Books: Grieving Shias

Posted on November 18, 2006
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Books, Poetry
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Adil Najam

I recently recieved a copy of Grieving Shias’, the recently published book of poetry by Raza Ali Hasan. It is a slim volume – around 50 pages with 38 poems, published by The Sheep Meadow Press, but it is thoughtful and thought provoking well beyond its size.

This is an intriguing collection. From the title onwards it beckons the Pakistani reader with familiar imagery and concepts rooted in experiences that many Pakistanis would be immediately drawn to. The idiom, however, is much more than just Pakistani. It is the idiom of a vagabond of the East, a vernacular of a global citizen unwilling to be constrained by place and yet rooted in many soils.

Maybe Raza Ali Hasan’s biography explains why this is so. Now a University Fellow at Syracuse University, he was born in Chittagong, grew up in Indonesia and Islamabad and studied and worked in USA. His poems have appeared in Agni, Tampa Review, Cimarron Review, Puerto del Sol and Poetry International.

As it was probably meant to, the title drew me in immediately. How could it not, especially with today’s geopolitics being what it is. There are, in fact, a number of poems in the volume that use Shia imagery, but as Raza explained in an interview, the title is inspired by more than just that:

Shias, one of the two sects of Islam, have this view of the world which is very political. They say that with the way things are you need to be sufficient and questioning. They are the perpetual dissidents. They are the people who lament rather than celebrate. Their celebration is lamentation. Since I’m talking about dismantling this poet’s world, a world with very little hope, for me the Shia people identify that.

It is, indeed, political poetry. But not in a conventional form. As Raza notes in the same interview: “I am not interested in protest poetry or activist poetry. My aim is to draw a more accurate, full picture of the world. In order to have the whole picture, you need to bring the whole world in.”

Here, for example, is the second half of his poem, ‘Hafizullah Amin’:

When is a good time for a revolution?
Why would you have left
the gyrating knife in the wound?

Now, as the clerical darkness
falls upon the land and in the distance
you can make out Pakistani mercenaries
moving in and out of the sun,

your good battle against nature has come
to a stop, and you sit beside me weeping
with your head in your hands.

Make your case, Hafizullah Amin, recite
your poem.

Here is another excerpt from a different poem, called Mohammad Najibullah. These are the first and the last stanzas of a longer poem (and hopefully it will inspire you to actually buy the book):

Pakistani mercenaries dance,
their black shawls
shroud and unshroud the sun.
All is lost, Najib, all is lost.
… … …
That you, Najib the bull, will run amok,
rampaging the land until you are caught
and castrated. That Dostum won’t let you go.
The traffic in Kabul will come to a stop
and your body will swing from a lamp post.

The imagery is not always contemporary, although one might argue it is always political.

Magician from Shiraz

Didn’t death recede, and we sighed with relief
as the magician from Shiraz
threw a fistful of rice up in the air
and a white flock of red-whiskered bulbuls
cut across the dark blue sky
arcing westwards towards Shiraz.

I wondered how Western readers might react to his poems. A clue is provided in the back-cover endorsement from Stanley Moss:

American English his adopted language, at home in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syracuse, N. Y., Raza Ali Hasan deals with material unavailable to any other poet I know writing in English. Without rank, without comrades, he has fought battles of the mind and spirit. The reader may hear music he does not recognize; perhaps it is of the subcontinent. The architecture is American fusion, Mughal, postcolonial, colonial, sometimes peasant, sometimes Syracuse motel. Ali Hasan does not play cricket; his often painfully beautiful poems do not play fair.

The title of the contents are as intriguing as the title of the book. Here, for example, is a sampling of the titles of the poems contained in the book:

  • Mourning and Other Activities
  • Hafizullah Amin
  • Al-Ghizali
  • The Walled Garden Unwalled
  • Teahouse
  • Malalai Joya
  • Iqbal’s famous Khudi Lines
  • Lord Kelvin
  • Cathedral Mosque
  • Sher Shah Suri Road
  • Mohammad Najibullah
  • The Poem of Ji

Let me leave you with another sampling. A short poem, one of my favorites.

Iqbal’s Famous Khudi Lines

In the 1900s, Iqbal at Heidelberg
took hold of Nietzche’s “Will to Power,”
brought it back with him to India,
and called it
khudi, being, selfhood
in the sense of selflessness and commanded us:

“Raise up your khudi so high
that before each time fate throws you down
God, who goes by his Persian name
Khuda,
and who knows something about
khudi,
will himself ask his man
‘Tell us, what is your command?'”

7 responses to “Books: Grieving Shias

  1. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:

    It is interesting to see a writer of Pakistani origin tackling the subject of Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan politics from the left. What Raza Ali Hasan describes as “radical politics” and “liberal sensibility” are in fact bits and pieces of the Cold War of the Twentieth Century. Hafiz-ullah Amin and Mohammad Najib-ullah, were the ruthless rulers of Afghanistan installed by the Soviet Union and challenged by the West. Their “case” was nothing more than the Soviet expansion. The dark shadows of the Iron Curtain met the “clerical darkness” and “mercenaries dance” in Afghanistan paid by the West. The people of Pakistan-Afghanistan are the real losers of this conflict. Here is the part of the interview not reprinted by ATP. Some lines of the political poems are worth repeating for the point at hand:

    The Daily Orange: What overarching themes do you see in your work, and why are you drawn to those themes?

    Raza Ali Hasan: What I try to do is push radical politics into poetry that has a liberal sensibility. A liberal sensibility says that things are kind of gray, and so I’m coming from the left and saying that it’s black and white.

    D.O.: On the one hand you use these very specific references, but then on the other hand you use an emotional clarity that is universal. Do you think that you have a specific audience that you are catering your poetry to with all the references?

    R.A.H.: One project of the poetry is to bring these ideas into the mainstream discourse. People should know who the last communist president of Afghanistan was, or the first one or the second one. We got rid of them so we should at least know who we got rid of.

    Hafizullah Amin:
    Now, as the clerical darkness
    falls upon the land and in the distance
    you can make out Pakistani mercenaries
    moving in and out of the sun,
    Make your case, Hafizullah Amin, recite
    your poem.

    Mohammad Najibullh:
    Pakistani mercenaries dance,
    their black shawls
    shroud and unshroud the sun.
    All is lost, Najib, all is lost.

  2. Samdani says:

    Mantr, interesting question. I am guessing he is referring to the Taliban but also the various Mujahideen factions.

  3. Mantr says:

    Who are the Pakistani mercenaries supposed to be? The Taliban?

  4. Samdani says:

    Eidee Man, I beleive he is talking poetically, not theologically. This is about the metaphors and deeper meanings of celebration and lamentation, not about rituals and practice.

    By the way, enjoyed the two excerpts from the poems on Afghanistan. Wish you could post the full poems.

  5. Eidee Man says:

    As a Shia:

    “They say that with the way things are you need to be sufficient and questioning. They are the perpetual dissidents.”

    Maybe not perpetual, but yes, always questioning.

    “They are the people who lament rather than celebrate. Their celebration is lamentation.”

    NO! Unfortunately, this is a major confusion in the minds of many, many people. Celebration is lamentation? Are you serious?

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