Tombstone Blues

By Nicholas Sharaf

An elegy for the living

It is often said that nations are at their strongest when faced with adversity, whether it’s natural disaster or war. It’s supposed to bring out the best in everyone, a time when they decide to put aside all differences and unite for a common cause. However, the opposite also tends to hold true. While the general masses seek guidance to unite under one cause, it provides an opportunity for the sly and corrupt to manipulate them for their own benefit. A fact that is more than evident by the events taking place across the Middle East and Pakistan.

“Paint My World” by Amra Khan

Nations have gone on to define themselves and set their social standards by struggling in the face of adversity and conquering it altogether. Nations like Japan sorted themselves out to become a global economic powerhouse despite World War II. The general consensus being: society unites as one in face of calamities. However, countries (especially in the subcontinent) have also split over something as irrelevant as  sectarian divides — an unfortunate part of  history that rears its ugly head during dangerous times.

It is during such periods that people facing hardships emerge with art forms that depict their plight in a way that would otherwise go unnoticed. Some use the paintbrush to channel their anguish onto canvas; others use words to express their opinions through literature or cinema. One prominent tool for human expression, especially during social hardship, is the performance of poetry to an audience.

During social upheavals, history has seen ordinary people rise to perform, voicing their frustrations through music. These individuals don’t need the glamour of sex to get their message across; on the contrary they use simplicity and commonality to voice their opinions. Determining why such forms of expression are so effective is easy. It’s because people are able to relate to them. A country’s working classes will relate more to the issue of a feudal lord denying his workers the right to medical care, versus the presentation of a diva and her sexcapades.

Pakistan is no stranger to facing adversity; it has had its share of political instability and social upheavals. We are a nation that has successfully rebelled against every government that has had the misfortune to be in power. We also hold the dubious distinctions of killing by sectarian divide; discriminating by religious belief; looting by legislation and of splitting the country into two halves where the latter has gone on to become an independent State in its own right.

Since Pakistan’s social seesaws are so frequent in their occurrence, a strong line of revolutionary poets have used this forum to publicly vent their frustrations and opinions. Their influence on both Pakistanis, and non-Pakistanis who follow Pakistani literature, cannot be discredited, since their words found their way into the musical mainstream and are now a crucial part of Pakistani pop culture. Their existence, however, tends to be conflicting. Their words are appreciated but are never accepted as a way of life.

Habib Jalib — one of those revolutionary poets, who was himself  a left wing activist and  strongly opposed  martial law dictatorship  and government imposed oppression — dedicated his life  advocating for the rights of the. Jalib, having opposed Pakistan’s political environment, was made to suffer and was falsely imprisoned many times in a desperate attempt to shut him up. This didn’t dissuade him; if anything it gave his words a greater sense of urgency. During his opposition to General Zia’s rule, he sarcastically wrote:

Darkness as light, Hot desert wind as a morning breeze

How can I write a human as God?

Zia in Urdu directly translates to “light”.

As the years pass, we find ourselves becoming less and less acquainted with this brilliant man. His words are still borrowed to add argument to essays and papers across the world, yet his philosophy has now almost become a disposable fork. While his spirit and conviction were never in doubt, Pakistan’s commitment to his cause worryingly is.

When we talk of the struggles of a revolutionary poet, it’s impossible to not include Ahmed Faraz. Faraz’s love for Pakistan began early when he dreamt of joining the Air Force. However, as fate would have it, a lost opportunity for the PAF would lead to celebrated career in poetry.

Faraz’s poetry incited and promoted free thinking to flourish in an environment where reserved, conventional social and political thinking prevailed. In a time where military rule and pseudo democracy were setting their sights on banishing the elements of freedom and art from society altogether, he encouraged self-thinking and argued for the importance of self-expression.

Perhaps one of his most famous stands for his beliefs came in 2004 when he was awarded with the ‘Crescent of Excellence’ medal. He announced

“My conscious will not forgive me if I remained a silent spectator of the sad happenings around us. The least I can do is to let the dictatorship know where it stands in the eyes of the concerned citizens whose fundamental rights have been usurped. I am doing this by returning the Hilal-e-Imtiaz (civil) forthwith and refuse to associate myself in any way with the regime.”

A legend in his own right, it is his misfortune and perhaps his lack of prudence that he invested and committed so much into a nation that now tributes him by harassing his poetry and personality in ill-humored jokes.

A founding figure in the rise of revolutionary poetry in Pakistan, Faiz Ahmed Faiz is perhaps the greatest of all Pakistani revolutionary poets to go up against government intimidation. Though he started writing on the more conventional topics of beauty and love, he soon found himself absorbed in the larger social and political issues. He too faced charges of heresy, communism and lengthy prison visits when his words hit too close to home, but as is the case with free speech, it didn’t quell his spirit.

Mainstream music has always played a part in promoting all kinds of art and political messages across the world; in Pakistan, Faiz’s words take center stage. His words have been echoed by virtuosos Iqbal Bano, Noor Jehan, Nayyara Noor and Tina Sani. This is a testament not only to the caliber of his poetry but also the depth with which he connected to his audience and is evident in socialist rallies across the country, where his words are still quoted to motivate the masses

Even though the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s saw political and social rioting on a day to day basis, the events leading up to those events fall short in comparison to where we are today. The only exception being the separation of East Pakistan into Bangladesh. But even then, West Pakistan’s citizens mainly considered it to be a just war and hardly took to the streets for it. But Pakistan’s current situation is far worse than what it was during previous decades. There is a shortage of edible food, electricity, drinking water and adequate education. Add to that the devaluation of its money and the ongoing War on Terror which has seen more than 30,000 civilian casualties. If now isn’t the time for protest, when is?

It can be argued that 60+ years of turmoil has made this nation numb and too tired to consider taking to the streets to fight for their rights. But that just isn’t good enough. Perhaps, a more suitable theory is that the individuals of Pakistan are too involved with the spiraling economy to take a step back and view the bigger picture. With the current economic landscape, it is difficult to pursue the threads of a revolution and compromise your own monthly income as a result. There’s also a significant security threat present to the protesters as suicide bombings have become an epidemic. This has created an atmosphere where people don’t risk protesting for rights out of fear of their own well-being.

People like Faiz, Faraz and Jalib were individuals who could’ve changed the social horizon of Pakistan had they been given the right support. Now the nation is at a crossroads where every road looks darker and grimmer than the other. There is also an unfortunate void between the social leaders of its past and those of the present. While these individuals are remembered as the iconic and revolutionary poets they were, the principles they fought for have all but perished. At a time where history has shown great nations of the past unite, we’ve given up.

For 63 years Pakistan has relied on foreign countries to solve its problems and it is no secret where that’s gotten it. It is time for Pakistan to accept its own shortcomings. We must come out of our shells of religious extremism and sectarianism and look to repair the relationships that lie broken on the waysides of history.  Only then can we as a nation and Pakistan by extension, move forward.

Nicholas Sharaf is a contributing editor for the magazine.