Khalid Sohail

 Ashfaq Hussain has been my creative co-traveler for more than quarter of a century. I have seen a creative plant grow into a shady tree that not only bore literary fruits but also provided shade to those creative personalities who were walking into scorching sun of alienation and exile in foreign lands. As writers from Pakistan and India they were struggling with the pains and sufferings of immigration, writing in Urdu, that not very many North Americans understood and appreciated. Ashfaq welcomed them in one of his poems in these words,


scatter all the colours
of love on this land
look with the eyes of the heart
as this land
in its love filled fingers,
holding an olive branch
moves towards us
The kind metaphor of the olive branch
waits for us
so we may on this new land
scatter all the colours of love
                             (Translated by Shehla Burney)

As a student of human psychology and psychotherapy, who has a keen interest in the struggles of immigrants, I feel that immigrants and hosts can have two kinds of relationships:

A, A hostile relationship. In such a relationship, hosts are angry with immigrants as they feel the immigrants will take away their jobs and resources and make them suffer while immigrants feel that they will be facing prejudice and discrimination and will be persecuted. Such relationship leads to hate and violence.

B, A friendly relationship. In such a relationship, hosts welcome immigrants as they feel that immigrants will improve men and women power and will add to the economic growth and social prosperity. Immigrants feel that they will contribute with their social and professional skills and add to the host community by their art, literature and culture.

Ashfaq Hussain, through his poetry, welcomes his country men and women, to become part of a friendly, loving and cooperative relationship. His message is even more important these days as Pakistanis have been perceived by many as fundamentalists and terrorists. Ashfaq Hussain highlights that in Canada most of the immigrants are professionals--- doctors, lawyers, engineers and businessmen who are quietly serving Canadians day and night.

          Let me share an interesting and thought provoking story of immigrants. Once a boat, full of distressed and disillusioned Parsis, left Iran. After reaching India, they put their tents and started to settle. When the King found out about these refugees, he sent them a messenger. One afternoon when the Parsi Chief was sipping tea with his friends outside their tents, a messenger from the King arrived with a glass full of water. The Chief went inside the tent, brought a few grains of sugar, sprinkled them in the glass and asked the messenger to take it back to the King and ask him to taste it. After the messenger left, his confused friends asked him, what did all that mean? The Chief said, ‘The King sent a message that the glass is full. There is no more room in this country for refugees. I sent the message that we will mix with the local people, the way sugar mixes with the water. We will make it sweeter without displacing anyone.”

In the contemporary world, some people have more room in their countries, while some have more room in their hearts, even if not in their lands. Historically, Canadians have been very kind and generous people, with big hearts, who have taken thousands of immigrants and refugees every year, from all over the world including Urdu speaking Pakistanis and Indians. Ashfaq Hussain asks those immigrants to integrate lovingly and peacefully.

          The question arises, “What are the literary achievements of Ashfaq Hussain that are being acknowledged and celebrated with this Pride of Performance Award?” As a creative friend let me share a few highlights.

1.    URDU INTERNATIONAL. Ashfaq Hussain edited a magazine titled Urdu International. That magazine introduced new Urdu writers living in North America, Europe and the Middle East, to the Urdu world and built a bridge between immigrant and mainstream Urdu writers of India and Pakistan. It was Ashfaq Hussain who welcomed me to Toronto from Saint John New Brunswick and asked me to help him with Urdu International. It was an inspiring experience to work with him and meet Urdu writers from all over the world. Urdu International was published with the guidance of renowned Urdu writers, like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ali Sardar Jaffri, Mohammad Hassan and Qamar Raees and moral and creative support of local writers and scholars, like Abid Jafri and Qayyum Lodhi.

2.    WRITERS’ FORUM. Ashfaq Hussain was one of the founders of Writers’ Forum in Toronto that welcomed local and guest Urdu poets and provided them with a forum to share their poems, stories and essays. That forum is still alive and has provided a great service to the community.

3.    SEMINARS. Ashfaq Hussain has been very active in arranging and organizing mushairas, the poetry recitals, and international seminars about different aspects of Urdu language and literature. In those seminars he invited people from India as well as Pakistan. He established Toronto as the base for international writers to get together and share their poetry and creations. It was a great service to language, literature and culture.


          In the last 25 years, the more I got to know Ashfaq, the more I realized that he is a self made man. He is not one of those Pakistanis who were born and brought up in rich families of land owners and army generals that started their life pampered by servants and nannies, playing with expensive toys. He was born in a poor family of a poor community in Pakistan where people lived in straw huts.  He shared his childhood memories in one of his interviews in these words,

I grew up in a “kuchi basti” in Karachi. That was the community in which homes were made of clay, bamboo and straw. My mother used to have a child every year or year and a half and during one of those pregnancies she died. In that atmosphere, survival was the biggest struggle. My parents and siblings were all struggling in that environment. We were quite poor. We did not have warm clothes in winter, the roof would leak when it rained, and we did not have proper shoes to wear. Our father was a hard working man. He used to leave home before we woke up and came home late at night after we had gone to bed. Sometimes we did not see our dad for weeks.”

          Many children brought up in such families end up with serious emotional and social problems. Ashfaq Hussain was lucky to focus his energies on his education and excel in literature. He dreamt of being a teacher and a writer. As he had been the witness to the sufferings of poverty and wanted to change the socio-economic conditions of poor people, he adopted a socialist philosophy and joined the Progressive Writers’ Movement. His Master’s thesis in Urdu literature focused on the works of Lenin Peace Prize Winner, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. In my dialogues with Ashfaq Hussain, his father’s name was conspicuous by its absence. He was not only absent physically when Ashfaq was growing up, but also absent emotionally as an adult. I sometimes wonder whether Ashfaq unconsciously adopted Faiz as his father figure and followed his legacy as a socialist writer. He joined the Progressive Writers Movement that dreams of a just and peaceful world. I had the privilege to travel with him to England in 1985 to celebrate 50 years of the Progressive Writers Movement.

          Ashfaq Hussain, alongside being a progressive writer, is also a family man. He has been fortunate to keep a balance between his creative and personal lives. He is lucky to have a wife like Narjis, who is a kind, caring and compassionate woman. She provided him with a stable family environment. Ashfaq might have received the nurturing from Narjis, that he missed in his own mom, as she passed away so early in his life. I always acknowledge the love and caring of the spouses of creative personalities, as I know that poets and artists are easy to love but hard to live with. Narjis needs to be acknowledged not only as a wonderful wife but also as a wonderful and graceful host to many poets and philosophers that visit them from all over the world.

          Ashfaq Hussain is also a loving father and has provided a creatively and culturally rich home environment for their daughter Anne Iqbal and son, Safi Danish. These children were also fortunate to have the company of Bazmis, Narjis’s parents, their loving grandparents.  When Ashfaq’s son was small, he had written a poem for him, that I feel is one of his best poems, reflecting the sentiments of immigrant parents for their children. 

With your eyes, I
will see those days
which have yet to come.
With your feet, I
will run very fast
on dream pathways
which are still obscure
With your hands , I
will touch those mountains
whose very thought
makes me breathless
Those mountains and those roads

on which you walk,
a new era
that is yours.
I will not even see
this new era
but my eyes will kiss
its every moment,
with these bright eyes
that are your eyes.
In your eyes
like light I shine
like love I abide
like a dream I am alive
In your beautiful eyes
all my dreams
hide in a special corner;
and if perchance these dreams
bloom with fragrance of flowers
in their sweet scent
you should keep
all the letters of my name
with care.                      
Translated by Shehla Burney

Ashfaq Hussain, being a progressive writer, is a poet of hope. He believes that in spite of a long dark night of human suffering we need to believe in the dawn of justice, love and peace. That is why he named his collection of poems, That Day Will Dawn. It is that hope and optimism that resonates with many immigrants who struggle and suffer all over the world.

          I had not realized the significance of Ashfaq’s poetry until a few years ago when my sweetheart, Bette Davis’ teenage daughter Adriana, who was adopted from Romania, chose to quote one of Ashfaq’s poems for her assignment in the high school. That was the time I realized that Ashfaq’s poems are not only significant for Pakistani and Indian families but also for all immigrants from all over the world because many immigrants, especially from poor countries, share their pains and sufferings with each other. That is one reason I wrote my introduction in English so that more and more Canadians can read, enjoy and cherish Ashfaq Hussain’s poetry and also poetry of other Pakistani poets so that they can see that Pakistani poets, writers and philosophers are promoting a message of love and peace, rather than fundamentalism and violence. As a Canadian, I feel proud that Canada has provided an opportunity for many immigrants to follow their dreams and ideals that they could not follow in their own homes as their homelands still do not respect human rights and freedom of expression.

          In the end, I would like to congratulate Ashfaq Hussain and his family upon receiving Pride of Performance Award. It is an award acknowledging Ashfaq Hussain’s life long commitment and dedication to the promotion of Urdu language and literature in North America.