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"Who Cares About The Languages And Cultures Of Poor Countries"
Ashfaq Hussain Interviewed in Toronto, December 1990
 by - Dr. Khalid Sohail



Sohail:   Our first meeting was in relation to Urdu International. What gave you the idea of bringing out the magazine?  

Ashfaq:  Let me give you some background information before I answer your question. First of all, all my life I could not decide whether I was a part-time or a full-time writer. I had no doubt that literature was my best medium of expression and I entered that field in a dedicated way. But after a while I got disheartened about literary activities and isolated myself from any literary atmosphere. I was hoping that my social circle might change and I might develop some other interests but I kept on reading books and meeting writer friends and discussing literary issues. So I stayed in touch with the literary scene one way or another. I am giving you this background because when I went back to Pakistan after a year of living in Canada, I suddenly realized that a significant gap had developed between me and my friends. When they discussed new books I realized that I was not up to date on those books and the relevant issues. I thought that if I was no longer in touch after a year, how would I feel after five or seven years? So I decided that I should bring out a magazine which would satisfy my literary needs and also keep me in touch with the literary world.  

Sohail:    How did you put that plan into action?  

Ashfaq:   It was a coincidence that Faiz Sahib was visiting Toronto at that time. When I mentioned the idea of a magazine to him he encouraged me. When I was getting in touch with other writers regarding my magazine I realized that I knew the writers in Pakistan but not those in India, so Faiz Sahib wrote letters to Ali Sardar Jafri and Mohammad Hasan on the letterhead of Urdu International asking them to support me. Faiz Sahib had predicted and rightfully so that the support would increase once the writers saw a couple of issues of the magazine. I had to decide about the name of the magazine, Board of Directors, distributors and printers before I could start. All of these arrangements took nearly a year and a half.  

Sohail:    How was your project affected by the literary atmosphere already existing in Canada?  

Ashfaq:  There were a lot of literary seeds in the soil of Canada. Urdu International helped them to become sturdy trees. Faiz Sahib had visited Canada in 1978. In 1980 when he came back, he was also accompanied by Ali Sardar Jarfi, Kaifi Azmi, Akhter-ul-Iman and many other renowned poets. That laid the foundation of the first international mushaira in Canada. That get-together was quite intellectually stimulating, as local people got an opportunity to meet with established poets, discuss issues and exchange ideas. Such an atmosphere helped in starting a magazine.  

Sohail:   Who were the people who helped you bring out the magazine?  

Ashfaq:  The picture of Urdu International had many colours and shades. There were two people in Toronto who helped me a lot. The first one was Dr. Qayyum Lodhi who taught sociology at the University of Toronto at that time and had a progressive mode of thinking and the second one was Abid Jafri who edited a newspaper `Imroze'. I was also supported by Qamar Raees from India and Hasan Abid from Pakistan. There were a number of other people who encouraged me as the project grew, including Mohammed Ali Siddiqi, Agha Sohail, Dr. Sharib Rudoulvi and Iftikhar Arif among others. The first issue of Urdu International was prepared in Karachi. We worked in Zahida Hina's office and Sahba Hukhnavi gave some suggestions. Although I don't' talk about those people very often, I am indebted to all who supported me wholeheartedly and selflessly.  

Sohail:    You brought out quite a few special issues of your magazine. What was the impetus for that?  

Ashfaq:   When I was in Karachi I was a member of a literary circle which included Hasan Abid, Mohammed Ali Siddiqi, Rahat Saeed, Jon Alia, Razi Mujtaba, Ali Haidar Malik, Shahzad Manzar, Ikram Brelvi and many others. One of them, Dr. Qamar Abbas Nadeem, played a significant role in my development of a serious attitude towards literature. My personality was much influenced by him. When he died at a young age, I felt a loss. I feel that his early death deprived the Urdu short story of a significant chapter. So when Urdu International was published, I dedicated a section to Qamar Abbas Nadeem acknowledging his literary contributions. It was called `Suhbat-e-Gul', my humble attempt to pay tribute to that young writer who died before he fully blossomed. People liked and admired that section. After that I included sections on `Beirut', `Pakistani Culture', `Zafar Zaidi', `Sibt-e-Hasan', `Josh, Faraq, and Ghulam Abbas' and `South Africa'. All those issues became quite popular.  

Sohail:    How many issues of Urdu International have been published?  

Ashfaq: I wanted to produce three issues a year. In the last five years, thirteen issues have been published.  

Sohail:   You had announced that you would publish `Faiz Number'. What happened to that?  

Ashfaq:  While I was still working on that number, another magazine by the same name started coming out from Karachi so I discontinued my magazine. I had promised to do the issue on Faiz and I am committed to it. Now it will be published as a book.  

Sohail:   I have noticed in the last few years that whenever there is a conference or seminar held on Faiz you are invited. How did you develop such a special relationship with Faiz?  

Ashfaq:  Faiz has hundreds of admirers. It is my honour that I am considered one of them. There are a number of reasons why I admire him and those reasons are both personal and environmental. I grew up in dirty streets and houses of clay. I was always unhappy in that setting. Even at an early age I was aware that there was something wrong with that set-up. I wished it were different. During my teenage years I developed an interest in poetry and politics. I was involved in the students' movement that was protesting against the regimen. But my involvement was like an ordinary worker not as a leader.  

                   That was the time when the Ayubi dictatorship in Pakistan was coming to an end. All over the whole world students' movements were quite active. We used to read Tariq Ali's statements from England in Pakistani newspapers and also the political statements of Degal and philosophical ideas of Sartre in different magazines. That was the phase of political oppression in Pakistan. Those were the years of my student life when I was thinking about new ideas and philosophies. I was coming close to anti-establishment people and groups. I might have been actively involved in politics but I became more attracted by the progressive point of view in literature.  

                   That was the time I was impressed and inspired by Faiz. He had a balanced attitude between politics and literature. Like many other students I was also attracted to his philosophy of life.  

                   Those were the issues in the background. One of the things that brought me closer to Faiz was my decision to write a critical thesis on him for my Masters degree. When I was learning about Faiz I also read about his contemporaries and the Progressive Movement. After I presented the thesis Professor Mumtaz Hassain suggested that I should change a few things and get it published as a book. I was uncomfortable about that. I felt that I had collected things from other sources but Mumtaz Hussain said, "You are a student and people will appreciate your attempt. When one reaches the level of teacher or professor then people criticize every word one writes or publishes. If you publish it now, it will have a historical position. You will have the honour of publishing the first book on Faiz." When Mirza Zafar-ul-Hasan found out about my book he encouraged me too. After about three years I got the book published by the name `Faiz-Eik Jaiza'. The following year it was also published in India. Now that a number of years have passed, I realize the significance of that first attempt. In one way it does not matter whether a book is published sooner or later but it feels good to know that one is the first person in that field.  

                   When I was in Pakistan, it was only twice that I had an opportunity to talk to or meet Faiz but I had more opportunities for closer contact when he visited Canada.  

                   Faiz was also on the Board of Directors of Urdu International. After Faiz died I was also involved in arranging a Faiz International Conference and I also read a few papers on Faiz in other seminars held in North America.  

                   Maybe these are some of the reasons people remember me when they talk about Faiz.  

Sohail:         Alongside editing the magazine Urdu International you were also actively involved in arranging many mushairas and literary conferences. Was this a gradual evolution of your interest or was it a planned thing?  

Ashfaq:        No, there was no plan. All those activities were because of my passion for literature but I am glad that the outcome was a bridge between literary personalities and institutions in India and Pakistan and the people living in North America. Inviting poets and writers, sharing their poetry and writings and ideas and having discussions on different issues created a literary atmosphere here. Alongside these activities "Writers Forum" came into existence. I was the founding president of that organization. Before that there was "Anjamun-e-Urdu" which was quite active. In the last few years literary organizations and activities have mushroomed in every big city in North America.  

Sohail:         How do you think your involvement with Urdu International, mushairas and conferences has affected your creative journey?  

Ashfaq:        I have a feeling that these activities had a negative effect on my creative output. I think I have produced less. Sometimes I think I might have produced more of my own work if I were not so involved in literary activities; on the other hand, I might not have produced at all. It is hard to say. But I am happy that because of these activities I remained in touch with other writers and had an opportunity to learn from them and absorb those experiences into my own personality.  

Sohail:         Every poet and writer has a unique style to his creativity. Some write regularly while others write infrequently. What is your style?  

Ashfaq:        I don't write regularly. Sometimes I write three or four poems in one week while at other times I don't write anything for months. I think many feelings, incidents and experiences keep on collecting inside me and then at a certain time they all come out in the form of a poem.  

Sohail:         What kind of things inspire you? You have written a beautiful poem about your son. Do you remember what the circumstances were when you wrote that poem?  

Ashfaq:        My poem about my son is a very personal one. My son was two or three years old at the time. One day my wife and son had gone out; I was missing him which inspired me to write that poem. I don't remember the exact details of the event. I don't think I even knew what I was going to write when I picked up my pen and paper. I must have thought of my son, the temporariness of life and the meaning of our existence. All those things which are not obvious in my poem must have been floating in the back of my mind. I am not saying that I consciously wrote that poem about those issues. All I am saying is that I must have contemplated them at one time or another. I must have thought that children grow up, they become teenagers, then young adults, then grow old and die while life goes on. Many people like myself think about those issues, but at that moment when I was missing my son all those feelings and ideas got transformed into a poem. Maybe I was consoling that I myself might not be living one day but that my son might still be alive. I think it did not take me more than twenty minutes to finish that poem. But that is an ordinary thing. I think the angle that makes that poem special is that it also reflects one aspect of the immigrant experience. I think I must have been preoccupied with my cultural heritage at that time. I must have wondered whether we should thrust our heritage onto our children, set them free in the new society, or thirdly, should we try to strike a balance between the two cultures. I think all immigrants share similar dilemmas and problems. Sometimes we like our traditions although we admit that some of them are wrong. Those are the traditions of feudal times and the era of slavery. To break the outdated traditions is a challenge for each immigrant parent. When I was addressing my son I was actually addressing the next generation. It was just expressed in a personal way. Some of the earlier Urdu poets like Akbar Ala Abadi and Iqbal had also written poems about their children but they were in a different context. After I wrote that poem I realized that many other Urdu poets in the West have also written poems about their children and one can find different aspects of their experience in those creations.  

                   My poem expressed my feelings and views on those issues.  

Sohail:         While we are talking about your son, maybe I can ask you a question about your family. You lead a family life. You have a wife, a daughter and a son. How does your family life affect your creative life?  

Ashfaq:        Whether you live in Pakistan or in North America, once you have a family, it affects your whole life not only the creative part. Being in North America my views about my wife and women in general have changed. I was brought up in an environment which was not fair to women. That society did not give women the respect they deserved. After coming to North America I became more aware of women's issues. I am also becoming aware of my sexist attitudes and trying my best to change them.  

                   As far as my own family life is concerned I never saw them as a barrier to my literary pursuits. To be honest, I think my family has encouraged me in my literary activities. In that regard I consider myself lucky. But the reality remains that if someone has a family and is also involved in fine arts there have to be some conflicts but that is part of life. When two or more people decide to live together there are always some conflicts in their attitudes, rights and responsibilities. We are living in a male dominated society so women have to give up their rights. Maybe one day when we are living in a fair and just society then relationships in marriage and family will be more even.  

Sohail:         Maybe you can share with me what kind of family and environment you grew up in.  

Ashfaq:        I grew up in a "kuchi basti" in Karachi. That was the community in which homes were made of clay, bamboo and straw. My mother used to have a child every year or year and a half and during one of those pregnancies she died. In that atmosphere survival was the biggest struggle. My parents and siblings were all struggling in that environment. We were quite poor. We did not have warm clothes in winter, the roof would leak when it rained and we did not have proper shoes to wear. Our father was a hard working man. He used to leave home before we woke up and came home late at night after we had gone to bed. Sometimes we did not see our dad for weeks. My parents were from a traditional Muslim family of Jonpur and Banarus. Many people of those families used to do Adeeb Alam and Munshi Fazel, and those people who were well off or lucky used to go to college or university. But there were very few. Many of them had better educational opportunities after they moved to Pakistan.  

Sohail:         What else do you remember about your childhood?  

Ashfaq:        I have very vague memories of my childhood. When the older generation of my family used to get together in the evening they used to talk about religion, the Muslim League and Pakistan. They also talked about poetry and literature. They were poor but they were contented. In spite of their struggles in life they did not seem bitter.  

                   But in only one generation things have changed. The same things people used to be proud of now cause them shame. Children of those families proudly say that they don't know Urdu.  

                   Our elders used to be very strict though. The same people who would slap us when we misbehaved were also thrilled if we recited poetry. Literature always bridged the gap between us and our elders.  

Sohail:         What was your school life like?  

Ashfaq:        Those were bad times. If my parents did not have enough money to pay for tuition fees I did not get admitted to school. Our school was quite far away from home and I had to travel in a bus. I used to get two annas from my parents for bus fare. I used to run away from school so that I could buy snacks with those two annas rather than spending it on bus fare. I did not understand why I should go to school.  

                   When I was in the secondary school, I met a few teachers who taught as if learning were a sacred thing. It was then that I really got interested in studies and education.  

Sohail:         What did you do after you finished school?  

Ashfaq:        I graduated from high school in 1966 when I was fifteen. Then I looked for a job. I found part-time employment in a local library. Then I worked in a factory and with the police force for a short time. After I graduated from college my family and friends wanted me to try the departmental examination so that I could become an Assistant Sub Inspector of the police but I wanted to become a lecturer and teacher. So I left my job and entered university full time. There were no evening classes in the university at that time. I used to teach students to earn my living. Now when I look back I feel good that I listened to my own heart and did what I really wanted to do.  

Sohail:         What kind of atmosphere did you find in the university?  

Ashfaq:        I enjoyed my years in the university. On one hand we had teachers like Majnoon Gorakhpuri, Mumtaz Hussain, Manzoor Hussain Shore, Farman Fatehpuri, Aslam Furrakhi and Hanif Fauq and on the other hand we had quite a talented group of students who were actively involved in literature. We had Perveen Shakir and Shahida Hasan in the English department, Tajdar Aadil in the Economics department and Iqbal Faridi, Ayub Khavir, Azra Abbas, Qamar Abbas Wafa and Shahida Tabassum in my own department. In our literary get-togethers there were also other people like Sarwat Hussain, Anwar Sun Raey, Futina Hasan and Hilal Naqvi who used to join us. In short, between 1972 and 1975, my stay in Karachi University played an important role in my intellectual and literary development. There were also other writers who did not belong to our university but they visited us during my stay there. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmed Faraz, Fehmida Riaz, Saroor Barabunkvi, Sahar Ansari, Mirza Zafar-ul-Hasan and Ibne Insha were some of the reputed writers that I met for the first time during my years at Karachi University. I listened to Sadeqain's poetry and Fateh Mohammed Malik's, Ibadat Brelvi's and Waqar Azeem's lectures for the first time there.  

                   During that time I also participated in the students' programmes in the radio station and met many literary personalities.  

                   So I learned not only about Urdu literature from the books but also by meeting important people in the field.  

Sohail:         Were you shy or outgoing as a young man when you were in school?  

Ashfaq:        I was always shy. I was never outgoing.  

Sohail:         But you don't appear shy now?  

Ashfaq:        I try not to appear shy. I try to live with my shyness. When people see me making a speech or conducting a `mushaira' they wonder how I could possibly by shy. But I realize how shy I feel inside.  

Sohail:         If you were shy then why did you want to become a teacher?  

Ashfaq:        Becoming a teacher was my ideal. Perhaps there are degrees of shyness. Human psychology is an area of your speciality. You will have a better idea of my situation. All I know is that when my classfellows in the university wanted me to participate in the elections and run for Vice President, I was very nervous. They had seen me participate in mushairas and student programmes but they did not know how I felt when I took part in those activities. Let me share an incident to explain this. After the new students' union was elected, there was a formal ceremony so that the elected officers could take the oath. When I saw the Minister of Health and Vice Chancellor on the stage, I got so nervous that I left the function and helped other people to arrange for cold drinks for the guests. Even the thought of making a speech was scary. So I was the Vice President of the student union for a whole year without taking an oath.  

                   Every person has conflicts and I have conflicts of my own.  

Sohail:         Were you involved in literary activities in your school and college years?  

Ashfaq:        I studied at the Government High School Jacob Lines Karachi from 1960-1966. There used to be an annual magazine in that school. Once I submitted a poem but that was rejected. I did not do any creative work during my high school years but I enjoyed the poetry of Meer, Ghalib and Iqbal included in our textbooks and gradually developed a literary taste. My involvement with literature increased when I went to the university.  

Sohail:         What kind of ambitions did your parents have for your education?  

Ashfaq:        For my family having a grade ten education was a great achievement because it ensured a white collar job. My parents wanted me to pass my matriculation examination and then work as a clerk in an office. My parents were among those who sometimes wished their children to be Deputy Collectors but also realized that it was a fantasy. They realized that such jobs went to the children of rich people.  

Sohail:         In what circumstances did you decide to come to Canada?  

Ashfaq:        Before coming to Canada I was working with the Arts Council which was attached to the government. During that time my political involvement had increased. I was not involved in active politics but I was quite involved at an intellectual and ideological level. I felt as though my family, my friends and my countrymen were living in hell. I was becoming aware that the whole society was moving towards fundamentalism and there was not much room for liberal ideas. When I saw liberal views and attitudes being suppressed and oppressed I started thinking of leaving my country. It is now that I realize that my attitude was cowardly and unrealistic. I admire those people who stayed in darkness and kept on fighting for a bright future. You will find those feelings in many of my poems.  

Sohail:         Do you see your immigration as political exile?  

Ashfaq:        No, not at all. My life was never in danger. I was never punished for my political views. I even had a nice job with the government. My suffering was at a personal level. I was suffering because of my own views an attitudes. I should also acknowledge that my decision to emigrate also had an economic dimension. I wanted to move from a poor third world to a rich first world country for a financially better future. That is one of the harsh realities of our time.  

Sohail:         You mentioned once that your collection of poetry "Aitabaar" was published just before you left Pakistan.  

Ashfaq:        This is true. My collection of poetry was published in November 1979. I had already published another book, "Faiz-Eik Jaiza" in 1977.  

Sohail:         You shared with me personally that you had never written down your poems anywhere.  

Ashfaq:        I remembered all my poems by heart. I even remembered all of Faiz's poetry by heart too. Before I left Pakistan, I wrote all my poems down, published the book and distributed it among my friends.  

Sohail:         After you moved to Canada, what kind of difficulties did you face professionally?  

Ashfaq:        You are quite familiar with the circumstances in the West. I was involved with arts and literature and culture in Pakistan. But when I came to Canada I asked myself "Who cares about the languages and cultures of poor countries?" I had to survive so I did a course in travel to ensure a job in the field. When one lives abroad, one is preoccupied with travelling and opportunities to visit home. I worked with a travel agency for a while and when I felt financially secure, I started my own business.  

Sohail:         You used to write as Shafaq Zaidi. Why did you change you name to Ashfaq Hussain after coming to Canada?  

Ashfaq:        I used to write as Shafaq Zaidi when I was a student but when I got seriously involved in literature I changed my name. This happened even before I came to Canada.  

Sohail:         When you look at the twenty years of your literary journey what kind of feelings do you get?  

Ashfaq:        I feel sad that I did not do more. One becomes mature with time and one's attitudes change with age. I think that the last ten years in Toronto were more productive than the previous ten years in Pakistan. I worked hard to create a literary atmosphere in Toronto. I edited a magazine, presented Urdu programmes on T.V., organized conferences under the banner of Writers' Forum and published a book of translations of my poems. I met a lot of people and learnt many things from them. In spite of my lazy personality, for me to do all those things is a great achievement. I am working on a couple of books now.  

Sohail:         Do you have an ambition for the next few years that you could not fulfil in the last few years?  

Ashfaq:        I feel that different aspects of the immigrant experience can not be fully expressed in poetry. If someone is a genius he can do miracles but ordinary poets like me feel restricted by the limitations of Urdu poetry. I think fiction is a powerful weapon to express myself but the hard work and dedication that prose writing needs is beyond me at this stage of life. Maybe one of these days I might be able to explore those avenues.  

Sohail:         Is there anything significant that I missed in this interview?  

Ashfaq:        I think I have already said too much considering the little that I have done for literature.


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