Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911-1984)

February 13 marks the birth anniversary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Born in Sialkot (now Pakistan) in 1911, his voice served as poetic witness to the turbulent upheavals of the Indian sub-continent of his lifetime. A member of the Communist Party in undivided India, and one of the architects of the Communist movement in Pakistan, Faiz was charged by the Pakistani regime in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case in 1951, was sentenced to death and spent four years in prison before being released. He served on the National Council of the Arts by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's government; and when Bhutto was overthrown by the Zia Ul Haq dictatorship, Faiz was exiled in Lebanon, where he remained till 1982. He died in Lahore in 1982. In Faiz's voice, it is as if we can hear the voices of today - Pakistan's and the sub-continent's pain, its yearnings for democracy, the cries of its "orphan blood" shed by a spotless assassin, and its conviction of hope. The poems below are translated from the Urdu by Agha Shahid Ali.
A Prison Evening
Each star a rung,
night comes down the spiral
staircase of the evening.
The breeze passes by so very close
as if someone just happened to speak of love.
In the courtyard,
the trees are absorbed refugees
embroidering maps of return on the sky.
On the roof,
the moon - lovingly, generously -
is turning the stars
into a dust of sheen.
From every corner, dark-green shadows,
in ripples, come towards me.
At any moment they may break over me,
like the waves of pain each time I remember
this separation from my lover.

This thought keeps consoling me:
though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed
in rooms where lovers are destined to meet,
they cannot snuff out the moon, so today,
nor tomorrow, no tyranny will succeed,
no poison of torture make me bitter,
if just one evening in prison
can be so strangely sweet,
if just one moment anywhere on this earth.

City of Lights

On each patch of green, from one shade to the next,
the noon is erasing itself by wiping out all colour,
becoming pale, desolation everywhere,
the poison of exile painted on the walls.
In the distance,
there are terrible sorrows, like tides:
they draw back, swell, become full, subside.
They've turned the horizon to mist.
And behind that mist is the city of lights,
my city of many lights.

How will I return to you, my city,
where is the road to your lights? My hopes
are in retreat, exhausted by these unlit, broken walls,
and my heart, their leader, is in terrible doubt.

But let all be well, my city, if under
cover of darkness, in a final attack,
my heart leads its reserves of longings
and storms you tonight. Just tell all your lovers
to turn the wicks of their lamps high
so that I may find you, Oh, city,
my city of many lights.


August 1952

It's still distant, but there are hints of springtime:
some flowers, aching to bloom, have torn open their collars.

In this era of autumn, almost winter, leaves can still be heard:
their dry orchestras play, hidden in corners of the garden.

Night is still where it was, but colors at times take flight,
leaving red feathers of dawn on the sky.

Don't regret our breath's use as air, our blood's as oil --
some lamps at last are burning in the night.

Tilt your cup, don't hesitate! Having given up all,
we don't need wine. We've freed ourselves, made Time irrelevant.

When imprisoned man opens his eyes, cages will dissolve: air, fire,
water, earth -- all have pledged such dawns, such gardens to him.

Your feet bleed, Faiz, something surely will bloom
as you water the desert simply by walking through it.


In Search of Vanished Blood

There's no sign of blood, not anywhere.
I've searched everywhere.
The executioner's hands are clean, his nails transparent.
The sleeves of each assassin are spotless.
No sign of blood: no trace of red,
not on the edge of the knife, none on the point of the sword.
The ground is without stains, the ceiling white.

The blood which has disappeared without leaving a trace
isn't part of written history: who will guide me to it?
It wasn't spilled in service of emperors --
-- it earned no honor, had no wish granted.
It wasn't offered in rituals of sacrifice --
-- no cup of absolution holds it in a temple.
It wasn't shed in any battle --
-- no one calligraphed it on banners of victory.

But, unheard, it still kept crying out to be heard.
No one had the time to listen, no one the desire.
It kept crying out, this orphan blood,
but there was no witness. No case was filed.
From the beginning this blood was nourished only by dust.

Then it turned to ashes, left no trace, became food for dust.