his dress sense, impeccable English, Urdu and Punjabi, eccentricities and vast knowledge of everything cultural.

Neelum at the end of a long bright night cheered everyone with her long poem:

Now that we have grown older

Fearing that the daughter may find a boyfriend

And the son might marry a white or a black girl

We have grown a beard, and adorned a burqa

Oh Bhai Columbus, thanks for discovering America

Now we attend sermons and frequent mosques

After making lots of money, we shall visit Makkah many a time

Will live in Amreeka and still call it infidel

And consider our faith as the very best

After a sinful life, we are now repenting

Oh bhai Columbus, thanks for discovering Amreeka.

(translation by RR)

I have travelled across the continents. This is not the first time I am living abroad but a forced departure is cruel. I can’t complain too much. The US and especially its multicultural capital is not a closed society. There is a level of acceptability for outsiders. But the idea of being an outsider is what makes it complex. How long will this be? I wish I knew.

“All is true, my friend

But life must be

Lived, endured.

An arrow, stretched

On the bow-string

Awaits its prey

But the deer must

Leap and play.”

(Majeed Amjad – translated by Yasmeen Hameed)

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