Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Poetic Perversion

Orya Maqbool Jan, who is one of Pakistan’s best-known right-wing pundits, has turned his attention to the heartbreaking scandal of massive child abuse in the town of Kasur. For those who may not be up on this tragic affair, it has been reported that a local ring in the area south of Lahore has been abducting children, abusing them, and using videos of the abuse to blackmail the parents into silence while selling the videos to consumers of child pornography. There are also allegations about the complicity of the local police and politicians, and at least two police officials have been disciplined so far. After the scandal broke in the media, the furor has led to the government appointing a commission to “investigate” the whole affair, but people are understandably skeptical. Meanwhile, there has been a deluge of social analysis and much national soul-searching about the factors that allowed such an unspeakable horror to go on for years. Of course, this is not the first such incident – the previous one was, if anything, even more chilling – and reports of related evils such as honor killings, bride burning, rape, etc., are all too common across the whole region, not just in Pakistan. But it is natural for decent people to ask: How could this happen in our society? Well, finally the wisdom of Mr. Orya Maqbool Jan has produced an answer: It’s our literature. Oh, not trashy, pulp literature that gets sold on the streets and gets serialized in the papers that pay Mr. Jan’s salary, but the “high literature” of Urdu and Persian, a thousand years in the making and recognized the world over as one of the great creations of the human intellect. That literature, according to Mr. Jan, is so poisoned with pederasty, so steeped in lust for young flesh, that it was but a matter of time before something like the Kasur incidents happened. With uncharacteristic restraint, he does not prescribe a remedy, but there’s a strong implication that book burnings would be a good first step.

Mr. Jan’s article is in Urdu, and though many readers of this blog cannot read it, I do not find in myself the will to translate it. Rather, having summarized its core theme, I intend to use it as an occasion to comment on the issue it raises as a dedicated consumer of the literature that Mr. Jan excoriates. In particular, he points the finger of blame towards Urdu’s “god of poetry”, Mir Taqi Mir, eighty-six percent of whose work, according to Mr. Jan, is steeped in the evil of pederasty. Others who merit mention by Mr. Jan include the great Persian master, Hafez Shirazi, and with a jump of a few hundred years, the 20th century Urdu poet, Firaq Gorakhpuri, and the great Urdu short-story writer, Saadat Hasan Manto. Two pious poets who get praised for avoiding the filth are the great dreamer of geopolitical dreams, Iqbal, and Altaf Hussain Hali, who, despite writing some great romantic poetry himself, also predicted that most poets in his literary tradition were headed to hell. Presumably, he did not wish to include in this list his beloved mentor, Ghalib, on whose death he wrote the most moving elegy in the Urdu canon.

My first reaction upon reading Mr. Jan’s article was to feel sorry for him. Presented with the vast and profoundly beautiful tradition of classical Farsi and Urdu poetry, all he chooses to see in it is filth! However, like all bad analysis based on unwarranted generalization, his article too contains a grain of truth. Once you get past the odious hectoring, the ridiculous conflation of homosexuality with pedophilia, the profound misunderstanding of romantic expression in the classical poetic tradition, and just plain ignorance, the author does have a very small point. There is, indeed, a minor thread of pederasty that runs through the cultural traditions underlying our beautiful poetry, and it does occasionally surface in the poetry itself. But contrary to the implication in this article, it is not a central theme - not even a significant marginal theme - in the literature. At most, it is an occasional reference, and that too driven more by convention than actual practice.

Much can be written on the long-standing prevalence of the evil practice of pederasty across the world and about its seepage into literature, but here I will focus on the issue of the poetic and linguistic confusions promoted by the article at hand.

Mr. Jan refers to Hafez' famous couplet

agar an tork-e sheeraazi ba-dast aarad dil-e maa raa
ba-khaal-e hindu-ash bakhsham samarqand o bokhaaraa raa

(If that Turk from Shiraz would take my heart in hand
I would give away Samarqand and Bokhara for the beauty spot on her cheek)

and somehow infers from it that the poet is referring to a young Turkish boy. This inference may reflect Mr. Jan's own psychological compulsions, but has no basis in language. As is well-known, Farsi has no gender at all in terms of pronouns or the handling of verbs and adjectives, which means that the gender of a person being referred to cannot be inferred from text in the absence of other information. Based on anecdotal justification from a few poets, some have used this fact to assume that "the Beloved" in all of Persian poetry is a young male, but that is patently absurd.

First, let it be noted that ghazal poetry in both Farsi and Urdu is rife with lust. Sometimes, this can be sublimated into a metaphorical and mystical "love of God" meaning, sometimes not. When Hafez says:

zolf aashofte o kh(w)ee-karde o khandan-lab o mast
pirhan chaak o ghazalkh(w)aan o soraahee dar dast
nargisesh arbade-jooi o labash afsoos-konan
neem-shab mast be-baaleen-e man aamad binishast

(tresses wild, sweating, smiling, intoxicated,
dress open, singing poetry, flask (of wine) in hand,
eyes flashing combat, lips pouting sorrow,
drunk, she came at midnight to my bedside and sat down)

he clearly refers to a very Earthly personage, and a woman, based on the description. The "tork-e sheeraazi" for whom Hafez was willing to give away Samarqand and Bokhara was similarly unlikely to be male, let alone a young boy!

In Urdu, the issue is complicated further because, when it adopted the Persian idiom, it explicitly chose to refer to the Beloved as masculine - out of a sense of propriety, it is said. But as anyone who reads this poetry with a brain in their head knows, this is just convention. When Ghalib writes:

lay to looN sotay meN us kay paaoN kaa bosaa magar
aesi baatoN say vo mehroo badgumaaN ho jaaye gaa

Literally, it says, “Indeed, I could kiss his foot while he sleeps, but such acts would prejudice that moon-faced one against me”. But clearly, in spite of using the male gender, the poet isn’t referring to some “moon-faced” guy! As Ghalib’s letters bear out - and as other material corroborates extensively - masculine terms for the Beloved, e.g., "yaar", “dost”, "but", "janan", "dildaar", etc., all, in fact, refer by default to women in the poetry of Ghalib and others in his tradition. Sometimes this becomes quite clear and even the gender shifts:

in paree-zaadoN se layN gay khuld mayN ham intiqaam
qudrat-e haq say yehee hoorayN agar vaaN ho gayeeN           (Ghalib)

(We will take revenge upon these fairy-folk in paradise if, by God’s will, they became houris there).

or when in that fantastic poem Ghalib wrote about Calcutta, he says:

vo sabza-zaar haaye mutarraa ke hae ghazab!
vo naazneeN butaan-e khud-aaraa ke haaye, haaye!
sabr-aazmaa vo un ki nigaahayN ke haf-nazar!
taaqat-rubaa vo un ka ishaaraa ke haaye haaye!

(Oh! Those magnificent and verdant parks, and [in them] those haughty, glamorous “idols”! Oh! The anguish caused by their glances – Heaven keep them! – and Oh! Their gestures that induce utter helplessness [in me]!)

Of course, occasionally Ghalib throws out a curveball such as:

aamad-e khat say huaa hae sard jo baazaar-e dost
dood-e sham'-e kushta thaa shaayad khat-e rukhsaar-e dost

which literally means: “Since the emergence of facial hair (or the arrival of a letter) has chilled the market for the Beloved’s favors, perhaps the down on the Beloved’s cheek was like the smoke from a dying flame.” The play here is on the dual meaning of “khat”, which can mean “facial hair” or “letter”, and on the “chilling” in reference to both the end of love and the dying of the flame. This couplet – which sounds much better in Urdu than in any possible translation! – is mainly an exercise in linguistic virtuosity. This unfortunate topic of facial hair is, indeed, something of a recurring theme in both Farsi and Urdu classical poetry, but knowing something of the lives of some of these poets (e.g., Ghalib), one can safely infer that they were more interested in exploiting the double meaning of the word "khat" than in exploiting any beardless youths.

There are some poets about whom there is separate anecdotal evidence regarding their interest in boys. Even in these cases, the implication often is that it represents a Platonic admiration - a worship of Divine Beauty, so to speak - rather than sexual attraction. Many of these anecdotes are associated with famous Sufis - notably Sarmad and the Sufi poet Fakhruddin Iraqi – one of whose most famous ghazals (tirsaa-bache-i shangee, shookhee, shikaristaani) – describes a ravishing young Christian, albeit without specifying gender. But the “Christian youth” (tirsa-bache)– like the “Magian elder” (peer-e moghan) – also had a symbolic meaning within the Sufi poetic tradition. Since Muslims were forbidden to traffic in wine, the tavern keepers in Iran were mainly Magian (Zoroastrian) and many of the wine-servers young Christians (or other non-Muslims). Since wine was used in Sufi poetry as a metaphor for Divine knowledge, the Magian elder came to symbolize the mystical Master, and the wine-server – sometimes represented as a Christian youth or a Magian youth ("moghbache") – acquired significance as the enabler of enlightenment. As such, this symbol is found in the work of many poets, and though it is often accompanied by descriptions of the individual’s beauty, a mystical reading is always possible in these cases. A typical theme is how the youth entices the poet away from the path of orthodoxy (e.g., this ghazal by Attar), which, as any student of Sufi poetry would know, reflects the core idea that traveling the (true) Sufi path of enlightenment requires abandoning the (false) path of ostentatious orthodoxy. To read such poetry as representing love of boys is “not even wrong”!

In India, we find the interesting case of the great poet, musician and mystic, Amir Khusro, who often expressed his love for his mentor, the great Sufi master Nizamuddin Auliya, as the love of a woman for her beloved. Though such gender-bending may seem strange to us today, it is part of the Sufi poets’ recurring attempts to capture the essence of mystical love for the Master and for God in comprehensible metaphors.

In the Urdu tradition, the attributes of the Beloved usually indicate that the reference is to a woman. There are indeed exceptions – some of which Mr. Jan quotes in his diatribe – but these are quite rare. Mir Taqi Mir and a few poets of his time were probably the most serious culprits in this matter, which does reflect a certain moral degeneration in that milieu, but even here this is a very minor theme. Mr. Jan’s method of counting up all verses where the male gender is used and assuming that they all refer to boys indicates either ignorance or willful misrepresentation – probably the latter since Mr. Jan is an educated man and himself a writer. He also does not seem to understand (or acknowledge) that, in this idiom, the term “tifl” (literally: child) and “bacha” (literally: child) do not have to mean little children. Rather, they refer generically to a young person with the implication of innocence. One also finds rather lecherous references to a “kamsin” Beloved, i.e., one of tender age. In a milieu where girls were often married off in their early teens, such references are not surprising – and, indeed, are still encountered in today’s pop culture.

Let it also be said that much of the talk of wine, women and song in classical Farsi and Urdu poetry is, as they say, “baraaye she’r-goftan” (just for the sake of turning a verse). Many great poets indeed led eventful lives that provided the material for their work, and some of these experiences included romance and revelry. But the impression that every poet was perpetually in the throes of unrequited love with remarkably beautiful and bloodthirsty mistresses who specialized in tormenting their lovers and chopping off their heads – well, that is just fiction. We know enough of the lives of many poets to be certain that, for them, all the talk of carnal pleasures was just a heady mix of convention, metaphor and wishful thinking. Even Ghalib, who wrote about both women and wine from personal experience, wrote in the highly romanticized and exaggerated idiom of his tradition, and only someone utterly unfamiliar with that tradition would read his romantic work – or that of other great poets such as Hafez or Khusro or Mir Taqi Mir – in a literal way. To reject a vast, profound literary corpus spanning a thousand years based on the existence of a few – even a few thousand – examples of truly perverted lines is, to say the least, rather perverse.

All this is not to minimize the issue of pederasty as a real problem in the societies of the Middle East and South Asia, or that references to it in literature are meaningless. After all, literature is the mirror of its environment. Both Rumi and Sa'di mention pederasty in their poetry in a matter-of-fact way, which tells us something about Persian society at the time. This declines with later poets from Hafez onwards, but that is probably more because their work turned towards other themes and became much less didactic. Given the implication in Mr. Jan’s article that child abuse is mainly the doing of godless libertines, it is worth recalling that the practice has been widely associated with religious seminaries and schools - from predatory schoolmasters at English public schools to lustful mullahs in madrassas and perverted priests in the Catholic Church (for which we now have plenty of evidence). Unfortunately, like slavery and violence against women, the exploitation and molestation of children is an aspect of "man's inhumanity to man" that has existed in all human societies since time immemorial – and is especially a problem in South Asia, where child marriage is still a burning issue. It is an unspeakable evil that must be combated with every available resource. We are fortunate to live in an age when this is at least recognized as an important imperative rather than the practice being accepted or swept under the rug. But to blame this larger societal evil on literature through selective, misguided and ignorant interpretations is itself a kind of abuse.