Persian: poetry is a natural feature of language but some languages are verses themselves.

‘Agar firdaus bar ruye zameen ast,

Hameen asto, hameen asto, hameen ast.’

(If  heaven is on earth, it is this, it is this, it’s this).

A poignant way to end the last session: a couplet by poet Khusro shared with us by a very knowledgeable fellow student who explained that this was recited by a Mughal emperor when he first saw Kashmir and was overwhelmed by its heavenly beauty.

Known to be the language of mystics and sufis, it is one of the languages which has poetic metre, rhyme and imagery embedded in it. Interestingly,  I have also found it to be a ‘literal language’ where words are put together as phrases for something: discovering that ‘khargosh’ (rabbit, also an Urdu word which I have always known) literally means ‘donkey ears’ was interesting 🙂 Another example would be ‘hamsar’  (partner) which literally means ‘heads together’ and is actually a metaphor if you think about it which carries a soft poetic quality; the list is endless. For me, theoretically speaking, this indicates the age and purity of words which have been created and left to exist in their purest form, with little evolution. These words speak logic and simplicity.

Moving onto songs, which I don’t segregate from poetry: music for me IS poetry. I have learnt lines from songs which our tutor encouraged us to listen to (initially we were singing along in every session) and this reinforced words for me, especially nouns and prepositions  and although it was fun, I found myself downloading a full playlist including all my  favourite tunes I discovered myself which I would play during household chores, as homework I set for myself! I was able to understand Gogoosh more: someone I always enjoyed listening to. Before learning Persian I could just hear sounds that I liked but now I could feel the depth of pain of being away from the home country or the madness of  love when I heard the intensity of metaphors for absence from the loved one. This gave me further insight into cultural attitudes towards love, patriotism and many more subjects and themes common to us all as human beings.

During the course I made a trip to Turkey to visit Rumi’s shrine and during the last couple of days back in Istanbul while I was waiting in the queue outside a mosque toilet (!) I met an Iranian lady from Tehran whom I very quickly became friends with. This was the first time I sensed the enormity and gravity of connecting with someone in their language – all I said was ‘khoshvaghtam’ (pleased to meet you)  and the friendship bells began to ring. We face time and text whenever we get a chance or the timings allow but we have talked when she has been up until 1am waiting for a call 🙂 This has helped me enormously, being able to use words I know in different contexts and creating new sentences myself, with the odd correction and edit sent back to me, courteously 🙂 Of course, it’s a must to listen to the spoken word and hear the nuances of an accent or slang.

I am able to understand Persian poetry a bit more and don’t have to rely too heavily on translation. I have made great friends I will always cherish . Our group bonded extremely well and it was like we had always known one another: everyone brought a unique quality to the sessions and I feel grateful for having a very open minded tutor who allowed me to interrupt now and then with ‘that is the same in URDU!!’

Talking of Urdu, what could be better than learning a language which has had a significant role to play in the evolution of your mother tongue? As expected, in terms of lexical quality many words in Persian are exactly the same as in Urdu which made the whole process of assimilating words easier, but phonetically speaking the pronunciation is often slightly different to Urdu and I have found this to be the case particularly in the vowel ‘a’ whereas in Persian the ‘a’ is a lengthened vowel almost fused with an ‘o’ and this has been a very difficult process for me because a lifetime of saying ‘a’ is hard to undo and change into an ‘a:o’ in just a few months.  Also, having been brought up on a diet of Arabic and Urdu script, I found some of the writing in Persian to bring me face to face with the same problem where certain letters are different, the sound being the same. Even my own name is written with a different ending ‘aa’ which is actually the same sound but as we have many letters for the same sound the use of these can differ from one language to the next. I think it would be nice to end on the point that not all words mean the same: ‘daroo-khana’ in Persian doesn’t mean ‘booze-store’ but drug store’! 🙂




We are closer than we think

Learning two languages at the same time has not been an easy process, with two different grammars and sound systems trying their best to stay apart in the left hemisphere. I found myself recalling Persian words in Italian and vice versa, and even mixing words such as ’17’ would be seven in Persian and teen in Italian, although this did lighten the mood in the class and made fellow students smile.

Italian language classes are coming to a close. After having submitted my assessments I am able to sit back and reflect on what I have learnt. I left the session at 8.30pm the other day with other students also feeling a little emotional: we have after all spent nearly a year in the same sessions, our paths having converged during our journeys for one academic year. We have different reasons for wanting to learn Italian but ultimately we all have a passion for languages and are interested in the diversity among people and their cultures. For some of us it has been fairly easy but for others it has been tricky. I have found the grammar difficult to get to grips with but eventually all becomes clear with practice.

During the course I have kept a list of words in the back of my notebook which brings together similar words or phrases between Italian, Urdu and Panjabi. I was not too surprised to see so many similarities, having been taught the history of language as an undergraduate I was already aware of the family of Indo-European languages but now I simply had more insight into the kind of pairs of words that emerge and echo each other.

Every time I heard a word that sounded like one I already used in my mother tongues I would write it down and soon the list spilled onto the next page. I’m sure there are many more words to list and this is far from exhaustive,  but here are the ones I discovered that echo with Urdu (U) and Panjabi (P):

‘You’: tu (I)  tu (P) tum (U)

‘Correct’: giusto (I) drust (U)

‘Key’: chiave (I) chaabi (P) chaabi (U)

‘what?’: che (I) ki (P) kya (U)

‘today’: oggi (I) ajj (P) aaj (U)

‘eye’: occhio (I) akkh (P) aankh (U)

‘nail’: ungie (I) [(‘finger’: ungli (P/U)]

‘(I am) sleepy’: sonno (I)  [(‘sleeping’: soana (P/U)]

‘when?’: quando (I)  qaddu (P)  qabb (U)

‘stop/enough’: basta (I) bass (P) bass (U)

‘room’: camera (I) camra (P/U)

‘to wake up’: sveglia (I) [(morning: svere (P)]

‘to dream’: sogna (I) [( to sleep: soana (P/U)]

‘grandchild’: nipote (I)  grandson: pota, plural pote (P)

‘youth’: giovani (I) javaani (P/U)

‘neck’: gola (I) galla (P)

The nature of the words can be classified as quite basic and primitive, with a mixture of nouns, verbs, noun and verb phrases and some adjectives, often with some variation in beginning or ending, leaving an echo of the same sounds in some cases. I didn’t find much similarity to Persian except ‘navey’ (grandchild) and ‘tu’ (you). The Italian ‘who is it?’ ‘chi e’ is the same as ‘ki e’ in terms of pronunciation in Persian (remembering that the Roman transcription of Persian is just approximate). Furthermore, accelerating the confusion for me, I realised that the same word ‘ki’ is ‘what’ in Panjabi (kya in Urdu) and this took a lot of time to assimilate.

Italian and Panjabi seem to echo more words of each other rather than Urdu, maybe because the latter is a more historically recent invention and more heavily influenced by a number of languages? I wonder…

Although this has been a very brief encounter for me in the vast beauty of concurrence in these languages, it has nevertheless been a fascinating one and something I will always treasure.

Thank you. Mamnun. Shukriya. Grazie.


















Poetry of the East in Education

I never really questioned reading lists on English GCSE, A level and degree programmes. Although I was acutely aware of my acquired taste from curricular  teaching throughout schooling, college and undergraduate years, nothing ever made me pick up a book in my mother tongue. I don’t deny that there are some very good poets like Daljit Nagra and Imtiaz Dharker on the curriculum whom students find interesting to read, but on the whole education does not offer a wide spectrum of poetry, especially in the post-compulsory sector.

During my three remarkably developmental years as a writer at MMU, I began to crave the taste of my parents’ language on the page. It was my language too, of course, but spoken less and functioning more cognitively. It slowly crept up on me, this unnatural feeling of never having read or studied any poetry in my mother tongue, Panjabi; but because Panjabi was only our spoken language, the written form was Urdu. What was Urdu poetry like to hear? Even more, what was it like to read and write? Persian, its ancestral language, intrigued me. So did Panjabi. What had been written over the centuries and how had these languages evolved?

I came downstairs once in the middle of the night and perused my bookshelf. ALL the books were in English. I didn’t own a single book of Urdu, Persian or Panjabi poetry which, in the capacity of a writer of Pakistani descent, made me quite embarrassed and ashamed. That is when I began to educate myself, myself.

So, naively, I went to Waterstone’s that day and came home disappointed. Turning to Amazon, I ordered my first book of Urdu poetry by Alama Iqbal. Bulleh Shah next, Baba Farid, then Zebunnisa. The more I read the more intrigued I became, one book leading me to another, questioning the position of female writers over the centuries – works by whom were extremely difficult to source and locate.

To begin with, I’ll talk a bit about Alama Iqbal. Having grown up in a household where my father often talked about Urdu poets, nothing ever triggered me to delve further into it to see why Iqbal was Pakistan’s most highly revered poet. It was the poem ‘Conversation with God’ which struck me with its outspoken, bold and challenging tone. Could a Muslim poet write like this, talking to God directly? The more I read the more I realised how universal and timeless his work was; socio-political writing trying to breathe under oppression. It was current and contemporary, the plight of Muslims being the centre of the sphere. However, I will not forget my disappointing trip to Cambridge in the search for some sort of acknowledgment or tribute to the great poet and philosopher Alama Iqbal who studied there. When I entered Trinity college and asked about Iqbal, staff looked at me with baffled looks. No one had heard of him. Google search finally led me to the house where he lived during his time at Trinity college and then my pilgrimage was almost complete when I sat on the steps outside the quaint and serene pink house, contemplating about his life here.

During my new found passion for eastern poetry I discovered Rumi who simply entranced and hypnotised me. Several writer friends would say ‘if he was alive, you’d marry him without a second thought’. He’s clearly doing something right if eight hundred years later he’s very much alive on the page. He is like a singer who never really dies after his death, whose songs you still play and each time they sound fresher than the last time you heard them. Through Rumi, and in particular his poem ‘Only Breath’, I re-visited the Islam I had grown up with, questioned the ideology we were fed and differentiated between culture and Islam, questioning my own spiritual existence and contentment. My own writing even changed, evolving into a more self-assured voice. He suddenly made me aware of the numerous labels I had that society had given me and how I needed to live without sticking to them (excuse the pun).

For the purpose of this article, I am not able to discuss all the poets I wish to talk about but for me, the decision to choose Zebunnissa isn’t a difficult one. Why? Because she was buried even when alive, with little value attributed to her as a writer and even less as a female writer. When I began to search for writers of Persian descent, in comparison to their male counterparts there was very little online. It is striking to hear the defiant tone in her poetic reply to poet Nasir Ali asking her to lift her veil:

‘I will not lift my veil’

  • Diwan IXA

Defending her right not to lift her veil echoes current discussions around the veil and it is this aspect of the poem which makes it very present for me. Also, as a muslim female, it opens up more dimensions for me than are obvious at a first reading.

Parveen Shakir, a very sharp Pakistani female voice, writes about the ‘Steel Mill Worker’, in which she describes him as a ‘black ghost born of sperm of coal at hellish temperatures’, attacking the ill treatment of these labourers, demanding their human rights through dark, vivid and fiery language. I had been fed stereotypes of female writers as being flowery and romantic so this poem in particular blew me away.

What I have discovered in my research of female poets is the underrepresentation of women writers in a historical context which is parallel to English literary history. It’s not that they didn’t write; they wrote in secret.

Bulleh Shah takes me by surprise with his doha:

‘In Hindu temples phonies, in Sikh shrines sharks,

in Muslim mosques are thugs, lovers live in parks.’

I had to re-read this and pinch myself! Two words came to mind: brave and controversial. If we read this within a wider framework we see it is fundamentally speaking to us about hypocrisy within the hearts of those who practice, not necessarily the religions themselves. Imagine writing like this in the current climate of religious tension?

What draws me to these writers is their bravery and contemporary value. Their poetry is applicable to any society today. They ask questions and they’re not afraid of the consequences.

Poetry of the east has always been talked about as being exotic and mystical. To me, it is actually very raw and real. After running successful ‘taster’ workshops on these poets I am even more passionate to see poems in these languages being offered across the board in education. We gain from this on many levels: the rhythm and cadence can be felt when heard without any understanding, which can be absorbed subconsciously into our own writing. Secondly, with some understanding, we can explore the various forms of writing such as the ghazal expanding our own styles. Lastly, the grammar is different and some of these languages exercise the brain to read from right to left. How can that not benefit our minds?

So, returning to the beginning of my article, I am asking the educational system to review what it offers and to enrich what has been taught for many years. If I am asked why we should study poetry in these languages, my question in return is why do we study poetry in other languages at all.

We need language enthusiasts and bilingual poets to come forward and offer modules in other languages in Creative Writing courses in Higher education, like I am striving to do. My recent success of setting up a course in Eastern Poetry at Nottingham Trent University is proof that the demand is out there.

(article first published in NAWG Link magazine Aug 2018)


For further details on the course see the link below: