Grandson revisits Faiz Ahmed Faiz's life and legacy ahead of Dubai show

Adeel Hashmi will perform Faiz's poetry alongside a classical pianist on Friday, aiming to recapture the essence of his hero

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Before the great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz was finally allowed to resettle in Pakistan in 1982 — two years before his death — his family could only see him for a few days a year.

With the permission of former president Gen Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s government, Faiz's brief annual homecoming from Lebanon always heralded a great cultural event, the poet’s grandson, Adeel Hashmi, says.

“We lived in the same house,” the actor tells The National ahead of a poetry night being held in Faiz's honour at the Pakistan Association Dubai on Friday. “When he came to Lahore, it became a festive place. Our house became the centre of activity. All the movie stars, singers and bureaucrats would flock to our house because our grandfather was there.”

As a child, Hashmi basked in this reflective glory, being the grandson of one of the most celebrated Urdu poets of the 20th century. Yet, he says he couldn’t quite understand at the time why his grandfather was so famous.

“I knew he was a celebrity,” he says. “But I didn’t know why. He wasn’t a film star. He wasn’t a rock star. He wasn’t a fashion model. Yet, he was a celebrity.”

The country, in those years, was in the throes of a brutal cultural repression under the rule of Zia-ul-Haq. Poetry, music and art at odds with the state were banned, and several progressive intellectuals, writers and artists were imprisoned.

Faiz lived in exile. He had fled to Beirut in 1979 after the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a barrister who served first as Pakistan’s president and then prime minister. Faiz had strong ties with Bhutto, working as an aide to the democratic socialist politician. As such, he was under constant surveillance by the military police. Once Bhutto was killed, it became clear that Faiz’s own life was at risk.

This was not the first time Faiz had to leave Pakistan. A leading member of the country’s communist party, he was arrested and imprisoned in 1951 for allegedly taking part in a conspiracy to overthrow the government of Liaquat Ali Khan. After serving four years in prison, he spent time in Russia and the UK, and was a prominent member of the pre-partition Progressive Writers' Movement.

Besides Urdu, Faiz was also fluent in Arabic, French, English and Farsi. His multilingual background helped him to establish himself in Lebanon, where he edited the Soviet-backed magazine Lotus and brushed shoulders with such prominent figures as Edward Said and Yasser Arafat.

When Faiz returned to Pakistan in 1982, his influence had already expanded to a global reach. He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962 and the Lotus Prize for Literature in 1976.

He was also nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature shortly before his death in 1984.

Faiz’s poetry ranged from ghazals to verses that aimed to empower the oppressed. His works often rung with a humanist and universal timbre, which perhaps helped his works traverse globally, being translated into several languages including Russian and English. Yet, while his political views often put him in the crosshairs of the government, they also put his family under social scrutiny.

“Pakistan had a tilt towards America and my grandfather used to visit the USSR,” Hashmi says. “In school, everybody knew I was Faiz’s grandson. Some of the teachers would point fingers, saying my family was Russian — someone from Russia would be like an Indian agent — or that we were communists. I didn’t know what a communist was, what an agent was, what Red was.”

The only thing that Hashmi knew of his grandfather was that he was a poet whose works were still glaringly absent from the school’s Urdu curriculum, which seemed strange given how many held him in high regard.

A 1955 photograph of Faiz Ahmed Faiz with his wife, Alys Faiz, and daughters, Salima and Muneeza. Photo: Adeel Hashmi

“I remember thinking if he is a great poet and everybody wanted his attention, why is he not in the syllabus? Why is his poetry not in there if it’s so good? Finally, after pressure, the government put in one of the briefest and safest of his poems in the syllabus, just to have his name in there.”

Some of the fondest memories Hashmi has of his grandfather is playing chess with him after school.

“Before he passed away, he was allowed by the government to come back and we lived in the same house,” he says. “I remember those last few months or weeks because I was in grade six or seven. We played chess every day. I would walk home from school, and he would be sitting in the garden reading a newspaper. And then we played chess. And then every evening, people would come pouring in. There were drinks, there were dinners, there were recitations and all of that.”

Yet, Hashmi did not grasp the impact his grandfather had on Pakistan’s cultural milieu until the day he died, on November 20, 1984, at the age of 73.

“Everything in the country stopped,” he says. “I remember asking my brother how so many people knew of his death. There were no cell phones, no way to communicate like we do now. Word would spread very slowly. My brother grabbed the newspaper, and there were only two newspapers at the time, both of which were heavily censored, and the headline was Faiz Ahmed Faiz had died.”

Thousands of people turned up at the family home in Lahore to pay their respects, and it was not just the country’s artists and intellectuals, but also trade unionists, labourers and farmers. It was then that Hashmi began exploring his grandfather’s writings, starting with his earlier ghazals, before delving into his deeper political and humanist works.

“I didn't have a choice of not knowing Faiz,” he says. “I was drilled with that all of my life. But then at some point, you need to open the book yourself, if you're interested. Nobody can do that for you.”

While Faiz was not the only Urdu poet of his generation to tackle universal themes, his work endured more than many of his contemporaries. This is partly due to the “saint-like” demeanour of the poet as well as the precision of his imagery.

“He was the dervish, a saint,” he says. “He would have been happy in a little cottage writing poetry of great stature. He would have been happy that way.

"His final book — the compilation of his entire poetry — was collected and printed a month before he died. He couldn’t care less about publishing. He would just write things, and give them to friends or whatever. His publisher compiled the works. He died without a penny. He died without any property. He died without a car.

"That’s not to say he didn’t like worldly things." Hashmi says his grandfather enjoyed his suit and tie, and Dunhill cologne — which he, too, now wears. "But he wasn’t a slave to those things. Faiz focused on his craft and the honesty of the craft.”

Faiz's artistic sensibilities and sense of social justice have been passed down in his family. His eldest daughter, Salima, is a painter, activist and professor, who served as dean of the National College of Arts. His younger daughter, Muneeza, Hashmi's mother, is a television producer, actress and a former general manager of the Pakistan Television Corporation.

Hashmi has enjoyed a broad artistic career himself. He is a producer, writer and filmmaker, who also supports Faiz’s poetic legacy with live performances. He is perhaps best known for his work as an actor, featured in shows such as the popular Teen Bata Teen. He is also a humanitarian and is actively involved in philanthropic work for the Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital, Namal College, Unicef and Unesco, to name a few.

Hashmi will be performing his grandfather’s poetry at the special Pakistan Association Dubai event on Friday. He will be accompanied by celebrated pianist Asad Anees, who is known for his interpretations of western composers including Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and Tchaikovsky. The proceeds from the event, hosted in collaboration with the initiative Poetic Strokes, will be donated to the Pakistan Medical Centre.

“Ten years ago, I wanted to do performance-based Faiz,” Hashmi says. “I wanted to keep it organic and pure. I got hold of Pakistan’s young pianist [Anees] and became friends with him. I pitched him the idea and we started working on a performance where Urdu poetry is recited with the piano. He knows a lot about western classical music. We married the western classical pieces by Beethoven, Chopin and Bach with Faiz’s poetry. The trick was they must feel organic and not forced. That was the challenge.”

Starting with a few performances in Lahore, the duo has refined the performance over the years. The feedback, Hashmi says, has been good, but that isn’t what concerns him — an attitude he has inherited from his grandfather.

“I think much credit goes to my family for instilling this thing in me,” he says. “As an artist, as long as you feel true to yourself, don’t worry about the feedback. If people are clapping, great. If they are swearing, fine. If they are throwing tomatoes at you, great. When people give you a standing ovation, don’t jump to cloud nine. If they walk out, don’t bury your head in the sand. As long as you are true to yourself and your craft, that’s what matters. Things will take care of themselves.”

A Tribute to Faiz Ahmed Faiz will be held at the Pakistan Association Dubai on Friday at 7pm, followed by a banquet dinner. More information and tickets are available at

Updated: February 03, 2023, 10:41 AM