Faiz Ahmad Faiz: Unlocking the complicated imagery of his poems

Malik Omaid

On the 30th death anniversary of the legendary Poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, I am posting an excerpt from the excellent article of Ted Genoways  “Let Them Snuff Out the Moon”: Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Prison Lyrics in Dast-e Saba.


When Faiz was confined to solitary, his pen and paper confiscated, he composed qit‘as—a four-line rhymed form that he could memorize and recite. Later when he could commit his poems to paper, Faiz’s writings that were sent outside the confines of the prison walls were subject to rigorous censorship. Thus he was forced to develop a covert system of images and metaphors, often drawn from the traditional forms of  Persian and Urdu poetry that would seem harmless to the unthinking eyes of the censors.

On March 12, 1984, less than six months before he died, Faiz revealed something of this private cosmology when he addressed the Asian Study Group at the British Council in Lahore. The left-leaning newspaper the Dawn reported that although he was “ostensibly lecturing on the cultural and social background of the classical ghazal and the evolution of contemporary Urdu literary movements,” Faiz instead seemed to be laying out “a discourse on the subtle art of evading censorship.” In the lecture, Faiz contended that

an entire range of symbols evoked in the Urdu ghazal have transcended successive historical periods, each time acquiring new meanings to reflect changing political, economic and social realities. Faiz then demonstrated why traditional symbols like chaman (garden), sanam (idol), sayyaad (captor) and qafas (prison) are valid today and how they can be used as a means of escaping censorship. He said that when a poet speaks of ehd-i- junoon (period of obsession) or chaman ki udasi (sorrow of the garden) he or she is actually referring to oppression and injustice.

Thus, the poet has left a partial key to unlocking the complicated imagery of his most lyric poems.

As Aamir Mufti suggests, however, the images in Faiz’s prison poetry must not be  interpreted as representative—and thus universalized—lyrics about the condition of incarceration. They must instead be read in the context of their particular historical moment of production as exemplars of

some of the central dilemmas of Urdu writing in the aftermath of the Partition of India at the moment of independence from British rule. [Faiz’s poetry] represents a profound attempt to unhitch literary production from the cultural projects of either postcolonial state in order to make visible meanings that have still not been entirely reified and subsumed within the cultural logic of the nation-state system.

Furthermore, by publishing the poems in Dast-e .ab≥ in the rough order of their composition, Faiz invites us to read the psychological evolution of his productions as they relate and respond to the shifting conditions of the nation-state system they oppose.

His earliest poems in Dast-e saba may be categorized loosely as poems of defiance, followed by a middle period of remembrance, andfaiz2 finally a time of loneliness and despair. Careful historical examination of the events shaping the composition of these poems provides much insight into this progression as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy trial dragged on for nearly two years and the likelihood of Faiz’s conviction became increasingly certain. These events, however, do not fully define the poems, and it is equally fascinating to read the unfolding argument of Faiz’s work as he develops a system of setting the true country of Pakistan—the nation promised by Jinnah before Partition—in opposition to the realized totalitarian nation-state. Thus, his poems occupy the singular space of a lyric that does not speak for the subjugated one against the oppressive many, but rather for the many ruled against the ruling few.

The Article by Ted Genoways was taken from Urdu Studies.