Haider Shahbaz

Literary resistance and critique in Urdu has a long and illustrious history of challenging colonial and postcolonial states and their ideological apparatuses in South Asia. This tradition in Urdu literature is often identified with the Progressive Writers Association (PWA), an anticolonial and left-oriented cultural movement that started in colonial India in 1936. Its later manifestations in postcolonial India and Pakistan continued to exercise the imagination of progressive and left movements and revolutionaries.

Many progressive writers opposed British colonialism, patriarchal notions of gender and sexuality, and the social and economic exploitations of capitalism. After national independence, they extended their critique to postcolonial governments as well as the larger web of Cold War imperialisms that sought control over geographies in the global south from South Africa to Vietnam. Their aesthetic and political commitments had a profound impact on Urdu literature in the twentieth century. Thus, it is only natural that Marxist, feminist, and anti-imperialist Urdu writers associated with literary progressivism in South Asia have long written of Palestinian resistance. Their solidarity can guide us today as we try to learn once again, together, from the liberation struggles that are moving us towards a new world.

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Fahmida Riaz – a poet, novelist, and editor – is one of the most important writers of modern Urdu literature. She coupled her experimental, modernist aesthetics with politically committed writing to critically address formations of gender, nation, empire, and capital. In the late 70s, she founded the cultural and political magazine, Awaz [Voice], in Karachi, Pakistan. The magazine dissented against the military dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq while also promoting Third World solidarity by publishing works about anti-imperialist movements around the world as well as translations of various literary writers from Africa and Asia. The magazine’s strong stance against military dictatorship and imperialism made both Riaz and the magazine a target for surveillance and censorship. Multiple cases of sedition, which could result in the death penalty, were registered against her. By the early 1980s, Awaz was banned and Riaz was forced into exile in India.

In her editorial for Awaz from June 1980, she writes:

اردو ادب کو لازماً وہ نظریہ پیش کرنا تھا جو ہندوؤں کو برا اور مسلمانوں کو اچھا ثابت کرے۔ دوسرے الفاظ میں ادیب سے کہا گیا کہ انسان کو ہندو اور مسلمان کے خانے میں بانٹ دے۔ اپنی آزادی کے لیے جدوجہد کرنے والی قوموں کا یہ رویہ تو نہیں ہوتا۔ ہمارے سامنے فلسطینی ادب کی مثال ہے جس میں کہیں بھی یہودیوں کو بدی اور شر سے تعبیر نہیں کیا جاتا۔ نہ یہودیوں سے نفرت نظر آتی ہے اس کی بجائے فلسطینی ادب اس اعلیٰ شعور کی عکاسی کرتا ہے جو صیہونیت کو جنم دینے والے سامراجی عفریت کو بے نقاب کر دیتا ہے۔

[Translation: Urdu literature was forced to take a view that presented Hindus as bad and Muslims as good. In other words, the writer was told to divide humanity in categories of Hindus and Muslims. This is not the attitude of nations struggling for freedom. We have the example of Palestinian literature, which does not equate Jews with evil and sin. We don’t see hatred for Jewish people in Palestinian literature. Instead, it shows the developed consciousness that uncovers the ghost of imperialism, which gives birth to Zionism.]

In this way, Riaz compared Urdu literature with Palestinian literature, noticing the shortcomings of Urdu literature and urging it to adopt the “attitude of nations struggling for freedom” and practice the kind of anti-imperialism exemplified by Palestinian literature.

Riaz also wrote a poem, Falasteeni [Palestinian], in solidarity with Palestinian people. An award-winning English translation of the poem by Poorna Swami can be read at

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Along with other anti-imperialist writers from around the world, Fahmida Riaz published translations of Palestinian writers Mahmoud Darwish and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra in Awaz. The same issue [Issue 4, Volume 5, undated] that carries a translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, an al-Umniyat [Concerning Wishes; translated into Urdu by Najam-ul-Hasan Ata as Seher Ka Wada (The Promise of Dawn)], also carries the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s iconic poem, Shuhda-e-Falasteen Kay Naam [For Palestinian Martyrs]. Faiz’s poem was later published with the title, Falasteeni Shuhda Jo Pardes Main Kaam Aye [Palestinian Martyrs Who Died Abroad], in his collection, Mere Dil, Mere Musafir [My Heart, My Traveller].

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In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, while Fahmida Riaz was editing Awaz, Faiz Ahmed Faiz moved to Beirut to escape the military dictatorship in Pakistan, and edited the magazine, Lotus: Afro-Asian Writings. Lotus was a trilingual quarterly magazine issued by the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association (AAWA) and it served to end colonialist and neo-colonialist control of Afro-Asian cultures. Faiz met the Palestinian writer and intellectual, Edward Said, during his stay in Beirut. In his essay, Reflections on Exile, Said remembers Faiz in the following words:

To see a poet in exile—as opposed to reading the poetry of exile—is to see exile’s antinomies embodied and endured with a unique intensity. Several years ago I spent some time with Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the greatest of contemporary Urdu poets. He was exiled from his native Pakistan by Zia’s military regime, and found a welcome of sorts in strife-torn Beirut. Naturally his closest friends were Palestinian, but I sensed that, although there was an affinity of spirit between them, nothing quite matched—language, poetic convention, or life-history. Only once, when Eqbal Ahmad, a Pakistani friend and a fellow-exile, came to Beirut, did Faiz seem to overcome his sense of constant estrangement. The three of us sat in a dingy Beirut restaurant late one night, while Faiz recited poems. After a time, he and Eqbal stopped translating his verses for my benefit, but as the night wore on it did not matter. What I watched required no translation: it was an enactment of a homecoming expressed through defiance and loss, as if to say, “Zia, we are here.” Of course Zia was the one who was really at home and who would not hear their exultant voices.

In Beirut, Faiz also met Palestinian writers such as Muin Bseiso and political leaders such as Yasser Arafat. He dedicated one of his poetry collections, Mere Dil, Mere Musafir [My Heart, My Traveller], to Yasser Arafat. According to Sumayya Kassamali, it was under Faiz and Bseiso’s editorship that Lotus “published its powerful 1983 double issue on Palestine, put together after the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, when the Israeli military gave their allies in a right-wing Christian Lebanese militia free rein to slaughter thousands living in the Palestinian refugee camp and surrounding area.”

Faiz could not stay in Beirut for long. He left after the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel. However, before leaving, he wrote several poems about Palestinian liberation and Israeli aggression. In 1980, he wrote Falasteeni Bachey Kay Liye Lori [Lullaby for Palestinian Child]. It was published alongside Falasteeni Shuhda Jo Pardes Main Kaam Aye [Palestinian Martyrs Who Died Abroad], in his collection, Mere Dil, Mere Musafir [My Heart, My Traveller]. In June 1982, right after Israel invaded Lebanon, he wrote two poems: Ek Tarana Mujahideen-e-Falasteen Kay Liye [Anthem for Palestinian Revolutionaries], which starts with the line, “hum jeetain gay” [We will win – a line that evokes Faiz’s earlier revolutionary poem, Hum Dekhain Gay (We Will See)], and Ek Nagma Karbala-e-Beirut Kay Liye [A Song for Beirut’s Karbala]. His poem about Beirut can be read in an English translation by Vijay Prashad here.

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In their poetic and editorial work, Fahmida Riaz and Faiz Ahmed Faiz criticised Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship in Pakistan while also expressing solidarity with Palestine. In the process, they highlighted the connections between different sites of US imperialism, which was funding both Pakistan’s military dictatorship and Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The poet, Habib Jalib, who was imprisoned by the military dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq for his radical politics and poetics, also wrote several poems about Palestine. Shahab Ahmed writes that Jalib “denounced Gen Zia as a client of the same world order that was responsible for the Palestinian condition by condemning the United States’ support for Zia and for Israel in the same breath.” In his poem, Reagan, translated by Shahab Ahmed, we clearly find this attention to the condition of homology between imperialist states:

On the head of every usurping tyrant rests Reagan’s hand

It is he who guides the bandit to the caravan

It is his hand, too, that is at Israel’s back

It is he who hands out the machinery of war

It is he who has looted the tranquillity of every courtyard

On the head of every tyrant rests Reagan’s hand.

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The Urdu feminist writer, Kishwar Naheed, translated the Palestinian revolutionary Leila Khaled’s autobiography into Urdu. In an interview I conducted with Naheed in Islamabad, Pakistan on 14th Sept 2022, Naheed said: “Tranlsating Leila Khaled was, for me, a way of honouring my desire to participate in the Palestinian struggle.” Naheed’s translations also include some poems by Fadwa Tuqan and an excerpt from Muin Bseiso’s book ‘Descent into the Water: Palestinian Notes from an Arab Exile.’ She has written many original poems about Palestinian resistance including Falasteeni Jawanon Kay Naam [For Young Palestinians], 2nd April, Ramallah ka Snapshot [2nd April, Snapshot of Ramallah], and Shaa’ir aur Falasteen [The Poet and Palestine] – all from her 2002 collection Sokhta Samani-e-Dil [Composition of a Grieved Heart].

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The avant-garde Urdu writer, Enver Sajjad, wrote the hybrid prose-poetry piece, Alif Say Yay Tak: Mahmoud Darwish Say Mukalima [From A to Z: A Dialogue with Mahmoud Darwish] about the censorship of writers and texts under tyrannical regimes. The short, surreal text mixes common natural symbols like rivers, forests, rocks, cyclones and windstroms with images of prisons, slaughterhouses, and bullets. It evokes the potential of words and literary expressions to combat power and authority.

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Amjad Islam Amjad dedicated his book of translations of modern Arabic poetry, Aks [Reflection; 1976], to the movement for Palestinian liberation. The book includes translations of Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, and Fadwa Tuqan. It also includes a letter of support from the Pakistan Office of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In the preface, Amjad writes that he did not work on the book simply for the literary pleasure of translation, but that he was also guided by his commitment to “progressive, humanist, and revolutionary forces.” You can find the book here.

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In 2001, the writer, critic, and editor, Asif Farrukhi, compiled a double issue of his Urdu magazine, Dunyazad [Worldly], on representations of Palestinian resistance in Urdu literature and Urdu translations of Palestinian writers. It is the most comprehensive work on this topic. All the issues of the magazine can be found here.

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One of the editors of Awaz, who was critical to the success of the magazine, was Ishrat Afreen. A progressive and feminist poet, Afreen now lives in Houston and continues to write. Her last poetry collection, Diya Jalati Shaam [Lamp Burning Evening], was dedicated to Rachel Corrie and includes a poem dedicated to Ismail Khatib, the father of the 12-year-old Palestinian, Ahmed Khatib, who was killed by Israeli soldiers. For the past few months, Afreen has been writing a series of poems about Palestinian resistance, Jang Ki Diary [War Diary].

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I want to end with a brief note that I have purposefully focused almost entirely on the solidarities imagined and created by Marxist, feminist, and anti-imperialist writers. The traditions of solidarity in Urdu literature, especially with Palestine, are many and varied. However, I find that some of these traditions either falsely represent Palestinian liberation as an Islamic cause and Zionism as a Jewish problem, or present religious belonging as a basis of solidarity rather than focusing on the shared struggles of oppressed peoples. I want to echo Jamhoor’s editorial, published on October 16, 2023, which highlights that “our solidarity comes from shared histories of colonialism and forced expulsions…our own experience with occupation…our traumas of genocide…our understanding that the rise of authoritarian, fascist, ethno-religious governments in South Asian countries is aligned with the fascist apartheid government of Netanyahu in Israel.” I have attempted to focus on writers that have built on these ideas and practices of resistance.

Haider Shahbaz is a writer and translator from Pakistan. has pictures

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