Book Excerpt: Aslan’s Roar : Turkish Television and the rise of the Muslim Hero by Navid Shahzad

A glimpse into Navid Shahzad’s latest book – Aslan’s Roar, a book that argues for the symbiotic nature of TV and culture while positioning present day media narratives and TV fiction amidst powerful trends influencing modern myth making. 

As a foot soldier trudging in a small army behind unfurled unknown flags in search of the unexplored; I have spent the better part of my adult life with calloused feet, aching bones and a maddeningly untempered heart. Marching to a single celebratory tune, this has led me to an unimaginable exploration of histories, cultures and people. Along the way, my greatest sorrows have been the loss of loved ones and the witnessing of the untold misery of ordinary people, particularly women and children victimized by war and violence in a world increasingly governed by greed, selfishness and unabashed self-service. The challenge has not always been about persistence and staying the course, but that of faith. For me, life’s journey promises a seemingly endless process of enlightenment where the poet speaks to all, the musician plays for everyone around the bonfire and the actor performs for all who care to listen to the masters’ voice. Believing firmly that ‘into each life some rain must fall’ while celebrating the creative spirit; my personal challenge, limited as it may be, has been that there are far too many rivers to cross, too many books to be read, music to be listened to and far far too many ideas to be chewed upon and shared in a single lifetime. This has translated into a great many oversights – too numerous to list since regretfully: 

Footfalls echo in the memory, 

down the passage we did not take, 

towards the door we never opened, 

 into the rose garden.”

Yet, regardless of the ‘rose garden not entered’, one has trudged on. As a teacher it has not been an easy journey nor a safe one, especially when one considers that language itself is dangerous territory. Attempting to make sense of a literature that is in a language other than one’s own, is very much like mining. Descending deep into a dark pit, one must find one’s way through narrow shafts and tunnels lit only by sputtering lamps, to emerge dirtied, bloodied yet hopefully triumphant. It is the writer and the poet who plants the explosives and it is for the adroit miner to uncover and salvage what he can. My own long descent into the labyrinth trying to comprehend a literature that was not my own, and teaching it for the better part of my life, has been strengthened by the fact that I was fortunate in having an orientalist as a father who was a Punjabi speaking Exeter man, completely at home in English, Urdu, Persian and Arabic and also had a passing acquaintance with French. Unfortunately, my own Persian remained at college exam level, French at high school and Urdu at an abysmally low level until many years later, frequent appearances on Pakistan TV forced me to improve it. Much to my regret, it was years after Abba Jaan2 passed away that I ‘discovered’ Urdu poetry, or rather it discovered me. With soot covered hands scrabbling in the dark, a tiny glint caught out of the corner of the eye, revealed a whole motherload of treasure. And so, it has been: a series of small beginnings leading to greater ones, until one reached a point where I began writing in three languages while reading world literature in translation. 

My latest explorations have had me sifting through Punjabi in Shahmukhi3 and Turkish poetry in English translations. And so, it is that along with English, Urdu and Punjabi poets, Rumi and Shams have become constant companions; while the last three decades have been spent in an attempt to bridge the gap between my own inadequacies and the demands that great literature makes on those who aspire to understand the masters. It was  during one of the many repetitive phases of rediscovering Faiz4 that I stumbled upon Turkish poet, playwright, and novelist Nazim Hikmet; who is perhaps the greatest literary figure the Turkish Republic has produced. Immensely gifted and fervently patriotic, he spent much of his life in jail and died in exile in 1963, after having been stripped of his Turkish citizenship in 1959, which was sadly restored posthumously in 2009. 

Paralleling Faiz’s onetime persona non grata status and before the state ‘rehabilitated’ him; Nazim’s works were not taught in public schools though ironically every Turk knew his name. Both Pakistani and Turkish poets were contemporaries, and their lives and literary works exemplify their patriotism and love for their respective country’s beauty, frustrations and paralyzing despair. Nâzım as he is familiarly known, impacted modern Turkish poetry with a distinctly socialist approach, reducing formal structure by introducing free verse which spoke of new themes as in Hymn to Life:

I want the right of life, 

of the leopard at the spring,

 of the seed splitting open–

 I want the right of the first man

Turkish literature, as all living literature elsewhere in the world, has lived through various important phases and movements such as the Garip (Strange) movement of 1941; which freed its poetry from the constraints of rhyme and meter and attempted to move towards a new poetic expression which largely ignored the time honoured emphasis on imagery, rhyme or poeticity. Though a later development did eventually see the return of rhyme and image; it failed to influence another great Turkish poet: Orhan Veli, who died at a young age but whose work has left a lasting impression on modern Turkish poetry. 

Pakistan’s own pre and post-independence Progressive Writers Movement with its presence of towering literary figures like Faiz, Manto and Qasmi et al., lived through a similar checkered history before eventually spluttering out due to a number of internal and external tensions.  In Turkey, during the mid-50’s the İkinci Yeni (The Second New) movement, resonated with the voices of Melih Cevdet Anday, Orhan Veli and Oktay Rifat, to be later joined by Cemal Sureya and Atilla Ilhan. In exile, as in prison, these poets brought to their poetry, a uniquely polyphonic, polysemic, imagist style; even as more poets too numerous to name here, continued to experiment with syllabic and folk poetry; e.g. Attilâ İlhan6 synthesised western poetry movements with local divan and folk literature as in: 

welcome turk … cloudy a bit dreamy perhaps

 all your hopes are raised at once 

you gave your name to this land

 and pledged your existence 

while others like Ahmed Arif, remolded traditional folk narratives, epics and elegies to create a singularly personal poetic voice: 

….how many spring times, 

Have I, through my longing for you, worn out fetters?

 Let me put bloodroses in your hairs, 

Once on this side, 

Then on that side… 

The popularity of such poetry can be judged by the fact that Arif’s sole anthology ‘Hasretinden Prangalar Eskittim’ (Fetters worn out by longing), and strongly reminiscent of Faiz’s own poetry while in jail, went into its thirty seventh edition in 1996! 

A cursory study of Turkish poetry written during the 70’s reveals an even closer parallel with Faiz, since the tone becomes more strongly nostalgic even as it becomes increasingly politicized. For instance, Veli’s poem on ‘I am listening to Istanbul with my eyes closed,’ could have been a poem about Faiz’s beloved city Lahore; while Sureya’s ‘Blue is not just a colour’, paints a sky and sea not just awash with colour but with universal hope. One of the creators of modern Turkish poetry in the 40’s,Veli’s poetry is distinguished by the ordinariness of its content, as he confesses to liking ‘puffed cheese pastries’; bringing to mind the dull routine of a Prufrock’s daily life with its cigarette butts and coffee spoons in Eliot’s masterful portrait of a man who wears his ‘trouser legs rolled.’7 Tempting as it is to proceed in the same vein, drawing similarities between poetic voices from cultures located at enormous distances and time from each other; one must stop short here, since such an inquiry merits research that this introductory note does not venture to undertake. 

Excerpted with permission from Aslan’s Roar by Navid Shahzad.

About the Author

Navid Shahzad is an academic from Pakistan who has taught English Literature at the graduate level for a number of decades at Pakistan’s premier Punjab University. Paralleling her academic pursuits as Associate Professor; has been a hugely successful career as theater actor and director, TV actor, writer and poet. She pioneered the country’s first liberal arts university and worked as Dean School of Liberal Arts for a decade and set up Pakistan’s first Department of Theater, Film and TV. Presently, she works as the Academic Advisor to one of Pakistan’s largest school chains where she lectures on English Literature and Media Studies. 

She is a recipient of the President of Pakistan’s Pride of Performance Award for Literature and has been awarded Gold and Silver Medals by the Government of Pakistan for her contribution to Pakistan Television (PTV) ; in addition to which she has also been awarded the Fatima Jinnah Medal for Artistic Excellence by the Government of the Punjab.

Ms. Shahzad is Distinguished Professor of Performing Arts at the Beaconhouse National University which she helped establish in 2003 and regularly holds workshops on Aspects of Shakespearean Drama for young actors under the auspices of her company Theater Walley. Her latest venture has been a prominent role in a Pakistani film titled Punjab Nahin Jaon Gi (now available on You Tube). Along with regular columns to daily newspapers, Navid Shahzad has also had some poetry published. This is her first book.

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