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When Faiz Ahmad Faiz, a recipient of Lenin Peace Prize, was imprisoned in Pakistan in 1951, he wrote a number of inspiring poems. One of them was:

If they snatch my ink and pen
I should not complain
For I have dipped my fingers
In the blood of my heart
I should not complain
Even if they seal my tongue
For every ring of my chain
Is a tongue ready to speak

During his stay in the prison Faiz also wrote a series of love letters to Alys, who was his British wife. Years later, when his friends insisted on publishing those letters, Faiz translated them in Urdu. In the introduction of the book Faiz stated that although those were personal letters but if one day someone wanted to study Habsiaat, the lives of political prisoners, those letters might provide some psychological insights in their lives. Being a humanist and a psychotherapist I thought it would be a novel idea to study those letters from a psychological perspective as they might provide us with a few glimpses of the dynamics of not only the personality, politics and philosophy of Faiz Ahmad Faiz but also other socialist poets and philosophers, reformers and revolutionaries who were sent to jail for their ideals. It has been my observation and experience that psychological studies of revolutionaries are generally overlooked in the socialist literature.

            When we study Faiz’s nearly one hundred and thirty five letters written during those four years, from June 1951 to April 1955, when he was imprisoned, there are a number of themes that emerge in his writings.

When Faiz was in prison it did not take him long to realize that it was not easy to balance his personal and political lives. He realized that a poet was also a husband, a writer was also a father and a socialist leader was also a son. Rather than ignoring those conflicts Faiz spent some time in introspection. He acknowledged that his wife Alys had to shoulder all the family responsibilities on her own. Faiz was lucky that his wife, unlike wives of some other Urdu poets, was not only well educated but also financially and emotionally independent.

            There were times Faiz felt guilty that he was not fulfilling his fatherly and husbandly duties. His sense of guilt as a father, husband and son even made him question the moral basis of his idealistic lifestyle. In one of his letters he wonders whether idealism is one form of selfishness (Ref 1, p 29). Faiz is not the only socialist leader who struggled with that question. Many other leaders were troubled when they saw their friends and family members suffer because of their ideals and involvement in the revolutionary struggle.

Mandela, who spent quarter of a century in prison, reflecting on the conflict between family and political lives stated, “ I wondered…not for the first time…whether one was ever justified in neglecting the welfare of one’s own family in order to fight for the welfare of others.” (Ref 2 p 181). Many revolutionaries were married to their cause before they married their sweetheart. That is why when Mandela proposed to Winnie, her father had affectionately warned her, “You are marrying a jail bird.” For Alys, like wives of other revolutionary personalities, it was not easy to face the social and political pressures when her husband was separated from her and their children and kept in prison for years.

            In one his letters Faiz shared his sense of loss and sadness that he could not see his children grow. He asked Alys to bring them for a visit with her but then realized that spending money on transportation might not be the best way to spend limited funds. In his letters Faiz expressed a lot of faith and confidence in their marriage and admired Alys for being courageous and steadfast.  

            In the beginning Faiz believed that his stay in the prison might be short and he might be released in a few days or weeks but when weeks turned into months and months into years, he realized that he was facing a long term crisis and tragedy. As a student of human psychology I am well aware that long term tragedies and sufferings are very stressful. Many people who spend extended periods of time in prison have negative and detrimental effects on their personality. They either become sad, depressed even suicidal, or become angry, resentful and bitter. Interestingly enough, Faiz was an exception. He absorbed all the feelings of imprisonment including indifference, boredom, longing and loneliness in his personality and transformed his pains into poems and love letters.

            Faiz shared in his letters that on one hand he felt helpless in prison but on the other hand his own sufferings helped him identify with the sufferings of his countrymen ( Ref 1, p 71) especially those women who spend most of their lives at home as if they were under house arrest. (Ref 1, p 72)

            In his letters Faiz highlighted how his time away from his dear ones helped him change his perspective about life. He realized that the same things that used to irritate him started to amuse him. He could rise above the adversities and develop some insights in life. He could see himself maturing and growing.

            While Faiz was in the prison he requested a number of books to read. He was a scholar of Urdu, Arabic and English languages. Other prisoners used to gather around him and Faiz, who was a great teacher, used to give lectures on Ghalib, Shakespeare, even taught Quran to the enthusiasts.

            Faiz also developed a keen sense of humor while he was in prison. His letters were full of comical comments. In one letter he mentioned that since the prison was in a desert, people’s faces and heads were frequently covered with sand and they looked older than their real lives. He wrote to his sweetheart that sometimes he wondered he might lose his ‘sex appeal’ (Ref 1, p 40) and then people would not be able to tease him about flirting with women and there would not be any more scandals. In another letter he jokes about becoming a saint during his imprisonment.

            One of the breakthroughs for Faiz was his realization that his prison experience was making him a peaceful person. He quoted his friend and colleague Surjeet Singh who had stated that ‘ peace comes from within’ (p 40). Faiz shared with Alys that only that person was at peace whose conscience was clear. Not having a guilty conscience was a significant part of being at peace with oneself. Faiz knew that he was not a criminal and he had not done anything that was illegal, unethical or immoral. (Ref 1 p 132) He did not care what others, whether politicians or political activists of rival groups, thought of his actions and ideas. He was genuinely, honestly and sincerely dedicated to his ideals.

            It is amazing to see how Faiz remained optimistic and full of hope in spite of adversities. He believed that sooner or later justice will win and the poor and the downtrodden will get their rights. He dreamt of a just and peaceful world and for that world he was ready to sacrifice his health and happiness, even his life. Faiz started believing that happiness was not only his right but also the birth right of all human beings. ( Ref 1, p 71)

            Faiz shared his philosophy of human suffering in his letters. He believed that human beings can endure a lot of physical and emotional pain if they give it a meaning and connect it with a cause or an ideal that is worth living for and worth dying for (Ref 1 p 114). Faiz’s philosophy is not much different than the philosophy of famous psychotherapist Victor Frankl who gave birth to the tradition of Logo-therapy after spending a number of years in Nazi prisons. He also believed that human suffering becomes bearable when it finds a meaning.

            Faiz’s letters provide us a few glimpses of that remarkable poet who was never intimidated by the powers of kings, dictators or generals. His commitment remained with the poor, the oppressed and the working class people. Faiz gradually became aware that his sufferings, like the sufferings of all humanity, are temporary. He realized that the darker the night of oppression, the brighter will be the dawn of freedom. Night might be long, very long, but morning is worth waiting for. ( Ref 1, p 76)

            Faiz’s letters from prison are a goldmine. They provide many psychological insights in the psyche of revolutionaries and political prisoners. With passage of time they became a symbol of hope not only for his family, his community and country but also for all of the suffering humanity. No wonder, even after his death, he lives in the hearts of millions of men and women from all walks of life all over the world.

Let me end by a stanza from one of Faiz’s poems titled A Prison Evening, that is an island of optimism in the sea of pessimism.

From every corner, dark – green shadows,
in ripples, come towards me.
At any moment they may break over me,
like the waves of pain each time I remember
The separation from my lover
This thought keeps consoling me:
though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed
in rooms where lovers are destined to meet,
they cannot snuff out the moon, so today,
nor tomorrow, no tyranny will succeed,
no poison of torture make me bitter,
if just one evening in prison
can be so strangely sweet,
If just one moment anywhere on this earth.



1. Faiz Ahmed Faiz    Saleebain meray dareechay main Maktaba-e-Daniaal Karachi Pakistan 1976

2. Mandela Nelson The Struggle is my Life Pathfinder New York 1990