The Poetic Life of Afzal Ahmed Syed (Speech at Poet’s House, NYC).

This speech is being republished with permission from the writer, the original can be found here


By Arsalan Khan

I am not in any meaningful sense a literary scholar and certainly not a scholar of Urdu poetry. I have been asked here to speak about my step-father, Afzal Ahmed Syed, and his life and work, and I been asked to speak in my capacity as a son, not as a critic or an expert. This is not an easy task because, as we all know, it is hard to talk about our loved ones in that detached and critical manner that is expected in intellectual and literary spaces. It is hard not because we do not have a sense of their achievements and talents, but because these are simply not as significant to us as other more mundane aspects of their being like the way they eat their food, how they manage a game of cards, their passion for cricket, or their penchant for watching political talk shows that only seem to arouse their anger. But, for my father, poetry and literature are never far removed from any of these activities. He reads and writes while eating or watching t.v., he draws on his knowledge of literature to make sense of everyday events, and his daily interactions and relationships are often cut through with a sense of the poetic. So it is not fair to say that literature and poetry are separate from his mundane existence. But it is also true that my father speaks very little about his own literary accomplishments. Maybe this is why his poetry remains as much a mystery to me as it is to other readers, and is definitely why I cannot claim to be an expert on it anymore than any one else. Nevertheless, given his absence here today, I will try to communicate what I feel are some of the salient features of his character and life experience and how they relate more generally to his poetic vision.


Let me begin with some broader aspects of his character that I think are most significant to him as a person. My father is generally a quiet and introverted man, although he frequently breaks from his reticent demeanor with humorous, INDEED poetic, insights about the world. He has a unique ability to draw our attention to the ways that absurdity masquerades as wisdom, and wisdom becomes silent in the face of its’ onslaught. But he usually does this in pithy quotes or by reciting a shaer (couplet), not through fanciful and elaborate explanations. My father would also strike many people as a cynical man, aware that the world is being hurled deeper and deeper into a crisis. But his cynicism is of a measured or soft variety in that it acts as a warning but never denies the potential of human beings to change their destiny. So, cynical but not misanthropic, and genuinely eager to find humanity in a world that more often than not seems bent on destroying it. Anyone that knows him will attest to the fact that above all my father is a humble man who generally downplays the breadth of his knowledge, which he has cultivated not only from a lifetime of careful reading and writing but also from listening to the concerns of other people. He has always been more invested in other people’s thoughts and ideas than in his own, more willing to listen than to speak, and more eager to understand other people’s ideals and motivations than to impose his own. Indeed, much of his life seems to be guided by the understanding that knowledge is a moral project that takes shape through engaging with the experience of others. This is a self-reflective and humanistic ethic that I believe defines his life and his poetry.


As many thoughtful commentators on his life and work have suggested, much of my father’s poetic vision has been shaped by his experience as a witness to immense political tragedies like East Pakistan’s violent rebirth as Bangladesh in 1971, the Lebanese Civil War, and the ethnic and sectarian violence that overwhelmed Karachi in the 1990s. Musharraf Farooqi, my father’s friend and translator, has suggested that his poetry evidences a long “inner migration” commonly found among writers and thinkers who have witnessed the enormity of war and suffering. Indeed, my father’s approach to his day to day life seems to confirm the existence of such“inwardness.” But, there is more to the story than just that. It is important to remember that experiencing great trauma does not necessarily generate the kind of humanitarian ethos that I believe is central to my father’s life and work. In fact, if our modern day experience demonstrates anything, it is that political tragedies are just as likely if not more likely to deepen the ethos of brutality and violence as they are to create an ethic of self-reflection and compassion. The great many political tragedies around the world highlight the fact that violence and brutality against others is often predicated on claims of one’s own past and present victimhood. Perpetrators of violence often believe themselves to be victims of some kind and always imagine that they are merely defending themselves against the machinations of others. It is no surprise then that the arc of history takes the shape of a recurring tragedy as one generation of victims becomes the next generation of perpetrators.


My father’s humanistic ethic is certainly born out of tragedy, but it is also built around a realization that the lines between victims and perpetrators of violence are often quite blurry. This too comes from experience, especially his experience in Dhaka, Bangladesh during the Bangladesh war of Independence. My father frequently says, and with no small measure of pride, that the first and only vote that he has ever cast in his life was for the Awami League Party in the 1971 elections. For those of you who are not familiar with Pakistani-Bangladeshi history, this election was won convincingly by Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, the Bangladeshi leader and champion of Bengali political autonomy and civil rights, but was later abrogated by the West-Pakistani establishment backed by the powerful Pakistani military. This event thrust the country into a cataclysmic Civil War that led to the deaths of millions and culminated in the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation-state. My father was from a minority Urdu-speaking community in East Pakistan called “Biharis,” but he was a firm supporter of the Bengali movement (Note: he was not actually from Bihar, so technically not a “Bihari,” but Urdu speakers were often lumped in this way). This commitment was informed by his unbounded love for Dhaka, a city that he had made his own. He says that every night, around dusk, he would renew his love for the city by taking a stroll through its narrow streets and newly erected parks. But my father also supported the Bengali movement because he understood that a people, especially a people with such monumental intellectual and literary achievements, could only be subjugated so long before they revolted. Despite his support of the Bengalis movement, my father became a victim of the war. On the 16th of December, 1971, Bengali soldiers forcefully removed him from his home in Purbali, a suburb on the outskirts of Dhaka, and interned him in Mirpur, a quarter of Dhaka where other Urdu-speaking Bihari minorities lived. He could no longer walk through his city and as a result his love, naturally, dissipated. In 1972, he was arrested as a Pakistani sympathizer and a collaborator with the Pakistani military. This was during a time when many such “internal enemies” were being executed. He was later deemed a “peaceful citizen” and released, possibly at the request of an influential member in the Bangladeshi militia forces. A year later, he along with his mother and six younger siblings managed to escape Dhaka, never to return, making their way through India and Nepal to Karachi where he now lives.



My father rarely speaks of Dhaka, but when he does it is with a tremendous sense of betrayal and sadness. His beloved city, he says, now only appears to him in nightmares. It was in Dhaka that he first began to think about the destructive potential of language, its capacity to strip people of their humanity and open them up to violent retribution. The War my father experienced was very much fought in language well before it was fought on the streets of Dhaka. West Pakistanis had long dehumanized their fellow citizens in East Pakistan, attacking them for being backwards and unsophisticated. This was also very much a war ABOUT language because West Pakistanis had imagined their Bengali counterparts to have a degraded and inferior tongue. Later, when everyone had abandoned speech for war, the Bengalis turned on their Urdu speaking Bihari minority with the same vitriol to which they had themselves been subjected. Now, it was Biharis who were imagined to be conspiring, by virtue of their language, against Bangladeshi liberation. Much of my father’s interest in poetry emerged in a context where everyday language had become deeply compromised on all sides. His poetic vision springs from the knowledge that our modern day political tragedies are rooted in everyday speech and language. Maybe this is why he remains to this day a conspicuously “quiet” and “inward” man and maybe this is why when he does speak, he prefers to speak in the language of poetry. Maybe poetry in his world carries a unique potential to transcend the violence of our modern world, a violence woven deeply into the tapestry of our everyday lives.



Thank you for your time.


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