By SJ Ahmed
September 30, 2011
Before I commence, I have a confession to make. When I was asked to review this poetry collection I had never heard of Akbar Ahmed. This is in spite of: the coincidence of our common surname; his many award-wining non-fiction books investigating the varied nature of Islamic faith, one of my long-standing areas of interest; and the fact that for many years he served as Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK, both countries I have called home at some point in my life.
This information should also provide the reader with some context to Akbar Ahmed’s collection of poems Suspended Somewhere Between.
This wide ranging collection charts his extraordinary life across
decades and continents in verse form but, in doing so, also manages to
provide the poet’s personal understanding of the history of Pakistan.
The collection’s strength lies in the poems in the section simply named “Pakistan”, which contains some of the most unexpectedly vivid poetry I have read in a long time. The book opens with the dramatic Train to Pakistan, chronicling a child’s first memory, a trip in a crowded train with his parents. And yet, this is no ordinary train ride. Because the journey recalled is on a train from India to Pakistan at the time of the furious bloodbath that was the two countries’ birth and when train travel became synonymous with mass murder of the passengers from both sides, forced to flee their homelands for a new life. The poem masterfully mixes the child’s innate need to trust in love with the young adult’s knowledge that all, bar the train driver, on the previous train had been slaughtered.
There are so many other noteworthy poems in this collection that it is hard to do them all justice in the limited space available in this review. walking the streets with the Dahta is a tour de force of a poem that takes the reader on a stroll through the living, breathing, and at times, downright scandalous heart of the city of Lahore on its way to the shrine of the Sufi saint Dahta Ganj Baksh. Whilst, Pakhtun landscape: a mood paints a different part of Pakistan, this time its North-Western province that borders Afghanistan, a land that may appear to the reader of the poem to be further away from the cultural Lahore than it is in actual map miles. Although there is no indication of when it was written, the lawlessness and blood feuds described in this poem could be contemporary.
The poem they are taking them away records yet another horror that precede the fall of East Pakistan and which was kept entirely hidden from those in West Pakistan (the present day Pakistan) by the rulers of the country. Verses like “incest in the air/ foul vapours in every mouth/ will nobody care/ to break this awful spell” should leave no one in present day Pakistan able to deny the true extent of the terrible events during the civil war in 1971.
There are many other striking poems that I found myself returning to again and again. The Path deals with the compassion for all “tribes and nations” which is required of every Muslim by the Quran. The Passing of an Empire draws parallels between the two Empires witnessed by Ahmed, the dying British Empire he experienced as a child and the American Empire he observes as an old man, and is brutal in its honesty towards both. you my father acts as an ode to the poet’s father and touchingly conveys a son’s attempts at measuring himself against his father’s accomplishments and coming up short. nauroz, meaning new year in Persian, has a surprising twist at the end which will make the reader want to read it again. What is it that I seek? is the last poem in the collection and a fitting epitaph to a remarkable and at times surprising collection of poems.