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The last total revolution turns 40

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By Hamid Dabashi

I can close my eyes and hear the chants: “Marg bar fascism! Marg bar fascism!” It was a fine summer day in July 1979. I was a graduate student at the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. I had just returned to Iran for the summer break, and my homeland was in the frenzied grips of an historic revolution.

“Death to fascism! Death to fascism!” That is all we could scream, a crowd of a few thousand gathered at the football field of Tehran University to rally against the Islamists trying to claim the revolution for themselves. We were an eclectic crowd – some were leftists, some were not; more than half of us were women, some scarfed, many not; some men wore beards, many not – but we all had one thing in common: We could all recite the poetry of Forough Farrokhzad and Ahmad Shamlou faster than we could any verse of the Quran. And we too had a claim on this revolution.

 

Islamist thugs were disrupting the rally, cutting the wires of loudspeakers, diving into the crowd with knives and brass knuckles, punching, kicking, cursing. They were organised, determined, fearless, violent. They knew what they were doing. We did not know what to do.

We were mostly students, inexperienced in street fights, many of us from poor or middle-class families, some from the provinces. The Persian accents of our attackers, without an exception, were from southern Tehran – nasal, colloquial, limited in vocabulary, vile, violent. They were particularly nasty with the young unveiled woman among us.

They succeeded. They disrupted our rally. The cries of “Death to fascism!” eventually died out.

Today the ruling regime in Iran is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the successful establishment of the Islamic Republic on the ruins of a collective dream for a free and open Iran whose tragic death Iranians at large have been mourning for the last four decades.

The Iranian revolution of 1977-1979, which swiftly degenerated into the formation of Shia mullahcracy thinly camouflaged as an Islamic Republic, was the last grand illusion of the 20th century. It came on the heels of two other total revolutions – the Russian revolution of 1917 and the Chinese revolution of 1949 – which inspired a number of other popular uprisings, including the Cuban revolution of 1953, the Algerian revolution of 1954 and others.

These three total revolutions – the Russian, the Chinese, and the Iranian – were all of the same significance as the American revolution of 1775 and the French revolution of 1789 in scale and universal significance.

The Iranian revolution of 1977-1979, to be emphatically distinguished from the Islamism of the Islamic Republic which became its exclusive beneficiary, gave a particularly universal expression of the mixed blessings and paradoxical perils of postcolonial revolutionary zeal. After these events, the postcolonial world was cured and delivered from any and all ideological delusions of a total revolution.

As evidenced in the Green Movement of 2009 and the Arab uprisings of 2010-2011, both the language and the inspirations of revolutionary momentums of the 21st century have been of an entirely different character and disposition. The Islamic Republic put the myth of “the West” the measure of truth or falsehood at the epicentre of regional and global politics. The Green Movement and the Arab Spring decentred and dismantled it.

By the time of these uprisings, we had already learned how to shift our focus away from the illegitimate state and seek democratic sovereignty in the nation. There were no delusions about the totality of their outcome.

Today, the Islamic Republic in Iran, Israel in Palestine, the ruling Saudi clan in the Arabian Peninsula, the military government in Egypt and the murderous Asad regime in Syria are made of identical cloth – illegitimate state apparatus violently suppressing the democratic will of nations they rule in and out of their postcolonial borders. But the civilising power of these nations has withstood not only the tyranny and brutality of these regimes but also the onslaught of their byproducts – armed groups like ISIL.

The charismatic terror of Ayatollah Khomeini during the decade of his reign from 1979 to 1989 did not subside with his death. Neither his successor, nor the institution of theocratic reign he crafted commands anything near his personal power, but his takeover of the revolution determined the course of the history he left behind.

Today Iranians face towering enemies on their historic path to freedom – the ruling theocracy and its militant apparatus, the diaspora opposition and their entirely discredited politics, the regional Saudi-Zionist alliance and above all the lunacy that is the United States under President Donald Trump.

Iranians, with their vast and expansive political culture, will overcome them all as they walk towards a future only they can write for themselves. The standoff between the daily realities of a normative life in Iran and the treacheries of this congested front of animus coming their way is historically bent towards the defeat of the enemies of the commonweal of national sovereignty.

The Iranian revolution of 1977-1979 succeeded in liberating an entire nation from the calamities of an authoritarian monarchy, but the Islamic Republic devoured it, established a brutal theocracy, and in the process delivered Iranians from any and all delusions about regime legitimacy.

In the making of the catastrophic Islamic Republic, however, the US, the Soviet Union, and their regional agents were all implicated.

The Iranian revolution was initially widely popular in the region until the US and its allies enabled and encouraged Saddam Hussein to start a war against Iran that lasted eight brutal years and killed hundreds of thousands of people on both sides. As the war fuelled Iranian-Arab rivalry, this helped Khomeini define the popular rebellion as “Shia-inspired”, turning the worldly and cosmopolitan character of the Iranian revolution into a xenophobic and religious one, from which he benefitted immensely.

The December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan allowed the newly formed clerical regime to start expanding its network of proxies in its immediate neighbourhood and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon paved the way for the creation of Hezbollah, which solidified its extraterritorial outreach.

Over the next few decades, the domestic affairs of Iran became increasingly overshadowed by the dissolution of the ruling Islamic Republic into the geopolitics of the region and its rivalries with the Saudi-Zionist axis. In 2009 the Green Movement was the last chance for a democratic substitution and the altering of the course of the post-revolutionary Iran, but the ruling clerical and paramilitary forces viciously crashed that hope.

The atrocities of the Islamic Republic over the past 40 years have created an expatriate opposition equally atrocious in its treacherous power mongering. The People’s Mojahedin Organisation (MEK), the monarchists, and their various incarnations have come together collectively to form and discredit the Iranian political opposition. These organisations are now actively collaborating with the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia towards “regime change” in Iran, which would mean massive calamity for millions of Iranians.

Victorious in the midst of all this is the common sense and the collective purpose of Iranians themselves and their past experiences gathered from the failed monarchy, the fanatical Islamism that followed it, and the quagmire of regional geopolitics into which their ruling regime is increasingly drawn and lost.

Today the fate of the Islamic Republic can be summed up in the characters of two women, both of them named Masoumeh. One is Masoumeh Ebtekar and the other Masoumeh Alinejad. Masoumeh Ebtekar was one of the Iranian hostage takers during the 1979-1981 American hostage crisis and is currently vice president of Iran for Women and Family Affairs. To this day she benefits from her role in this criminal act, which Khomeini used as a smokescreen to brutally eliminate all legitimate rivals to his autocratic rule.

Meanwhile, Masoumeh Alinejad is also reaping benefits from her public political decisions. She made her name more palatable to an American tongue by calling herself Masih Alinejad (Masih is Persian and Arabic for messiah) after she ran away from her homeland and worked her way up to the top of the American mediascape. Under the false flag of bourgeois feminism, she has become a useful servant at the service of the US imperial machine, happily posing for photos with US secretary of war and propaganda, Mike Pompeo.

These two Masoumehs represents the cruelties of two opposing regimes: the ruling Islamic Republic on one side and the US and those trying to topple it on the other. One is a fanatical and myopic zealot, the other – a vulgar and loutish career opportunist. They personify nothing but the banalities of two identical evils. In between, stand millions of Iranian women and men in fateful charge of their personal, public, and national dignity, who still remember how it all began 40 years ago.

Soon after that summer day in 1979, the Islamists took over the Tehran University football field and turned it into a makeshift mosque in which they brought masses of their supporters and institutionalised the Friday prayer propaganda to denounce their enemies and steal the revolution all to themselves.

They won. We lost. But 40 years later something even more important happened: Our dreams of a different and better world have been implanted into the collective consciousness of a big-hearted, forgiving, and triumphant people. The Islamist won that battle but lost the war for the hearts and minds of a nation with a memory that far exceeds the limited imagination of a gang of degenerate octogenarian clerics on the verge of senility.

The fate of the Islamic Republic is now threatened by the whims of a juvenile delinquent like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), a war criminal like Benjamin Netanyahu, and a lunatic like Donald Trump. The dreams of the Iranian revolution that the Islamic Republic usurped and betrayed remain alive and well in the hearts and minds of a brave nation which is triumph over its own cruel history.


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Opinion

Comrade Mantoo

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By Raza Naeem

Though Manto had begun writing short columns and commentaries after his association with Musavaat, he wrote his own first original essay on Maxim Gorky with the title Maxim Gorky – the Eminent Thinker of the Red Nation. This was published in the December 1934 issue of Humayunwhen Manto was merely 22 years of age. Then the second essay was on Pushkin, which was published in the Russian Literature Number in May 1935. The same year, Manto compiled the Russian Literature Number of Alamgir and wrote a lengthy introduction to it. Before and after it, his essays Socialist PoetryRed RevolutionPeasant Worker Capitalist Landlord, etc. were published, reading which one of the great left-wing luminaries of the period Ferozuddin Mansoor confessed:

“Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Maxim Gorky are familiar to Indian readers to an extent. Mr Saadat Hasan Manto and his other friends are doing admirable work in transmitting Russian thought into Urdu.’

 

(Alamgir, Russian Literature Number)

Maxim Gorky watches revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin playing chess

The essay written on Maxim Gorky begins with a description of the conditions prevalent in Russia. It explores the idea that within Russian language and literature, the two artists who have sketched effective portraits of these conditions and the social system – according to Manto – are Chekhov and Gorky. The essay itself is on Gorky, so while mentioning his school of thought, Manto writes:

“In the school I am referring to, the name of Gorky is especially important, because we find the effect of his thought on the writings of most of the members of this school. The absolute reason for this entire effect is that Gorky indeed is the first person who all at once removed soft and pure elements from Russian realism.”

Then he writes about Russian realism:

“Russian realism was always soft and delicate about morality. Russian writers refrained from the raw materiality and unnecessary plain talk of French novelists. The Russian literature of that time to some extent resembles the English Victorian novel. Ugliness, filth and the sensual aspect of gender relations has always been a forbidden fruit for the Russian writer.”

These lines make clear how closely Manto had studied Russian literature at a young age. No doubt this was Bari Alig’s generosity, but Manto’s personal knowledge and wisdom, too, advanced rapidly towards world literature and was – consciously or otherwise – leveling the path for his thought and art. Eventually his work advanced to a new chapter of savage and complex realism, and he writes directly about Gorky thus:

“Maxim Gorky’s name carried the highest status in the rebirth of Russian literature. In modern writing, only Gorky is world-famous like Tolstoy. His fame is not like the popularity of Chekhov, which is limited to the educated classes of a few countries of the world.”

He continues:

“Gorky’s character is really very bewildering. Born in a poor family, he dominated Russian literature at only 30 years of age.”

And see also this line:

“He was desirous of giving radiance to the blind flame of Russian literature with his liberating thought; wanted to create an agitation for rebirth in dead, yellow and lifeless skeletons.”

Manto goes on to explore the circumstances, actions and dynamics of Gorky’s life in detail. After all, Manto passed through a period of poverty, want and worry exactly like Gorky.

Gorky met an old soldier who developed his habit of reading books; and Manto met an old communist editor and thinker – both also did translations and wrote short stories during days of real distress. Perhaps these, indeed, were the elements which brought Manto closer to Gorky. Moreover, Gorky remained in a battle with life by confronting all these adverse circumstances and harmonizing his pen and step. Then a time came when in 1895 Gorky’s first collection of short stories appeared which created his national identity; his stories were at once distinct from the traditional fictional style of Russian literature. This is the reason why Marxist writers of the period extended a most warm welcome to his work. Afterwards Gorky himself became a Marxist and was internationally recognized as a very great name of Russian literature. His writings became a staple of every Russian household. Indeed they became a headache for the avenues of power.

Manto writes:

“Gorky fully participated in the first (Russian) revolution. He was arrested in January 1905. This arrest led to the creation of new lovers of Gorky around the world.”

In this long essay Manto has also pointed towards a few personal weaknesses of Gorky, but nevertheless allows for the following:

“Though his fame fell in literary circles in this manner but on the other hand, his thought began to find favour with the hearts and minds of Russian workers. The mentality of Russian workers that we find until 1917 was actually thanks to the writings of Gorky. Russian civilization is actually obligated for receiving the sincere activities of Gorky. Every effort between 1918 and 1921 that was put into practice to save Russian writers and other journalists from starvation was only the result of Gorky’s attention.”

Manto analyzes Gorky’s literature as follows:

“In the realism of the initial writings of Gorky, romanticism of the highest order is present. This same element of romanticism proved the reason for his popularity in Russia; but on the other hand, in foreign countries it is his realism which made him famous. The freshness of his first short stories was his young and bold thoughts in the eyes of the Russian reader, but the foreign reader felt the freshness in the raw and oppressive narrative style through which he has depicted his hell-like world.”

The depiction of a hell-like world is also seen in Manto, about which the general opinion is that he indeed took this influence from Gorky and Chekhov.

 

Then we find a detailed overview of Gorky’s short stories, due to which the essay has indeed become lengthy but at least one can guess that Manto studied the creative literature of Gorky in minute detail and was influenced by his revolutionary ideology. In between, with reference to Gorky, he mentions the following lines from Gorky:

“Life as it is, rather than as it should be, can be imagined or will be…this is Gorky’s art and the secret of Russia’s other short story writers.”

Now let us observe the following lines of Manto, too, which were said afterwards by way of some reaction:

“Life should be presented in a colour as it is, not as it was or will be and should be…”

You will clearly hear the voice of Gorky in these lines. Not just that, he writes in another place about the short story, and especially about Gorky’s work:

“Russian short-story writers have nothing to do with fake humanity or the fake traces of fake life. For them, only the structure of a story could be imaginary, and that’s it! It is necessary for all the rest of the characters to be real.”

 

Manto, too, adopted the same path in his short stories. This was so especially after he reached Bombay, as there was a lot of fakeness in this great city – even some Progressives who were regarded as less than genuine in their convictions and practices.

Manto, it could be said, learnt this honesty and realism from Gorky, Chekhov, etc. but presented it absolutely in his own distinct manner.

 

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Opinion

Ghalib and ghazal

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By Sarwat Ali

Ghalib became a favourite with the singers after he was accepted as a leading poet. This process started with the publication of a pocket edition from Berlin in 1925, very beautifully printed on thick paper, carrying a striking photograph of Ghalib. During his lifetime, he was appreciated by a few, reviled by a lot more, because his sensibility and views violated the more conventional thinking patterns of Indians in general and Muslims in particular.

Ghazal till the turn of the century was a minor form of singing. The grand tradition had travelled from dhurpad to kheyal in about three centuries while the singing of ghazal was restricted to the salons of dancing girls. With the gradual destruction and lessening of importance of Delhi, other centres started to emerge and kheyal prospered there more than in Delhi in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Thumri too formed a definitive style in Lucknow, Benares and Jaipur.

 

Gradually, as word displaced sur in music, it edged towards a more central position among listeners who were bigger in number and much more diverse in taste and background. It is very difficult to say which ghazals of Ghalib were sung earlier and were popular with the audience that visited the salons. Even the names of those ghazal singers are not known as the names of famous kheyal and thumri maestros were known and documented in history to come down to us.

As Ghalib grew in popularity, myths about his private life and person started to be spun and grew in proportion; names of some female vocalists were romantically linked to him. This became the grist of the popular show business mill as films, television plays and serials were made, not as a faithful depiction of his life but as necessity of creating a drama.

It can be guessed that Ghalib was not a favourite with vocalists as he was known to be “mushkil pasand”. The poets who were liable to an instant understanding and were more sentimental in tone must have been more sought after. There is great likelihood that someone like Daagh was more in demand than Ghalib. It is possible that poets who were more serious in their approach may have been wary of their ghazals being sung in the salons and appreciated in terms of monetary rewards in the shape of vails. Popular ghazal was also sung in stage plays and it must have matured the art of singing the ghazal because the actors were primarily vocalists.

Many Indians who wanted higher education chose to go to Germany rather than England on a note of defiance because it offered comparable standards of education and scholarship, if not higher, while being in the colonialist’s enemy camp. Aligarh by the turn of the century had cast aside its absolutely loyalist approach after a number of revolts and upheavals to evolve a more balanced view. Some of the revival of our past had its origins in Aligarh. As these scholars and intellectuals went abroad to study, their nationalistic sentiments were stoked by the more liberal atmosphere of the academia in the West. One such person was Zakir Hussain, later Dr. Zakir Hussain, president of India, who went to Germany. His anti-British approach was galvanised in the wake of gruelling scholarship that he was subjected to in the universities of Germany.

It was also from Aligarh that Dewan-e Ghalib along with Veda was proclaimed as an Ilhami Kitab and classified as the best representative of this entire civilisation.

After the first flush of conquest, the nationalistic movement started to gain some confidence. A conscious effort was made to look at our own things without the prejudice of the conqueror, coupled with the insight of the new liberal humanistic education.

Ghalib’s writings can be also seen as the legacy that influenced subsequent poetic endeavour. In one respect, he was extremely elitist and obscure because the Persian language that he wrote and took a great deal of pride in writing was phased out of the lives of the educated or literate Indians. Had he only written in Persian in this part of the world, Ghalib would only have been remembered by the academia and scholars, like Urfi, Nazeeri and Bedil now exist only in the researches .of scholars. But singers made Ghalib a household name among the urban middle classes of North India.

It is very difficult to trace back the history of music because it only existed in time and all else is either hearsay or oral narration. It cannot be recalled for verification and authenticity. The actual history that can be documented started with the recording of sound, and it is said that the recording of music in India started in the early years of the twentieth century. It is also said that the first person to be recorded was Gohar Jan.

For record, we have a 78 rpm disc of Gohar Jan yeh na thi hamari kismet key wisal-e yaar hota. Others of about the same era whose recordings have survived are Shamshad Bai Dilliwali dost ghamkhari main meri saye farmain Ge kiya and Hujrowali taskeen ko hum na roain jo zauq-e nazar mile.

When the vocalists who were valued sang Ghalib, it must have contributed to him being seen as a popular poet. Akhteri Bai Faizabadi, K. L Saigal and Barkat Ali Khan not only sang Ghalib but took the rendition of the form a couple of notches higher. Once this was achieved then everyone sang Ghalib. Talat Mehmood, Kamala Jharia, Malika Pukhraj, Noor Jehan, Suraiya, Mehdi Hasan, Habib Wali Muhammed, Amanat Ali Khan, Farida Khanum, Iqbal Bano, Ghulam Ali, Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhonsley, Jagjit Singh, you name them and they are there.

Now as we enter another phase of music history, this period is viewed by the younger generation as “classical” as very few actually recall dhrupad and kheyal, generally considered to be classical forms.

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Opinion

Transcending Ghalib

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By Syed Nomanul Haq

 

Much has been said about the difficulties one faces in translating poetry. Yes, it is a daunting task, particularly in the case of good poetry. In the case of great poetry, it is ultimately a frustrating task. The reasons are obvious: great poets take upon themselves the onus of exhausting the possibilities of the medium in which they work — colour, brush and pencil for a Picasso or a Michelangelo; words and their history, metaphors and symbolism, rhythm and balance for a Shakespeare or a Ghalib. Their works resist and militate any attempt at transferring them from their own medium into another. Intriguingly, it is precisely this demurral to dislocation that happens to be the testimonial flag of their greatness.

 

Translating classical Urdu poetry has its own peculiar, in fact unique, challenges. Here is a tradition that arises from the bosom of an indelibly and irreversibly language-bound milieu. Linguistic usages, idioms, turns of phrase, phonetics, mixing of the metaphorical with the real, semantic ranges and the multivalence of verbal expressions — sometimes Urdu poetry is an embodiment of all this. Remove it from its linguistic soil and it wilts, or else it changes its looks. How have our English translators struggled throughout with the word jigar (literally ‘liver’) in Urdu poetry, or the word naaz (often translated as ‘coquetry’), or adaa (‘style’), or khamyaaza (literally, ‘yawning’), or pindaar (rendered generally as ‘conceit’)! The trouble is that all these words have a whole range of meanings, and they are drenched in Urdu poetic formulary: how can this be carried over into the poetic form of another language?

Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, master craftsman that he is, exploits in his verse a pretty wide range of meanings and usages of a given word or phrase at once, so skilfully that all of them make sense at the same time. As a matter of fact, there is a standard poetic device called ihaam (literally, ‘to put into deception’), a praiseworthy artifice (san‘at) whereby a word is used such that it has a plain/well-known meaning and a distant/obscure meaning or meanings, and either both the former and the latter work equally well, or it is the latter that is intended, and thereby the reader is ‘deceived’. Ghalib has employed this device frequently — for example, he uses the word shikast, at once meaning both ‘defeat’ and ‘breakage’, and they both work simultaneously:

[What is the echo/sound of the breaking of the value/price of a heart]

Another word which functions in its dual meaning in a verse is shor — ‘noise’ as well as ‘salt’. So,

[The outcry/uproar of the counsel of the Adviser sprinkled salt on the wound]

In fact, the same plurality of meaning is exploited in the second half of this verse in which the word maza appears, both in the literal sense of ‘taste’ as well as metaphorical sense of ‘fun’ or ‘joy’. This is Ghalib’s superb craft. But more, in his fascinating visuality, this poetic giant makes use even of the shape of letters as they are actually scribed in the Urdu script. It seems to me, albeit tentatively, that this visual technique is unique to Ghalib in the whole history of Urdu poetry.

So how does one translate Ghalib, say, into English? Some people say this is not possible at all, and so, alas, the treasure of the Urdu ghazal must remain hidden from the world audience. And yet, the ingenuity of some people has found ways of getting round the challenge so as not to surrender completely. One way is that of Frances Pritchett. Indeed, the Urdu world ought to be forever grateful to this indefatigable scholar for her Columbia site ‘A Desertful of Roses’, a work on which she has practically invested a lifetime. What Pritchett has done is a strictly literal and accurate English translation of Ghalib, eschewing all consideration of the elegance/inelegance of her literal translations and supporting every single verse with copious notes and references, along with commentaries, both her own and by other modern and classical scholars. And there is more to the Pritchett bouquet, more by way of indices, glossaries, lists and the like. This is some feat! Among other things, the Pritchett method is an invaluable tool for teaching Ghalib to students of Urdu poetry.

But then, some poetically adventurous translators have found other methods of handling the challenge. What we see among these is the method, not of translating Ghalib into English directly, but of transcending him in verse. What does this mean? This means several things. One is to construct one’s own verse inspired by the words of Ghalib, so what we get is not Ghalib, but rather, shadow Ghalib. In my view, this is what Jane Hirshfield has done in her beautiful casting of the ‘shadow’ in English. Strictly speaking, here Ghalib serves as the point of departure, a taxiing runway, an anchor.

But transcending Ghalib also means rendering him into English freely and, instead of providing notes and explanations, constructing more than one version of the rendering. A remarkable pioneering example of this method is the recent work of Shahid Alam, Intimations of Ghalib, published by Orison Books. What we find here is the identification of particular central themes in the original ghazals, a considered liberty on the part of the author. He gives titles to Ghalib’s ghazals — note that traditionally the ghazal genre does not carry any titles; there is a variegated multiplicity of subjects in a ghazal such that each verse is an independent poem in itself.

But what is novel in this method of bringing Ghalib into English is the construction of more than one version. This is an acknowledgement that the original cannot be rendered into English in any exhaustive single manner. Thus, by providing several possibilities, and doing so in verse, saves the author from having to interrupt his line’s poetic flow by interposing notes and annotations. This is highly ingenious. But why didn’t I call this act ‘transcreation’? Because Ghalib will not allow us to create him in any way other than his own.

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