detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Monday, June 10, 2002

: . Kashmir and the Language of Loss:

Pankaj Mishra on Kashmir:

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'Mad heart, be brave' by Kamila Shamsie a tribute to Agha Shahid Ali

Edward Hirsch from The Washington Post Book World:
    Shahid was a great proponent of the ghazal (pronounced "ghuzzle"), a form that goes back to 7th-century Arabia and has been widely practiced throughout Eastern literature ever since. He instigated and edited a book entitled Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English (2000), which is a gift to American poetry. Like many others, I had illuminating conversations with him about the use of the form by the Persian (Farsi) poet Hafiz (1325-1389) and the Urdu master Ghalib (1797-1869), by the German Goethe, who popularized it in the West, the Spaniard Lorca, who viewed it as a testament to the Muslim element in his native Andalusia, and the South Asian Faiz, whom he translated with great acuity (The Rebel's Silhouette: Selected Poems). Shahid was himself a splendid practitioner of the form, which consists of at least five thematically autonomous couplets, each with the same rhyme plus a refrain. The poet often signs off with his or her own name in the final signature couplet. The form is driven, he suggested, by a constant sense of longing. He liked to point out that one definition of ghazal is "the cry of the gazelle when it is cornered in a hunt and knows it will die." This definition gives special resonance to Shahid's own ghazals, which are both playful and grief-stricken, animated by the feeling of love and dedicated to the idea of the beloved. Ali found equal power and feeling in the Arabic form of the qasida, which was used so evocatively by his beloved Lorca. Here, then, is a poem of ravishing disunity, of radiant disjunction, that stands as a true self-elegy for a poet who will be much missed:

    Agha Shahid Ali

    The only language of loss left in the world is Arabic --
    These words were said to me in a language not Arabic.

    Ancestors, you've left me a plot in the family graveyard --
    Why must I look, in your eyes, for prayers in Arabic?

    Majnoon, his clothes ripped, still weeps for Laila.
    O, this is the madness of the desert, his crazy Arabic.

    Who listens to Ismael? Even now he cries out:
    Abraham, throw away your knives, recite a psalm in Arabic.

    From exile Mahmoud Darwish writes to the world:
    You'll all pass beneath the fleeting words of Arabic.

    The sky is stunned, it's become a ceiling of stone.
    I tell you it must weep. So kneel, pray for rain in Arabic.

    At an exhibition of miniatures, such delicate calligraphy:
    Kasmiri paisleys tied into the golden hair of Arabic!

    The Koran prophesied a fire of men and stones.
    Well, it's all now come true, as it was said in the Arabic.

    When Lorca died, they left the balconies open and saw:
    his qasidas braided, on the horizon, into knots of Arabic.

    Memory is no longer confused, it has a homeland --
    Says Shammas: Territorialize each confusion in a graceful Arabic.

    Where there were homes in Deir Yassein, you'll see dense forests --
    That village was razed. There's no sign of Arabic.

    I, too, O Amichai, saw the dresses of beautiful women.
    And everything else, just like you, in Death, Hebrew, and Arabic.

    They ask me to tell them what Shahid means --
    Listen: It means "The Beloved" in Persian, "witness" in Arabic.

More poems by Agha Shahid Ali:

I See Chile in My Rearview Mirror
The Wolf's Postcript to 'Little Red Riding Hood'

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