Pakistan has been an intensely poetic country. Unfortunately, the global reputation of Pakistan is anything but poetic. Terrorism portrays Pakistan as a land where violence is cultivated for both domestic and international consumption. Sectarian violence, assaults on Sufi shrines, the rise of the Taliban, intervallic skirmishes with India, the ignoble attack on Malala, and the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden living with his wives and children in Abbottabad, these captivating stories illustrate Pakistan as a fierce nation strewn with rugged foothills, mystery moles, religious fanatics, and hardcore radicals.
Speaking to zealots, Ahmed Faraz (d. 2008 CE), a Pashtun poet, protests, “We are a city of lovers/why you wave your daggers at us?” Since its creation in 1947, Pakistan has gradually drifted away from a city of lovers to a city of daggers, from poetic broadmindedness toward militant self-righteousness under which any difference of viewpoints is taken as an existential threat to the nation’s “core values.”
Poetry begins to die when pistols replace pens and when guarded ideologies replace open experimentation of philosophies. Poetry flourishes in sensitive and intelligent cultures where the nuances of awareness are encouraged, observed, appreciated, and recorded.
Historically, the land, now known as Pakistan, has been a wide-open territory for natives and immigrants, domestic and foreign creeds, Vedic rivers and fables, multiple languages and dialects, mighty mountains, deserts, green stretches of agriculture, and pastoral farming. In this complex tapestry of colors, patterns, and creeds, poetry celebrates the human heart as the true place of worship. Bulleh Shah (d. 1757 CE), a Sufi poet, would rather destroy all the houses of worship than wounding a human heart (Masjid dha de, mandir dha de/Dha de jo kuch dhenda/Ik bande da dil na dhaaveen/Rab dilan wich rehnda).
Poetry begins to die when pistols replace pens and when guarded ideologies replace open experimentation of philosophies.
For centuries, the seven rivers mentioned in the Hindu scripture Rig-Veda have flowed through Pakistan in gentle and stormy seasons. Some rivers have died, some have changed course, but most flow with uninterrupted majesty. Love stories, real and imagined, including Heer-Ranjha and Sohni-Mahiwal, are inextricably associated with the mystical waters of the river Chenab (means moon-water) -- a river of romance. Alexander the Great (d. 350 BCE) sailed through Indus, and a city on the confluence of five rivers, called Uch Sharif (proposed to be listed as a UNESCO world heritage site), commemorates Alexander, Sufi shrines, mysticism, and love poetry.
Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scripture of Sikhism, contains more than a hundred hymns of the first great Punjabi poet, Baba Farid (d. 1265 CE), a Muslim Sufi born in Pakistan. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, also born in Pakistan, was himself a great poet and singer. Farid and Nanak embrace love over zealotry, diversity over homogeneity, pluralism over linearism, and tolerance over righteousness.
In February, a suicide-bomber killed 75 men, women, and children at the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Sehwan in the Sindh province of Pakistan. The ISIL claimed responsibility. Syed Muhammad Usman (d. 1275), popularly known as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, was a multilingual scholar and poet, who spoke Persian, Sanskrit, Arabic, and Sindhi. One of the greatest Sufi songs, dumma dum must qalandar, a song written and finessed by various poets over the centuries, which has been sung by various singers in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, is dedicated to Shahbaz Qalandar.
When poetry permeates a culture, its sweetness and perfume affect every aspect of social and political life. Hundreds of poets in all parts of Pakistan are still writing exquisite poetry. Ordinary people cite famous hymns from ancient and modern poetry in daily conversations. Many couplets from legendary poems serve as idioms, wise-sayings, and are invoked even in banter and jokes. Politicians quote verses in the national and provincial parliaments to tease opponents and criticize state policies.
For more than twenty years, a militant Pakistan is at war with a poetic Pakistan. The militant Pakistan is self-righteous, humorless, other-directive, and determined to shape the larger culture consistent with its puritanical ideology imported from the Middle East. The poetic Pakistan is sensitive, open to viewpoints and diversity. “Truth” is the paradigm of the militant Pakistan. “Beauty” is the paradigm of the poetic Pakistan. John Keats (d. 1821), an eminent English Romantic poet, who believed that “beauty is truth, truth beauty” will be disappointed to see a grating conflict between truth and beauty in Pakistan.