Poem: Almost Out of the Sky – Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was a titan of Latin American poetry.  He commands great influence not only among the Spanish speaking countries but throughout the world of poetry. He is known for writing surrealist poems, poems about history and blissful love poems. This poem is an example of the latter from his second collection titled “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair”

Translated from the Spanish by W.S. Merwin.


Almost out of the sky

Almost out of the sky, half of the moon
anchors between two mountains.
Turning, wandering night, the digger of eyes.
Let’s see how many stars are smashed in the pool.

It makes a cross of mourning between my eyes,
and runs away.
Forge of blue metals, nights of still combats,
my heart revolves like a crazy wheel.
Girl who have come from so far, been brought from so far,
sometimes your glance flashes out under the sky.
Rumbling, storm, cyclone of fury,
you cross above my heart without stopping.
Wind from the tombs carries off, wrecks, scatters your
sleepy root.

The big trees on the other side of her, uprooted.
But you, cloudless girl, question of smoke, corn tassel.
You were what the wind was making with illuminated leaves.
Behind the nocturnal mountains, white lily of conflagration,
ah, I can say nothing! You were made of everything.

Longing that sliced my breast into pieces,
it is time to take another road, on which she does not smile.

Storm that buried the bells, muddy swirl of torments,
why touch her now, why make her sad.

Oh to follow the road that leads away from everything,
without anguish, death, winter waiting along it
with their eyes open through the dew.

Poem: Postcard from Kashmir – Agha Shahid Ali

Agha Shahid Ali

Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) was a poet, translator and academic from Kashmir. He is credited with single-handedly introducing the classical ghazal to America and the West, which spurred a whole bunch of native English writers trying their hand at the ghazal. Here is a poem from his collection “The Country Without a Post Office”, about how felt when he received a postcard from his violence-ridden Kashmir.

Postcard from Kashmir

Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,
my home a near four by six inches.

I always loved neatness. Now I hold
the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.

This is home. And this is the closest
I’ll ever be to home. When I return,
the colors won’t be so brilliant.

The Jhelum’s waters so clean,
so ultramarine. My love
so overexposed.

And my memory will be a little
out of focus, in it
a giant negative, black
and white, still undeveloped.


Poem: Language – Nizar Qabbani

Nizar Qabbani

Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998) was an Arab poet from Syria.  He is famous for writing about love, romance, eroticism and feminism. Many of his poems have been turned into popular Arabic songs. Here is a short poem translated from Arabic which I like for the idea of its poetic license.


When a man is in love
How can he use old words?
Should a woman
desiring her lover
lie down with
grammarians and linguists?

I said nothing
To the woman I loved
But gathered
Love’s adjectives into the suitcase
And fled from all languages.

Poem: Before You Came – Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984) occupies a central place in the canon of modern Urdu poetry. He is undoubtedly the best poet in terms of craft and creativity that Urdu has produced after Allama Iqbal. He was a leftist intellectual, an academic, and a revolutionary poet who was gaoled by the state of Pakistan for his political activism.

Here is one of his poems in English translation which Southbank Centre selected as one of the 50 best modern love poems from all over the world.

Translated from Urdu in collaboration with the poet by Naomi Lazard.

Before You Came

Before you came things were just what they were:
the road precisely a road, the horizon fixed,
the limit of what could be seen,
a glass of wine was no more than a glass of wine.

With you the world took on the spectrum
radiating from my heart: your eyes gold
as they open to me, slate the color
that falls each time I lost all hope.

With your advent roses burst into flame:
you were the artist of dried-up leaves, sorceress
who flicked her wrist to change dust into soot.
You lacquered the night black.

As for the sky, the road, the cup of wine:
one was my tear-drenched shirt,
the other an aching nerve,
the third a mirror that never reflected the same thing.

Now you are here again—stay with me.
This time things will fall into place;
the road can be the road,
the sky nothing but sky;
the glass of wine, as it should be, the glass of wine.


Movie: Life is a Miracle (2004)

Life is a Miracle (Serbian: Život je čudo, Serbian Cyrillic: Живот је чудо); Country of production: Serbia; Language: Serbian; Year 2004

I’d heard good word about the director Emir Kusturica, and since this film is set in Bosnia of 1992 during the war, I watched it.

It is a light comedy not a serious drama film. A budding footballer is called to serve in the Serb forces when the war begins just as he received a letter inviting him to join a prestigious football club. He is taken as a war prisoner. His mentally unstable mother goes with some random Hungarian she meets at a party and his father is left alone in the little house in the picturesque village.

And so it happens that a Muslim girl is taken captive and a military friend of the Serb family circumvents the protocol and brings the girl to the father so that he could use her in exchange for his captive son. But life has different designs. There begins a silly and funny series of incidents better viewed and no described, to keep spoilers at bay.

I did not like the film as much as I thought I would. The story is a drag and the content does not justify the two-and-a-half-hour run time. It could have been wrapped up within the standard one-and-a-half hour time frame.

For the film 2.5/5, but for the lead actress, Nataša Tapušković, who plays the captive Muslim girl–>

IMDb Link


Movie: Ajami (2009)

Ajami (Arabic: عجمي, Hebrew עג’מי); Country: Israel; Languages: Arabic, Hebrew, Year 2006)

This is the first Israeli film I have ever watched. The story focuses on the Palestinians living in Israel, or “Israeli Arabs” as they are called, and takes place in the Ajami neighbourhood of the city of Jaffa.

It’s not a single coherent story but based on five interconnecting and overlapping storylines of the five protagonists, four of them Arabs and one an Israeli soldier.

It’s largely about intra-Arab gang warfare, their poverty which leads them to illegal drug selling, and about the problems the Arabs face in their social lives.

A few troubled Arab youth independently gather to work at a restaurant owned by a Christian Arab in Jaffa, who is active in the Arab community and helps his fellow Arabs regardless of religion with their problems whenever he can. It is from there the troubled protagonists secretly embark on their quick money-making schemes, all of which come to naught.

I personally found the characterisation of Arabs a bit troubling. The emphasis is on intra-Arab gang warfare and the culture of honour and blood revenge, their failure to unite in their opposition to the life of ignominy and oppression they are forced to live, and their continual non-acceptance of the state of Israel even though some Arabs are citizens of Israel and carry its passport. But perhaps I’m reading too much into it. It might well be a true depiction of the lives of Arabs living in those lands.

There are two directors of this film. One is a Jewish Israeli and the other is a Christian Arab from Jaffa (Scandar Copti). There was a controversy after the film was nominated for Oscar. Here is a JP article about what Scandar Copti said and the reaction he got from the Israelis.

Ajami director: I don’t represent Israel

Scandar Copti, the Arab-Israeli who co-directed Oscar nominee Ajami with Jewish-Israeli Yaron Shani, said Sunday, hours before the Academy Award ceremony in Hollywood, that the film does not represent Israel because “I cannot represent a country that does not represent me.”

Speaking to Channel 2, Copti said, “I am not the Israeli national team and I do not represent Israel,” adding that the representation issue is a “technical thing, that’s how it works in the Oscars. It says ‘Israel’ because the funding comes from Israel. There’s a Palestinian director, an Israeli director, Palestinian actors and Israeli actors. The film technically represents Israel, but I don’t represent Israel.”

Copti’s co-director, Shani, did not agree.

“It’s an Israeli film, it represents Israel, it speaks ‘Israeli’ and deals with Israel-related problems. The question of representation deals with matters of perspective and political issues we need to resolve,” Shani, who was interviewed alongside Copti, said.

Angry reactions from top Israeli officials weren’t late in coming.

Habayit Hayehudi chairman MK Daniel Herschkowitz earlier called on Livnat to examine how “the man who directed the film with Israeli funding might wrap himself with a Hamas flag tonight. If the movie wins an Oscar, it might be a Pyrrhic victory for Israel.”

Other MKs were more angry still.

A furious National Union MK Michael Ben Ari suggested that Israel change the Cinema Law, which serves as the guidebook to fund Israeli films.

“Support for a film should not be granted unless the editors, producers, directors and actors sign a declaration of loyalty to the State of Israel, its symbols and its Jewish-democratic values,” he said. Weblink

Here is an interesting article on the film from BBC. Look up

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

(First published 1947)

I read this novella in two post-dinner sittings over a single Gran Habano divided by two.

A parable of human greed – that’s how I have seen it described, and this phrase fits the story to a tee.

A native Indian, a worker in the pearling trade in a small Mexican town, dives into the river In search of a pearl to pay for his son’s treatment, and accidentally finds the “Pearl of the World” – a large, round, shining beauty no one has ever seen before – and thinking he’s found a treasure that would buy him not only his son’s treatment from a spider’s poisonous sting but also his future, he revels in his glorious find and proceeds to sell the item to convert it into money.

Soon the family finds itself in the clutches of evil when the greedy of the town try to steal the prized possession from him, attack him and hurt him, and may attack his wife and his son. Ironically, the pearl which was a promise of a happy and rich future becomes a raison d’être for a series of unending misfortunes which consists of an attack of attempted murder, of burning down of his brush shack, and of the family leaving the town incognito to save their lives from the human vultures vying to steal the pearl from them.

All the while, his wife begs and implores the man to divest the pearl from his possessions but it has become an ego problem for him. He is so much blinded by the luminous dreams of a great future as not to see that that future would never dawn on their household because they do not even know if they will survive the vagaries of the circumstance the found pearl has put them in.

In its bared state, it is a simple, straightforward story. However, the characterisation of the native Indian population offers insight.

They know the cunning and dishonesty of the rich white man, in turn his imperial greed and rapacity, yet the natives have failed to devise an appropriate response to their centuries-long subjugation and their status of an inferior race which, in the eyes of the white masters, is only a shade above that of wild animals. This is illustrated when, knowing he’d be cheated, the whole tribe knowing that he’d be cheated, he still goes to the same cartel of pearl buyers who collude to keep the prices down, then buy pearls from the local divers and sell them for high profits in the pearl market of the capital.

This is offset by the man’s steely resolve to leave the town, if he must, to sell the pearl for its appropriate price. And thus he becomes a proverbial pioneer amongst his people to break the chains that bind them to their piece of land, advised against by his brother in words that convey the the threat of unknown that lies beyond the road, the madness of the capital and all that exists beyond their shore of the Gulf.

There is an unmistakeable echo of the lyrical prose of Hemingway in Steinbeck’s storytelling. I have not read much of both of them to say that definitively but, let’s say tentatively, the dream-like sense of this novella has a good deal in common with the musicality of “The Old Man and the Sea.”, a novella of Hemingway.

The cinematic scope of Steinbeck’s folkloric novella is vast and rich as if you are watching the actual scenes from the primordial landscape being played out in front of you in words, which is how I felt as I read along, not least because its first draft was originally intended to be filmed.

By my grading it should get 4/5.

The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi

(First published 2014)

Typical of Kureishi’s style, but not as good and interesting as his last novel (Something To Tell You), this is a tempestuous story of a literary novelist (Mamoon Azam), an Indian immigrant who moves to England as a student, who commissions a young writer (Harry) to write his biography. In old age, and with struggling book sales and depleting income, the septuagenarian novelist sees his biography as a good publicity stunt and to come full circle with ‘the last word’.

A game of wits ensues: finely-crafted and hilarious series of incidents that see the novelist resisting the biographer’s piercing questions, interviews he’s always evading, withholding vital information, not wanting the curtain of secrecy to lift from his past, and basically requiring the biographer to write a loud paean hailing the great services the novelist has rendered to the post-colonial literature.

Things begin to fall apart when the biographer insists on interviewing a lover of the novelist whom he’d dumped for an Italian fashionista. The biographer is put through a lot of mental pressures, but he comes out with the book when the novelist suffers multiple strokes and goes bedridden, but at the cost of losing his partner and mother of his twins to the dying novelist’s amorous advancements.

It’s a dark satire of the modern literary world, its penchant for showering plaudits on writers who can be best described as mediocrities, of the necessities of the publishing business, and duping the public with what’s worthwhile and that what is not. The narrative also critiques the faux halo of superiority around great writers: they are normal people like us, not necessarily more intelligent than non-writers, but certainly special as ‘word-masters’, but despite all, they have the same fears and desires like the rest of us.

But I have to say, Kureishi’s characters are perfect examples of a Freudian world in which everyone responds to their libido in a freewheeling, uninhibited way. In fact, a person’s life trajectory is dictated by their privates. Fidelity is not possible, no one is happy with their spouses or partners for long, and there comes inevitable infidelity, adultery, and sexual depravity – an unavoidable reality that is much challenged and condemned by our social mores, albeit unsuccessfully.

Kureishi expends a lot of space pontificating on the relationship between love and desire and whether both are compatible. It seems they are not, if honesty be made the judge.

Filled with piercing insights, loaded with cleverly-crafted sentences, charged with politically incorrect statements (‘surely’, says the character of Mamoon to a black feminist academic, ‘being black isn’t an entire career these days, is it?’) and a clever laying out of the story through long and interesting dialogue-writing, it’s quite an enjoyable novel.

مجھ کو تیرے عتاب نے مارا
یا مرے اضطراب نے مارا

بزمِ مے میں بس ایک میں محروم
آپ کے اجتناب نے مارا

خوں کیوں کر مرا کھلےکہ مجھے
ایک سراپا حجاب نے مارا

جبہ سائ کا بھی نہیں مقدور
ان کی عالی جناب نے مارا

لب مے گوں پہ جان دیتے ہیں
ہمیں شوقِ شراب نے مارا

کس پہ مرتے ہو آپ پوچھتے ہیں
مجھے فکرِ جواب نے مارا

یوں کبھی نوجواں نہ مرتا میں
تیرے عہدِ شباب نے مارا


Letter to a Young Muslim by Tariq Ali

Back in 2001, during an anti-war demonstration in London, Tariq Ali had an encounter with two young Muslims who were shocked to learn that an anti-imperialist of his stature sets no store by religion, any religion.

Those young men were at a loss to understand how a person of Muslim background without faith in Islam could stand up to the crimes, excesses and injustices perpetrated by big powers in the Muslim world.

Later, he wrote an open letter which is a critique of extremist religion as well as American imperialism.

Every time the West intervenes in Muslim countries it sets them back many decades. They intervening powers create exploitative economies run by corrupt politicians on American life-support and unstable, undemocratic governments to do their bidding. This has caused massive discontent among people and they have increasingly turned towards extremist strains of politicised religion to fight American imperialism.

This is ‘anti-imperialism of the fool’. They cannot improve anything by going back to a mythical past which did not even exist for seventh century Muslims, if the ‘Emirate of Afghanistan’ (under Taliban), Saudi Arabian radicalism and Iranian clerical system are examples to go by.

He rejects the notion that Muslims must imitate Western neoliberalism to modernise themselves in order to be able to fight the global hegemony of big powers. Rather, they must find new ways and ideas which are more advanced than what’s on offer in the West.

Yet he does not elaborate except for advising Muslims to support separation of politics and religion, let go of mystified theological debates that serve no tangible purpose to improve peoples’ condition, and instead pay attention to things that matter, by which he means working for the establishment of equitable economic systems and providing people with basic human rights to education, health and food.

Enlightenment in the lands of Islam will not come from the West; they will have to work for it themselves. The internal debates about the role of religion in politics and public space will determine which course Islamdom takes, and he hopes Muslims will not waste any more energies on theological wranglings, sectarian fights and trivial things but get down to business sooner rather than later.

The letter gets somewhat confusing when he mentions celebrations by some Muslims in the wake of 9/11 attacks and says this has nothing to do with religion. He points out to similar reaction among other people like the congratulatory emails that went around in Russia and the case of Argentine students who walked out of the class when their professor criticised Osama bin Laden.

This behaviour is credited to the disenchantment people feel worldwide with the American Empire. 9/11 attack was not a “cause to celebrate”; it actually showed “terrible weakness” of the Third World in the face of American imperialism.

For Tariq Ali, it is still the economy, stupid. Nothing else matters.