Sometimes I wonder why I speak.
But then I think, why should I not speak, or act, why should I not be free?
– Hasina Gul
I first saw Hasina Gul in the summer of 2011 at the launch for the book, Modern Poetry of Pakistan (Dalkey Press, 2011), at Kuch Khaas, a center for Arts, Culture and Dialogue in Islamabad. As the author of eight books in Pashto and a well-recognized literary figure in her province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (also known as the “Frontier”) as well as neighboring Afghanistan, Hasina has had a long career as a radio broadcaster and scriptwriter.
At the book launch, I listened to her read from her work, which is featured in the anthology, but was not formally introduced to her. I remember she seemed tall, reticent, and serious to the point of sadness; it was only later that I learned she had just lost the baby she had carried until almost full term.
Our next meeting was at the Islamabad Literary Festival (ILF) in April 2014. Standing in the courtyard at Margalla Hotel, she seemed to be enjoying the spring air and buzz among the book stalls around her. The following day, we talked informally between literary panels, and she told me something about her life. While she spoke, Hasina’s eyes often appeared far away, until she suddenly broke into a wide smile. She was alternately thoughtful, and serious, but sudden flashes revealed a lightness of spirit.
The interview that follows is based on a series of lengthy telephone conversations, in Urdu, with Hasina about her life and work. During her early years, Hasina received immense support as a young woman and budding writer in a conservative society. But events later in her life, triggered by the rise of terrorism, and personal tragedy, indelibly marked her. ‘In the past,’ she reflects, ‘there was conservatism but there was also cultural debate. Now there is terrorism. There are abductions and killings. I have challenged life many times…”
Despite these trials, Hasina is insistent that she loves her home and has no wish to ever leave the place where she grew up. Although she now lives in Mardan in the Swat Valley, she was born and brought up in a suburb of Nowshera, near the province’s capital of Peshawar, and still frequently visits her family there.
Let’s talk a little about your family. You mentioned in an earlier conversation that your father was a scriptwriter for Radio Pakistan. Did he encourage you to write?
Hasina Gul (HG): My father was a scriptwriter for Radio Pakistan from 1954 onwards. I learned much about scriptwriting by reading his work, as well as through active guidance from him later.
What about your mother? Did she also encourage you?
HG: My mother was uneducated in the formal sense of the word. She had read the Quran in Arabic, not even in translation. But in her approach to life, I think she was more intelligent than many educated women. She never gave our brothers more importance over us girls. Not even at mealtimes. Other mothers would give the best, or most, of the food, to their boys, but not our mother. Her sister and mother were very worried at the importance she gave us girls, and would tell her she was doing wrong. But when they’d leave the house, my parents would smile and laugh at their complaints.
When did you begin to write poetry?
HG: When I was in the eighth grade, at a farewell party I spoke some lines, inspired by the nostalgia I felt. I hadn’t written them beforehand, so they came out impromptu. My teacher spoke to me later and asked me if I knew this was poetry. I didn’t know; I hadn’t thought about it that way. When she told me that I should write down my thoughts, my response was that it was too difficult, how could I? But then I thought it over and felt that perhaps there was something there – so I began to write. But it was unformed – I didn’t know anything about poetic form then. All I understood was that I felt a sense of release when I wrote.
At some point during that period, my father found my diary. I’d written verses in it but I was too shy to use my own name. I was afraid that they were no good, so I used a qalami naam (pen name). He asked me if I’d written the poems. At first I was afraid, but because my father and I had a great friendship, I admitted they were mine. He praised me and told me to continue. He also said I should be published and would occasionally send my poems to magazines and papers, and my name began to appear in these publications.
My mother was initially very offended by all this. For a long time, she didn’t speak to me, or to my father. Her reasoning was, ‘don’t give your daughter so much freedom that there are problems for her in the future.’ Eventually, he explained to her that there was nothing wrong with being published, and that I had talent. After this, she understood and became very supportive.
Pashto is difficult to read and write, so I read more and more to make myself more fluent; I was also published more often. Along with other Pashto poets, I read the Dewan of Rehman Baba, which is very simple and beautiful; and the work of Hamza Shinwari. (Rehman Baba was a seventeenth century Pakhtun mystic poet. Hamza Shinwari was a twentieth century playwright, poet and critic.)
Hasina explained to me that her family comes from Ziarat Kaka Sahib, a shrine originally near the city of Nowshera but now absorbed into it. Descendants of the Islamic Sufi, Syed Kastir Gul, her family is Syed (related to the Prophet Muhammad); as such, women are traditionally forbidden from working or having their name made public. Her chosen path was a major shift in the accepted traditions of the Frontier, in general, and within her own social milieu, in particular.
What form did you choose to write in?
HG: I did not experiment much with radeef and qaafia (traditional poetic forms which incorporate the use of a rhyming word, or two or three words, at the end of each couplet or stanza), and chose to write azaad nazm (free verse), although my first publication, Shpin, Shpol, Shpelai (Shepherd, Sheep Pen and Flute) is a collection of ghazals. This is still one of my most popular books.
Tell me about your long broadcasting career. When and why did you begin to work for Radio Pakistan?
HG: When I told my father I wanted to join Radio Pakistan, he was very surprised at my request, but also very happy. Since we have always lived in Nowshera, I had to go to Peshawar to record programs. I joined Radio Pakistan in 1987, and did a two to three minute segment on a live children’s program, telling stories I often wrote myself. Soon I was asked to write and produce a women’s program. I began to write scripts for radio plays, which brought me a little more money. From 1987 – 1990, the pay for hosting a program was very poor – only a hundred and forty rupees! I was paid much more for scripts, and wrote one each month.
I was – and still am – always present at the recordings of my radio plays; in a performance, the way you speak, the emphasis you lay on a particular word in a sentence, can change its entire meaning. My themes centered and continue to focus on the problems, marital and otherwise, faced by the women among whom I lived.
I also began to host and write the introductory note for the Pashto Adabi Karwaan Program. This was a round up of literary activity that had taken place during the week, and included interviews of Pashto poets and writers.
I worked for seventeen years at Radio Pakistan until 2009, when I got married. After my miscarriage in 2011, I went back to work.
When we met at ILF, you sketched for me the details of your life. One of your brothers, who was your chaperone, was killed by a member of the Taliban. You chose to pursue the case against his murderer yourself. What gave you this courage?
HG: My youngest brother always accompanied me to the radio station, and to literary meetings and programs. You understand that this was necessary – my father was often threatened, by conservatives around us and by the Taliban. But I needed to attend literary functions, I couldn’t say, ‘I can’t go, I can’t manage to get there.’ I also needed to earn money. My other brother, Waqar Ali Shah, never openly disapproved of my career, but I could sense it. But my other brother, Aijaz Ali Shah, supported me, although doing so sometimes interfered with his education. He never complained about having to accompany me, even though he was repeatedly threatened. Eventually he finished his Master’s degree and opened a medical store. He was a very polite, humble man; people loved him because he went out of his way to help them.
On August 16, 2003, a man came to the store demanding a sedative. My brother refused to give him the medicine, as he didn’t have a prescription. The man went away, but soon returned. When my brother refused again, he shot him with a Kalashnikov.
The market was immediately shut down. The ambulance arrived after a long time, and my brother died on the way to hospital. But he identified his killer to my cousin, who was in the ambulance with him.
The police refused to register a FIR (First Information Report, a written document registered with the police immediately after a crime), and it was only after I contacted the Union Council Naazim (roughly equivalent to a mayor), and threatened to call a press conference, that they consented to do so. I felt responsible for pursuing the case, I didn’t want to involve my other brother or anyone else. I wanted to do things wisely.
Hasina tells me the details of the case, which the police tried to delay over and over again. She believes they were under pressure from the local Taliban. A while after the incident, a relative of the murderer arrived at the door to tell the family he had been caught in Khyber Agency, one of the autonomous tribal areas of Pakistan.
Her elder brother, Waqar Ali Shah, insisted on identifying him; he had known the culprit in school. The murderer had false papers and a new name, and his friends tried to bribe the authorities into releasing him. Even the police tried to extort money from the family, in return for handing him over from the Khassadars in Khyber Agency to the police in Peshawar, which Hasina Gul rejected. Eventually, the murderer was handed over, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
From Hasina’s account, it becomes clear how extremism has infiltrated society: the Taliban controls people’s activities through threats and extortion, and reprisals are harsh. One might know a person without being consciously aware of his affiliations or motives until something happens to show or prove them.
During these years her brother Waqar Ali Shah got married; her mother, who never recovered from the loss of her son, was paralyzed by a stroke. Hasina herself married after the arrest and just before the sentence. ‘My mother was terribly upset that I was leaving. But I was also exhausted from all that we had gone through…,’ she told me
Since your marriage in 2009, you have lived in Mardan. When you describe life in the Frontier, it appears dark and grim. When you describe your home, it is like an oasis in the middle of a desert.
HG: Because of security problems, threats, and abductions, life has become very hard in the Frontier. It is difficult to organize cultural activities. Because of these circumstances, like many others, I go out less than before. But my husband and I have everything at home: a room full of books, a computer, the Internet. My husband, who loves to read and also writes poetry, brings home new books all the time, particularly when he finds something he thinks I will find interesting.
Here, Hasina tells me that in 2011, she conceived a child. At the end of the ninth month, a sudden attack of very high blood pressure killed the baby, who was delivered during an operation that was life-threatening for Hasina. ‘After that there was more grief. My husband’s arm became numb, and was operated on. Then, the same happened to his leg… Finally I brought him to Rawalpindi, where he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and operated on immediately. But fortunately, the tumor was benign and he is healthy again. When I tell him we could try to have another baby, he says, ‘Your books are your children. Concentrate on them.’’
What genre of writing comes most naturally to you? Do you write entirely from inspiration?
HE: Poetry is my foundation. It comes from my heart. But in the Pashto literary tradition there is very little prose, and I wanted to contribute to this genre. Although I find prose difficult to write, I have tried to focus on this also, particularly after reading my father’s essays and short stories.
But even poetry is difficult. Inspiration may come in the form of a few lines. But after that you must think, compose, edit…
The figure of a woman is always before my eyes. Especially the helpless woman, who has no standing in society, who has no rights – who doesn’t even know that she has rights…
Sometimes I wonder why I speak. But then I think, why should I not speak, or act, why should I not be free?
Who is your audience? Are your readers and listeners mostly women, or do men also read and listen to your work?
HG: Both men and women read my work – young people particularly.
In the early 2000s you were part of the local bodies’ government that provided for the devolution of power at the district level during General Pervez Musharraf’s presidency. Do you consider yourself political by nature?
I am not actively affiliated with any political party, nor do I want to be. But I think as a writer who belongs to this society, one cannot escape politics. It is part of the hem of one’s shirt. It comes out in one’s writing. If one tries to separate oneself from politics entirely, what is the relevance of one’s writing?
Many of my relatives were members of Bachha Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgar Tehreek (originally a non-violent, liberal movement against the British Raj that later became the Awami National Party or ANP); I, too, believe in Bachha Khan’s work and in his son Khan Abdul Wali Khan. I believe in non- violence and education.
A cousin of mine persuaded me to apply for a counselor’s post under the Local Bodies Government Ordinance. He felt that as a woman, I could make a difference since I understood women’s social issues and stresses. He filed my nomination papers and managed my campaign with the help of young volunteers. Without much effort on my part, I was elected. I was sent to Kerala for training in 2003 -2004, which was a great learning experience.
You mentioned that much of your work has been published in Afghanistan, and you are much read and appreciated there. How did this come about?
HG: In 1990, I mentioned to my colleague at Radio Pakistan, Mohammad Hanif Khalil, that I was eager to have my work published (this volume, Shpin Shpole Shpelai, was her first, and still one of the most popular, of her works). He told me about Asad Danish, an Afghan publisher who owned Danish Qutabkhana and had an office in Peshawar. By good fortune, I discovered that I had already met him, as we both attended mushairas (poetic symposiums) and other programs. When I talked to him, he told me to submit my manuscript immediately. I was flustered; it hadn’t been read or reviewed (for publishing), and I had to submit it. I gave it to Khalil to read before I sent it in.
Before I knew it, a stack of my published books appeared at Radio Pakistan. I was so excited I gave most of them away to whoever asked, until the head of the station scolded me and told me to give some copies to libraries. Of course, Danish hadn’t given me all the books, the majority were distributed in Afghanistan. Published in 1990, the collection was called ‘Bas Tum Boltay Raho’ (literally, ‘Just Go On Speaking)’. Because I had given away whatever I had, and the rest of the books sold, I didn’t own a copy until recently, when somebody in Afghanistan gave me one as a gift.
I am indebted to Asad Danish. His publishing house now has chapters in Peshawar, Jalalabad, Kabul and Laghman, and his company published my first novel, ‘Malika’, in 2011.
Many Afghans speak Pashto, so they can read and appreciate my work; they are also familiar with my radio broadcasts. I have often been invited to cultural festivals in Afghanistan, and my work is well known there.
Cultural programs in Afghanistan also receive funding to publish writing. So in 2009 my collection of poems, ‘Mujh Say Na Judaa Hona’; and in 2010 ‘Adhoori Kitab’, a collection of short stories, were published.
In 2013, on the anniversary of (former Afghan President) Dr. Najeebullah’s death, a function was arranged in Kabul, to which I was invited. When my husband and I reached Torkhum, we went to separate booths to be searched. The female security guards wore huge shuttlecock burkhas, for their security, underneath which they carried their weapons. I reached the booth, and the guard asked me where I was going. After she asked my name, and I said, ‘My name is Hasina Gul,’ I suddenly found myself engulfed in her embrace. I was terrified because I thought her gun might go off and kill me by accident! But she was so affectionate, saying ‘I thought I would meet you in the heavens, but here you are, in front of me, on earth’. She even quoted lines from my poems.
Are there other female Pashto poets? Are there are any who are well known like you?
HG: There are many people writing, but not many of them are well known. I think one of the reasons I am known is that throughout my life I have made a point of attending literary programs. I have also tried to be as self-reliant as possible, getting to places even if I didn’t have transport. But it isn’t always easy for women to do so.
One of the most famous Pashto women poets is Syeda Bushra Begum, known as Seen Be Be. Her Dewan was published in Afghanistan in 1954; Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, (a Pashtun activist and founder of the Khudai Khidmatgar movement) admired her work. My father, who knew her, had some of her verses, which I read as a young woman. I was so impressed by these that I wrote an article about her, which was published in the magazine Abaseen, in 1990. Seen Be Be lived in Peshawar with her brother’s family, but she visited Nowshera off and on, as she comes from the city, in fact she comes from the same area, Ziarat Kaka Sahib. One day, a visitor came to our home, a very old, bent lady in a big shuttlecock burkha. I didn’t know, when I opened the door, that this was Seen Be Be. When we sat down she congratulated me on the article; she was amazed that I knew of her work. After this, we corresponded regularly.
When we met at ILF, you told me you have written a travelogue of your experiences in America in 2011.
HG: When I went to America in 2011 for the launch of Modern Poetry of Pakistan, I was expecting. When I returned, and lost the baby, I began to write an account of all the places I visited. But it’s written in the form of conversations with my child. Throughout the trip, I felt as if he was travelling with me, hand in hand, without any burdens, with freedom.
After his death, it was as if he said to me, ‘I loved this journey with you. But it’s over now. I’ve begun a new journey, and on this journey I must be alone.’
Were you satisfied with the translations of your poems that appeared in Modern Poetry of Pakistan? I enjoyed reading them, but would like your own opinion.
HG: I was very happy with the English translations; I consider myself lucky to have my poems in the anthology. My translator was Sher Zaman Taizi, who unfortunately passed away suddenly before the book was published. He was a remarkable, dedicated man; I consider myself his apprentice. He had a long career as a journalist, but he was also a novelist and a poet.
When I go to places outside the Frontier, to Lahore or Islamabad, I want my voice to be able to reach people. That’s why translation is so important: without it, how can we know what people are thinking and writing in languages other than their own? In our country, there are several languages, and we cannot understand one another without translation. It’s through translation that cultures can overlap and understand one another. It’s also necessary for writers like me to know what and how writers in other places are writing. Even if it’s not possible to reproduce the music of the original, good translations give the reader an approximation of the original.
Three Poems from Hasina Gul
(reproduced here from Modern Poetry of Pakistan)
Life and Time
We grow up
but do not comprehend life.
We think life is just the passing of time.
The fact is,
life is one thing,
and time something else.
(translated from Pashto by Sher Zaman Taizi)
Distance, too, is good.
Because you are far away,
I feel you are very close to me.
but what of proximity, of union?
When you come near, my love, you are far away.
(translated from Pashto by Sher Zaman Taizi)
How many questions did I have to ask
to discover the secret of your heart?
Who else is in your life?
There’s only this one book.
Your relations, at home, I mean?
You said again,
Just this book.
Right! But what’s in your heart?
You were confused by that, somewhat –
God knows why.
Then, with great tenderness,
you took my face in your hands
and in a gentle, though slightly gruff, voice said,
This beautiful book!
(Translated from Pashto by Sher Zaman Taizi)