Dasht-e-Tanhai – A Desert Soundscape


A poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, translated from the Urdu and read by Mara Ahmed, with sound design by Darien Lamen

While this recording and soundscape are new and have never been shared online until now, I first translated Dasht-e-Tanhai, a remarkable poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in 2009. A little nervous about the audacity of such an undertaking, I read all the translations I could find online and in books and discussed the poem at length with my parents, both lovers of Urdu poetry. In the end, I took some liberties and strayed from a literal translation. I wanted to subscribe to Faiz’s own understanding of poetry and how it is made of sense and feeling. In his essay, Poetry and Sense, he describes poetic ideas as “jetsam” strewn on the mind’s beach by waves of feeling. It is then the poet’s job to collage those “bits of wreckage” and build them up into a house.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911–1984) is one of the greatest Urdu poets of the last century. A two-time Nobel Prize nominee, he was a best-selling author on both sides of the border, in Pakistan and India, and a fearless public intellectual whose political vision mobilized a mammoth following.

An avowed Marxist who received the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962, Faiz was a key member of the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association which was established in London, in 1935, by Indian writers and intellectuals. The Progressives were a radical group committed to modernizing South Asian literature and strongly invested in literary realism.

In a 1998 lecture, Agha Shahid Ali explained how Faiz’s work pushed Urdu poetry into the political realm. Not that Urdu poetry had been apolitical before that. It had always challenged orthodoxy, but in ways subtle enough to escape the gallows. Faiz placed revolution at the center of his work, turning it into the intoxicating beloved — one’s eternal desire and mission. These departures for Urdu poetry also meant that Faiz was frequently jailed.

In fact, Dasht-e-Tanhai was published as part of a collection of poems written in prison. This was back in 1951, when Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan implicated Faiz in a ludicrous communist coup and ordered his arrest.

Dasht-e-Tanhai (The Desert of Loneliness) or Yaad (Memory) has always moved me, its words and metaphors like pearls strung together with elegant ease. It embodies Faiz’s style of writing: filled with glorious ideas of beauty and social justice but always fluid, unencumbered, songful. With luminous spaces in between. Never pedantic or oppressive. Dasht-e-Tanhai is a poem about separation and longing, about sensory memory and its permanent aching imprint on the heart. It’s a love poem and therefore a gem in Faiz’s rich portfolio of prose and poetry. Some connect the poem’s theme of loss and nostalgia to the 1947 partition of British India, when a much-awaited moment of decolonization turned into violent fracture and exile.

To me it’s a love poem brimming with scents, sounds, landscapes, and textures. It speaks to movement and physical phenomena, to disconnection and union. Perhaps to the cyclical nature of life itself. Faiz wrote the poem while in prison, from a place of sensory deprivation and seclusion, and therefore all the physical world’s vividness and intensity are contained in his words. The poem demands more coloring in, more relief than words on a page.

My English translation of Dasht-e-Tanhai became the most popular translation of the poem online, if one is to go by Google. I get thanks for it from lovers of Faiz’s oeuvre from across the globe. Although most of my work involves visual art and film, I have become fascinated by sound over the last few years. I work closely with my friend and collaborator Darien Lamen, a musician, ethnomusicologist, and filmmaker. I agree with Darien when he says that “by virtue of its disembodied presence, sound tends to evoke rather than dictate, coax rather than coerce our imagination, which has grown more passive through our engagement with dominant forms of digital media.”

In 2019, we produced a piece called Knowing is Beautiful. It’s about rain, its varied moods, geographies, and contexts. As a continuation of our work together, I recorded Dasht-e-Tanhai in both Urdu and English and Darien developed the sound design for it.

We discussed Faiz’s poetry and politics, his muse Alys George, a fellow communist who met Faiz in India long before the partition, and then married him in 1941. We were inspired by Pakistan’s Thar desert, its sand dunes, windstorms, and music. As Darien explains: “We discussed the importance of an aesthetics of sparseness, in which we might introduce snatches of music and faint voices at various intervals — tantalizing, fleeting, never enough to satisfy — in a chain of substitutions standing in for the absent object of desire: a perfumed breath, a wife and muse, home, freedom, revolution.” He continues: “The ambient desert audio that forms the backdrop for The Desert of My Solitude is characterized by the low rush of wind and the high skittering of sand. I tried to build the sound design around other ‘analogous’ sounds — the shudder of an accordion bellows beneath the dry clicking of its buttons, the approving murmur of an audience as a harmonium player chases after Iqbal Bano’s vocal ornamentations.

Developing these sonic analogues provides a formal coherence to the sound design, while also inviting a mode of listening that is hopefully both active and immersive.”

For me personally, as someone who is permanently déracinée, who lives in between homes and languages, and feels a particular ache for Pakistan, Faiz’s words of love and wistfulness set off untold emotions. I tried to read Dasht-e-Tanhai in Urdu at the Spirit Room, in Rochester, New York, in 2018. I could see my parents and husband in the audience. The import of releasing Urdu poetry into a wintry space, a world away from the fragrant jasmine Faiz describes, overwhelmed me. This recording is a way to be able to say all the words, finally.

References

Yaqin, A. (2013). Cosmopolitan ventures during times of crisis: a postcolonial reading of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Dasht‑e tanhai” and Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers

Ali, A. S. (1998). Agha Shahid Ali on Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Saeed, M., Moghees, A., Dar, S. A. (2018). Sense and Feel: The Missing Elements in Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Translated Poetry

Magray, A. U. H. (2019). Prison poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz

More at The Markaz Review.

Photo: Rabah al-Shammary


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