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The Pilgrim Of Beauty: A Pashtun Poet's Continuing Appeal

Abdul Ghani Khan in the winter of 1979.
Abdul Ghani Khan in the winter of 1979.

A 20th-century poetic genius wrote about his people's struggles with modernity, ignorance, freedom and discrimination.

Some of his popular poems were turned into songs and introduced generations of listeners in Pakistan and Afghanistan to humanism, aesthetics and mysticism.

Until now, the artistic and intellectual gems of Abdul Ghani Khan (1914–1996), however, remained hidden from the wider world because few of his capacious Pashto-language poems were translated into other languages.

A remarkable book by a lifelong friend and admirer of Khan's has changed that. Imtiaz Ahmad Sahibzada has dedicated years to studying and translating Khan's varied and voluminous poetry into English.

Sahibzada's "The Pilgrim of Beauty: Selections from the Poetry of Abdul Ghani Khan" translates poems from Khan's three poetry books into English. The author has also extensively researched Khan's life and has summarized literary criticism of his work.

​In the introduction to his first poetry volume, "Chirpings of the Cage," published in 1956, Khan was explicit about his poetry:

"A poet is a slave of his environment -- his example being that of an animal which does not have the protective covering of a skin. If you so much as touch him with the tip of a thorn, he yells himself to death; and when he gets a little relief, his happiness so overwhelms him that he loses consciousness."

Khan remained true to his words but charted his own course in poetic expression. He stayed away from the Western sonnet like rhyming couplets called Ghazal in Pashto, Persian and Urdu poetry. Instead he focused on nazam, or poems that are narrative and descriptive in addition to rhyming.

His poems cover a wide variety of subjects ranging from freedom, patriotism, love and nature to the exploitation and ignorance often symbolized by the Khans or landowners and mullahs or clerics.

"My poetry," he once said, "is about humanism and the search for truth":

Look at man, the pride of beings,
Fettered in his chains, a slave,
Though he tries with might and main,
He cannot his freedom gain -
From himself and from his world!
Round the Ka'bah ambulates,
Sometimes round his love gyrates!

Khan's life was shaped by his illustrious father, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who rose from being a small landowner in British India's northwestern periphery to an icon of the struggle for freedom and a leading proponent of nonviolence.

Khan's fortunes swung with those of his family. Ghaffar Khan pulled his eldest son out of Delhi's prestigious Muslim religious institution, Jamia Milli, only a year after sending Ghani there in 1927. The Pashtun leader was unhappy with the Muslim clergy's role in provoking a revolt against his friend, the reformist Afghan King Amanullah Khan.

Khan was then sent to England, where he lived with the family of a Christian cleric for more than a year before being sent to study sugar technology in Louisiana. But he had to abandon his studies and return home after his father was arrested in 1931 and kept in prison for more than three years.

Again in October 1934 his father forced Khan to leave Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's Shantiniketan art school near Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). Ghaffar Khan argued that his son's longing for painting and sculpture wouldn't help their struggle against British rule.

His father's activism ultimately pushed Khan into politics. In his early 30s in 1945, he became the youngest elected member of Indian Parliament. According to Sahibzada, "visitors' galleries invariably filled to capacity" during Khan's fiery speeches.

His political fortunes changed for the worse after the emergence of Pakistan in 1947. Ghaffar Khan had opposed the creation of the new country as a separate homeland for South Asia's Muslims. The new government launched a harsh crackdown against his Servants of God movement.

Its administration in the North-West Frontier Province, now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was dismissed a week after Pakistan's independence was declared in August 1947. Khan was sent to prison for nearly six years by invoking a draconian colonial law.

After he was freed in 1954, Khan abandoned his political career and devoted himself to artistic pursuits, which also included painting and sculpture. But a love for his people and homeland remained a dominant theme in his poetry.

One of his poems, "Oh Motherland" is still very popular:

I've been fashioned from your clay,
You have by my love been shaped;
All your soil has watered been,
By the blood of my forebears -
Father and grandfather, both.
In your bosom, resting, lie,
All my bygone ages great.
Land beloved above all others,
Treasure trove of priceless gems!

​A beautiful rendition of this poem in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Khan abandoned the theme of morality, which had dominated Pashto poetry for centuries. He broke new ground by focusing on aesthetics instead.

"I think the mission of a poet in life is quite different from that of a preacher," he wrote to an Afghan poet friend, Abdul Rauf Benawa. "Man is essentially an animal. He wants food, sex and comfort and nothing else. I think it is the duty of us poets to turn his face to those higher centers of his being where we might see the reflection of his own perfection -- and the face of his eternal Beloved, Beauty."

His poem "The Flower" is an example:

Once, some years ago, I wandered
In the wilderness, to find
A rose in blooming beauty,
Laughing gently in the wind.
I approached it in all sadness,
Saying, oh like me aggrieved!
You're a flower that has no meaning
For the loved one's tresses long;
Nor shall someone's lovely fingers
Hold you gently and then whispered,
"Khan, why should you thus grieve?
I shall not exchange this wasteland,
For the Persian garden green.
Here I am one of a kind,
There are thousands there like me;
All around me in the wasteland,
Only I am blooming, bright.
Here in this parched, arid land,
I am a flame of blazing beauty
And of colors of all hues;
I am beauty, with no peer,
Of a silent melody;
And the miracle supreme,
Of a timeless space unseen.
In your garden there are myriads
Of red roses kin to me;
In a faceless, flowing river
Of red roses on the surge,
Nameless rose, one of too many,
I shall certainly then be.
And you too, my dear brother,
Do not grieve in your wasteland;
To appreciate your beauty,
There will ultimately come,
From a far-off place a wanderer,
Like some wretched, Ghani Khan!

​Yasir and Jawad, a band in Peshawar, rendered this poem in 2011.

Khan has explored innovative ways to rediscover the dominant subject of Eastern poetry, namely love. This aspect of his poetry was clearly influenced by his love for his Parsi wife, Roshan Ghani Khan.

His poem "Love and Beauty" stands out:

One evening, as I listened
To the silence of the twilight,
I heard the new moon whisper to the star:
"Allah has blessed us with unrivalled beauty;
And man, ungrateful being,
He granted love.
I would give away with laughter,
And without any regrets,
All this priceless beauty
For a drop of love -
For beauty must grow old and wane,
But love is deathless, eternal!

Imtiaz Ahmad Sahibzada
Imtiaz Ahmad Sahibzada

Sahibzada's lasting contribution is to preserve the original spirit and rhythms of Khan's poetry in his translation. His extensive research and explanations in endnotes will help readers understand the context of individual verses and poems.

He says Khan's poetry is acutely relevant for Afghanistan and Pakistan today. "His poetry reverberated with the message of peace, which if realized will benefit all of us today," he said.