Fascinating. Please click through to read the full article on The Friday Times site.
Three “prophetic” Persian poems ascribed to a Shah Ni’matullah Wali have been a fascinating feature in the popular political discourse of the Muslims of South Asia. For nearly two centuries these poems have circulated whenever there has been a major crisis in, what may be called, the psychic world of South Asian Muslims. The first recorded appearance was in 1850, after the “Jihad” movement of Syed Ahmad had failed in the north-west, followed by serial appearances after the debacle of 1857, the dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate and the failure of the Khilafat and Hijrat movements in 1924, the Partition of the country and community in 1947, and the Indo-Pak war of 1971-72. Curiously, these poems have re-emerged in Pakistan in 2010, and have found wider circulation on the internet.
Madiha Sattar, a writer based in Karachi, in her recent comment on the Karachi violence complained about ‘the mythology of the city’s not-so-distant golden past’ that is evoked whenever the times are dark and roads bloody. Those of us not old enough to have worn hipster saris to nightclubs here in the 60s and 70s, are frequently subjected to misty-eyed reminiscing about a city that was once apparently safe, cosmopolitan and liberal, a magical place where one could drive around late without racing home to avoid a hold-up and people were far too polite and open-minded to be too fussed about each other’s religions, sects and ethnicities.
In my very personal and spotty survey of post-1947 literature on Karachi, it has always struck me that this poetic construction of Karachi’s alleged liberal past exists more in prose than in poetry. In fiction, one thinks of the charming passages in Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s works where the author captures the din and bustle of the city in the ‘50s and ‘60s through his impish characters. Elphinstone Street, for instance, repeatedly surfaces in MKA’s works as the preferred destination for his flâneurs who seek delight in city lights and life. Then there is the wildly popular Ibn-e Safi’s Imran Series novels are set in an unnamed city, but it is widely believed that the place they draw on — marked most notably by an alluring night life complete with nightclubs, alcohol, and vixens on the hunt — is in the image of the Karachi of yore.
But for whatever reason, the poets never seemed to be enamoured of Karachi and its ways. The gentle poet from Lahore, Taufiq Rafat, whose work shows remarkable restraint and control, wrote two uncharacteristically tart poems on Karachi. The first one, Karachi, 1955, describes the city in strong grey images: The screaming wind transplants the soil/ particle by particle […/] All the forces of nature crowding man off his perch/ so that the land can return to its ways.// In this city of scarce sweet water and little rain/ each man protects his rood of greenery/ with panicked care. His other poem similarly entitled rather unimaginatively, Karachi, 1968, is even sourer. The second-last stanza reads:
There is no weather here as we northerners understand weather. The season telescopes a sort of summer into a sort of winter, topped by a mini-monsoon. Each new morning brings no hope of change. Generally the clouds are sexless, mute, and above our affairs. A splitting sky announces a jet not rain.
Even in Urdu poetry, one would be hard pressed to find a loving ode to the city. Zia Jalandhari, writing in his book of poems khwāb sarāb published in 1985, writes movingly about Karachi as a hard, wretched place.
karāchī kisī dev qad kekṛe kī tarah samandar ke sāhil pe pa’ooṅ pisāre paṛā hai naseṅ uskī faulād-o āhan badan ret cement patthar buseṅ, taxiyaṅ, careiṅ, rikshā, ragoṅ meiṅ lahū ke bajā’ye rawāṅ jism par jā bajā dāgh daldal-numā jahāṅ ʻankabūt apne tāroṅ se bunte haiṅ baṅkoṅ ke jāl … yeh woh shehr-e mutma’in hai jo apne hī dil kī shaqāwat pe shīda rahā
Karachi’s story is usually told as that of a utopia that suddenly took an about turn during the Zia era and went horribly wrong. But there is enough poetry to warrant against such a narrow view of things. We desperately need narratives of Karachi that do justice to its complex past and help us grapple with its bewildering present.
Where are the historians?
Bilal Tanweer is a writer and translator. He teaches creative writing at LUMS.
Published in the Express Tribune, September 18, 2011
P.S. For all looking for a bout of nostalgia, here’s a video of Karachi in 1942 apparently shot by a visiting British soldier: Karachi at the End of the Raj. (I don’t attest the date/veracity of this film; but it’s nice. Do watch.)
“When you long with all your heart for someone to love you, a madness grows there that shakes all sense from the trees and the water and the earth. And nothing lives for you, except the long deep bitter want. And this is what everyone feels from birth to death.”—Denton Welch
Write this dirty poem out of me, like a magician pulling a silk scarf from my throat. I need you like the coiled spring of a trap needs an animal.
Heatseekers. The government records our phonetap-sex. Historical revisionism means suffragettes like me are terrorists. You lace me into a corset to restrict the way I move through the earth. I’m a sex tourist, you rib my cages.
This poem is so urgent I’m vomiting.
Bleed my thumbs to release the heat from my throat. Autumn stings like a wooden ruler across my bare calves. In chalk, draw the shape of the wild animal noise at the edge of your mouth. I hear it when you’re inside me.
The soft petals of my throat and your cock, grafted to each other like two orchids. Make sure my mouth is always busy. Fold in words like my darling.
I wait for a cold southerly wind to breathe through everything I’ve loved and made temporary. I discard seasons. Even the bitemark secrets I leave on the inside of your thighs will fade. The strength of the air is the weight of your body pinning down my shoulders.
Please, please, push my knees apart. Make it right. Bury yourself in the cunt of the poem.
This homesickness of mind Like cuts made almost tenderly in flesh. The surfaces of things grown slow and Dangerous Beneath the desire to apprehend. September light I cannot hear your quiet. So much elsewhere unsettling each surface, so much annul.
This is the shirt you wore when someone you’d hurt wore sunglasses in an airport at night and told the woman at the counter that everything was fine. Fine. We are populated by each other and this is a disease of animals. Whose means include syllables. Jean Cocteau would have loved this evening, it’s 1930 in Paris somewhere—this is a disease we airplanes have, chasing bells hooked into the ribs of the wind-licked causeway. This is the shirt you wore, right? which burned in water like a map soaped in gasoline calling to matches. These are the sunglasses upon which such scars of streetlights. We are each alone. You play a fiddle or a violin, you make the garrote wire bend resonant and pretty over a box of shadow. You get the hot fries from the vending machine like it’s nothing. There is a mouth on either side of you but only one leopards your neck. Take / your make-up / off. We are in this together. Kind of. This is a city where you lived. A girl sits cross-legged with her guitar beside the last window you will have to yourself, all is well, all is well then the calm snaps. A boulder sighs down the stairs. None of the lights are right but someone mercurial turns a grin out of the ruckus and it is enough. Before before you let your foot push hard against the floor, the silver-slivered night shivering above you so you nearly thought it would be beautiful enough to be enough. This is not hell, the night laced with neon, neon another version of blood, this is not the same shirt. If I started saying Sorry or I love you now I would never stop.
Falling in love with a mustache is like saying you can fall in love with the way a man polishes his shoes which, of course, is one of the things that turns on my tuned-up engine
those trim buckled boots
(I feel like an advertisement for men’s fashions when I think of your ankles)
Yeats was hung up with a girl’s beautiful face
and I find myself
a bad moralist,
a failing aesthetician,
a sad poet,
wanting to touch your arms and feel the muscles that make a man’s body have so much substance, that makes a woman lean and yearn in that direction that makes her melt/ she is a rainy day in your presence the pool of wax under a burning candle the foam from a waterfall
You are more beautiful than any Harley-Davidson She is the rain, waits in it for you, finds blood spotting her legs from the long ride.
I was wrapped in black fur and white fur and you undid me and then you placed me in gold light and then you crowned me, while snow fell outside the door in diagonal darts. While a ten-inch snow came down like stars in small calcium fragments, we were in our own bodies (that room that will bury us) and you were in my body (that room that will outlive us) and at first I rubbed your feet dry with a towel because I was your slave and then you called me princess. Princess!
Oh then I stood up in my gold skin and I beat down the psalms and I beat down the clothes and you undid the bridle and you undid the reins and I undid the buttons, the bones, the confusions, the New England postcards, the January ten o’clock night, and we rose up like wheat, acre after acre of gold, and we harvested, we harvested.
Afterwards you had that drunk, drugged look my daughter used to get, when she had let go of my nipple, her mouth gone slack and her eyes turned vague and filmy, as though behind them the milk was rising up to fill her whole head, that would loll on the small white stalk of her neck so I would have to hold her closer, amazed at the sheer power of satiety, which was nothing like the needing to be fed, the wild flailing and crying until she fastened herself to me and made the seal tight between us, and sucked, drawing the liquid down and out of my body; no, this was the crowning moment, this giving of herself, knowing she could show me how helpless she was—that’s what I saw, that night when you pulled your mouth from mine and leaned back against a chain-link fence, in front of a burned-out church: a man who was going to be that vulnerable, that easy and impossible to hurt.
had no direction to go but up: and this, the shattery road its surface graining, trickle in late thaw—is nothing amiss? —this melt, the sign assures us, natural cycle and whoosh, the water a dream of forgotten white
past aspens colored in sulfur, they trembled, would —poor sinners in redemption song—shed their tainted leaves
I tell you what boy I was, writing lyrics to reflect my passions: the smell of a bare neck in summer a thin trail of hairs disappearing below the top button of cut-offs the lean, arched back of a cyclist straining to ascend a hill
in the starlight I wandered: streets no better than fields the cul-de-sacs of suburbia just as treacherous, just as empty
if wood doves sang in the branches of the acacias, I could not hear them anyone lost in that same night was lost in another tract
the air pulsed and dandelion pollen blew from green stalks —that was all
and yes, someone took me in his car. and another against the low fence in the park at the end of our block. under the willow branches where gnats made a furious cloud at dawn and chased us away
I knew how it felt to lie in a patch of marigolds: golden stains the way morning swarmed a hidden rooftop, the catbirds singing the feel of ruin upon lips rubbed raw throughout the night
granite peaks: here, the earth has asserted itself. and the ice asserted and human intimacies conspired to keep us low and apart
for an ice age I knew you only as an idea of longing: a voice in the next yard, whispering through the chink a vagabond outlined against the sky, among the drying grass
we journey this day to darkness: the chasm walls lift us on their scaly backs the glaciers relinquish their secrets: that sound is the ice bowing and the sound underneath, the trickle: the past released, disappearing
you pinnacle of my life, stand with me on this brink half-clouded basin caked in flat grays, the very demise of green
you have surmounted the craggy boundary between us.
you open a place for me in earth, receiving my song
How is it that you hold such influence over me: your practiced slouch, your porkpie hat at rakish angle, commending the dumpling-shaped lump atop your pelvis— as if we’ve one more thing to consider amidst the striptease of all your stanzas and all your lines— draws me down into the center of you: the prize peony, so that I’m nothing more than an ant whose singular labor is to gather the beading liquid inside you; bring it to light.
I have never written a true poem, it seems. Snatches of my salacious dreams, sandwiched together all afternoon at my desk, awaiting the dark visitation of The Word. When you arrive, unfasten your notebook, and recite, I am only a schoolboy with a schoolboy’s hard mind. You are the headmaster. Now you must master me.
Dear Parole Board of the Perennial Now, let me begin by saying it’s very likely none of my ex-wives will vouch for me. Let’s just say the parable of the Negro who uses his dick for a cane and the parable of the Negro who uses his cane for a dick convey the same message to me. I’m sorry. You mean before that? Well, it’s as if some ghost the height of my granddaddy was lighting a cigarette the wrong way to symbolize my muddy path through life. You ever seen the Mississippi? You’ll learn all you need to know if you look at the wall of my kinfolk’s pictures. Belzora Knight Taylor. BuShie. Janice. Eunice. Clyneese. Me and my brothers fishing in high waters. Whenever I see brown hills and red gullies, I remember what the world was like before I twisted spoons over flames. I pissed from a bridge the day I left. Yes Sir, I’ve changed, I’ve changed. But I won’t be telling you the story of the forlorn Negro or the Negro cutthroat or the Negro Hero or the Negro Tom. I won’t be telling you the story of the night I died. I believe everything comes back to music or money. Belly Song. Song of the twelve fingered fix. Song of The Gemini Women. I know I’m cursed. I sang out to the Baptists I saw gathered on the riverbank the day I left. I sang out to the reeds straight as tongues and the salmon in the waters of my people, and beyond that to my barrel-backed shadow damming the stream.
“Libraries are sexual dream factories. The languor brings it on. The body must adjust its position—a leg crossed, a palm leaned upon, a back stretched—but the body is going nowhere. The reading and the looking up from one’s reading brings it on; the mind leaves the book and meanders onto a thigh or an elbow, real or imagined. The gloom of the stacks brings it on with its suggestion of the hidden. The dry odor of paper and bindings and very possibly the smell of old glue bring it on.”—From The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt (via offices)
After Lightning, I Dream Of Abrigette by Aracelis Girmay
Abrigette, evenings you are my head. I think of you at night & then in sleep; bricks of your house stacked neatly, your dogs & your cats, & I wonder if you are one hundred now, but think, Sometime, you must have walked out into it, the bejackled sky, sky all dressed with lightning, out into what was there. & did it sing your old husband’s name? Or come to you in the voice of one of your brothers? & did you answer back to it? Or did you not even hear it at all, instead continue to wash a kitchen window, white rag in hand, as though trying to clean a great glass-eye from which you hoped to see more clearly, or, perhaps, be seen more clearly? & was it the sky, in fact, that mistook you for someone wanting relief- that understood the signal wrong & thought you to be ready, the rag in your hand to be a small white flag waving? & so, out of obedience, came down with all its ghosts & foxes, to take you quick or slow. & did it wait there, on your front lawn, as you had seen it do before with other neighbors? Did it take a seat by the side house window? Or dance on the tops of your cypresses? Did it spend days up there? Or days touching its face to flowers on their plots, learning their names? Or did it come quickly & take you by your hand? & is it true? Like I have dreamed? Did you walk out into it, the night, the way one walks into the cold, cold ocean? Slowly first, then plunging- head under, everything under.
An excerpt from John Pilger's documentary The War on Democracy, which recounts the involvement of the United States government in the brutal 1973 military coup that overthrew the democratic socialist government of President Salvador Allende — paradoxically on September 11. It ushered in a regime of torture and tyranny.
Revolving around Ryan Adams’ cover of the classic Oasis song, “Wonderwall,” this new remix produced by Inspired Flight incorporates multiple Radiohead songs and music from Bob Marley, Postal Service, Morcheeba, Simian, and Blur. This tribute to some of Inspired Flight’s favorite artists is achingly beautiful, emotionally intense, and manipulates the songs used to create a very original piece of music.
The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused and considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have had a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, “I’ve lost both my breasts.” The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity — like music — withered very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I could.” He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl — she must have swept them from the corners of her studio — was full of dead bees.
He bound my wrists with blue ribbon to mimic the veins under the translucent parts of my skin. Above me, hands shaped in the triangle roof of a church yearning for heaven. White bow legged and collapsing under the weight of prayers on his tongue.