Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Ghani Khan and I

as we grow and mature we sometimes discover those we put on pedestals are not perfect. Sometimes that is because we judge them by present day standards and others it is because life teaches us that the human condition is by nature imperfect -ed note

Everyone knows I love Ghani Khan to the point that he's my favorite intellectual of all times. I've even hesitated to read his work more critically and to read more about his life and interactions with others, especially women, because I have this great fear that I can't overcome: what if, God forbid, there's a line in some poem of his where he says something about women that has the potential to be offensive--or a line where he hints at women's perceived weakness, stupidity, lack of intellect, etc.? And then my worst fear regarding Ghani Baba's work actually saw life some months ago when I sat down and paid real close attention to one of the lyrics of a song the poetry for which was written by Ghani Baba. The poem is "Ey da lewanyano neeka." (The version by Takar can be heard here, but translation is available with the first link only. The lyrics alone can be found here, with no English translation.) Let me explain by first giving the context of the poem, then giving the verse with neighboring verses, and then my explanation of the verse--and, of course, the problem with it.
Ghani Khan with his granddaughter (1990) copyright

The poem is a conversation between two individuals, an elderly teacher-figure--a sage, a philosopher--who is full of wisdom and thought and a young person who's either in his late teens or early 20s. The youth asks the elderly different questions about love, life, spirituality, religion, people, and the elderly responds wisely. Let me share a stanza from this conversation to illustrate:

O' wise one! Which option is better, sainthood or worldly desires?
The flower of a pine tree, or a beloved's castle?
O' my child! The mountain peak is best for the eagle
A flower is best for the pine tree, the pine tree for the flower!

(From 2:56 - 3:28 here.) 

As you can see, the youngun presents two options or scenarios to the saintly figure and asks him which is better; the saint replies with something that'd be generally considered a moderate choice without giving an exact answer, sort of reminding the youth that there's a time and place for everything, a context for everything--or even that what works for one person may not necessarily work for everyone else. I recommend a read of the rest of the poem as well; it's too beautiful not to be read in its completion.

Then there's the last line ... of the verse that's trouble the qrratu out the me! Here's the whole stanza, from 4:10-end in the above link:

O' great philosopher! Which is better, ministry or imprisonment?
Self defense by my own small sickle or by a rented arsenal?
O' my child! The desert is the best place for crying for a beloved,
The throne of the villain isn't good - being tortured by a beloved's nose stud is better!
The friend of Yazid is not good, being a martyr of Karbala* is great!
Even woman is better than the man who is dependent on others!

[Note: Yazid is the tyrant who brutally murdered Prophet Muhammad's grandson Husain, the third Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shi' branch of Islam and a highly revered figure in Islamic history. Yazid thus symbolizes all tyrants and tyranny, while Husain symbolizes the oppressed--the righteous. Karbala, located in modern-day Iraq, is the place where the murder of Husain took place, and the city thus represents any battle field especially of a war against humanity or righteousness. Reference to Yazid and Karbala/Husain appear several times in Ghani Khan's poetry.]

So, you noted the last line above? It's the part from 4:52-4:56 in the song, BUT the translation there is actually quite incorrect, I'd say. They translated it as: "Dependent on others, feminist is better than such machismo!" 

Ghani Baba is referring to the man as the dependent one, which most probably means someone who's subjugated by someone else, a person who bows down or submits to another person or to an organization, etc.

And then he says "EVEN woman is better than the subjugated man!"... and a part of me asks, Ghani! How could you!

In Pashto: "Waak ye che da bal wi da dey nar na zanana kha da!"

What does it mean? It means that the woman is naturally weak, naturally dependent on others (which means man, of course), naturally incompetent, and men are by default better than women. BUT the one case where men are lower than women or are less worthy than women is when the man is dependent on others, when the man is subjugated by others. In that case, "even" woman is better than man. And not a specific type of woman--but woman in general, any woman, whether weak or strong or competent or incompetent or stupid or intelligent.

And so, I shared this dilemma with a Pashto poet I know on Facebook who is a huge fan of Ghani Baba and we have great conversations on the philosopher's life and poetry. This poet, named Nawaz, wrote something Ghani-related once that made me want to open up about this dilemma (and I’ll share his response in the second part of this post). Look, the thing is, everyone I know loves Ghani -- and I do, too. Even this line hasn't been successful enough for me to start disliking Ghani Baba. But what I mean is that it's almost unacceptable to express criticism for someone as revered as Ghani. Unfortunately, many people believe that you can't disagree with someone you respect. I tend to disagree with this thinking: I can disagree with people while loving and respecting them very much. In Ghani's case, it's not about disagreement - it's more than that: it's a perspective that has some unhealthy and dangerous implications, even if it is a reflection of already-upheld and societally-rooted views of gender norms and relations. But that doesn't mean it's not wrong or that it needs to be discussed or that it's potentially offensive.

As I mentioned above, all these years,  every since I have been introduced to Ghani Baba's work, I have deliberately avoided reading more of and more into Ghani's works because of the deep fear that he might have said something that I might read as offensive to women or any other gender or to any race. (Ghani Baba does value white/light skin to dark one, and that's troublesome, too. But we'll talk on that another time.) Really, that's like one of my worst fears with all people I like and think highly of: what if, despite their brilliance and power, they're actually no different from everyone else, from their society, when it comes to how women are viewed? For other, ordinary people, we can just say, "Oh, they don't know any better. Oh, they're slaves to their society and they're children of their society like we all are." But Ghani Baba wasn't like everyone else. He's not a "child" of our society. He transcended everything our society and people and religion and culture stood for, and so ... why did he say that? He was a social critic. He criticized our society and our religious leaders for their hypocrisy. He openly wrote about the crimes of our society, of our people. He said things that few would dare to say openly. He's most likely the first Pashtun to have been brave enough to tell us in our faces that "Hey, look, you Pukhtuns! Look at our hypocrisy: we love music but we hate the musician! We think lowly of the musician while enjoying music to death!"

So the explanation that he was just expressing the view of the society, of our people, of South Asians, of most cultures is, I think, far from being correct. Ghani Baba is the kind of man who would have easily said, "Screw you for thinking that women are inferior to men or to any other gender. Screw you for having the word nar for "man"! (In Pashto, the words for "man" are sarrey and nar, and nar also means "brave"; the words for "woman" are khaza and zan --and zan in Persian also means "woman" ... and "to beat," hah. A classmate of mine pointed this out to our Persian teacher when we were studying these words, and the teacher was really surprised to see that.

So that one line has been bothering me for some time. It is bothering me because Ghani Baba is the one who wrote it. If it weren't from someone as powerful, as influential, I wouldn't be concerned; but it is from him ... everything he says is right! Everything he says is wise!

I did when I first read him, and I do today even after having read an offensive (okay, okay, a potentially offensive) line from his poetry. And this poem I wrote a long time ago, "Weeping at Ghani's Grave" -- all of it still applies even after this! Because I want to believe that there's wisdom behind what he said. And there must be.

So I have come up with only two reasons for why Ghani must have written that line.

A poet's thoughts are a reflection of her/his society's norms, which may or may not be shared by the poet her/himself. Some of my own poetry has been such that I don't feel or think or agree with, but it's a certain thought that crosses my mind at that very specific point in time in which I'm writing, or it's something I imagine, or it's something my friends/other people are going through or believe or say or want. And so I imagine what it'd be like, and I write it down. This is common in poetry (although this is not to claim that I'm a poet at all).

Remember: Ghani was no conformist. He had criticized society, unjust, harmful, backward social norms and practices with ease. So he was not really a product of his time and place. He was above it all, he did not submit to anything. He had no problem and no trouble criticizing even certain religious practices that hinted at the practitioner's hypocrisy. Why and how would he then adopt any societal beliefs that contradicted whatever he stood for, such as equality and justice? Besides, his father, Ghaffar Khan, strongly believed in gender equality and fought for women's rights to things like equal access to good education--he even built schools for girls and made sure that females were being educated... and this was in the 1930s when education for females was hardly acceptable anywhere else! And here comes a Pashtun male leader fighting to educate girls and boys equally because he understood and appreciated the importance of female education. So, no, Ghani Baba was not a conformist by any means and really had no reason to write something as offensive as "women are naturally stupid, weak, incompetent, and dependent on others."

The whole poem is a conversation between two people, both of whom are representatives of certain thinking/lifestyles/ages/people. It is the mystic/philosopher who's telling the youngun that waak ye che da bal we da de nar na zanana na kha da (even woman is better than the man who's dependent on others).  Even if it were the youngun, it wouldn't matter to me anymore. What matters is that Ghani is not the speaker here! In much of his other poetry, the reader feels like Ghani is the speaker. Think of his "che masti wi ao zwani" or another random poem. Especially one he wrote while in prison. The reader senses that Ghani isn't just the poet of that poem but also the speaker. He's literally writing down his feelings into words and those words become a poem. So if he says anything "potentially offensive about women" or non-Muslims or any other group of people, then, yes, I'd have a reason to feel upset! But he doesn't. At least, none that I have come across. And I'm now certain I won't come across it, either. Ghani is really too humble to think lowly of anything--if anything, he sometimes seems to suggest that he thinks he's a worthless soul, which hurts my heart!


Who do you think represents the philosopher, the saintly figure, the elderly personality? It is, of course, Ghani Khan. Ghani Baba is the speaker of most of his poems, and he is the speaker in this poem. I'm not suggesting Ghani Baba claimed himself a holy figure, full wisdom and all. No, not at all. He expresses much humility in his poetry, in fact. But I'm suggesting that Ghani Baba is the speaker here - after all, how else is he able to answer such important questions being posed by the youngun? He's asking the questions from the perspective of, really, anyone, anyone who's looking for some lessons on love, life, spirituality, and Ghani Baba is offering those answers through the "mashar lewanay" (the philosopher, the elderly, the saint). 

-The writer is a PhD student of Islamic Studies with emphasis on gender relations in Islamic law and the Pashtun society. She blogs at and tweets @qrratugai.

- a poem I wrote reflecting on Ghani called "Weeping at Ghani's Grave" that can be accessed here: