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: