Reviewed by Gene Doty
The introduction is rich with information. Syed Faizan delineates the form and history of the ghazal, with emphasis on the Urdu ghazal. The terminology for the parts of the ghazal is familiar to most English writers of ghazals, although transliterations from Persian or Urdu differ slightly. If you are familiar with the form of the ghazal, this is an excellent review providing more detail; if you are not familiar with the form, Faizan’s explanation is a good introduction.
The historical section begins with the Arabic roots of the ghazal, tracing its development in Persian, especially in the ghazals of Hafiz. This section cites some intriguing examples, as well as providing details of the development of the ghazal across languages and cultures. For one example, the ghazal entered northern India in the 14th century CE, with the most skilled early poet being Amir Khusru.
His discussion of the development of the Urdu ghazal in the work of Mir and Saudi is valuable. The comments on Ghalib and his importance provide nonIndian readers with a clear picture of what is now thought of as “the ghazal tradition.” Faizan says, “The entire apparatus of allusions, style, motifs that animated the great Urdu Ghazals of the age of Ghalib I have sought to retain and explore in English in my Ghazals” (p. 19).
Faizan’s historical introduction closes with a survey of the ghazal’s introduction into European languages. The remaining two sections are “A Personal Prelude” and “Dramatis Personae: The Ghazal World.” Both of these sections are worth careful reading. Faizan narrates his own experience with insight and relevance. The “dramatis personae” are necessary for understanding the traditional Urdu ghazal.
The ghazals are presented centerspaced. There are no titles; each ghazal is numbered in order, and the shers within each ghazal are numbered. The numbering system makes reference easy, so 1.1 refers to the first ghazal, the first sher. The ghazals are all in traditional Persian/Urdu form, most in iambic pentameter. The themes of the ghazals are also traditional: the lover, God, suspicious if not oppressive religious authorities, the tavern, the saki. fate (or destiny), the issue of heaven and hell, opposition to the poet by champions of convention and orthodoxy. You will meet the dramatis personae of the ghazal here in their natural setting.
There are 110 ghazals here, far too many to discuss thoroughly in a brief review. Hence, I will quote and comment on a few shers.
Ghazal 65 winds around the radif, “God.” Faizan’s humor shows in sher 4:
Satanic verses! Lat, Uzza, Manat
Have slyly conspired to frame a Go!
This sher not only references the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, it makes an ironic comment as well.
Ghazal 38 uses the radif “art.” Here is the makhta. (Faizan’s takhullus is “Sultan.”)
Sultan in woes Purgatory,
The sin you must atone is art.
Note that this ghazal is in iambic tetrameter. This sher expresses the traditional ghazal’s hesitation over the conflict between art and orthodoxy.
Ghazal 69 uses only a qafiya, with no radif. The qafiya is -olve. Here are three couplets:
Hope is a sea pour all your woes in it,
And in good time they shall themselves dissolve
This sher expresses well the strain of pessimism in the ghazal, the cosmic overview of human hopes.
The Homininae Cladogram has lost,
A hundred branches that we may evolve.
What if you live to Khizar’s age, Sultan,
You still have these same problems to resolve
Faizan provides a note on “Khizar.” I’ve removed the note number but here is the note:
A revered figure in Islam, whom the Qur’an describes as a righteous servant of God, who possessed great wisdom or mystic knowledge. He is said to have become immortal after coming across the river of life and drunk from it. In Islamic folk tradition he is still alive and roams the earth often guiding travelers who have lost their way.
Sher 5 reflects Faizan’s scientific training. Sher 6 expresses a realistic view of the human situation; even with great wisdom and immortality, one would still have “problems to resolve.”
One won’t read far in Sultan’s diwan without noticing some odd use of commas. Here is an example:
Ghazal 1, Sher 7
I thought he was a friend, he was a foe,
Who was against me , who agnate was written.
I emailed Faizan to ask about this practice, of which the reader sees several instances, with some variation.
I am aware that the somewhat chaotic nature of punctuation used in the Shers may be more distracting than anything else. But as far as the Shers were concerned my intention was to use the spaces to imply a difference of emphasis within the line. I had initially intended to leave the poems completely unpunctuated like in the original Urdu Ghazals in which there is absolutely no punctuation used, not even a dot for a fullstop, in order to convey the maximum ambiguity but decided against it. Instead I decided upon utilizing punctuation and spacing as it has been used in English poetry (especially Modern poetry) to urge the reader towards a certain interpretation, emphasis or reading. I adapted, however ineptly and awkwardly, this tradition to my purposes. For instance in “Ghazal 10,” the spacing of commas is especially varied. Note especially that in Urdu ghazals are not punctuated. That seems to me like a good practice for English ghazals.
Perhaps those writing ghazals in English could benefit from omitting all punctuation.
I recommend this collection for anyone interested in ghazals in English or in excellent poetry.