Ghazal, the Lyric of Revolution


The Gurmani Center for Language and Literature organized an insightful book reading and discussion on the ghazal as a form of powerful expression by the renowned Pakistani-American poet and essayist Shadab Zeest Hashmi on 16th February 2024.

The session began with a moment of silence for the Palestinian war victims.  This was followed by a poignant reading of the poem ‘Exploded Ghazal in the Land of the Prophets’ as an ode to the ongoing genocide. Our speaker introduced her book Ghazal Cosmopolitan that has been recently published in Pakistan. The book is an ode to Urdu as a hybrid language and to the ghazal form; it talks about the history, culture and sensibility of the ghazal and is also a manual for practicing poets who want to write the ghazal in English. Before she said anything about the ghazal form, she asked the audience how the ghazal form is different from any other form of poetry and many interesting responses were given. Audience members pointed out the defining features of the rhyme scheme of the ghazal including the Kafiya and Radeef. Zeest pointed out that the magic of the ghazal is in the different ideas and emotions addressed through a ghazal’s couplets and talked about the history of this form. The idea of the absent beloved is at the heart of the ghazal since the beginning. She talked about the sensibility of the ghazal being centered on the beloved which could be anyone or anything and emphasized its elliptical, open-ended nature. The musical rendition of the ghazal form was also highlighted which includes pop, classical and qawwali. 
Zeest moved on to talk about the revolution of the ghazal through two very different poets, Amir Khusro and Faiza Ahmad Faiz. She read from her book and talked about spirituality as revolution and emphasized Sufi spirituality as transformative, an inner revolution. This was followed a discussion on how the ghazal form was used to approach a very difficult political subject, the partition of East and West Pakistan through the ghazal, ‘Dhaka say Wapsi Par’ by Faiz Ahmad Faiz. 

Her reading from the essay ‘Ghazal, Sufism, and Birth of Language’ from Ghazal Cosmopolitan highlighted the hybridity of the Urdu language. Then, ‘Zihal-e-Maskeen’ by Khusro was read aloud and she highlighted how it brought together the highbrow culture of the court and the lowbrow culture of everyday people. She ended the reading of the essay by talking about ghazal as a lyric of pluralism which is also the thesis of the book.

This was followed by reading of the essay that is based on Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem, ‘Dhaka say wapsi par’. The ghazal does a beautiful job of addressing the beloved in the traditional ghazal style, in this case the beloved being Bangladesh, while stretching the ghazal’s capability to include the political theme of the separation of East and West Pakistan. The poem translates political tension into romantic tension and Faiz’s use of double plural grounds the poem in a colloquial rather than a classical dialect.

Ms. Zeest ended the session by moving on to a reading her own Ghazals to the delight of the audience.  The first one was a Ghazal she wrote after attending a Dabke dance by Palestinian young men who dance with their keys. The keys are significant because Palestinians can’t go back to their homes; they have the keys to their houses but they live in refugee camps. This was followed by a beautiful reading of a few verses of her personal favorite ekphrastic ghazal, a poem in response to a work of visual art. She was given a picture of a Persian rug and a hairbrush as a prompt and the hair was all over the carpet. She thought of superstitions, and this is why the ghazal is called, ‘Ghazal of the Superstitious Darling’. The last one she read was a short ghazal, ‘Sign Language’ which captivated the audience with its remarkable rendition.

An engaging question and answer session followed which addressed topics of the ghazal form, how it addresses the divine and the earthly, the limitations of the writing of the ghazal in English, breaking linguistic, aesthetic, cultural prejudices, Sufism, how the ghazal can refresh itself as a modern, futuristic form and its influence in the present times.

Concluding the session, Dr. Nadhra Shahbaz, Director Gurmani Centre for Language and Literature, shared a verse by Khusro that holds a special place in her heart, capturing the essence of poetic beauty. Dr. Nadhra highlighted the contribution of the Gurmani Centre in advancing the cause of language and literature, emphasizing its significant role for the cultivation, comprehension, and promotion of a rich spectrum of languages. 

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