A humanist for all seasons

by Lamia Karim | Published: 00:05, Jul 28,2017


Poet Ahmed Sofa, 1943-2001

IHAD the good fortune to meet poet Ahmed Sofa in 1998 in Dhaka. My friendship began with a comment he made when he first met me. In order to write about Bangali Muslims, he said, I should read the punthis read by ordinary Muslims. The following day, I went to his office in Aziz Market. It was housed in a small room. Next door, he ran a school for slum children named Shilpi Sultan Pathshala. Thus began a friendship that changed how I saw the world. Most importantly, Sofa Bhai (as I called him) taught me to see beauty and human potential in unanticipated places. This short piece is a personal tribute to a great poet and humanist and is not meant to be read as a commentary on the enormous significance of Ahmed Sofa’s literary works and his role as a public intellectual.
Poet Ahmed Sofa was born in Gachbaria in Chittagong district on June 30, 1943. He began to write in the 1960s but the majority of his works were written in the 1980s to 1990s. He is known for his collection of poetry, novels, and essays. He also translated Goethe’s Faust. He established Bangladesh Lekhak Shibir (Bangladesh Writers Camp) in 1970 right before the war of independence in 1971. Some of his most famous works include Surjo Tumi Sathi (1967), Onkar (1988), Moron Bilash (1989), Gabhi Bittanto (1988), Ali Kenan (1989), Bangali Musulmaner Mon, Buddhibrittir Notun Binyas (essays), and Pushpo Brikkho O Bihango Puran (1996). All through his life, he remained an outspoken and fearless intellectual. He never compromised his principles for fame or money.
A fierce critic of pseudo-intellectualism, he was always forthright about his opinions in public gatherings. When Professor Ahmed Sharif died in 1999, I went to his memorial services at the Mukti Juddha Jadughar. One of the speakers went on speaking for a very long time, one platitude followed by another. This man’s speech was not about Ahmed Sharif; it was about his opportunity to talk to a captive audience. Sofa Bhai who was sitting in the audience was getting visibly annoyed. When it came his time to speak, he said, ‘No man is full of virtues. The good comes with a mixture of the not so good. When someone goes on and on endlessly about how virtuous somebody was, it becomes a kind of jantrana for the audience.’ Such was Sofa Bhai – –a much-needed slap in the face in a dala-dali culture. Sofa Bhai himself had met much resistance in his pursuit for higher education. He told me that he was prevented from enrolling for a PhD in the Bangla literature at Dhaka University. Not a surprise then that he used his Swiftian wit to write a caricature of university professors in Gabhi Bittanto (The tale of a cow) that is also a broader critique of society. Sofa opined that among those who are considered intellectual predecessors in our society, there are few who are world class in their knowledge, virtue, poetry, literature, science, and imagination. To follow such people will not take us very far. Instead, he said, it is far better to accept this fact than to live in a state of foggy thinking. Otherwise, we are forever trapped.
Ahmed Sofa was a secular thinker but he was not anti-religion. In fact, he would often defend the clergy against those he considered to be secularists and anti-Islamic, and, therefore, against the majority of the poor people in the country. His conviction came from his realisation that the Bangali Musulman found meaning in Islam, and to be anti-Islam is to be anti-poor people. Ahmed Sofa felt that the clergy were often made into scapegoats by secularists. To him, this form of westernised secularism showed both a lack of understanding of local culture and a worldview that could not incorporate the feelings of the poor Bangalis — the tenant farmers, share-croppers, migrant workers, and orphaned madrassah students — whose worldview was constructed through a folkloric lens of Islam that was embedded in routinized oppression and poverty. He sought to reveal the world of the Bangali Musulman through the punthi narratives.
In Ahmed Ibrahim’s brilliant analysis of Sofa’s seminal essay Bangali Musulmaner Mon (The Bangali Muslim psyche), Ibrahim writes, ‘Sofa identified correctly, as did Bhashani before him, that complex and multifaceted expressions of Islam were intrinsically linked to the historical identity of the millions of deprived and oppressed people of this part of Bengal. While there is much debate about Islam’s role in the subcontinent, be it as a religion of salvation from caste-based violence, or a tool for Mughal political expansion, there is little doubt that Islamic punthi from that time painted itself very much to be the former. From Hazrat Ali to Muhammad Hanifa to Amir Hamza, all these characters performed heroic and miraculous deeds which invariably ended with the conversion of Brahmin characters to Islam.
In relating the Salman Rushdie incident for example, he said that when he heard about the book burning, he was initially angry. Later, he met a group of young men in Old Dhaka and asked them if they had read the book or knew who was Salman Rushdie. They said they did not need to read the book to burn it, and that Salman Rushdie was a Bangali hiding in Old Dhaka. His initial reaction was ‘shame on such ignorant people.’ But then he saw how Rushdie had played into anti-Islamic elements, and the incident was being used against a vulnerable Muslim community in Europe and India to paint them as ‘backward’ without paying any attention to their historical and material deprivation. More than Rushdie, he argued, people were protesting their pent-up anger over marginalization and insubordination as second-class citizens in Europe/India.
In another instance, he told me that he had gone to a congregation where Delwar Hossain Saidi (now under life imprisonment) was speaking to an assembled crowd. In his sermon, Saidi said that when a Muslim died in the Afghan-Soviet war, the smell was like a rose in paradise and wafted for days through the valley, but when a kafir (non-believer) died, the smell was so odorous, one could not stay in the valley. Sofa said that when he heard that he jumped up and said, ‘Arrest this man (Saidi). He is not a Muslim. According to Islamic law, a Muslim must be buried immediately. The smell of his putrefying body cannot waft for days in the sun-soaked valleys of Afghanistan.’ This is typical Sofa-unexpected and brilliant. Following this outburst, a majority in the congregation wanted to hear him speak and the clergy, including Saidi, agreed. Then he added that he told the clergy that they say how the west is in a state of moral decay, whereas the west has science and technology, and the clergy do not even have the technology to make a tee shirt. In other words, these Islamic thinkers have abandoned the pursuit of knowledge, and without knowledge there is no progress.
When I recall the humanism of Sofa Bhai, I remember his school for small children in Dhaka. The children at Shilpi Sultan Pathshala were some of the happiest children I have met. Housed in a small room on the second floor of Aziz Market, the children sat in rows on mats with little tables in front of them. I would often sit and watch their studies. Sofa Bhai loved these children. His little pathshala could not handle too many kids, and yet everyday a new child would come to his office asking to join his school. Sofa Bhai loved the children but he did not romanticise them as innocent. In fact, he knew that they were the products of an environment that was very cruel, but in that school for a few hours, their spirits could soar. Sofa Bhai wanted to focus on the human capacity for change. This was unconventional pedagogy. It was not learning through memorisation. He wanted to liberate their creativity. The children would learn to think through painting and poetry, through music and dance. It was this holistic approach to their development that made these children so happy to come to school.
In April 1999, Sofa Bhai said that he was going to have the children from his school and another school for orphans take over Suhrawardy Udyan on Pahela Baishakh. The rich Bengalis who ate panta-bhat fashionably for one day and listened to Rabindra Sangeet under the trees, would be forced to listen to the demands of these children. He said, ‘We would let the children proclaim this loudly over the microphone.’ This was a very exciting moment. We were no longer sitting in a café and arguing, we were moving into action. Calls were made every day to round up institutional support. At least 500 children were expected to show up. We needed donations. We needed mikes, tablas, and a harmonium. We needed volunteers and lunch packets. We needed so many things. Finally Pahela Baishakh came. It was a glorious sun-filled day with not a single cloud in the sky. When I arrived at Aziz Market, the children were already there. Trying to get so many children to the park was no small feat. Finally we made several human chains and brought everyone to Suhrawardy Udyan. We occupied a small space in a corner, not anywhere close to the banyan tree where the main function was. The children had practiced for long hours. They sang, recited poems, and performed skits. One of them recited on being a tokai (a rag-picker) and said, ‘I maybe a tokai but I too am human. Why do you not look me in the eye?’ Many people came over to listen to them. Their comment was, ‘This is an unusual event. Whose idea is this?’
Following the success of this event, Sofa Bhai suggested that we think of having a conference for children where children would deliver their statements, and policy-makers and donors would listen. I was very excited by this prospect but my question was, where could we hold such an event? Cocking his head, he remarked, ‘In the slum. Let UNICEF and other big people come to where the children live and hear their demands. Why should the children go to a fancy conference room that has no relation to their reality?’ Unfortunately, before this idea could materialize, Sofa Bhai fell ill and I too had to return to the United States. In my last conversation with him, I had asked what would happen to his school in his absence. As always he said, no one can dictate to another these terms. A new generation will rise, they will look at the questions facing society, and come up with their own answers.
In my last visit to Bangladesh, Professor Ahmed Kamal, a close associate of Sofa on his good works and who is continuing the work of Sofa’s legacy, took me to a school for slum children in Mirpur. It was run by one of Sofa’s Bhai’s disciples. The principal who ran the school had left a promising career to start a school for slum children. After sixteen years, I was back at a Pahela Baishakh celebration by children in Dhaka. Pahela Baishakh is a day full of vivid colors, of women and men in red and white clothes wearing masks and carrying banners. At the school, the children sang, danced, and performed with great enthusiasm. In my mind, the years 1999 and 2017 blended as I saw the children of Shilpi Sultan Pathshala in the faces of these young children. Later I spoke with the principal. We talked about Sofa Bhai, but also about the school. A group of former graduates had performed a brilliant collage of songs and poems from Nazrul to Neruda and from Tagore to Beatles. He mentioned the story of one young man from that group who was now around 18 years of age, and worked as teacher’s assistant at the school. When this young man first came to the school, he was 8 years of old and had previously attended a madrassah. His parents had heard that at this school he would get a free and good education, and they wanted to enroll their son. However, after the first day, he came to the principal’s office and said that a female teacher who wore a teep could not teach him. When asked why that was a problem, he replied that it was a Hindu custom. He was told to go home and think about what he had said. In this school, the principal reminded him, no one forces anyone to dress in a particular way. The principal said that I told him that you wear European attire (a shirt and pants). Is anyone preventing you from wearing that? A few days later, the young boy came and said he wanted to study there. Today this young man reads Marx, Che Guevera, and Fanon. Almost 16 years after Poet Ahmed Sofa’s death, a generation has come forth with new questions for our times.
In thinking about recent events that have rocked Bangladeshi society, I often think what Sofa Bhai would say to our current predicament. The answer, I think, lies in his finest and most remarkable work Pushpo, Brikkho O Brihango Puran where he describes humanism in its most intimate form, an existential reality where we are inextricably connected with the environment that sustains us through our bonds with animals and plants. In the closing passage, he writes, ‘When I saw the intolerance and the killing of humans, I sought refuge in the sky with the birds. Even there I saw how intolerance and killing of species existed. Therefore, I have no option but to return to the world of humans. I am not a tree, I am not a bird, I am human. Whether it is good or bad, whether it is happiness or sadness, I have to be part of humanity…but I do not think that my life is meaningless… This flower, this tree, this flock of birds have filled my life to such an extent that there is no room for any loneliness, I am not separate from existence. Everything resides in me, I reside in everything… My bird taught me what no great book or guru could teach. It is only by giving another freedom, can one achieve one’s freedom. My bird-child is free, I am free, and from us originates the immortality of life. This life that I have woven with the universe, is that not part of the sea of immortality?’ (my translation).
Sofa Bhai passed away on July 28, 2001. Bangladesh has not remembered him with the love and recognition that was due to this great humanist and poet. But this is the tragic history of greats. Mozart was not known in his days, Salieri was. A day will come when a global audience will read Ahmed Sofa’s works. Poet Ahmed Sofa lives on through his inspirational work. After all, poets do not die. I see Sofa Bhai in the trees. I see him in the crushed and parched plants, in the full bloom of flowers, in the ugly crow, in the songs of the children, in the birds that soar high in the sky. I see him in the brightest star of the night.

Lamia Karim is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon.

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