A reluctant progressive
Tony Blair’s memoirs journey through 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir and other burning world issues
By Aamir Riaz

Tony Blair’s long-awaited memoirs is finally in the market. A Journey revolves around the last 18-year-period, including the most controversial post 9/11 era.
Tony Blair was the youngest prime minister of Britain since Lord Liverpool in 1812. He served as PM from 1997 to 2007.

A word about letters
By Kazy Javed
A farewell to
Dr Wazir Agha
The first night of the second week of September was the only pleasant night of the rainy season in Lahore — but its morning was spoilt by columnist Nasir Bashir’s five-word telephonic message: “Dr  Wazir Agha is dead.”
It was only a few weeks ago that Agha Sahib’s friends celebrated his 88th birthday and I organised a public lecture on his life and literary works at the Model Town Park. He was pleased when I called him to offer congratulations.

in memory
An era unto himself
By Hammad Ghaznavi

Dr Wazir Agha initiated, or at least made a key contribution to, every literary debate in the subcontinent during the last six decades. A mentor to a generation, he was one of the most influential literary figures of his times.

Though not a formal student of Urdu literature, I had read poets beyond Faiz and Faraz during my school days but had never heard of Wazir Agha. Even Abid Ali Abid and Dr Syed Abdullah sounded familiar but not Wazir Agha. He was certainly not a ‘pop’ poet or writer.

I first read his name during my last college year. It was a piece on Faiz Sahib, pointing at his ‘self-repetition’ as a poet. “Repeating yourself is worse than repeating others,” it said. That was blasphemy: absolute blasphemy! Faiz was god those days particularly in the circles that we moved in. Before that essay, I had heard criticism of Faiz only on the ideological basis. I was intrigued by one Mr Dr Wazir Agha.

A couple of months later, in the ‘Urdu Literature’ section of the then newly-founded Quaid-e-Azam Library, I chanced upon ‘Urdu Shairi Ka Mizaj’ by the same author. I read the book in two sittings, super-quick by my standard. As I finished the book, I started re-reading it, perhaps the only book of prose to-date that I went back to without a time lapse. I took notes and copied almost all the names mentioned under the bibliography and started looking for those books.

‘Urdu Shairi Ka Mizaj’ played a crucial role in my personal journey from having an interest in Urdu literature to becoming a serious student of the discipline.

Even today I find Agha Sahib’s interpretation of the origins and the development of Urdu poetry stimulating. His is not the only point of view on the subject but is definitely one of the more valid ones, creatively constructed and effectively supported by a trove of information that comes with serious learning.

The account of my first meeting with Agha Sahib, followed by dozens in the later years, is not a drab story. When I entered journalism, I wanted to write on literature with the journalistic bite and not as a literary critic, since that was neither my stature nor my aspiration.

One day, Shehzad Ahmad, a respected poet, scholar and a dear friend, suggested to me that I should do a story on the 25-year-long feud between the two literary groups headed by Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and Dr Wazir Agha, and how it had impacted the literary scene in the country. It was a very controversial subject. I liked the idea and started working on it. In the following weeks, I met or talked to a long list of writers, poets, publishers, etc, from Intizar Hussain and Muzaffar Ali Syed to Habib Jalib and Niaz Ahmad of Sang-e-Meel Publications. Having thoroughly done my homework, I was ready for the final interviews of the two ‘Dons’, Qasmi Sahib and Agha Sahib.

First, it was Qasmi Sahib, a sensitive soul and a thorough gentleman. He explained his point of view gracefully. His ‘Don’ image, however, suffered a serious blow. Beneath the armour of perhaps the tallest literary figure of his times, there was innocence.

I had already seen Qasmi Sahib on tv and mushairas but with Agha Sahib it was different — for he had never been on tv (and those were pre-YouTube days).

Agha Sahib’s smile was child-like. He was humble, friendly and courteous. Another ‘Don’ bit the dust! Like Qasmi Sahib, he was jovial. His erudition surfaced only when I asked
for it.

In brief, both Agha Sahib and Qasmi Sahib did not look like two bosses heading two warring literary camps, having in their arsenals two literary magazines (Auraaq and Funoon respectively), an army of writers, columnists and critics promoting only the writers belonging to their own camp and belittling the works of the members of the rival gang.

Qasmi Sahib and Agha Sahib were once friends. Despite an earlier failed attempt at rapprochement, they still wanted a patch-up. Mansoora, Qasmi Sahib’s foster daughter and his guardian angel, once graciously showed to me her willingness to go to Agha Sahib as a first step towards a thaw. We could not pull it off, unfortunately.

In a word, the truce remained ‘elusive’ because of those sidekicks, more-loyal-to-the-king-types, who had crossed all realms of decency in their writings. On each side, they formed baggage that torpedoed all such efforts.

(It was one of the more talked-about literary pieces of my career. It was translated in many vernacular newspapers and literary journals, Khaled Ahmed wrote an editorial note on it and so on. It kicked off many a controversy. Amjad Islam Amjad said something in his interview that Qasmi Sahib did not like while Agha Sahib said something that Dr Anwar Sadeed sharply reacted to, leading to intra-camp tribulations. In short, that was, so to speak, my first five wicket haul in journalism).

Pardon my digression and back to Agha Sahib.

In the ensuing years, I was one of his regular visitors. I was impressed by his learning and he was kind to me. There was a small cluster of friends every other day at his place comprising poets and writers. Agha Sahib was certainly the most well-read and respected figure in that group. He, however, never tried to impose his opinion on others. Curiosity rather than authority was the hallmark of his talks.

I learnt a lot from him. For hours on end, we would discuss the creative process, our mutual interest number one. He gave me all his books one by one. First, we discussed a book and then he gave me the next one. From ‘Urdu Adab Mein Tanzo Mizah’ to ‘Dastak Uss Darwaazay Per’, he gave me almost all his books. From Saussure to Roland Barth, he explained various writers to me. I still have his drawings he did explaining structuralism to me.

Inshaia was a genre that he was committed to promoting in Urdu. He used to give dozens of examples to separate satire and humour from light essay (Inshaia). His contribution to this cause is unparalleled.

He was a voracious reader. One day I went to him and he was very happy with some new books in his hands. He had bought them from the net. One book was on the concept of Meme and a couple of others were on Quantum Physics. He was excited at the prospect of getting the books through this new means.

Agha Sahib once asked me to write the foreword of his self-translated book of poetry, ‘The Symphony of Existence’. I dillydallied. He asked me again. I finally mustered courage and refused. He was not expecting it but took it gracefully. The episode did not affect our relationship. Did I do the right thing, I still sometimes wonder.

Agha Sahib died last week. The literary landscape in this country looks even more barren. There can be two opinions on various aspects of his literary personality but one thing is irrefutable — Agha Sahib was one of the most well-read men of his times with a life-long commitment to the creative process and promotion of literature; who influenced generations and determined the course of literary history of his times in this apart of the world.



A reluctant progressive
Tony Blair’s memoirs journey through 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir and other burning world issues
By Aamir Riaz

Tony Blair’s long-awaited memoirs is finally in the market. A Journey revolves around the last 18-year-period, including the most controversial post 9/11 era.

Tony Blair was the youngest prime minister of Britain since Lord Liverpool in 1812. He served as PM from 1997 to 2007.

In the introduction Blair arrogantly writes, “There is only one person who can write an account of what it is like to be the human being at the centre of that history, and that’s me.” Yet in A Journey he acts as subservient to US presidents.

A second in command always acts smartly, apparently to appease his master and impress his fellow power players, signalling that he could replace his master too. In order to regain its glory, UK has anxiously followed this strategy since WWII. Yet US has always got the better of UK.

After Margaret Hilda Thatcher (1979-90), in Tony Blair UK found a progressive interpreter of conservative rule, yet US trapped this over-smart rebel in the war against terror. In 1998, young Blair took a bold step and started lobbying to expand G8, which was a hidden challenge to the unilateralism of US. In his own words, “Usually, G8 focused on the issue of the day and, traditionally, was always about the world economy. Its membership represented historical rather than present economic and political powers. Gradually we started to involve others informally, something we began at the G8 in Birmingham in 1998.” (p.554)

However, the process could not get momentum due to 9/11. Yet the hard-working Blair didn’t give up. It was in 2005 that he invited China, Brazil, South Africa, India and Mexico at the G8 session in Scotland. He was ready to preside the July 8 session. On July 7, while he was meeting the Chinese President Hu Jintao, when after 15 minutes, he was informed about the 7/7 tube attacks in London in which 52 people died. Thereafter, instead of G8 expansion, it was the expansion of terrorism in UK.

In his memoirs, Blair writes about incidents, challenges and reservations he faced during his premiership. He talks about more than 526 personalities, which include presidents, prime ministers, policymakers, ambassadors, media, NGO players and politicians. He has written about people like Osama bin Laden, Muammar Gaddafi, Bill Gates, A.Q.Khan, Rafiq Hariri, Yaser Arafat, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, King Abdullah, G W. Bush, Princess Diana, Lula Da Silva, Nouri al-Maliki, Ariel Sharon etc. and conflicts like Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Kashmir.

Blair knows the art of praising US presidents, democrats and republicans simultaneously, a service that even an American can’t do. “We need the suasion in argument of an Obama (or Clinton) and the simplicity in approach of a Bush (or Regan).” (p. 676)

At the same time, Tony separates himself from US interpretations by calling Vietnam a genuine and successful insurgency. He also partly agrees with former Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding US unilateralism.

In his postscript, written in the aftermath of the famous banking crisis (2008) and election results (2010), which ends the 13-year-rule of the Labour (both new and old) you will meet with a different Blair. He looks wiser than Maulana Rumi, courageous than Castro and futuristic than Marx though his own political past is a big hurdle for him. Like self-claimed modernists, Altaf Hussain and Pervez Musharraf, Blair is still not ready to accept his role of a reluctant progressive.

No doubt, he tried to transform his party and became a leader of New Labour, introduced laws like minimum wages, human rights act, freedom of information act, employment reforms, constitutional reforms like civil partnership act 2004, compulsory DNA recording for criminals and substantial market reforms in health and education.

His vision to transform UK and his party needs special attention of Pakistani political leaders. In his second term he accepted the challenge to reform higher education. “I look at the top 50 universities in the world and saw only a handful in the UK and barely in mainland Europe. America was winning this particular race with China and India coming up fast behind…… their (US) bursary system allowed them to help poorer students; and their financial flexibility meant that they could attract the best academics.”

In the age of technology, brains and skill makes the difference. Yet in countries like Pakistan where basic education is overloaded with hate and non-professional material, one could do well by replicating Blair’s model.

Blair advocates civil rights and reforms but he is also a critic of modern media and NGOs too. “NGOs do a great job, do not misunderstand me; but the trouble with some of them is that while they are treated by the media as concerned citizens, which of course they are, they are also organisations, raising money, making themselves and comparing with other NGOs in a similar field….. they have learned to play the modern media game perfectly.”

In his postscript, he declared president Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech “a brilliant exposition for peaceful coexistence”, where a hand of friendship would be offered, even to Syria and Iran.

Blair advised India to have less bureaucracy and less state power, not more. He accepted that Europe has not internalised the true significance of China’s rise. He told Europe that it faced a common menace of illegal immigrants and organised crime. Successful economies today depend on successful entrepreneurial institutions. He closed his postscript with the hope that one day power of the people will liberate politics.

In his journey, he never mentioned what his thinking was in 1983 when he first became MP. In the House of Commons on July 6, 1983, Blair stated, “I am a socialist not through reading a textbook that has caught my intellectual fancy, nor through unthinking tradition, but because I believe that, at its best, socialism corresponds most closely to an existence that is both rational and moral. It stands for cooperation, not confrontation; for fellowship, not fear. It stands for equality.”

The book is available at Readings Lahore www.readings.com.pk

Aamir Riaz is a Lahore based editor and researcher. Email.



A word about letters
By Kazy Javed
A farewell to
Dr Wazir Agha

The first night of the second week of September was the only pleasant night of the rainy season in Lahore — but its morning was spoilt by columnist Nasir Bashir’s five-word telephonic message: “Dr  Wazir Agha is dead.”

It was only a few weeks ago that Agha Sahib’s friends celebrated his 88th birthday and I organised a public lecture on his life and literary works at the Model Town Park. He was pleased when I called him to offer congratulations.

“Yes, Kazi Sahib,” he said, “I have completed 88 years of my life. Old age has now confined me to the four walls of my house. But I am not suffering from any sort of Kafkaesque loneliness. I read books, watch television and am blessed occasionally with visits of my children and friends.

I chimed in: “Dr Anwar Sadeed Sahib told me you are composing poetry.”

“Yes, I can’t stop it,” he replied.

With 15 collections of poetry to his credit, Dr Wazir Agha always insisted he was a poet first and a critic or essayist second. Like many of his readers and admirers I never agreed. I consider his ‘Urdu Shairi ka Mizaj’ his best work. The book presents a deeper analysis of the cultural and historical factors that played vital role in the formation of Urdu poetry.

The book caused many controversies because many were not willing to accept that poetry was linked to the soil. Some of Dr Agha’s other writings too attracted critics including those who stooped to disparaging.

The number of Dr Wazir Agha’s prose books in not less than 30. More widely read among them are collections of light essays. His first book that came my way was a book of essays titled ‘Musarrat ki Talash’ which is the exact Urdu translation of the title of Bertrand Russell’s famous work ‘Conquest of Happiness. I got Agha Sahib’s book from my fathers’ collection and it really fascinated me.

Dr Wazir Agha spent many years of his life in Lahore. He is buried in Wazirkot, a village near Sargodha where he was born in 1922.

Blair’s years at Downing Street

The three-time elected former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s just-published memoir is a bestseller. It has sparked protests from those who love peace and oppose his decision to join the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Last week in Dublin the author was greeted with eggs and shoes, and was forced to cancel some planned public appearances to promote his book that brought him a £4m advance from the publisher.

Julian Glover writing in the Guardian has dismissed the book published under the title ‘A Journey : My Political Life’ as a trashy airport read. “You can’t put it down. But then it is so badly written in parts that you can barely pick it up… there are at least three gushing sexual passage, more Mills and Boon than prime ministerial memoir.”
Tony Blair has narrated the story of his 10-year-stay (1997-2007) at the 10 Downing Street — and 9/11 was the most important event of those years.

Tony Blair brings out the then US Vice-President Dick Cheney — “always absolutely hardliner” — as the chief architect of the US reaction to the September 11 attacks. Dick Cheney came up with the view that the attacks had necessitated a remaking of the world and this mission had to be accomplished “by force and with urgency”. The remaking entailed “political and territorial changes in Iraq, Iran and other Muslim countries”.

The former British prime minister endorsed this mad desire and joined hands with the US administration to operationalise it, making way for the death of thousands of men, women and children.

In another newly-published book General Richard Dannat, who headed the British army from 2006 to 2009, has accused Tony Blair of forcing the military to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan without adequate funding.


New books

Broadcaster Raza Ali Abedi took to pen after his retirement. So far he has authored four books and all of them have been received by the readers with open arms. Now he has come up with a very interesting book on the old film songs of the Indian subcontinent.

The book, ‘Naghma Gar’, tells the story of the popular Hindi-Urdu film songs composed mostly during 1930-50, their poets, composers and films. It carries dozens of anecdotes about Agha Hashr Kashmeri, Begum Akhtar, Zahra Bai, Khurshid Bano, K.L. Saigol, Kaanan Devi, Ustad Jhanday Khan, Naushad, Madam Mohan, C. Ramchandara, Lata, Nurjahan, Shamshad, Rafi and scores of others. But all of them are not to be taken seriously. It is a gossipy book and is certainly a wonderful gift for all fans of the songs of yesterday.

Like his previous books, Raza Ali Abedi’s latest book too has been published by Sang-e-Meel Publications of Lahore.

Sang-e-Meel has also published the maiden collection of Mumtaz Hussain’s 22 short stories, titled ‘Gole a inak key pichay’. The author lives in the United States and some of these stories were first presented at the meetings of the New York’s Halqa Arbab-e-Zauq.

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