Happy Birthday, Faiz


I am writing from the future. If Faiz Ahmed Faiz was still alive today, he would be a 105 years old. He would be a grandparent, a great-grandparent, a witness to the indelible cruelties and overwhelming endurance of human life that we have seen–that Pakistan has seen–in the last 68 years. He would be a critic, perhaps still coherent enough in his old age to make the statements life and politics demanded of him. He would be venerable, an extension of the teacher and poet, who died at 73. For, after all, in spite of prison, exile, and efforts to silence him, Faiz did not die a martyr. He did not die in exile either. He died in Pakistan, still not having witnessed the day he wrote of in his classic poem, “Hum Dekhenge (We Shall Witness).”

In the poem, Faiz writes, “We shall witness, when the massive mountains of tyranny will blow away like cotton. When the earth will throb deafeningly and on the heads of our rulers when lightning will strike.” He writes of the total destruction of hierarchy and oppression, a destruction that is apocalyptic and divine in its proportions for “Only God’s name will survive.” But it is a picture of Faiz’s revolution, a revolution informed by Islamic imagery and consciousness, a revolution in which “the last will be the first”, and a revolution in which the people will claim their birthright and rise to the power that truly belongs to them.

Faiz died without seeing that day, and today, we have not yet seen that day. Not in Pakistan, and not elsewhere. We see small triumphs that are great, suffer profound losses that remind us that we are human, and we endure the constant numbness and deprivation of feeling that capitalism imposes on us. We struggle against that too. That is what matters. Pakistan is built on blood, but it’s built on blood because it’s built on life. The blood runs hot through our watan, our homeland, and it’s still alive, and we’re still alive, and I know Faiz and all those who came before him, and all those who came after him–the people snatched away too soon, the people we still wished were here to guide us through our trials and sanctions–would take pride, if not in our resilience (an overused word), then in our determination to live and make life better for ourselves and our people.

Iqbal Bano sings Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge.

But while Faiz died without seeing that day, he did not die without the certainty he would see that day. He never stopped working for what was right. In his role as an acclaimed poet, he did not balk at organizing for the people. In prison, he did not flinch away from escape. In exile, he did not stop loving his country (humein kiya bura tha marna). And when he returned, he still persisted in doing what was right. Two years later in 1984, he was dead, shortly after hearing he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Faiz was the living embodiment of revolutionary love. He did what he did in love for the people, for a cause and nation that was greater than himself. He embodied revolutionary hope. In this climate of fear and bitterness and fucked if you are, fucked if you aren’t, clinging to hope is an everyday challenge that we contend with. I was talking to my friend the other day of some youth we know, boys and girls no different from us, who will criticize but aren’t willing to design a workable apparatus to dismantle the system. Boys and girls like me and him, who want to destroy, but cannot conceive of what we will build in its place. And I said, “These people have never seen what hope looks like.” And it’s true. In the bitter disillusionment that has become our lives, even among activists and critics, there is a deprivation of hope.

But we need hope to build. We need hope to love the people and the causes that are so much greater than ourselves. We need the same hope and faith that made the certainty of Faiz’s eloquent proclamation possible, “We shall witness.” We shall witness because the day will come, even if it’s not in our lifetimes. We shall witness because like Faiz, we must understand that humanity is so much more powerful than ourselves and we serve the generations that come after us, even if we don’t live to experience them. We shall witness, because whether you believe in God or not, only His name will survive in the ashes and ruin of the destroyed tyrants, and we will inherit the earth He made for us.

When Faiz died, he did not go unmourned, just as he does not go unremembered today. He was Pakistan’s unofficial poet laureate. Now, I don’t know who Pakistan’s official poet laureate is, but nothing that happens in Pakistan that actually matters is state or government-sanctioned. In our oppression, we have found a strange kind of freedom, gleaned an agency and creative way of practicing our lives that’s unrivaled anywhere else. Because in Pakistan it is mainstream–the people who are on the margins in fact dominate the vast, far-flung nuclei of society, because they are the secret majority. There is power there, even if it is not perfect, even if it has contradictions that we need to resolve through unity and transformation. Through dictatorship, we learned dissent. And Faiz is a household name. He is a communist, he is a poet, he is a longtime political activist against the regimes that oppressed the people, and he is a household name in Pakistan.

Today, we can follow Faiz’s example through hope. The day will come, and we must struggle against the doubt, the disillusionment, the biting cynicism that threatens to dominate us all and extinguish our work. We must struggle against losing faith in the inevitability of the day and the necessity of transformation. The day will come, and the people will inherit the earth that belongs to us. We will better prepare ourselves for heaven. And while I’m a day late for his birthday, which was on February 13, this is the lesson we can learn from Faiz’s 105th birthday and carry it into the rest of the year, and the years after that, and after that too when we’re nothing but a lump of clay in the earth. Faiz is remembered 32 years after his death. Even in death, the flame of hope will not disappear. Because humanity lives against all the odds.

Happy birthday, ustadh.


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