review
Aura of nostalgia
A time comes in one's life when one is left to wonder whether the years gone by were an illusion or a reality. Zehra Nigah is voicing her feelings at exactly this point in time and hauntingly so
By Abrar Ahmad
Firaq
By Zehra Nigah
Publisher: Scheherzade publishers, Karachi
Pages: 184
Price: Rs 220
Zehra Nigah is a distinguished poet who has been gracefully present on the literary scene for decades now. She dominated the literary events during the post-partition years. Mushairas were all the rage then and were regularly organised even at town level throughout the country. Radio Pakistan was the only channel on air then, which also reserved special hours for poetry.

Confusion and chaos
An eye-opening account of a Muslim's internal struggles
By Huma Imtiaz
Children of Dust:
A Memoir of Pakistan
By Ali Eteraz
Publisher: HarperOne
Pages: 304
Price: USD 25
It's tough being a Muslim. Islam is a complex religion, with its code for life and faith and takes years of study to understand. Post 9/11, the religion has also come under intense scrutiny, and is now synonymous with terrorism and suicide bombings. In the 21st century, it seems Muslims have to first define and defend to others what their faith is, than understanding themselves what their faith is.

Zia Mohyeddin column
Stand out of my sunlight
Ever since I learned that the philosopher, Diogenes, ticked off Alexander the Great, I have had a fondness for him. The story as I read in my school days was that Alexander,  impressed that the philosopher was so highly admired despite having neither money nor power, went to meet him. He found Diogenes relaxing in the sunlight in the morning. When Alexander asked if there was any favour he might do for him, Diogenes replied, "Yes: stand out of my sunlight."

 

 

review
Aura of nostalgia

 

Firaq
By Zehra Nigah
Publisher: Scheherzade publishers, Karachi
Pages: 184
Price: Rs 220

Zehra Nigah is a distinguished poet who has been gracefully present on the literary scene for decades now. She dominated the literary events during the post-partition years. Mushairas were all the rage then and were regularly organised even at town level throughout the country. Radio Pakistan was the only channel on air then, which also reserved special hours for poetry.

I vividly remember the passionate words of praise for Zehra Nigah by my father, who had attended a mushaira probably at Faisalabad. That's how I came to know her name as a child.

Later, perhaps a couple of years back, I read somewhere that in the 1960s during a mushaira in Lahore, where Jigar Muradabadi, the chief guest, had recited his ghazals to end the event, the crowd chanted slogans demanding Zehra Nigah to reappear for an encore. Muradabadi got terribly annoyed and angrily left the stage. That's how she ruled hearts in those days.

Although I kept reading her sporadically in some select literary journals, an organised study could only be possible with the publication of her latest collection of poetry, Firaq. Its cover is designed by the famous Indian artist M.F. Hussain.

Munib-ur-Rehman writes the blurb: "The valuable characteristic of the modern era of Urdu poetry which makes it different from the past is the presence of a substantial number of female poets. Zehra Nigah being the most significant among them."

It is true indeed. She in fact was a torch-bearer for the new poet to surface later, soon followed by the charmingly brilliant Fehmida Riaz. Gradually a cluster of charged and committed female authors like Parveen Shakir, Sara Shagufta, Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, Azra Abbas, Shahida Hassan, Fatima Hassan and others emerged and occupied the scene. This process continues and now we find countless female voices making their vibrant presence felt.

Firaq is a collection of ghazals and nazms --  the nazms occupying more pages. Her ghazals are classical in tone but modern in sensibility. She exercises her command remaining within the ambit of tradition and offers a simple and artful expression of the self in a penetrating manner. She is more communicative and skilful in her poems, where she finds a space appropriate enough to express her rather complex intrinsic feelings replete with conflicts between the self and the outer reality she faces now. She speaks bitterly but firmly of the merciless oppression our women are faced with, without bending towards active feminism.

This gender bias, so deeply rooted in our society, runs throughout her offerings as an ongoing painful undercurrent. But the overwhelming theme of her poetry is the demise of values once prevalent and the memory of her lost dear ones. A time comes in one's life when one is left to wonder whether the years gone by were an illusion or a reality. Zehra Nigah is voicing her feelings at exactly this point in time and hauntingly so. The values she respected, the humans she loved and lived with, the turbulent moments silenced with time, all constantly occupy her.

Consequently her entire poetry has evolved in an aura of nostalgia. In this poetry the birth of sentiment springs from the instinctive desire to re-live what is no more possible. During this emotional pursuit, a world of meanings and feelings are infused into her words, capable of catching every intent reader.

Her language has a natural spontaneous grace and her poems bring forth the nave simplicity of human characters, which strongly contradicts the artificial refinement of our present day practices.

The woman emerging from her work is a mother, filled to the brim with maternal affection and pathos, who now faces a total disillusionment born out of isolation and terrible loneliness. But this element doesn't restrict her vision. One the contrary she becomes capable of perceiving and correctly interpreting every human situation around. Sham Ka Pehla Tara, Wirsa, Wo Ghar, Shehr Ke Aik Kushada Ghar Mai and Yahan Diddar Begum Dafn Hai are few exceptionally luminous poems.

 

Confusion and chaos

By Huma Imtiaz

Children of Dust:
A Memoir of Pakistan
By Ali Eteraz
Publisher: HarperOne
Pages: 304
Price: USD 25

It's tough being a Muslim. Islam is a complex religion, with its code for life and faith and takes years of study to understand. Post 9/11, the religion has also come under intense scrutiny, and is now synonymous with terrorism and suicide bombings. In the 21st century, it seems Muslims have to first define and defend to others what their faith is, than understanding themselves what their faith is.

Being born a Muslim is even harder. Interpreters spout incorrect versions of Islam, and continue, to this day, their usage of physical and mental abuse to force-feed their subjects a diet of Islam.

Being born a Pakistani in an ultra-conservative poor household is just the cherry on this crumbly cake. And in Ali Eteraz's case, author of the autobiographical Children of Dust, who struggles through the above three scenarios and more, it appears to be an ongoing process. Children of Dust is the story of the author's five lives, with five different identities, and his struggle to understand Islam and the world we live in today.

Children of Dust is the debut of prominent blogger and activist Ali Eteraz. It highlights a child's experiences with his faith and the changes he goes through during his life, and his varied and rich experiences with his religion, Islam.

Starting off from his memories as a child under his given name Abir ul Islam, ever mindful of the tale of how his parents begged Allah at Mecca for a child, his first Hajj as a toddler, the faithful Abir is enthralled by tales of epics in Islam featuring the prophets, yet at the same time, is confused by experiences with the opposite sex, and struggles to come to terms with life in a village in Punjab. His failed experience with learning the Quran in a madrassah, serve as a reminder of the flawed modes of teaching the Quran in such institutions.

The experiences that Eteraz goes through, first as a child with his vivid imagination and staunch faith, and then as a teenager, confused, rebellious and curious about the opposite sex are an eye-opener, bringing to light the fact that hardliner versions of Islam has served to confuse, and in some cases, ruin many a young man.

Eteraz touches upon his time in Pakistan as a child, and his dismay and confusion on his return to the homeland in the 90s. Branded as an outsider and an American, the devout boy encounters Osama Bin Laden supporters, and he is appalled at the way militant organisations are soliciting donations.

If one was to choose a favourite section from the book, it would be the section titled "The Postmodern Amir ul Islam," which begins following the author's return to the US after a short trip to Pakistan, and his feelings at being derided as a "CIA agent" and treated with suspicion:

"I had exalted the people of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan as the highest of believers. I had vested them with the authority to judge my iman, my belief; my taqwa, my piety. If only those righteous Muslims had cut open my chest and seen how the four chambers of heart pumped blood suffused with Islam yet they didn't."

Eteraz's life is not devoid of hilarity though, although it may just seem hilarious to the reader and poignant for the author. As a teenager, wishing he could watch the TV show Boy Meets World and instead being forced to attend Quran classes in the US.

"On Friday nights, when the clock hit 8:00 PM, he would poke me on the foot. "Right now Boy Meets World is on," he'd say resignedly.

"Be quiet," Papa would glare, squeezing his hand. "Don't you see that we're doing Boy Meets Islam?"

While one does, at various moments in the book, feel that the author may have needlessly added a dash of drama, it is Eteraz's confusion, throughout the years and his ever-changing identity that one instantly identifies with.  Saddled with tales of his destiny as a soldier and saviour of Islam that is often repeated by his family, the burden on Eteraz is far heavier than what it would be for many of us.

Although the prose is not as articulately expressed or as engaging as one would have hoped, the richness of Eteraz's experiences, the characters he encounters (both vile and endearing) and peppered with anecdotes that make one both sigh and smile make up for it. The rebel Amir, and then the activist fighting against fundamentalism and all that is wrong with the self-appointed guardians of the faith make for an interesting read.  One does wish though that some of the gaps in the story had been filled, as one is left guessing as to what happens to Eteraz's family in Pakistan or how his parents, a dominating influence in his life, are now coping with the post 9/11 life as Pakistanis residing in the States. Nevertheless, Eteraz's book is an interesting read, and one that will help readers understand what Islam is, the problems its followers face, and especially the struggles and confusion that young Muslims face in these tumultuous times.

 

Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist in Pakistan. She can be reached at huma.imtiaz@gmail.com

 

Zia Mohyeddin column
Stand out of my sunlight

Ever since I learned that the philosopher, Diogenes, ticked off Alexander the Great, I have had a fondness for him. The story as I read in my school days was that Alexander,  impressed that the philosopher was so highly admired despite having neither money nor power, went to meet him. He found Diogenes relaxing in the sunlight in the morning. When Alexander asked if there was any favour he might do for him, Diogenes replied, "Yes: stand out of my sunlight."

Oh how we giggled when we read the story! We had all seen the film Sikander-e-Azam in which Raja Porus, had stood up to him, bold and erect, to declare "treat me as one king to another." And now here was Alexander getting his come-uppance from an old man in rags.

There is another account of Alexander's conversation with Diogenes, Alexander found the philosopher looking attentively at a pile of human bones. When asked what he was looking for, Diogenes explained, "I am searching for the bones of your father but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave." This was meant to chasten Alexander. Alexander probably was chastened, or else he wouldn't have declared, "if I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes."

Judging from all the stories that have been spread about him, I would say that Diogenes was the first recorded Sufi. He shunned all worldly goods; he even destroyed the single wooden bowl he possessed on seeing a peasant boy drink from the hollow of his hands and he inured himself to the vicissitudes of weather by living in a tub. There are many illustrations of Diogenes (and his dog) sitting in a tub. His personality has appealed strongly to sculptors and painters throughout subsequent generations.

Diogenes used to walk through the streets of Athens, in full daylight, with a lamp. When people asked him what he was doing he would answer, "I am just looking for a human being. Wherever I go I find nothing but rascals and scoundrels". This is a kind of hikayat we associate with Attar or Rumi.

It is said that he once ridiculed Plato during a seminar. No wonder Diogenes acquired the reputation of a crackpot during his lifetime. Plato described him as a "Socrates gone mad." There are anecdotes that refer to his dog-like behaviour and his extreme regard for a dog's virtues. Diogenes believed that dogs have no use for the pretensions of abstract philosophy and that dogs know instinctively who is a friend and who is foe.

I have not read Diogenes. He is supposed to have authored a number of books but none have survived. I admire him because in an age where a man's identity was intimately tied to his citizenship in a particular city, Diogenes declared that he was a citizen of the world, a cosmopolitan. This was a radical claim. In his own time he was considered to be an outcast, an exile, a man with no social identity.

Diogenes, the cynic, (the term cynic or cynical derives from the Greek word kyon meaning dog) was born in a place called Sinope (now part of modern day Turkey). For reasons, that cannot be verified, he was exiled from the city. Legend has it that during his many voyages he was once captured by pirates and sold as a slave in Crete to a Corinthian. Being asked his trade he replied that he knew no trade but that of governing men and that he wished to be sold to a man who needed a master. The man who bought him was so impressed with his courage - and his learning - that he appointed Diogenes to become a tutor to his two sons. According to one account Diogenes lived in Corinth for the rest of his life preaching the doctrine of austerity and self-control. I do not care whether this tale is true or not. It fits in with the attributes of a non-conformist thinker. His remark in the slave market is typical of a man who fears no one and nothing.

New scholarship tells me that Diogenes was a crank, a beggar and a grouch, a man who revelled in misbehaving in public. It may be so, but it does not diminish his stature in my eyes. Would I have a lesser regard for Hallaj if I was told that he once defecated in a public place?

Our cultural concepts are built on misconceptions, misconstructions, myths and legends. There are far too many misconceptions deeply ingrained in our psyche. I would not give them up, for I were to do so I would have to acquire a new memory bank as well.

Misconstruction and misbelief plays a significant part not only in the enrichment of a language but in the framing of our perceptions as well. Let me illustrate: I like the expression 'humble pie' (meaning to undergo humiliation especially that of admitting one's error and apologising) if only because I have eaten it often enough. The "humble" in "humble pie" was, originally, "umble", a term derived from umbilical. The "umble pie" eaten by the poor, a few centuries ago, included the umbilical cords of animals. To eat "umble pie", in the bygone days, signified poverty, not humiliation. When and why the 'umble' turned into 'humble' is not known to me, but I am certain that I'd never be able to bring myself to eat "umble" - in a pie or any other form - so I would go on pandering to the misconstruction.

Take the term Epicureanism. Who would have thought that the kindly and moderate Epicurus would have inspired the name for a way of life that has become the paradigm of self indulgence and hedonism? Epicurus, we are now told, neither believed in, nor practiced, the immodest pursuit of pleasure at all costs. He did propound that happiness was the summum bonum of life, but he was not a sensualist. Indeed, he is said to have called for prudence and moderation as well as temperance in sensual pleasure.

Well, what do you do if someone says, "Hey let us do what Epicurus tells us, 'Eat drink and be merry?" Do you say it was not Epicurus but Epictetus or Aristophanes or Antisthenes? Of course not. The notion of Epicureanism cannot be transferred to Aristotelianism. Similarly, the entire romance - and with it a certain archetypal pleasure - goes out of the window when I learn that Delilah did not cut Samson's hair.

There are scores of 'What You Ought to Know' books about odd facts and little known truths. I do not recommend them. I think we need to cherish some commonly accepted fallacies if only for the sake of cultural continuity. Ignorance of certainty is a warm feeling.

 

 

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