When Iqbal Bano Defied Zia’s Dictatorship To Sing ‘Hum Dekheinge’ At Alhamra
Ali Madeeh writes about Iqbal Bano’s concert at Al Hamra, Lahore in 1986 where she defied dictatorial restrictions and sang Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s iconic ‘Hum Dekhein Ge’ to thunderous cheers.
“Jab arz-e-ḳhudā ke ka.abe se/sab but uThvā.e jā.eñge/ ham ahl-e-safā mardūd-e-haram/ masnad pe biThā.e jā.eñge”-Faiz Ahmed Faiz
I recently witnessed a Twitter spat about a concert by the legendary Iqbal Bano at the 1986 ‘Faiz Mela’ where she sang Faiz’s rousing ‘wa-yabqa-wajh-o-rabbik’ (a Quranic verse from Surah Rahman meaning, literally, ‘the face of your Lord’).
The poem is more popularly known by its refrain ‘Hum Dekhenge’ and is one of Faiz’s poems ‘censored’ in his life time with one verse being permanently excised, even from his complete works ‘Nuskha hai wafa’)
While there is no video of Iqbal Bano’s performance, audio recordings give some idea of the power of her rendition and the effect it had on the assembled crowd of hundreds of people at Lahore’s Alhamra Arts Council on February 13, 1986.
But first, some background.
Faiz Ahmed Faiz died on November 20, 1984. I know this first hand because on the evening of November 19, 1984, Faiz, my grandfather, was at our house to celebrate the 17th wedding anniversary of my parents. He had just returned from a tour of his native village Kala Qadir near Narowal where he had met not just his near and distant relatives but had also conducted a namaz at the insistence of the village elders. The prayer was said in the local village mosque built by Faiz’s father, an adventurer by the name of Sultan Muhammad Khan who had risen from a lowly shepherd boy to the Chief Secretary of the Emir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan (anyone interested in a more detailed account can consult my Faiz biography ‘Love and Revolution’).
Faiz arrived at our house around 7 PM, before the party guests had arrived. He was not feeling well and refused the offer of a drink by my father, Humair. He sat with us for a while, then excused himself and went back to his house which was located within the same compound.
A short while later, my grandmother, Alys, called my mother in a panic. Faiz had gone to the bathroom and passed out. My father and I ran over to his house and with my uncle Shoaib’s help, got him in the car and drove him to Lahore’s historic Mayo Hospital. My uncle was driving, Faiz was in the passenger seat and I was behind him, 15 years old and scared to death. I still remember, every so often I would reach around the seat and feel for a pulse in his neck, relieved when I could feel a thready beat. To this day I don’t know what I could possibly have done if there was no pulse. At the hospital, Faiz was immediately transferred to the Intensive Care Unit. My father and I both donated blood for him and later came home. The next day, around 1 PM, he passed away.
It so happened that I was admitted as a medical student to the medical college (King Edward Medical College) attached to same Mayo Hospital the following year. Over the next few years, I got to know through my seniors and teachers how they had fought all night to save Faiz’s life. A lifetime of smoking and hard living had irretrievably damaged his lungs and heart though, and despite their best efforts, there was nothing they could do.
After he died, my grandmother Alys, my mother Moneeza and my ‘khala’ Salima, with the help of my uncle and father formed the Faiz Foundation, meant to keep his work and his ideals alive. Without any financial or material help from any source and against huge odds (it was still the time of the Zia military dictatorship), they organised annual ‘Faiz Melas’ on Faiz’s birthday in February to commemorate his life and his work. It would be hard for the apolitical youth of today to understand what charged affairs these were.
They were usually held in public spaces, usually the Open-Air Theatre in Lahore’s ‘Bagh-e Jinnah’ and once, memorably, at Railway Stadium Lahore. They were open to the public and were attended by workers, peasants, trades union activists, students, teachers, men, women, children and everyone in between. There would be poetry, singing, fiery speeches followed by more poetry and more singing and dancing. Some of the illustrious names who sang and performed at these awami melas included Abida Parveen (in Railway stadium), Allan Faqeer, Khamiso Khan, Faiz Baloch, Arif Lohar, the Niazi brothers, Uncle Sargam, Surraiya Khanum, Tarannum Naz, Pathanay Khan, the Mastana brothers from Multan and many others.
None of these performers ever charged a penny for performing. All of them came for their love of Faiz. For people crushed under the boot of a savage military dictatorship and deprived of any and all avenues of protest and celebration, the Faiz Mela felt like a breath of fresh air. The open air mela would usually be held in daylight hours and there would be a concert in the evening at Alhamra Arts Council.
In 1986, the concert was given by Iqbal Bano. I was there, along with all of my family. The date was February 13. The hall where she was to perform was already filled to the brim before she came on stage (there is some dispute about whether the concert was held in Alhamra’s larger Hall I with a seating capacity of 600 or the slightly smaller Hall II which held 400 people. My mother and khala disagree). What I do remember is that before the concert started, there was a commotion outside the closed doors. My mother came on stage to announce that a large number of political activists and workers had assembled outside the hall. They were demanding to be let in so they could hear Iqbal Bano. There were no more seats left in the hall but my mother told the assembled audience that she was going to open the doors and people could sit wherever they could find a seat.
Once the doors were opened, people streamed in and soon there was not an inch of space left in the hall. People were sitting on the stairs, the floors, wherever they could find some space. Iqbal Bano appeared and started singing to loud cheers. She sang many Faiz poems but the loudest cheers were reserved for ‘Hum Dekhenge’. She finished the concert but the audience refused to let her leave and begged for an encore of ‘Hum Dekhenge’. A technician in Alhamra surreptitiously recorded the encore and this is the recording that survives today. For those of us sitting in the hall, it was quite surreal. The clapping and cheers were so thunderous that it felt at times that the roof of Alhamra hall would blow off.
Iqbal Bano had to stop repeatedly to allow the cheers and loud slogans of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ to subside before she could carry on singing. And the loudest cheers were reserved for the verse ‘Sab taj uchalay jaaengay/sab takht giraaey jaayen gaye’ (if you are skeptical, listen for yourself
But the story does not end there. It goes without saying that such gatherings (and such ‘subversive’ music) was strictly proscribed during the Zia military dictatorship. The same night, authorities raided the homes of the organisers and many of the participants looking for any audio copies of the concert, especially ‘Hum Dekhenge’. Many copies were confiscated and destroyed but my uncle Shoaib Hashmi had managed to get a hold of one copy and anticipating the crackdown handed it over to some friends who promptly smuggled it out to Dubai where it was copied and widely distributed.
It still stands as a testament to the ordinary people of Lahore and Pakistan who, despite the most brutal military dictatorship Pakistan had ever known, retained their revolutionary fervor and their love of Faiz and all that he had stood for while he was alive.
The rest, as they say, is history. A couple of months later Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan triumphant. I was among the tens of thousands who welcomed her on the streets when she came to Lahore. General Zia hung on desperately for two more years but the writing was on the wall and in 1988, he died in ‘mysterious’ circumstances and that was that.
Today, more than 30 years later, no one remembers or mourns Zia ul Haq but just a few days ago, an ethnic Kashmiri asked me while I was visiting the United States why, in every protest in Kashmir, the protesters sing the poems of Faiz and chant his verses.
I told him the story I have narrated above as a reminder of the power of poetry and of the ideals of justice, brotherhood and equality. Faiz died in 1984 but, like his ideal, Ghalib, he lives on in the hearts of his admirers and so does his poetry, in the struggles of ordinary people all over the world.
The writer is the grandson of Faiz, a Trustee of Faiz Foundation Pakistan and author of “Love and Revolution: Faiz Ahmed Faiz: The Authorized Biography”. He tweets @Ali_Madeeh