“One day he was crossing the sea on a voyage to trade silks from faraway lands. His ship suddenly ran into a storm. While the rest of the sailors raised their hands in prayer, he tried to buy his life by throwing his wealth into the ocean.”

This a snippet of a story from the Persian literary masterpiece Gulistan-e-Saadi, translated into Urdu and English.

In November 2023, the Joy of Urdu launched a coffee table edition of three stories from Gulistan-e-Saadi, a collection of moral tales and aphorisms by 13th-century poet Sheikh Saadi Shirazi.

The book, which took nearly six years to complete, has a glossary, activities and beautiful illustrations. Aimed at adults and art lovers, the edition features a foreword by professor and linguistics expert Arfa Sayeda Zehra. “A story may unlock the enchantment of language belatedly, yet it ignites the sparks of imagination early on,” said Arfa Zehra.

According to a Joy of Urdu press release, the edition is expected to be “a foundation for learning Urdu by providing an alternative to Urdu pedagogy and perception”. Joy of Urdu, a volunteer-run, bilingual, international organisation launched in 2013, had published the book on its 10th anniversary last year.

Joy of Urdu aims to celebrate the richness of Urdu – the lingua franca and official national language of Pakistan – and heritage through diverse perspectives.

The book launch is an exciting new chapter for the Joy of Urdu – already, multiple chapters in cities across the world have been working at finding a community through discussions, interactive reading groups, and internship opportunities.

Zarminae Ansari, displaying the book ‘Three Tales of Gulistan-e-Saadi’, alongside Joy of Urdu patrons Arfa Sayeda Zehra and Zehra Nigah at the Jashn-e-Rekhta festival in Dubai. Credit: Sapan News.

Language, politics

Zarminae Ansari, an architect and writer from Pakistan now based in Portugal, is the founder of Joy of Urdu. When asked why Joy of Urdu chose to translate stories from Gulistan-e-Saadi for its first publication, Ansari said that the stories from the text, as well as Saadi’s other work, Bustan, hold significance for older, educated families.

“Persian, much like Arabic, historically served as a supplementary language in education,” Ansari told Sapan News over the phone. “And it is not as divorced from Urdu as it’s being politically made out to be.” Presented in rhyming form, these tales helped children learn Persian besides also conveying “deeper spiritual and metaphysical meanings” over the years.

Linguist Arfa Zehra, who wrote the foreword to the book, said the narrative of the three stories they had chosen transcends human existence. “The edition echoes Saadi’s timeless wisdom that has “illuminated the path to ‘sa’adat’ [prosperity] for generations,” she said.

Chloe Mais Hagen, a French teacher and doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota who is learning Urdu, said the book is a valuable pedagogical contribution with the side-by-side Urdu-English translation and extensive glossary.


Building a community

On May 14, Joy of Urdu celebrated the 88th birthday of Zehra Nigah, a revered Urdu poet. Joy of Urdu Board member Qasim Jafri read selections from Nigah’s poetry during the event at Annemarie-Schimmel-Haus in Lahore.

Since then, heartfelt video messages have been pouring in on social media, many posted on the Joy of Urdu’s YouTube channel. Nigah was moved to compose a poem titled Yeh Kahaniyan, set to music by composer Arshad Mahmud.

Building this community has not been easy.

It is often difficult to drum up the support needed for public service work aiming to build bridges and extend real solidarity. Ansari has been fortunate to have people join the cause and stay with it.

A key supporter is Lahore-based painter and artist Salima Hashmi. Speaking to Sapan News over the phone, Hashmi talked of the sense of disconnection felt by children and adults who are displaced from their native environments.

A way to remediate this situation is “perhaps by collecting the stories that adults grew up with and translating them in the shape of a book which would be beautiful to look at, delightful to read, and simply enjoyable to hold.” For her, the real joy lies in the details.

Arfa Sayeda Zehra speaking to a gathering at the Joy of Urdu’s Lahore chapter meeting, hosted by Annemarie-Schimmel-Haus in January 2020.

Art and resistance

Behind Joy of Urdu’s creation and evolution lies an integral connection with slain entrepreneur and human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud, who was a firm believer in Ansari’s vision.

Ansari had moved from Moscow to Paris in 2014 when she discussed the project with her close friend Sabeen Mahmud. Ansari told Mahmud that she felt her professional expertise wasn’t a perfect match for this type of work. Mahmud’s response: “Just do the work, and you’ll get the help you need.”

Mahmud’s wisdom and clarity through their conversations was a key factor in setting up the Joy of Urdu. Ansari admired and emulates Mahmud’s ability to lead projects while remaining unassuming in the background.

In 2015, Ansari was supposed to meet Mahmud in Karachi to discuss the initiative. But the meeting never took place as Mahmud was killed.

Mahmud’s death only strengthened Ansari’s resolve to honour her memory and continue the mission they both believed in. “In the next five years, I went underground pouring all my energy into fulfilling the promise I made to Sabeen by focusing on the Joy of Urdu,” she says.

Ten years later, she says “it’s wild” to think that people will volunteer for an organisation for a decade. But “it’s not about me; it’s about a cause”, she said. “If others are working for Joy of Urdu, then so am I.”

One notable manifestation of this is the “Poetry of Resistance” campaign that emerged in response to Israel’s assault on Gaza after October 7. The initiative included programmes showcasing the work of Urdu poets like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Mahmoud Darwesh and Habib Jalib, focusing on Palestinian resistance.

Since then, Ansari has proudly worn a keffiyeh at every significant occasion – even at her first book signing – because “while I’m celebrating that momentous occasion, Palestine and human rights aren’t far away from my mind,” said Ansari.

Social media

As clips from these events made their way onto the Joy of Urdu’s Instagram page, accompanied by hashtags, their account, like many others posting about Gaza, was shadow banned, losing followers.

Several social media users have accused social media giants of stifling, suppressing and even arbitrarily removing posts on Gaza.

Alongside this are Ansari’s difficulties juggling resources for the Joy of Urdu. At one point, the demands caused “extreme depression” and Ansari thought about pursuing government grants.

Seeking guidance, Ansari turned to Mahenaz Mahmud, Sabeen Mahmud’s mother in Karachi. “There was a time when there were many NGos chasing Sabeen, and people assumed she was getting money from them,” Ansari said, recounting Mahenaz Mahmud’s words. “She [Sabeen Mahmud] showed no interest and refused.”

Mahenaz’s words came as a “sigh of relief” for Ansari who had also assumed that Sabeen Mahmud was being funded. “But it completely makes sense that she wasn’t,” Ansari said. “Sabeen knew the drill: when they offer you money, they come with their own hidden agendas. And you have got to play by their rules.”

Mahenaz Mahmud, Sabeen Mahmud’s mother, holding a copy of ‘Three Tales of Gulistan-e-Saadi’. Credit: Sapan News.

Due to the broader reach and impact of the Joy of Urdu initiative, Ansari still struggles to carry on without sufficient funding and resources but she hasn’t lost hope.

“We are not there for likes and follows. We are not influencers or an entertainment hub,” she said. “Yes, we are struggling and we need money. But we mustn’t lose sight of our mission – to fill a void and provide a service that was not there.”

The Joy of Urdu now has six books for adults and children poised to enter production soon. There are also plans for merchandise, workshops, and other related projects.

The Joy of Urdu’s focus on linguistic preservation, cultural enrichment, plus promotion of social justice, and positive change through bilingual presentations and discussions helps ensure that the richness of Urdu remains alive in modern times.

Sapan News intern Abdullah Zahid is a communications student at University of Karachi, passionate about covering peace, human rights and politics. He has also written for Aman Ki Asha and interned with the Election Cell 2024 at Geo TV News, Pakistan.

This is a Sapan News syndicated feature.