The Modern Poets of Pakistan
By Pennie Ojeda
It’s impossible for me to make a long story short. I want to write all the details about a recent NEA-supported international literary exchange, which brought two female Pakistani poets to the United States. Fahmida Riaz and Hasina Gul, two exceptional poets and brave women, came from Pakistan for events at the Asia Society in New York and in Houston. The quiet courage of these two women left a mark on all who heard or met them.
My introduction to Hasina was at Kennedy Airport. Imagine me standing for five hours in the international arrivals area, waving a sign reading “Hasina Gul” in the face of anyone remotely resembling a small photo I had memorized. As I cornered an agent to ask about immigration clearance, a veiled women with a huge, warm smile pulled my sign declaring “Me Gul!”
After a spontaneous exchange of hugs, it was clear that communication would be a challenge. Hasina has limited English, and I have non-existent knowledge of Pashto. But there was definitely something simpatico between us. Hasina moved the long scarf that covered her midriff and exclaimed, “Baby!” After we slowly made our way to the car, settled in, and began the ride to Manhattan, I grasped enough to understand that the baby would be born in July. My surprise was evident, and I seemed to be successful in conveying admiration that she made the demanding trip while pregnant. I learned this was Hasina’s first child and that her husband, also a poet, was “very, very worry,” but also passionately supportive of her work.
Later, through a translator, Hasina revealed more of her story. She is a radio broadcaster and lives in Nowshera, a city in Pakistan’s northern tribal region. She often organizes and participates in poetry readings that are a rich part of local cultural life. Among other topics, she writes about gender, sex, and the oppression of women. In earlier years, her younger brother acted as chaperone, and always accompanied her to readings and gatherings with other women writers. In 2003, he was assassinated for facilitating her readings, which promoted what were considered radical ideas. The tragedy bolstered Hasina’s determination to recite in public and to work against oppression. She saw the trip to the U.S. as an imperative opportunity to share her poetry and her life experiences. With time she expects new poems to come from her whirlwind visit and already, stories are in the making for her unborn child.
Fahmida Riaz, of Karachi, is a poet and activist from an earlier generation. She fled to India in the 1980s and was in exile there for seven years because of threats to her life. To tell her story, here is her poem “Search Warrant,” translated from Urdu by Yasmeen Hameed. She reveals to us her encounter with the Police Chief and her reaction in the aftermath of the search, which occurred not long before she left the country.
by Fahmida Riaz
“Look, Bibi, I have a search warrant,
troopers too, waiting around the corner of this street.
I could do this on my own, I thought—
one item is all we need.
Why resist and risk dishonor? So hand it over on
or simply say where in the house you’ve hidden it.”
Never had I seen my home this way before.
I hear heartbeats throb in its doors and walls,
from arteries of stone and steel seeps blood,
warm breaths, eyes wide open, parted lips on all sides,
whispering softly in my ear, repeating one more time
my seven-generations’ pledge to my country’s dust.
Four walls, O my homeland, in your lap,
A brief period of security, this is my debt to you.
How many underground prison cells rise before the eyes!
How many possibilities disclose their doors to me today!
At my feet opens the tunnel of my hopes
on whose walls glimmer the rainbow colors of life.
Now new themes will be inscribed on the city’s
O passing moment! I swear by your trampled honor.
Dust in the lane where my house stands is red,
beyond this window a red tulip blooms.
Such alarm on account of a book from the past?
Part this curtain and behold my dreams for the future.
The NEA supported Dalkey Archive Press for the translation, publication, and promotion to U.S. readers of an anthology, Modern Poetry of Pakistan. Both Riaz and Gul have poems featured in the anthology.