Living Poetry: An Interview with Akbar Ahmed
By Human Yusuf
April 10, 2011
Akbar Ahmed talks about his latest publication, a collection of poetry that he penned over the decades, across Pakistan and the West, which seamlessly weaves together the personal and the political.
Futterman describes you as a man suspended between homelands, friendships, and faiths. Does this theme of exile inform your poetry?
The fact that my parents and I arrived in Pakistan in August 1947 by definition placed me between several cultures, countries, and religious identities. Since then, I’ve had to repeatedly renegotiate new identities. I grew up in the Frontier province, which is a different world within Pakistan. As a civil servant, I have lived in Balochistan and other parts of the country, but also travelled abroad as a student. Each time it was the discovery and negotiation of a new culture. Throughout, poetry was a personal response to events and people and developments around me—as such I have been living my poetry.
You have written non-fiction books, plays, academic essays, film scripts, and diplomatic cables. What does poetry offer that other genres do not?
My poetry is intensely personal. It’s an immediate response to personal emotions, that part of me that has not gone public until now. For example, one of my longer poems, “I Sarrison,” was written when I was twenty-one years old. I was having a hot bath at university, and I suddenly felt the need to find some paper, and the poem poured out of me. Some of the ideas expressed are so personal that they may not make sense to anyone except the poet. That explains why I have not edited or altered the older poems in the collection—the Akbar Ahmed of today and from the 1960s are different entities, with different ideas.
Which poem in the collection was the hardest to write?
“You, my father,” the poem I dedicated to my father. I loved him intensely, and was always acutely aware of the pressures in his life. He worked for the British Raj but was always passionately invested in his Islamic identity. He was a committed Muslim who wore a suit but said his prayers. When I wrote my poem, I was using him as a symbol of a past generation that had lived under the British and had faced different dilemmas than my own generation. Theirs was a different world; they knew where the lines between the two cultures were drawn.
But my generation did not have the same security and confidence—for us, identity was a charged issue.
The poem was a complex, subtle tribute to my father, but I think he would have preferred something direct and simple. My mother later told me he didn’t like it too much. It’s disappointing to me that I couldn’t convey how much I loved him through that poem.
Why have you chosen to publish this collection now?
I have been writing an autobiographical play recently, and so have been confronting my past. Also, through conversations with old friends, and in response to horrible news from Pakistan every day about attacks and violence, I’ve been thinking a lot about a different Pakistan. The Pakistan I knew before it all fell apart, the one that inspired confidence and optimism in me and made me feel sorry for the Indians who were so far behind us at the time.
But now I see people attacking mosques and women and children, and I wonder what happened. And I see that young Pakistanis have no sense of the country that I used to know, nor do they know why it came into being or what their history or identity is. Those who do not understand their identity face grave challenges. For that reason, I felt that I had to leave something behind of that Pakistan, the one I grew up with. I felt a duty to put it on the record: this is how one Pakistani felt at different points in the nation’s history.
The poems span a lifetime of writing and responding—how did you decide which ones to include in the collection?
It was a difficult choice. Some poems are political, some are about Islamic identity. My rule of thumb was to choose the ones that would make sense to the reader, and weed out the ones that were too obscure.
Who are your poetic influences?
My mother was passionately in love with Iqbal and Ghalib and Mir Taqi Mir, and I too was intoxicated by their work. But coming from a boarding school culture, I was also taught the poems of Keats and Shelley. I think I have all these great poets within me. Dr Moazzam Siddiqui is currently translating my collection into Urdu, and he has said that there’s a Sufi stance in the verse as well.
What role do you think poetry can play in stemming Islamophobia in the US?
The challenge these days is to convey the sophistication and traditions and the history of Muslim culture. The goal is to show that Muslims have produced some of the most amazing poetry and philosophy through the ages, and to equate this civilization with mindless terrorism is ridiculous. Through poetry, you cut out the controversies and stereotypes and get straight to the heart of the issue.
Whenever I am asked an antagonistic question about Islam, I respond by reciting my poem about my mother. That way, I transfer the image of a violent Muslim into one of an ordinary human being who has the same problems, the same pain, the same love as any other person. That’s the appeal of poetry—it helps us understand our own life, and that of others, better. The reaction to my poetry in America has been very positive.
Will anyone be angered by this collection?
Some people may feel I’m too secular, others will say I’m too Islamic, a fundamentalist. Poetry is an insight into a person’s life, not an analytic thesis. So I expect the poems will create reactions and people won’t agree with all the opinions I express.