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Faiz Ahmed Faiz—The defiance of an exile

By Zafar Anjum

For some reason, whenever I think of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, I think of poets like Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz, which is not fair because Faiz was neither a South American poet nor were Neruda or Paz poets of exile like Faiz. God knows what led me to forge this image of Faiz in my mind because in 1984, when he passed away, I was still a child, and I might have seen the pictures of this celebrated poet in Urdu literary journals that were still alive and kicking in India at that time.

When I think hard about that image now, it dawns on me that I might have gathered this impression of Faiz because I remembered him as a cultural ambassador from the Indian sub-continent – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had appointed Faiz to the National Council of the Arts after his incarceration had ended. Later on, he had also won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1963 for his poems that had been translated into Russian.

Besides that image of him as a cultural diplomat from Asia, a kind of a globalized figure, I remember Faiz as a poet of love and a poet of protest. In him, I see a lover who is also a revolutionary, a big-nosed man with a hard Punjabi face and smiling eyes, surrounded by curls of cigarette smoke, worrying about the injustices of the world, injustices that come in the way of a lover – rubbish that must be cleared away from the path of love.

While I was supposed to write this piece, I was incidentally reading Edward Said’s Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000). I was surprised to find Faiz mentioned in the title essay. “How was it possible?” I asked myself. But it was there like a little miracle.

“To see a poet in exile – as opposed to reading the poetry of exile – is to see exile’s antinomies embodied and endured with a unique intensity,” Said writes in Reflections on Exile. “Several years ago, I spent some time with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the greatest of contemporary Urdu poets. He was exiled from his native Pakistan by Zia’s military regime, and found a welcome of sorts in strife-torn Beirut. Naturally his closest friends were Palestinians but I sensed that, although there was an affinity of spirit between them, nothing quite matched – language, poetic convention, or life-history. Only once, when Eqbal Ahmad, a Pakistani friend and a fellow-exile, came to Beirut, did Faiz seem to overcome his sense of constant estrangement.”

This was the last phase of Faiz’s life – his life as an exile (his exile ended in 1982 and soon after he passed away in 1984). Before that, he had been many things, worn many hats – he had been a teacher, a military man, and also a journalist. But above all, he was a poet – a creator of art in a civilization of quasi-barbarism, in the words of George Steiner.

Further on, Said remembers his time with Faiz, particularly one night that shows how great poetry is an act of defiance. “The three of us sat in a dingy Beirut restaurant late one night, while Faiz recited poems. After a time, he and Eqbal stopped translating his verses for my benefit, but as the night wore on, it did not matter. What I watched required no translation: it was an enactment of a homecoming expressed through defiance and loss, as if to say, “Zia, we are here.” Of course Zia was the one who was really at home and who would not hear their exultant voices.”

Faiz – Between Ghalib and Iqbal

What strikes me about Faiz is that his origins and educational background were very similar to that of Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s (a lawyer by profession and a friend of Faiz’s father, Sultan Muhammad Khan), the greatest Urdu poet after Ghalib. Both were born in Sialkot, both got educated in colleges in Lahore, both studied Arabic and Persian (though Iqbal’s main subject was philosophy) and both taught for a while before moving into other domains of profession – Iqbal into full-time practice of law and Faiz into the British Indian army.

Iqbal revered Ghalib as a master poet, yet it was Faiz, not Iqbal, who came closest to composing poetry in Ghalib’s style of classicism, and became the last greatest poet of Urdu.

Iqbal was a revolutionary poet, too, but his commitment to inspire the Muslim community became his main focus. Faiz, a man who saw India’s Independence that came with the horror of Partition and that brought power to the elites but the misery of the poor and the dispossessed continued, tackled themes of socialism and class struggle, after the initial phase of composing romantic poetry.

When I read Faiz, I get the feeling that I am reading Ghalib in a new tongue, with a new sensibility – two minds diffused with the same soul. For example, when Ghalib said:

“Haal-e dil likhon kab tak jaaon unko dikhla doon
Ungliyaan figaar apni khama khonn chukan apna.”

(How long shall I write about the state of my heart, let me go and show himM
y wounded fingers, my bleeding pen!)

Years later, Faiz said:

“Matae laoh o qalam chin gayi to kaya gham hai
Ke khoon-e dil me dabo lee hain ungliyan main ne.”

(There isn’t any despair even if pen and paper have been snatched away from me
I’ve buried my fingers in the blood of my own heart.)

Ghalib said:

“Tere siwa bhi hum pe bahut se sitam huye”

(Besides you, many more cruelties were unleashed on me)

And Faiz protested thus:

“Mujh se pehli si mohabbat mere mahboob na maang”

(Don’t ask of me the love I earlier had for you, my love)

The above examples show how Faiz was kind of echoing Ghalib in a new voice. Yet Faiz had great admiration for Iqbal, too. This is what Faiz said of Iqbal, a poet who was senior to him by one generation:

“Aaya hamare des me ek khush nawa faqir
Aaya aur apni dhun me ghazal khwan guzar gaya
Par uska geet sab ke dilon me muqueem hai
Aur uski le se sainkdon lazzat sanash hain 

Is geet ke tamaam muhasin hain lazawaal
Uska wafoor, uska kharosh, uska sooz o saaz
Yeh geet misl shoal-e aala tund o tez
Uski lapak se yaad fana ka jigar gudaaz
Jaise chiragh wahshat-e sarsar se bekhatar
Ya shamma bazm-e subh ki amad se be khatar” 

Interestingly, I also find colours of Iqbal’s poetry in Faiz’s work. Iqbal had said:

“Nikal kar khanqahoon see ada kar rasm-e shabbiri”

And Faiz has said:

“Aye khaaqnashino uth baitho woh waqt qareeb aa pahuncha hai
Jab takht giraye jayenge jab taaj uchhale jayenge”

What I find beautiful in Faiz’s poetry is the dichotomy of a lover and a revolutionary that he embodies in his poetry. In his poems, you can palpably feel how he was at a loss between love and revolution. “The thought of the beloved did not completely spare him so that he could serve the cause of the revolution with full gusto and dedication,” says Anees Ayesha, the author of Urdu Poetry: An Introduction (Singapore: Kitaab, 2013). Consider this example from his poem, “Raqeeb Se”:

“Woh log bahut khush-qismat the
Jo ishq ko kaam samajhte the
Hum jeete ji masroof rahe
Kuchch ishq kiya kuchch kaam kiya
Kaam ishq ke aade aata raha
Aur ishq se kaam ulajhta raha
Phir aakhir tang aakar hum ne
Dono ko adhura chhod diya.”

In his early poems, his commitment to love was complete – it was an unquestionable gamble. A lover can never be a loser, he claims here:

“Gar baazi ishq ki baazi hai jo chahe laga do darr kaisa
Gar jeet gaye to kya kehna hare bhi to baazi maat nahin” 

Yet, when the lover starts dealing with the pains of the world, the world’s cruelties dull his heart: 

“Duniya ne teri yaad se begana kar diya
Tujh se bhi dil-fareb hain gham rozgar ke”

There are many facets of Faiz’s poetry but what fascinates me is this dichotomy between a lover and revolutionary that he so beautifully captures in his poetry.

Because of his poetic genius, like Ghalib and Iqbal before him, the lovers of Urdu poetry too will always remember Faiz. And personally, I will keep humming his couplets while imagining his face amidst the rising curls of cigarette smoke that create a halo-like effect in many of his portraits. His poetry will always keep tugging at my heartstrings with all the might of its sweet sorrow.


Zafar AnjoomZafar Anjum ( is a Singapore-based journalist and writer. He is the author of Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician (Random House, 2014). He edits a literary website,


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Indeed, Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz form a kind of trinity in Urdu poetry. Besides the similarity in some of the concerns and responses, all three can be considered to be in the “high” tradition of Urdu poetry with its usage of Persian vocabulary in contrast of the “little” or “low” tradition of Kabir, Mir and Ibne Insha that uses more of Hindi words and shorter behr in the couplets.

    Iqbal forms a crucial link between Ghalib and Faiz. He is both a late Ghalib and an early Faiz.

    May 17, 2015
  2. Poetry Watch #

    Faiz is time bound plain verse . Without much philosophical depth. A mere political diatribe in verse. To elevate him to Ghalib is travesty and khulwar with Urdy poetry. Faiz has a message for the Marcist youth nothing more, after all hexes the KGB station chief in Pakistan. His nexus was with Sheikh Abdullah-Nehru-Khan-AG-Khan of Sarhad. An untrustworthy troika of Muslns that crook intellectual oxygen from Nehru’s political ideas.
    The tragedy of Pakistan is that good poets like Faiz did not advance the Iqbalian tradition of independent thought, rather fell into taqleed of the red revolution another nasty political idea from
    the West.

    October 1, 2016

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