Activism in verse

By Zubeida Mustafa

ONE aspect of I.A. Rehman’s priceless legacy was his restless spirit that drove him to champion the cause of freedom and human rights in Pakistan. The huge community of human rights activists in the country drew inspiration from his rational and encouraging leadership.

Many of us — his juniors — were constantly turning to him to draw from his limitless pool of knowledge and saw him as a pillar of strength. In the gloom that followed his death I felt comforted when I received a book of poetry that resonated with me. It touched the same causes Rehman Sahib had inspired us to espouse. Titled Eik Subh Aur Aaygi and containing 103 poems by Anis Haroon, the book is a powerful statement on the sad state of human rights in Pakistan that has brought the country to the brink of a catastrophe.

The fact is that at no stage has the human rights situation in Pakistan been as dismal as it is now. With the social media revolution facilitating free communication, the government’s response has been to tighten restrictions on the people. Freedom of expression and right to life and other rights are being violated blatantly while violence and crime go unchecked.

A crisis of this nature prepares the ground for resistance literature. Faiz Ahmed Faiz is a good example of how poetry can be used to create awareness about human rights and freedom in the public mind. This trend continues. It has always been of great significance given the low level of awareness in the country on account of press controls and censorship in education.

Poetry speaks louder than prose when it comes to making an impact.

Anis is a well-known human rights activist and feminist who is a popular speaker at events concerning such issues. She is clear and fluent in her speech and never beats about the bush. For her, a spade is always a spade, happen what may. Her writings have the same qualities. But what has distinguished her is the fact that she is also a ‘doer’ with good management and organisational skills that has marked her performance in the various institutions she was associated with — WAF, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the Pakistan-India Forum for Peace and Democracy and the National Commission on the Status of Women.

These portfolios have given her a high profile but has not detracted from her unassuming and friendly disposition. In this book, Anis Haroon has unveiled the muse in her to promote her activism through yet another medium effectively.

It is said that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ as it reflects in its finer details all that is physically visible — even emotions as reflected in facial expressions. But ideas and thoughts need words to be articulated.

In this context, poetry speaks louder than prose when it comes to making an impact on the listener/reader. The rhyme and rhythm of poetry go straight to the heart. The choice of metaphors and phrases stirs the emotion more deeply than prose.

The strength of Anis’s prose poems, ‘nasri nazm’ as Fahmida Riaz terms them in her write-up, lies in their message. Fahmida, one of Pakistan’s top-ranking poets and a close friend of Anis since their college days in Hyderabad (Sindh), uses expressions like ‘dil ki cheekh’ (shriek from the heart) and ‘zaheen mushahida’ (a product of wise observation) in praise of this poetry.

The poems show great sensitivity to injustice as only a person who has internalised it can do. As she recalls, Anis is a product of a household steeped in the politics of the left, the creation of her father and uncle. Anis says, “I was born a political activist.”

In our anti-human rights environment Anis can be expected to be prolific — and vocal. She mourns the loss of Karachi’s innocence not in the dull monotone that we have learnt to ignore but in powerful striking expressions that are unmatched. Calling the city ‘khaimon ka sheher’ she uses the analogy of the tents that house the armed guards that have proliferated in a city flooded with guns. They protect the powerful and the wealthy. They symbolise the inequity between the classes, the security of the rich, the vulnerability of the poor, the respect the rich receive and the insults heaped on the ‘not so distinguished’.

The beauty of poetry is that ideas can be expressed in a word or two and insinuations escape the censors’ sharp eyes. The poem on Pakistan’s nuclear tests is ironically titled ‘Hum jeetain gai’ and speaks of the country carrying a begging bowl and accumulating ignorance, ill health and poverty.

The poem on Sabeen, the activist who was killed for her enlightenment, says, “Teray saathi, teray humdum/ Teri aawaaz bun jaein gai”. (Your companions will become your voice)

On Mashal, the university student who was mobbed to death by his classmates, Anis says, “Darsgahein bun gaein qatlgahein” (universities became slaughter houses).


PS: I am grateful to Shama Askari for reading out this book to me.

Source: Dawn