A Personality Extraordinaire

Written by S. G. Jilanee  •  Special Features  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Faiz Ahmed Faiz has not only mesmerized an entire nation but has captured the attention of the world. He remains one of Pakistan’s most beloved personalities and a national treasure.

Perhaps the most famous and “beloved” poet of Pakistan, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, was born on 13 February 1911 in Sialkot to an “academic family that was well known in literary circles.” He was born as just Faiz Ahmad. After he began writing poetry he chose Faiz as his pen-name and consequently came to be known as “Faiz Ahmad Faiz.”

Faiz received his early education in an Islamic school where he learned Urdu, Persian and the Quran. In 1926, he attended a Scotch Mission school and ultimately attained his M.A. in English Literature and Arabic in 1932.

In 1935, Faiz joined the faculty of Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh as a lecturer in English Literature. In 1936, Faiz had joined the Progressive Writers’ Movement. Sajjad Zahir, a fellow Marxist appointed him as the Movement’s first secretary. Two years later he became editor-in-chief of the monthly Urdu magazine Adab-e-Latif, in Delhi. In 1941, Faiz published his first literary book Naqsh-e-Faryad and joined the Pakistan Arts Council in 1947 to serve as its secretary from 1959 to 1962. In 1937, he moved to Lahore after accepting the professorship at the Hailey College of Commerce. During World War II, he enrolled in the British Indian Army in 1942 as a commissioned officer where he rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel. Faiz opted for Pakistan in 1947 but was so distressed by the Kashmir war with India that he resigned from the army in 1947.

A year before joining the army, Faiz had married Alys, a British national. Their marriage was a perfect meeting of the minds as Alys was member of the Communist Party of the United Kingdom while Faiz had met communist leaders, M. N. Roy and Muzaffar Ahmed, during his college days and under their influence, joined the Communist Party. Soon after leaving the army, Faiz became editor of the Pakistan Times in 1947. The next year he became vice-president of the Pakistan Trade Union Federation (PTUF). “During 1948–50, Faiz led the PTUF’s delegation in Geneva and became an active member of World Peace Council.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, he devoted himself to promoting the communist cause in Pakistan. As editor of the Pakistan Times, “he lent editorial support to the party.” Having served in the unit led by Akbar Khan during the War, he held the latter in high regard and was later involved with the circle that supported Major General Akbar Khan’s coup plan, in 1951.

When the coup failed, the conspirators were tried in a military court. Faiz was sentenced to four years imprisonment. In 1955, his sentence was commuted and he went into exile in London. In 1958, Faiz returned but was again detained by the government for publishing pro-communist ideas and advocacy for a pro-Moscow government in Pakistan. However, in 1960 he was released and this time departed for Moscow.

In 1964, Faiz returned to Pakistan and was appointed rector of Abdullah Haroon College.

Faiz also enjoyed good relations with socialist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Therefore, in 1965, Bhutto, then foreign minister in the Ayub Khan government got Faiz an honorary slot in the Information and Broadcasting ministry, where his task was to rally popular support for the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War.

In 1972, when Bhutto became prime minister of the “residual” Pakistan, he appointed Faiz as Culture adviser, where he worked until his retirement in 1974.

But the vicissitudes of his life did not cease. Because of his strong ties with Bhutto, he fell afoul of Gen. Ziaul Haq after the latter had toppled Bhutto and was kept under surveillance. Faiz once again went into self-exile in 1979, this time to Beirut. But due to the civil war in Lebanon in 1982, he returned to Pakistan.

Two years later, Faiz Ahmed Faiz died in Lahore, on 20 November 1984.

Faiz was a humanist and a lyrical poet. His songs touch hearts not only for their lilting music, but chiefly because, they “tell of saddest thoughts.” He talks of the oppressed lower-class and the tyranny of military dictatorship but at the same time kindles hope of a better future. His famous poem, “Lazim hai ke hum bhi dekhengay...” speaks of the day when the mountains of tyranny will vanish like pieces of cotton in the air; when crowns will be flung and thrones will be overturned, and the Kingdom of God will be established where today’s downtrodden people will rule.

But Faiz did not write only revolutionary poems. He also wrote of love and romance that became the hallmark of classic Urdu poetry. He started with love poems in the genre of “ghazal” that overflow with tender sentiments and portray a marked influence of Ghalib. A distinctive feature of Faiz’s poetry is that even though his poems, particularly the political ones, are couched in a simple conversational style, the language and diction is polished and refined. It is the diction of the elite rather than of the commoners. Yet, his poetry has been very popular not only in Pakistan and India but also in the Soviet Union,

In 1962, Faiz became the first Asian poet to be awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, a Soviet equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1976, he was awarded the Lotus Prize for Literature. He was also listed four times for the Nobel Prize. In 2011, the Pakistan government declared the year of 2011 “as the year of Faiz Ahmed Faiz” and set up a “Faiz Chair” at the Department of Urdu at the Karachi University and the Sindh University. The Government College University of Lahore followed by establishing the Patras, Faiz Chair at the Urdu Department.

During his lifetime, Faiz published eight books. Two of his books, Dast-e-Saba and Zindan-Nama are the products of the period of his imprisonment. Faiz’s awards, besides the Lenin Prize, include MBE (1946), Nigar Award (1953), HRC Peace Prize, Nishan-e-Imtiaz (1990) and the Avicenna Prize (2006). 

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