In his old age, the giant of Persian poet, Hafez Shirazi, wrote a ghazal for Ghias-ud-Din, the ruler of Bengal, which translated to the following:
The poets of Hind will become honey tongued,
Once they partake
Of this Persian candy, on the way to Bengal
Persian was the language of the court and culture in Northern India, since the Ghaznavids started making inroads into the subcontinent. They and the conquerers who followed them were Persianised Turks. Babur, who was from Ferghana in Uzbekistan, wrote his journal in Chagatai Turkic. He also wrote poetry in Persian. Nadir Shah, who was an Iranian invader, also of Turkic stock, spoke to Mohammad Roshan Akhtar (Mohammed Shah Rangeela), eight generations removed from Babar, in Turkish, before relieving him of the Koh-i-Noor diamond and Takht-e-Taoos (The Peacock Throne). You will note that both the fabled objects are named in Persian. After the Mughals, the Lahore Darbar (court) of Ranjit Singh continued to use the language. His firmans (commands), which are all in Persian, can be seen in the Lahore museum. Actually the official language did not change, even with the British – until after the war of 1857.
Persian was neglected and is currently not taught in schools. Khuda Hafiz became Allah Hafiz, even though the Arabs themselves are innocent of using this expression
The Indo-Persian poetic tradition was enriched by the poets resident in or native to India, including Naziri, Urfi, Sa’ib, Ghani, Bedil, Ghalib and Iqbal. With Iqbal, sadly, for all practical purposes, it ended.
We were taught Iqbal’s Urdu poetry in school, though not his Persian poetry. I won an inter-school competition in 1976 and was given a free trip to Iran for an international Scout Jamboree. I wanted to learn the Persian phrases of daily use. I went to the Khana-e-Farhang-e-Iran (The Iran Cultural Centre). The manager was a courteous man called Qazi Ikram Bashir. After office, he took me to the Pakistan National Centre, located in the Alfalah building. There, in the cool comfort of the centrally air conditioned library, I received my first Persian lesson.
Qazi Sahib was great company. He once said, “I have served the world of letters for so long, that I was hoping for the University to give me an honourary Master’s degree. When they didn’t, I sent the exam application with late fee.” He actually got a ‘first class first’ and went on to teach Persian in a college.
The Iran of 1977 was spectacular, at least to our teenage eyes. This was two years before the revolution. The King of Kings, the Sun of the Aryans, Reza Shah Pahlavi, was firmly in place. We saw prosperity and modernity, the like of which we had never seen in Pakistan. The dress code was Western, including for the girl scouts, who were also attending. This made our young hearts skip a few beats. Scouts from twenty countries including Israel were participating. The camp was in the hills near the ancient city of Nishabour in the North East. We visited the mausoleum of Sheikh Sa’adi, the burial place of Omar Khayyam, and of Fareed-ud-din Attar which were all in the same area.
We also went to Mashhad to offer our respects at the grand mausoleum of Imam Raza. The beauty of the classic Iranian architecture takes your breath away. This is the epitome of thousands of years of civilisation and culture.
Unbeknownst to the young scouts, a storm was brewing in Iran which broke with full fury in 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini arrived to the tumultuous welcome of millions in February. And the Soviet tanks rolled into Kabul in December, 1979.
Whilst I was in the Government College, I had met Musawwir, who was fluent in Persian. He could recite large tracts of the Persian and Urdu poetry of Iqbal. He was also well versed in Hafez and other classical poets. To know him was to know, I now feel, the kind of education Iqbal, Patras, Faiz and countless others would have received, who went to the Government College Lahore. An education based on a combination of the European Enlightenment and the Eastern classics.
During the long gap before the pre-medical and medical classes, I went back to the Khana-e-Farhang for the afternoon language classes.
Our teacher was Dr. Aftab Asghar, who was a professor in Oriental College. He had studied in Iran and was a true Persophile. He spoke the Iranian accent very well and was full of stories about Iran. Attending these classes was a tremendous cultural experience. He would also recite Urdu poetry from Iqbal, Ghalib and others. I remember him telling us about the last Nawab of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah. He had women from all social classes in his harem. When he married a water-carrier woman, he called her Nawab Aab Rasan Begum and a cleaner was called Nawab Musaffa Begum. (The Princess Consort, The Water Provider and The Princess Consort, The Cleanser, respectively).
He told us about re-sequencing of Ghalib’s poetry by Kanhayya Lal Kapoor, e.g.
Those who know the original poetry will find this hilarious.
We also attended Persian classes at the Khana-e-Farhang at Jail Road. We read a classical Persian prayer, ‘Kareema’, which started as follows: ‘Kareema be-bakshai bar haal e ma’. (O Beneficient Lord have mercy on us). We had a class mate called Yameema, so we made the alteration: ‘Yameema be-bakshai bar haal e maa’.
One of the legendary figures at the Khana-e-Farhang was Waheed uz Zaman Tariq, later an Army medic. He was proficient enough to give valedictory addresses in Persian at the end of the term. He did a doctorate in Persian literature during his medical studies in the King Edward Medical College. He is a well respected virologist and works currently in the UAE, after retiring from the army. He is the only Pakistani poet I know of who writes top class verse in Persian.
Another towering personality was Hashim Raza, who was an outstanding Boy Scout and also went to the King Edward medical college. He is currently a psychiatrist in London. He was so good that he would come as an interpreter with the Iranian dignitaries, to the colleges, where they came to talk about the revolution.
The Khana-e-Farhang on the Mall was put to the torch in 1997 by a crazed mob. A month later, the Khana-e-Farhang in Multan was attacked, resulting in the killing of six people, including the Iranian cultural attaché. In 1990, Sadiq Ganji, the Iranian cultural attaché in Lahore had been murdered by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The decade of the 1980s had seen the rise of sectarian violence in Pakistan due to the Iran-Arab war.
Sadly, the teaching of Arabic and Persian did not remain unaffected by this political conflict, although with different outcomes. The teaching of Arabic became mandatory in the Government Schools and remains so to this day. Persian was neglected and is currently not taught in schools. Khuda Hafiz became Allah Hafiz, even though the Arabs themselves are innocent of using this expression.
I asked the Head Master in my old school, the Central Model School, Lower Mall, whether we could help support the teaching of Persian as an optional subject. He is of the view that there is not much demand for the language and suggested teaching Mandarin. I went to see the Lahore campus of NUML, the National University of Modern Languages. They have a dynamic leadership, a lovely language lab and excellent teaching programmes. The most popular language is Korean!
The teaching of languages is linked to economic opportunity. This, I think, is fine, but there is much more to education than mere earning potential. Heritage and cultural enrichment also matters…
Athar Ahmed Saeed is a physician and lives in Durham, United Kingdom. Send him an e-mail at email@example.com