A poet shaped between languages: translation, poetry, autobiography.
In Cairo, instead of the usual tourist souvenir of a pendant with your name in Arabic or hieroglyphs, I asked the jeweler for this Punjabi verse in shahmukhi script (same as Arabic) to be carved on a silver bracelet: mayey ni mein kino akha (O Mother, whom can I tell?). During a recent trip to Pakistan I’d heard it sung in a hauntingly plangent tone by the Punjabi folk singer Hamid Ali Bela, bought the CD, kept replaying the song on the walkman (it was 1995) without bothering to find out about the lyricist. I wore the verse on my wrist throughout the year in Cairo, and during the following two years studying at a writing program in Oregon, USA. I lost the bracelet at the end of my first marriage.
Fifteen years later, after two divorces and a decade-long sojourn in New York City, I stood holding rose garlands at the shrine of the 16th century poet- saint, Shah Hussein (1539-1599), the author of my bracelet verse. The jostling crowd didn’t allow one to linger around the grave, buried under a heap of rose petals, marigolds, and devotional sheets covered in golden and silver threaded Quranic verses. Beside the poet-saint’s grave was another grave, also bedecked with garlands--the grave of his lover, a Hindu boy, Madhoo Lal.
It had almost turned into a ritual to take all my out-of-town friends, especially foreign visitors, to Shah Hussein’s shrine in Baghbanpura near the Shalimar Gardens. The first time I took my friend Spring there I realized the driver had brought us to the wrong place—to Shah Jamal’s, another famous stopover for shrine goers. But we need to be at Shah Hussein’s, I told the driver. Oh, you mean Madhoo Lal Hussein? I was politely reminded by the driver that the poet saint is better known by the name of his lover, Madhoo Lal.
Women are not allowed beyond this point, warns the sign at the steps leading to the inner sanctum where the graves of the saint and his lover are located. During one of the Mela Chiragan (the festival of lights) held annually at the shrine, a poet friend (she prefers to remain anonymous) who’d introduced me to Shah Hussein’s poetry, pleaded to be let through, only to be pushed off and struck by a warden’s baton.
Urs, a saint’s anniversary, literally means ‘the wedding’: death marks the union with the beloved. I went to the last urs alone, with two hashish joints in my pocket. I was turned away because, unbeknownst to me, the third day of the urs is reserved for women and families. Maybe I went without a proper invitation, maybe I took the wrong gift, I mentioned to my friend Harune. No, you went on the right day, assured Harune. The doorkeepers didn’t recognize the woman in you.
I began by translating Shah Hussein’s Punjabi poems edited by Najm Hussein Syed, the foremost scholar of Shah Hussein’s work, posted on the website of the Academy of the Punjab in North America (APNA).After translating the first twenty kafis (the most common form of Punjabi mystical poetry), I realized I could not rest until I’d finished all the 152 kafis available online.What had started as a pastime to brush up my Punjabi now became an obsession, a devotion, taking up the early hours of my mornings. My new job at Forman Christian College, a Presbyterian institution in Lahore, with a bearable teaching load, also helped. FC College often refreshes my gratitude to my alma mater Macalester, a UN-flag flying Presbyterian institution in Saint Paul, MN, whose generous financial aid to international students makes it possible for juvenile renegades from assorted post-colonial republics to afford a decent liberal arts education.
In the spring of 2012 I came across an Urdu translation of Shah Hussein on a friend’s desk. The book was titled Maiy ni mein kino akhan. The Urdu translations were horrible because of the attempts of the translator to sacralize, render religious, its poetic spirituality in prosaic explanations (the bridal palanquin, for example, explained as the coffin). Nevertheless, because my Punjabi--my mother tongue--was so poor, they were a great help in understanding the original text.
Despite the sixty plus years of the country’s independence, and its seventy million plus Punjabis of the most populous province, Punjabi is neither the official language in the Pakistani Punjab, nor the medium of instruction in the region’s schools. The middle class urban families encourage their children to speak Urdu; the cosmopolitan upper classes prefer English. Punjabi is primarily used by the working class, peasantry and the feudal land owners, who don’t feel the need to pursue more than secondary education. Lately, however, Punjabi has become the cause célèbre of some re-nativized academics.
Not only in Punjabi, kafi is also the most common form of mystical poetry in the Sindhi, and Seraiki, literary traditions. The origin of the word kafi has been traced to various sources, such as the Arabic words kamil (perfection) and kafa (grouping). It’s quite possible that the word may be rooted in the pre-Islamic literary tradition but was later Islamized, as is the general case with the origins of Urdu language on the Indian subcontinent. It’s interesting to note that in Shah Hussein’s kafis there are more references to Ram than to Allah. According to Najm Husssein Syed lately the scholars have arrived at a consensus that the roots of the word are certainly indigenous than foreign. It’s derived from the Sanskrit word kavya (poem).
Most kafis are rhymed compositions, generally consisting of a single stanza of five or more lines. The first line often functions as a refrain, especially when the kafi is sung. There isn’t a consistent rhyming scheme: in some kafis all last words rhyme; in others there could be a pattern of a bb a bb a or aba aca ada. In almost every last line Hussein addresses himself as fakir namana (the wretched mendicant) or fakir sai’n da (the Lord’s mendicant). Such self-reference at the conclusion contextualizes the warning, or rebuke, or lament, or advice expressed in the preceding text, leveling the moral ground between the reader/listener and the poet/singer.
Kafi is often set to devotional music such as qawwali, and my first introduction was through Punjabi and Siraiki singers like Pathanay Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Hamid Ali Bela, Abida Parveen, Mai Bhagi, and Suriya Multaniker. (A modern spin on Punjabi folk/spiritual music can be heard here.) It was towards the end of the first draft of my translation that I learned that a kafi is supposed to be a dialogue between the murid (disciple) and the murshid (master).
The murshid-murid relationship seamlessly translates into god-human, lover-beloved, or Heer-Ranjha (the star-struck couple of the Punjabi folk tale). Gradually the line gets blurred between the dichotomies of ishq-i-haqiqi (divine love) and the ishq-i-majazi (mortal love): the hyphenated roles become reversible, the erotic serves as the predicate for the numinous, and vice versa.
There are two kinds of poems here. The former stay as close to the originals as possible, sans the rhyming scheme. The latter, conversations, are personal interpretations, reflections and responses to the original kafis. They are, in other words, independent--some recent, some written before I took up this translation project. I dug them out of the old folders in an attempt to yoke my original thought to Shah Hussein’s.
Shah Hussein was a weaver by profession. Professions in his time were not chosen but determined by the caste you were born into: hence the caste of julaha, weavers. Unsurprisingly for a weaver-poet, his poems are replete with references to the loom, spindle, thread, as well as the frequent use of dyeing as the metaphor for the dissolution of ego into the color of the beloved, the color of passion: red. In fact, the whole business of weaving is often the allegory for the thread-by-thread disentanglement of the self in order to be rewoven into the warp and weft of the beloved; elsewhere the passing through the eye of the needle symbolizes the arduous task of being a lover and facing the impossible.
In the literal translations the gender of the narrator (or the spinner) is invariably female. In the conversations, the desire--as opposed to identity--is invariably queer.
In March 2013, during the 435th urs of Shah Hussein, I attended a play, Says Shah Hussein, performed by Lokai Theater at Alhamra, the state-supported arts complex in Lahore. The play, free and open to the public, and publicized on the local radio, attracted a lower-middle-class crowd. Unlike the rowdiness associated with the theater performances , the only interruptions were occasional cries of babies or invocations of Ali, the most revered figure of the Shia sect as well as the ultimate authority on the esoteric in Islam. The Prophet himself is often quoted: I am the city of knowledge and Ali is the door. Many of the Sufi saints reject sects and schools outright: na mein sunni na mein shia/duan tu dil sarya ho (I’m neither a Sunni nor a Shia, both scalded my heart), writes Sultan Bahu, another great Punjabi poet saint. What really stood out in the play were the youthful character of Shah Hussein and the brilliant performance of his lover, Madhu Lal. How did this crowd accept the portrayal of an overtly homosexual relationship in a society where pogroms are carried out against Christians in the name of blasphemy? Not only did the viewers accept that portrayal; they even mildly jeered the mullah character constantly riling up the authorities against Shah Hussein’s ‘lifestyle.’ Throughout the play I kept thinking of Berthold Brecht and the potential for his Three Penny Opera in Punjab.
A week after the performance I attended a meeting of a local literary circle, and tested the waters by raising the question of homosexuality in Shah Hussein’s work with regard to its treatment in translation. Mixed reactions. If he doesn’t mention it in his poetry, according to some, no need to highlight it. They did have a point: Hussein does not address Madhu, or evoke homoerotic desire, or for that matter any kind of eroticism, in the kafis I have come across.What about the vibrant spirit of defiance against the puritans and orthodoxy in his poems? Yes, he belonged to the Malamati tradition, explained a member who had done extensive work on Hussein. The Malamatis were opprobrium seekers: social disgrace was one of the established traits of this Sufi order, since it assured divine grace (how my French fakir Jean Genet would have exulted in this fact). This complicated the query I’d posed: was Hussein keeping Madhu around to solidify his Malamati credentials, or was it a genuine passion for the youth? Or does the truth, as in many cases, lie somewhere in between? When I acknowledged to the group that the intended audience for my translations are Americans because that’s where I have done my literary apprenticeship, one of its members--who maintains a part-time residence in Manhattan--said: “But you must be aware that in that society they welcome all things homosexual, and you might end up supporting the trend.” Her elder sister, sitting across the table, countered: “Why must we always whitewash and sanitize our important figures? He was what he was.” A younger member on her right responded: “Why must we look at homosexuality negatively?” Needless to say, I was not out to the group.
If I misinterpreted a word, mistranslated a line, proved to be miserable company during our conversations, if my effort was tainted by ambition and self-promotion, forgive me, Murshid.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in International Poetry Review.
Kafis and responses: a duet
Why such self-importance, Hussein?
Who do you think you are? You are
a weed among the magnolia and marva
Never did you know thyself and yet
you compare yourself to others
Deep is the ocean of love that made
Mansoor embrace his cross
Shah Hussein lies at the doorstep
hoping to be lifted and embraced
Two weeks before we met
for the first time here in this park
I came for my walk and noticed
how the petals had carpeted purple
the green grass under the jacarandas.
I passed by without appreciating
the unbearable violence of April.
Then I hastened back to the spot.
This time I’ll find a bench, even
take a picture or two. Too late.
The evening shadows are already stretched
upon the violet weeping. The wailing
minarets ticked off the caged peacocks.
I sat there on a bench painting
the blue shrieks of peacocks, watching
grown men pull down the mulberry branches
for the ripe berries. Housewives
in flowery shalwar kameez and dupattas
exchanged details, culinary and cosmetic.
I shall go back home, I resolved, dig up
the closet for a boldest red t-shirt
because the colors of my disquietude
had finally predicted out loud
the day you’ll come. 
 In the galleries of my heart I have painted portraits of loneliness in colors that predict the day you will come. --Hafiz
Lay me, slay me, play me
I sacrifice my all for you, Lord
They mock me if I fall silent
I’m done for if I dare speak
You make one beg for morsels
For the other you host the feasts
One giggles in the lover’s arms
the other weeps away the separation
I don’t deserve you yet l can’t help protest
Says Hussein, the Lord’s fakir, I can’t swim
but I’ll get across if you’re watching over
He’s so young, the first thing
I say to myself, and when he starts
talking I’m willing to give up
all the wisdom of two decades
separating us in age. His naïve resolve
(I’d rather stay virgin till I find the right guy)
stills the wind of the early summer park.
I want to collect the wooly seed balls
layered upon the grass, stuff a pillow
so he may rest his head, fall asleep, awake,
tell me all he’s dreamt: anxious men
stroking their erections, gentle men
caressing the cheeks of needy young boys,
men, arms folded, standing in the fields of ripped roses.
I can imagine him as he goes around placing
a forefinger from lips to lips, quieting down
the whispers. A quietness he commands
to make me hear the invisible snowfall
upon the still ponds of May.
May 7th, 2012,Model Town Park, Lahore
O Precious One! How can this life be trusted?
The bee becomes a stranger to the flower, flies
off into the unknown. This world a lie, this existence
an illusion like a dew drop mistaken for a pearl
Those who took care of my lover
need not fear death. Says Hussain,
the fakir of the Lord, don’t you worry
about the body, a disposable vessel
He refused the perfume, my first gift.
After, he said, I get well. The next day
his CT scan. Dark patches found
around the brain, possible signs
of internal bleeding, the cause
of his headaches lately. How could I say:
My Precious One, let’s not have faith in life?
No, I couldn’t, I can’t, I won’t. Is it because
I’m greedy for a lover? because we have kissed
only once? only once held him in my arms?
His body the vessel that brought
this bitch of an ego to grovel
at your doorstep, Shah Hussein.
Make him well. Let our odors
mingle for a while and distil the perfume
of rose garlands we offer at your shrine.
Reflect on it for a moment: what’s a heart?
Breath is the life source. The human was made
to meditate. And you got distracted by amusements
One thing in the heart and the other thing on the lips
The world revolves. Shah Hussein, a wanderer,
watches life’s caravans passing, passing
each strand of hair
falling. Dark snowfall.
Observe the birds
drop seeds, roots
crack open the rocks,
ravines, wrinkles, wilderness.
No stop. No go. You stopped
again at the Bedouin camps.
Thirsty or hungry?
Inquires the hospitable tribe.
You shake your head.
Crave a companion?
You nod. They bring him,
seat him beside you,
a companion you craved.
The wind rises, tents billow,
flames flutter, both of you swallow
your last sip of tea, continue
onwards across the sands
despite the vanished caravans.
From a distance they observe
two dots diminishing, diminishing.
Those two, begin the Bedouins,
were the last two
letters of our alphabet
we sent out to complete
our last word. Sometimes
both glitter simultaneously
along a meaningless shore.
The secret of our silence.
Naveed Alam interviewed by Spring Ulmer:
After twenty years abroad, poet Naveed Alam returned to Pakistan in 2010. The following interview was conducted at his home in Lahore in 2012.
Spring Ulmer: Your book, A Queen of No Ordinary Realms, is written in English, and was the winner of the 2003 Spokane Prize for poetry. In other words, it received a largely North American audience. You are writing first drafts of your poems in Urdu these days, but then translating them back into English. What is your relationship to English?
Naveed Alam: Ultimately I think it’s my own reality, which is a very bastardized reality. It’s an attempt to articulate an English, since it’s a language that I have tried to live, or that I’ve lived. It’s literally a part of me that I sometimes have to relate to my existence.
S.U.: The queerness in your poems—does the homosexual content affect your choice of language or audience?
N.A.: When I left Pakistan around 17, I had already started switching to English in terms of what I was reading at the time—biographies of Stalin, Hitler, Churchill and so on. I grew up in a town where there was a military library and most of the books were about these people…and Greek myths. I also started to immerse myself more in that English via history, and that’s when I came closer to the language in some ways, because of course these were heavy texts and I would read them deeply. And I used to wonder how I would say ‘penis’ and other sexual organs respectfully in Urdu. I couldn’t really find any words, and I was like, this is really fucked up—a language that has tried to be proper and doesn’t have such words! When you find something new, you knock yourself out, so I became overly sensational in my early poetry. I think I still overdo it…in terms of erotic matters. Now I would hope it is out of my system. I mean, it should be there in a way where it’s necessary, where it’s not affected.
S.U.: You could write these poems in Urdu if they didn’t have the queer content, right?
N.A.: When I’ve tried recently to put the queerness back into Urdu, I felt more comfortable, except now I don’t have the vocabulary that I have access to in English, so I have to retranslate those words. Even with simple words, I get stuck. It comes to me, but only after a little… In college when I got into literature—which I never wanted to study--I got into Rushdie and Günter Grass and the fiction guys, and that’s when I realized that English had become such a source, a sponging of things from everywhere. So then I thought, well, this is really useful. It’s like a window into a universe, and then the attachment grew.
S.U.: If you translated your book into Urdu, would you leave in the English words [for sexual organs]?
N.A.: I don’t think I can leave in the English. It would be too conscious of an effort, and I don’t want to get into politics like that as a statement.
S.U.: But your book could be received here?
N.A.: I think so.
S.U : There’s room here in this culture [for queer content]?
N.A.: If not here, probably in India. It’s a tricky reality for a Pakistani. When I was in the States, I thought: no big deal, South Asia, South Asia. There was some sort of pan-Asian identity, but now I think I have to accept my parochial identity.
S.U.: So the question of language with poetic forefathers:—you’ve told me who they are: Thoreau, Whitman, Ginsberg, Plath, Merwin. I know, too, you’ve mentioned the influence of Agha Shahid Ali and Mahmoud Darwish, and now you’ve told me there is also Yannis Ritsos, but for A Queen of No Ordinary Realms, who were your primary influences?
N.A.: Cavafy. Ritsos. There is also a French-Lebanese poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata. Marilyn Hacker has translated quite a bit of her. There’s also Yehuda Amichai, an Israeli poet. Actually, in a collection that was edited by Charles Simic and Mark Strand called Another Republic, published first in the late 70s, there were seventeen poets, European and Latin American, and that book gave me some sort of direction. That’s when I began reading Polish authors, Zbigniew Hebert and Czesław Miłosz…and Octavio Paz was there. Amichai. Neruda was also there. But now when I read Neruda there is something… I don’t find him as… Now Paz does something more for me than Neruda does. Neruda gets a little corny for me.
S.U.: You were reading mostly men?
N.A.: Probably. Plath was the first one that I really got into in terms of women.
S.U.: Thinking about border crossing and types of passing and moving between worlds, and keeping the section headings in A Queen of No Ordinary Realms as you’ve kept them, these are largely homoerotic, political poems, though women appear in them as lovers as well. Are these not poems of a kind of homelessness or bi-national existence, with this very existence mapped out by brief affairs—this idea of no lasting commitment to a place or person? There’s a sense of diasporic longing within A Queen of No Ordinary Realms. Instead of identifying with something specific, there’s no need to claim anything… Maybe that’s the ‘between’ thing, and I’m not trying to nail you. The last thing I want to do is make your poetry about your national identity, but I think there’s something in that state of not caring and caring—it’s a declarative statement in its own way.
N.A.: I think it goes back to the use of English language. As long as it’s explorative, I might remain interested in this language. But if I get that complete answer, then it might lead to some didactic tendencies, and those are harmful for any art form…
S.U.: I think the poems in A Queen of No Ordinary Realms seem drunk—they’ve got this heightened sensitivity and this appears in the personification of things that don’t have bodies. Like wind doesn’t have a body, but it can be belly dancing in your poems, and language doesn’t really have a body, people don’t think of it as having a body, but you put bodies to words, letters, question marks. I think there’s something in that embodied disembodied… Now I’m starting to think about Ritsos, but he doesn’t do this in the same way. So how does it happen, how do you come to do this?
N.A.: My answer will be very simplistic. It’s just an attempt to concretize the abstraction, and to be able to see the possibilities of how it might take form and then playing with it.
S.U.: That’s the joyful part of your work, because otherwise it’s really melancholy, the book is really lonely, really heart-broken. But there is that joy in these small observations, concretizations… We were talking of Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex, and the creation of magical mythical things; there’s an attachment to that in your poems, an attachment to language, attachment to plants, people—
N.A.: I guess that is my only raison d’etre, otherwise by every measure of success I am a total failure, and I still am, because I have nothing to hold onto. I’m nothing, so the only way I prove my existence is that all this labor was for something else, probably language.
S.U.: That’s beautiful. It makes me think about exile and the way that mostly immigrant literature in the States is being read—anybody is accepted if they’re pro-democracy. Or if you can have the message that we want, then we will have you as our token author, ethnic writer. But without that, there’s a lot less of a window.
N.A.: How are you going to market your package or sell it…
S.U.: Okay, another question. What is it like to write poetry here in Pakistan? Because you said before when we were talking that writing in New York might have been easier, because of the aspect of alienation you felt there, but you’re still alienated…
N.A.: It’s definitely different. If I look at some of the poets who I really admire, including Miłosz who is writing in California, for them it doesn’t make a difference, because their mother-language is their language [of poetic composition]. I sometimes feel that I should have that too, so that as long as I’m in that language, I have [a more solid identity]. Initially, much of what I was churning out was much more sexual, because that was my biggest fear: how am I going to express my queer existence in this place, in Pakistan? I had an obvious fear of persecution and being found out. And slowly, gradually, I found out, no, gay culture totally has its own way here. I was writing a lot about that, writing about these rent boys, masseuses. So they’re probably my muses, those boys. Then lately, the past few months, it was my Urdu project [extracts are included here—ed. comment]. Writing in Urdu and then translating it back into English, and that became fun. When I translated it back, a new tone was emerging. I felt that tone was much more relaxed in some ways. My biggest fear is how much one is indulging in appropriation and how much one can keep an objective distance, and sometimes it kind of creeps up on me.
S.U.: Appropriation of your own homeland or appropriation of your own language?
N.A.: Is this my homeland? The way I arrived here, right back, can I really call it that?
S.U.: And can you call New York your homeland?
N.A.: Exactly. What’s my land? What’s your land, dude? How did it become yours? Especially if you are enjoying a privileged life here compared to there, then you are living off the back of this underclass. Is this homeland? Does it make it homeland when you can exploit people a little more directly?
S.U.: So the need to have a homeland is problematic, and real, obviously, but—
N.A.: There is comfort. That sense. Every time I cross this river, my hometown river, I don’t want to sound New Agey, but I do feel like, yeah, this is it. This is the dirt that I’m out of; that gives a little bit of sense of right belonging. And since I’ve been away, I know what this alienation or distance is from. I have an urge to embrace this place, too.
S.U.: Last question. I know you haven’t read Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but you have read Danyel Mueenuddin—
N.A.: Yeah, “The Reluctant Feudalist”—
S.U.: I’m interested in these authors’ treatment of sexuality and sexual politics… These guys’ fiction is political, but I would say that love is the centerpiece of their work. That’s what they’re really interested in—sexuality. The thing they’re known for is politics, but that’s not how I read them. You asked me to talk about what a North American literary tradition is, so what then is a Pakistani literary tradition?
N.A.: What is a Pakistani? Fifty years is nothing, the blink of an eye—ultimately, there can’t be, there is no such thing as Pakistani tradition, and any attempts to construct it will be futile, hollow, and shallow. But if I have to claim something, then maybe I’ll have to say I’m Punjabi, and have to resort to that ethnic label—Punjabi, because that’s what I was speaking when I was born or what I was raised with. So, probably I have to do something about Punjabi, and Madhoo Lal Hussein, the Punjabi Sufi poet-saint who fell in love with a Brahmin Hindu boy… We’ll go to his shrine this Thursday. We’ll have to visit him. Yeah, there are a couple of poets here from Punjab that I want to tap into and appropriate without any qualms.
Spring Ulmer is the author of the poetry collection Benjamin's Spectacles, winner of a Kore Press First Book Award, and the volume The Age of Virtual Reproduction, published by Essay Press. She has worked as a photojournalist and news writer in East Kentucky, and currently teaches at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.