In the early 1980s, the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy was at its peak in Pakistan. Many activists, members of civil society, lawyers, politicians, intellectuals and poets who had joined the cause to oust the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq were thrown behind bars. They were mostly Leftists, committed communists, who continued their political meetings even in prison. Just like the tradition at processions, protests and meetings outside had been, even within the prison walls these informal gatherings would begin with a recitation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem Hum Dekhenge (We Shall See).

The poem was written in 1979, the year Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged on the orders of the Lahore High Court under the influence of the military dictator. And it emerged as an anthem of protest against Zia-ul-Haq when acclaimed ghazal singer Iqbal Bano sang it to a crowd of 50,000 people in Lahore in 1985, during the height of the dictator’s power.

This poem, one of Faiz’s most famous, draws deeply from religious symbolism. For instance, one line – the day “mountains of tyranny” will “blow away like cotton” – borrows from Islamic depictions of the Day of Judgement. Islamic tradition talks about the blowing of a horn on that day after which mountains will be crushed and become like wool. Faiz’s poem alludes to the historical conquest of Mecca by the Prophet of Islam, when he shattered the idols of false gods inside the Kaaba. Faiz talks about that day, which is inevitable, “when the crowns will be tossed”.

Poetry and politics

Widely held to be the greatest of the Urdu poets in the last century, Faiz – like other classical poets of Urdu such as Mirza Ghalib and Muhammad Iqbal – was well acquainted with Arabic and Persian. In fact, he had a master’s degree in Arabic as well as in English. He was also a Hafiz-e-Quran and was thus well-versed in Quranic studies. And yet he was also a staunch communist, committed to the cause. In 1951, he – along with Syed Sajjad Zaheer, general secretary of the Communist Party of Pakistan, and a few others – was accused of planning to overthrow the government of Liaquat Ali Khan and install a communist government. This famous case came to be known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case.

Faiz was already a well-known poet at this point. His involvement in the case and his subsequent incarceration made him a household name. His reputation was to soar further when he received the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962, the communist equivalent of the capitalist Nobel Peace Prize. After the award, he became a darling of Leftist student groups. Similar to how Hum Dekhenge became an anthem of rebellion against Zia-ul-Haq, in the late 1960s, his poem Bol became a symbol of student-led protests against military ruler Ayub Khan. In the early 2000s, Faiz’s poetry acquired centre-stage once again in protests against President Pervez Musharraf. The lyrics of Hum Dekhenge resonated from bar rooms across the country as lawyers formed the vanguard of the movement.

It was in jail after the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case that Faiz is believed to have written some of his best poetry. Widely held as a symbol of Leftist politics, most of his poetry, however, is not overtly political. Hum Dekhenge and Bol are exceptions. There is universality in his poetry. It is for everyone, every condition, proletariat, bourgeoisie, capitalist, committed communist, even the religious scholar. While Faiz the political activist was committed to an ideological cause, Faiz the poet represented humanity. It is, therefore, not a surprise that he was appropriated by everyone. His poetry was recited by people from all religious and political backgrounds.

Many a time, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, who headed the politico-religious party Jamaat-e-Islami from 1987 to 2008, recited Faiz’s poetry in his political rallies. During Ahmad’s time, Faiz’s poetry was also published in the party’s weekly magazine.

In another corner of South Asia, Arundhati Roy wrote in her article “Walking with the Comrades” about how she and a Naxal rebel together listened to a recording of Faiz’s poetry.

Pakistan marked the 107th birth anniversary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, revered as the greatest Urdu poet of the last century, on February 13.

Language no barrier

But while Faiz is popularly heard and recited, he is not commonly understood. His poetry is interspersed with Arabic and Persian words. He did not use vernacular but rather played with symbols, following in the literary tradition of classical Urdu poets. These symbols can be interpreted in many ways, with political interpretation being only one of them. The apt elusiveness of these symbols is the strength of his poetry. In fact, there are some who argue that Faiz’s poetry is weakest when he resorts to overt political symbols, as in the case of Hum Dekhenge.

And yet, at public meetings of trade and labour unions, the audience sat riveted as he recited his poems. Even if the workers did not understand what he was saying, there was a sense of belief that in their aspirations, their struggles, this man on the podium represented them. In many ways, this was comparable to thousands of people flocking to listen to Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s speech in English, despite not understanding a word of it. Through his actions, his engagement with the oppressed, Faiz had earned that reputation. One did not need to understand the meaning of his language to gauge his sincerity.

Thus, while symbols flow through his poetry, Faiz has himself become a symbol today. He is a symbol of peace, democracy, tolerance, a voice against oppression, of Leftists, activists, of protest, of literature itself. He is a symbol of revolution but he is also a symbol of beauty. All these symbols come together to make Faiz.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail