Categories
Interview

In Conversation with Akbar Barakzai, a ‘Part-time Poet’ in Exile

Who can snuff out the sun? 
Who can suppress the light?
-- Akbar Barakzai, Who Can Snuff Out the Sun

Akbar Barakzai(born 1939)

His poetry rings with the spaces between mountains. It rushes like the wind of freedom, taking you to the heart of the land and people he writes about.  

Balochistan has a bit of the blood and bones of many cultures and people through the ages – dating back to Harappa and Indus Valley civilisations. Akbar Barakzai, the Baloch poet and activist, writes about transcending the suffering that exudes from hurts inflicted on humankind. He urges the masses to voice out against oppression.

Don’t ever bury the word 
In the depth of your chest 
Rather express the word 
Yes, speak it out. 
The Word brings forth 
Freedom and providence.
--Akbar Barakzai, The Word

He writes for freedom from injustices and lives by his beliefs and principles. Having been forced to move countries to run journals, he is an immigrant in quest of a future that will unite the East and the West. Gently opposing oppressors with his writing, beliefs and ideas, Barakzai made news when he turned down the Pakistan Academy of Literature award last year because he says; “The Pakistan Academy of Literature is sponsored by the Islamabad rulers. I cannot accept an award from an organisation that operates at the beck and call of the tormentors of my people.”  A writer who continues to emote for his people and their rights, he has been translated to English by a lecturer, Fazal Baloch, and published. 

Barakzai calls himself “a part time poet” – but his poetry moves our hearts and minds – it makes us think, imagine a better world. Is he really a part time poet or a major inspiration crying out for mankind to move out of ‘messiahdom’, dogmatism and take charge of their own lives? In this interview, Barakzai not only reveals his life but also his sense of freedom from oppression, his love of human rights which forced him to move countries to conserve the voice of his people.

Since when have you been writing poetry? What set your muse going?

I started writing poetry in 1954 when I was still in school. I was inspired by our people’s long struggle for freedom and justice against the Pakistani and Iranian occupiers.

Your poetry mixes many strands of thoughts and many lores. Can you tell us what influences your writing? Books, music, writers?  

My writing has been influenced by many poets and writers from different languages and cultures. The lasting influence on my art has been that of classical Balochi poetry. However, I must mention some great names from diverse poetic traditions who have had an impact on my poetry, such as the Persian poets Hafiz, Rumi and Nima Yushij; Urdu poets Ghalib and Mir; English poets Shelley and Keats; Russian poets Pushkin and Pasternak and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Your poem ‘Waiting for Godot’ depicts the theme of the play by Samuel Beckett. It has a beautiful mingling of East and West. What led to it?

Beckett’s Godot is perhaps the most mysterious character in modern (world) literature. My poem is a reminder that the so-called Messiahs never return to this world. Mankind has to find its own solutions. East and West are two different aspects of the same coin. Unlike the infamous poem by Rudyard Kipling, that great apologist of Western imperialism, the East and the West are slowly but steadily inching towards each other. Despite enormous odds “the twain” are destined to “meet” and be united to get rid of the geographical lines created by imperialist powers.

You deal with both the political and the spiritual in your poetry. How do you attune Che Guevara with the God who even if ruthless exists in your poetry?  

I made peace with God quite some time ago. I hope we understand each other better now. I do not believe that God is necessarily ruthless. It may sound strange, but my spirituality is not religious at all, it is based on humanism.  Your interpretation of my poem is different from what I had intended. I am not sure if such a dichotomy exists in the poem. However, it appears that poetic curiosity in the end has succeeded in detecting some kind of duality. With regard to Che, he symbolizes the primordial fighter for justice. He embodies all those millions of people who have fought against the forces of darkness. Hence the allusion to Phoebus Apollo and the ever-conquering brilliance of the sun.

Do you write only in Balochi? You must be fluent in English having lived in England for many years. Why do you not write in English? Or translate your own poems?  

I used to write in Urdu and Persian in my younger years, until I discovered that I could write a lot better in my mother tongue.  As far as writing in English is concerned, I do not feel confident enough to write in it.

Your poetry, the little I have read, takes on elemental truths and uses nature, intermingles those to arrive at larger truths toward the end. Is it all spontaneously expressed? Or do you need to work on it? Tell us a bit about your poetic process.  

My experience of the poetic process tells me that it is spontaneous. Design and architecture of the poem occupy a secondary position. After a poem is formed in my mind my main concern would then be to revise and improve its language. This process may take any length of time. I must confess that I am an obsessive reviser. For example, one of my longer poems took many long years to complete.

As a poet, you continue shrouded in mystery. Tell us about your life.  

My life is and has always been an open book. I don’t think a few random poems are sufficient to reveal the life story of any poet. However, without these fistful of poems, I would have appeared to be a greater mystery. My life, like the billions of ordinary people in this world, is indeed very ordinary. My great grandfather migrated from Western (Iranian) Balochistan as a result of the brutal military operations in the early twentieth century in which thousands of old men, women and children were killed and injured and thousands of others migrated to Sindh. My great grandfather was a small-time farmer. As a result of the Iranian atrocities, he was forced to abandon his land and livestock and move to Eastern (now Pakistani) Balochistan and finally to Sindh. In 1928, Reza Shah of Iran ultimately succeeded in occupying our country. Once they settled in Sindh my great grandfather and grandfather worked as labourers until they saved enough to buy a small shop.      

My father had a basic English education. He had left high school when still in the 4th or 5th grade to support the family with odd jobs. A few years later, he opened his own shop, a ration shop. These shops had mushroomed all over during the war as the English authorities introduced a food rationing system in India. I believe with this background I must have belonged to the lowest rungs of the class system. But my family worked hard to improve their lot.

When I was ten or twelve, my father thought I was strong enough and responsible enough to work in the shop. I would go to school in the morning. As soon as I finished school, I would rush to the shop to help my father. 

A few years before I finished high school, my father got a job in the Directorate of Civil Supplies as the manager of a warehouse. He rented out the shop. With two incomes our lot did improve a little. I was now in high school. I didn’t have to work in the shop anymore. During this period, I became interested in books – any books. These were mainly Urdu, Persian, Sindhi and Balochi books. I read a lot, but my reading wasn’t systematic. I wrote a few nondescript poems during this period and became interested in politics, particularly in Baloch politics. By then I was in college reading literature and related subjects. However, I was more interested in politics than in my studies which meant I wasn’t a good student. Despite this I somehow managed to graduate from Karachi University. My father wanted me to study further and enter the Civil Service. But by then I was completely radicalised. I think I disappointed him then by refusing to continue my studies in order to take competitive exams to join the civil service. However, a few years later as a result of the escalating Pakistani military operations in Balochistan, he told me that although at the time he was not happy with my refusal, he confessed wholeheartedly that my decision was absolutely right. I was so proud of him that he had finally approved of my decision. Although he passed away a long time ago, because of this confession I do love him and miss him more.  

This rather lengthy snapshot of my life should be sufficient to explain why my poetry is expressly concerned with social and political issues.

What led to your move to England?  

This was the busiest period of my political activism. It was the time when General Ayub Khan had imposed Martial Law in Pakistan and was trying to consolidate his rule by hook or by crook. In Balochistan he had re-ordered the military to crush the Baloch resistance once and for all. But the resistance has outlived Ayub Khan, and his military might. It has grown stronger and stronger with the passage of time albeit with huge sacrifices sustained by ordinary people. The rulers treated the Baloch people like dirt and our leaders as traitors who “deserved” to be hanged. By 1965, the military government stepped up its operations in cities and towns, especially in Karachi where the Baloch formed a sizable minority and naturally supported the struggle for freedom. By this time the majority of our leaders were imprisoned in various Pakistani jails. Hundreds of young activists were also put behind bars. I was constantly harassed by the secret police. They raided my house three times and confiscated all my books and papers. These included some precious manuscripts left by a maternal uncle of mine. I was told that they would be returned “in due course”, but I never saw them again. 

In those days, at least in the big cities, the government showed that they believed in the legal system. However, things would soon change. They started arresting people at will, without producing them in a court of law. People would languish in prisons for many years without any charges brought against them. They kept on introducing new forms of brutality, including bombing the population and “disappearing” activists and ordinary people. Under their “kill and dump” policy, they to this day torture and kill activists and then dump their bodies in the periphery of a town or village. So far, they have “disappeared” about 5,000 activists and their family members. Recently they have started abducting young female activists and then dumping their bodies. Almost all of these victims have been assaulted and raped.   

I was picked up twice by the secret police. The second time they brought the great poet Gul Khan Naseer (the Baloch Nazrul) from prison. We were both delighted to see each other. We hugged and exchanged greetings in Balochi. We were told firmly not to speak in Balochi. We protested at this suggestion. Without reacting, they started the interrogation which took about three or four hours. Naseer was taken back to prison. I was told to go home but be prepared for further sessions.

I was advised by our leadership to go underground and eventually leave the country and head for the Gulf region to organise the Baloch migrants working in that part of the world. I did exactly as I was instructed to do. Because of visa problems, I could not stay in the Gulf for long. I therefore moved to Syria, Lebanon and finally to Iraq where in 1973-74, I was joined by some other friends. Together we used to edit a monthly newspaper in Balochi called Tipaakie Raah (Path of Unity). In fact, this used to be the Balochi edition of the paper which was also published in Arabic, Persian, Azari (Azarbaijani) and Kurdish editions. We also managed a daily radio programme in Balochi. Additionally, we published a monthly newspaper in English from London which was called People’s Front. This task was assigned to a senior friend who moved from Baghdad to London for this purpose. Our stay in Iraq would soon be short lived. After Saddam Hussain and the Shah of Iran met in North Africa to end the dispute over Shatt al Arab waterway, the situation in Iraq changed drastically. We were told very politely that the “world situation” had changed. We would still be welcome to live in Iraq, but the publication of the newspaper and the radio broadcasts must stop. It was therefore decided I should move to London. With the help of a doctor friend, I obtained a British visa and moved to London.

Your poetry still cries out for your motherland. Do you want to return? Is a return possible?

Who wouldn’t want to go back to the country they love? But it is not possible. I am only tolerated if I keep silent and remain as far away from Balochistan as possible.

Why did you turn down the Pakistan Academy of Literature award?  

The Pakistan Academy of Literature is sponsored by the Islamabad rulers. I cannot accept an award from an organisation that operates at the beck and call of the tormentors of my people.    

You have published very selectively — do you have more writing which you have not published? If so, do you have plans to publish those?

I have never been a prolific writer or a poet. I keep on telling people that I am a part-time poet.

What message would you like to give to emerging writers?

As a part-time poet I don’t feel I am in a position to advise young writers. I can only say this much to them — be honest to yourselves and your art.   

Thank you very much for giving us your time.

Click here to read translated poetry by Akbar Barakzai.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Tribute

In Memory of Peace

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori*.
-- Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

*Translated: "It is sweet and fitting to die for the homeland."

On 11th November, we remember the men who gave up their lives to win wars for those in power. Remembrance Day started as an annual event after the First World War (28th July, 1914- 11the November, 1918) more than a hundred years ago, in memory of soldiers — some of who were lost in the battle grounds, whose remains never got back to their families. Some of these men who fought were from countries that were subservient to colonial powers who started the war and some, like the soldier-poet, Wilfred Owen, were from conquering nations.

This was much before atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Eventually, a nuclear armistice was declared. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), an internationally acknowledged apostle of peace, had an opinion on this: “‘The very frightfulness of the atom bomb will not force non-violence on the world? If all nations are armed with the atom bomb, they will refrain from using it as it will mean absolute destruction for all concerned?’ I am of the opinion that it will not.” Has this nuclear armistice made the world more peaceful? And if so, what is the quality of peace that has been wrought by drumming fears of annihilation in human hearts? Could the ‘fakir…striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace’ be right after all?

Here we have collected a few stories and poems around ongoing conflicts and wars which stretch to the present day, some old and some new… some even written by men who faced battle…

Poetry

A poem and art by Sybil Pretious in memory of soldiers who died in the World War I.

Soldiers & Missives by Prithvijeet Sinha … Click here to read.

Our Children by Bijan Najdi, translated from Persian by Davood Jalili. Click here to read.

Prose

Line of Control by Paresh Tiwari, a story about the life of soldiers set in the Indo-Pak border… Click here to read.

I am a Coward with Priorities by Tejaswinee Roychowdhury, a story from a soldier’s perspective. Click here to read.

From the Pages of a Soldier’s Diary… by Mike Smith takes you on a journey through the pages of a colonial diary and muses on choices he has made. Click here to read.

Bundu, Consoler of the Rich is a story based on memories of the Partition by Nadir Ali, translated from Punjabi by Amna Ali. Click here to read.

In a Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan, an excerpt from an account by Syed Mujataba Ali, translated from Bengali by Nazes Afroz. Click here to read.

Categories
Poetry

Iranian Poetry: Our Children

By Bijan Najdi, translated from Persian by Davood Jalili

The world does not become bitter with the sword.

It does not become bitter with shooting, cries and fists.

The bitterness of the world

Is not the deer’s necks

And leopard’s tooth

And the death of a fish.

In the throat of a heron, there is not a disaster.

Bitterness lies in

The dolls with bellies full of TNT

Which fell on Vietnam

And on the country lanes of Palestine.

Disaster.

The joy of our children is

That they have seen a doll on the ground

And run with cheers and smiles (towards it).

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Republished with Permission: Our Children was first published in Reality is My Dream brought out by the publisher, Nashr e Markaz.

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Bijan Najdi (Persian: بیژن نجدی‎, pronounced [biːʒæn nædʒdiː]; (15 November 1941 in Khash, Iran – 25 August 1997 in Lahijan, Iran) was an Iranian writer and poet. Najdi is most famous for his 1994 short story collection The Cheetahs who ran with me (Persian: یوزپلنگانی که با من دویده‌اند‎)).

Davood Jalili (1956, Iran) is an Iranian writer, translator and poet. He has published many articles on Iranian websites and magazines and has three published books.

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Categories
Essay

Persian Perspectives: The Third Perception of Man

Translated to English from Bijan Najdi’s essay in Persian by Davood Jalili

Bijan Najdi is often identified with the collection of short stories, Cheetahs who ran with me. But he was a poet at heart. His melodic prose and his powerful stories have the traces of poetry between words. The flow of poetry in his stories evolved into a very exquisite flow of thoughts and perceptions. Najdi wrote an article entitled ‘The Third Perception of Man’ in which he considers poetry to be the outflow of the most intense emotions.

Man’s first perception of fire must have been to touch and burn himself, that is, to feel the burning with direct contact. The next step was to understand the fire to learn from his earlier experience. That is, we see the fire, and without touching it, we know that it burns. This third stage is understanding the fire of “poetry”. That is, if you can, without the fire in your presence, think of it, feel the burning in your fingertips that you have to put your hands under the tap, you have achieved a poetic moment in your life, without the help of words.

Now you can transpose this third stage from fire to the suffering of others, to the history of your land, to the massacre in Palestine, to freedom, to the mass burials in Herzegovina. Poetry does not need “words” in such circumstances. It is the highest form of expression of the most intense suffering of humankind.

The study of the traces of life and the survey of dreams, the nightmares of cavemen and the psychoanalysis of designs and shapes carved in stone prove that even before the advent of calligraphy and language, man had experienced all three stages of perception. The drawings on the stone that depict a human with bird wings on the back and legs of a deer and a human profile are an object of the same third sense.

Is suffering and love born of lines and words the only foundation for poetry? Does our understanding of God depend on our learning to write the word “God”?

However, it was but natural that after the evolution of language and the emergence of calligraphy, man tried to write that “third comprehension”. Henceforth, poetry was no longer seemingly independent of time. Poetry proved its objectivity with the help of the “word”.

In simpler language, basically, any kind of understanding does not necessarily need words, but with words, understanding can be built.

Form and content are a philosophical and academic discussion. They have nothing to do with poetry or at least they have nothing to do with the moments of composing poetry.

There are two types of thinking. Both can, perhaps, influence poets as well.

Some people look at their surroundings with inductive reasoning and want to get a whole by identifying and analysing the details. On the other hand, some people deduce by accepting and prove from a general rule.  They would accept the thought for the presence of each component.

Both methods have scientific values. Poetry as the “third perception” is born of intense feelings that frees the poet from both when writing poetry: form and content.

There are poets who believe that form is the manifestation of poetry. In my opinion, this kind of formalism is just a way of thought; that they want by looking at an apple, to get an idea of ​​its taste and smell, with the help of the word, and they want to reach “sense and understanding”. There is nothing wrong with that, but I think it conflicts with the “essence of knowledge.”

However, no one can stop this group from trying.

Volume has dimensions in its geometric definition, so it has an inside and an outside. However, the enclosed space is not the object of discussion. Every point of space is either in or out. That is, each point of it can be both inside and outside at a time. Volume poetry[1], according to Royaee[2], one of the most famous poets of this school, is the transcendence over length, width and height to float in the contraction and the expansion of the soul of the universe, which the poet enters with the “help of words”.

Volume poetry is a look at nature, objects and words that create a sense of yearning by discovering the form and inherent talent of the word to explain the inside and the out to escape from volume.

The spatial poetry of Royaee steps out of the volume enclosed in the words, to get help from the hidden spaces between words, oblivious to the consciousness of being a man. But in such poetry, you can neither sense the history nor the historical identity of the poet.

Nevertheless, poetry of Royaee is full of eagerness to know. But because he is not able to convey his eagerness in his manifesto of volume poetry, his adherents and he have diametrically opposing outputs. I think this is a kind of crisis in poetry, but we should not be afraid of it.

A real crisis arises in poetry when people’s eyes, ears, and minds become accustomed to only one type of poetry.

The crisis was the same as we had in the years before the revolution, when some people did not consider Sepehri[3] a poet because of his Marxist views.

The crisis was that under the pretext of modernism, poetry based on belief and mysticism could be rejected in a society. The culture of any society is the result of social behaviors. If these behaviors are restricted in a certain way, a crisis does arise.

The basic bedrock of any art is freedom, and no one should and can ignore the value of lyricists or post-revolutionary idealist poetry because of their interest in white poetry[4].

However, I do not know what poetry is and what good poetry is.

I have no reason to like a good poem as I feel a burning sensation in my fingertips without touching the fire. Believe me, I am neither a poet nor a novelist, I just love the literature of my country very much.

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(Published with permission from Bijan Najdi’s wife and family)

 Bijan Najdi (Persian: بیژن نجدی‎, pronounced [biːʒæn nædʒdiː]; (15 November 1941 in Khash, Iran – 25 August 1997 in Lahijan, Iran) was an Iranian writer and poet. Najdi is most famous for his 1994 short story collection The Cheetahs who ran with me (Persian: یوزپلنگانی که با من دویده‌اند‎)).

Davood Jalili (1956, Iran) is an Iranian writer, translator and poet. He has published many articles on Iranian websites and magazines and has three published books.


[1]– Volume Poetry is a type of poetry written evolved around 1967. In 1969, Royaee and several poets published the essence of the volume poetry. Volumeism, mental movement, volumetric vision, mental distances, three-dimensional attitude, are other names that have been applied to this type of poetry

[2]Royaee is an Iranian poet (1932) who now lives in Paris. He wrote a Manifesto of volume poetry

[3] Sohrab Sepehri (born October 6, 1928 in Kashan – died May 1, 1980 in Tehran) was an Iranian poet, writer and painter. He is one of the most important contemporary poets of Iran and his poems have been translated into many languages ​​including English, French, Spanish and Italian. 

[4] White  Or Sepid poetry or Shamloui poetry is a type of modern Persian poetry that appeared in the 1930s with a collection called Fresh Air by Ahmad Shamlou and may be compared to free poetry (in French : vers libre ) in Western literature. The main difference between these works and previous examples of new poetry  was in the form of poetry. In this style, the rhyme of prosody is generally not observed, but the song and music are reflected. In the classification of modern Persian poetry, sometimes any poem that does not fit in the form of Nimai poetry (Nima Youshij the innovative of New Poetry) is called white poetry.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL