COLUMN: From the Guadalquivir to the Edge of the Indus by Syed Nomanul Haq
MANY years ago, a new Muslim migrant from Allahabad, with his grey hair still trapping tiny sand particles of the Sindh desert that he had managed to cross over with his triple-generation household, called upon my father within a few hours of his arrival in Karachi. His face was worn out. And yet even as a child I was struck by the glow in the failing, dilated eyes of this sage-like visitor. A warm and long conversation ensued, ending with an Urdu verse that the old man recited at our threshold — Where three rivers met — To it add these two tearful eyes of mine:
See, Allahabad has now become my Punjab!
Adding the pair of tearful eyes to the sangam of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati — to the Triveni — and arriving at Five Waters (Panj-Âb) was such a rich play of metaphor, emotion and reality. Included in the poetic Five Waters is a river that exists lavishly but only in the imagination, just as Pakistan in its early decades held a bouquet, a dastambu, of lofty promises only in the failing eyes of this newcomer. Here we find a struggle to rediscover a city left behind, a surrogate city born out of the dislocations of nostalgia, a city substituting for the one forever lost in the dust storms of Thar.
Elevating cities and valleys from the domain of concrete gross reality to that of metaphysics — that is, refashioning them as abstract metaphors — is almost standard creative practice in both the literary and visual arts. Centuries ago, the personage recognised as the world’s first historian, the Greek Herodotus of the fifth century BCE, had called Egypt “the gift of the Nile”. Indeed so many tales have emerged from the waters of this 4,000-mile-long river valley, since the time of the Pharaohs and their indelible pyramids down to its reflections in Naguib Mahfouz. But more, this valley received the ultimate ascent of metaphor formation by being bestowed divinity in the figure of the Egyptian god Osiris. It became ineffable and mysterious, an ever-productive treasure of deep and dark secrets and stories. Just as grains sprouted forth from the Nile delta, so did tales.
Closer to our own times, Washington Irving keeps looming large. This 18th/19th-century American diplomat-writer was so very enamored of the intricate beauty and balance of the city of Granada, with its “Ornament of the World” Alhambra, that it became his point of departure for multiple imaginative adventures. In his signature style, Irving blended historical truth with fiction so that one does not know where facts end and fiction begins. The mixing is worked into a fully integrated mélange whose constituent elements do not allow mutual separation any more. This mélange has myths, architectural descriptions and muffled echoes of the past, as well as documented accounts appearing in the fullness of their veracity — all made into a single literary body woven with the threads of autobiography. So we have the Tales from the Alhambra.
Alhambra, actually ‘al-Hamrâ’ — the Red One — is in the valley of the river Guadalquivir — this latter-day appellation being a corruption of the Arabic ‘al-Wâdî al-Kabîr’ — literally, the Grand River Valley, a reference forever carved in our historical and literary consciousness by Iqbal. Of course, if we acknowledge the general consensus of experts, the greatest Urdu poem ever written happens to be inspired by an actual and enduring monument, the mosque of Cordoba, that was built in a city in this very river region of al-Andalus, the name Muslims gave to their conquered European home in the Iberian Peninsula. How thanklessly the world has been made to forget, a sinister historiographic offense that causes much anguish in Iqbal and latterly in the Yale historian María Rosa Menocal: that al-Andalus remained for some 800 years a hub of intellectual activity and — what can hardly be described in any other way — sheer cultural glory. The flag of Ferdinand and Isabelle was fatefully hoisted from a tower of the Red One only in 1492. And 1492 is also the year when, in his Christian religious zeal but grounding himself ironically in Arabic geographical knowledge available in Latin, Christopher Columbus sailed out in the “Ocean of Darkness” to discover the New World.
Iqbal’s supreme poem, the “Masjid-i-Qurtuba,” is a case of a poetic transmutation — the transmutation into a metaphor of a physical structure with its architectural luxuriance, and, along with it, of a medieval city with its diversity, pluralism, and poise.
Listen, O flowing waters of Kabîr!
At your banks someone dreams of another time …
So admitted Iqbal at the end of the poem. But then, this poem develops a whole cosmology of the mosque and the city, relating it to purely conceptual entities with their metaphysical permanence — the entity of time, for example, embodied in the chain of day and night; and the entities of Nature, of Light, of Truth and Love. And more, the arches and entrées of the mosque were lit with the glow of the valley of Sinai where God manifested Himself to Moses; and there was that Dome upon which emerged in full effluence the angel Gabriel!
The poet was speaking of a medieval ethos, and yet sociological realities and concrete historical references, references with their multiple political implications, are addressed here too. The European Reformation, Roman Catholicism, the French Revolution, the Italian Renaissance — all of these colossal facts of history do figure in the poem. Yes, Iqbal has also written about al-Andalus and its cities more directly and pointedly, with minimal metaphorical treatment; here one certainly discerns quite unmistakably a poignant nostalgia, as well as some degree of personal idealisation, but again his creative jet does not lose its contact with the soil of real history. Calling Spain the trustee (amîn) of Muslim blood, hearing in the morning breeze the muffled voice of the muezzin, seeing the marks of prostrations in the dust of Granada: these are verifiable flashbacks, drawn from factual history.
But when Ghalib talks about Calcutta the ethos is altogether different. He is descriptive and, yes, walking close to the earth; he hardly sets off for any metaphorical excursions. He looks around through the vistas of concrete urban realities, not fixing his gaze high above at the spectacles beyond the horizons as he longed to do in his ghazals. Ghalib raves about the technological boom of the city, effusively praising steam engines, for example, and savoring fruits and wines; and then the innovation of newspapers impresses him, as do the civic administration and the city’s modern infrastructure. The explanation is not too far to seek. Ghalib was talking about a real, living, pulsating city — a city in colonial grip as it was in the 19th century, and this latter fact is very important to recognise.
Indeed, when we come to colonial and postcolonial cities, we find new genres of writing and new modes of thought. With industrialisation and technological growth, massive urban expansion, the colonial manufacture of nation states, the appearance of widening urban slums and ghettos, discriminatory metropolitan planning, commercial expansion and banking practices — with all of this, the dynamics of cities were thrown into another perspective altogether, a massively complicating perspective. Now it seems that the city does not lend itself as much to romantic reconstructions but thrusts itself as a compelling and complex reality. The dislocations — physical, psychological and, following Edward Said, epistemological — are so overwhelming now that metaphorical loftiness is h umbled before day-to-day preoccupations and the hard urban realities of permits, licenses and utility bills. Contemporary literature cannot be understood without engaging with the process of real life.
Embodying the process of life, this surrender of the writer’s glance from above to around explains to a large extent the emergence of the modern short story and novel, explaining the temporal passage from the dastan, from charming tale-telling, to fully crafted contemporary fiction. It also provides a historical context for making sense of the nature of the city as it makes an appearance through the silk veil of Faiz’s poetry or in the desperate searches of Nasir Kazmi. And if a big claim is to be made, one can quite legitimately say that it is that very overwhelming triad of dislocations that explains the fact that as the 19th century sank into the 20th, social sciences became the queen sciences in literary scholarship. Do we not hear much talk all around about the sociology of literature and very little about poetics and philology? More about social relations than about a writer’s craft? Way more, for example, about Faiz’s socialism than about his rhythms and his imageries?
But back to the old visitor who chatted with my father. Trying to come to terms with his physical dislocation, he created an Allahabad in the Punjab, just as newcomers at the edge of the Indus in the city of Karachi created here a Deccan or a Delhi. This is human nature. When the Umayyad prince Abdurrahman I crossed over from Syria into Spain he missed his Damascus, so he planted a shoot of the date tree in the new soil and sang a song that Iqbal has gifted us:
You are the light of my eyes —
And the joy of my heart!
I am far away from my valley,
But you are for me the plant of the Mount of Sinai!
Let the breeze of the West nourish you —
You, who are the houri of the Arabian Desert …
The shoot took root. And now the species of palm is indigenous to Spain.