Elegiac Moods—Letters to Agha Shahid Ali

Essays on translation
By Rahat Kurd
River in an Ocean
River in an Ocean
essays on translation
Edited by Nuzhat Abbas
trace press, 2023

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"What, and where, is the time and place of translation, and of literary translation, in particular? Of the translator as writer, as attentive listener, as co-creator, responsible to what Spivak calls "the trace of the other within the self?” Or of the editor-publisher as convenor and gatherer in the project? This anthology emerges from such a questioning, and from curious and communal conversation, to offer a space for the soundings of different trajectories—connecting spaces, times, languages and bodies with origins in East Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia." / Nuzhat Abbas, Introduction to river in an ocean –– essays on translation

Dear Shahid,

The news reached me on the evening of August 5th, 2019 as I stood among redwood cedars in Sonoma County, my phone flickering in and out of signal range: Article 370 had been struck from the Indian constitution — what the auto rickshaw drivers and shikara wallahs of Srinagar had gone on strike to defend, exactly one year earlier — and Kashmir was under a communication blockade. "No one can call Kashmir," Najeeba announced as she sat down to dinner with us that night, "No calls or messages from my mother in Srinagar are coming through ... "

The syntax of your prophecy unspooled right away in my mind.

"Not like this," I murmured, in the astonishing days and weeks that followed, as I watched the name of Kashmir fill every screen, from every news platform, as never before in thirty years, only visible to those of us on the outside, "not like this—to get news of our death after the world's."iAli, The Country Without a Post Office, 45.

For anyone living in this time after you, Shahid, it is impossible not to feel stung by the distance between the world your mother and your love for her represented, and the shameful destruction that has continued since your death. I had faced the prospect of writing about this destruction with intense reluctance.

Over the two decades since I first read The Country Without a Post Office, your brilliance and emotional fearlessness had given me shelter and sustenance against the vicious, discursively stupefying, soul-sucking global war on terror. Subtle matters of conscience we had cultivated in private life had become politicized and transformed into a set of crude identity markers, always to be publicly explained, accounted and apologized for; always performed as spectacle; always externally judged.

In recent years, I have witnessed India assume its own "war on terror" logic to enforce an artificial religious apartheid among its historically plural communities (both physically and, often as damagingly, in public discourse). It became crucially important to me to distinguish the text of your poems from any contemporary wish to read them as a response to, or reaction against, either hindutva supremacy, or majoritarian Indian complacency, or claims of helplessness in the face of it. Not to ascribe an overt political intent to the poems beyond their textual scope, but to read the poems as your invitation and challenge to your readers — to imagine a better future. I want to inhabit that world where poems need never reply to despotism, but I fear that your elegies to Sufia Agha are a risk of becoming unintelligible to those targeted by direct violence — where they most deserve to be appreciated and remembered, to their most delicate points of nuance.

After the first United States-led bombardment of Iraq in 1991, I was surrounded by peers for whom the necessity of confronting bigotry and war immediately meant gathering to talk strategy, dissent, and demonstration; in every case, the need to respond directly in some way to an official hostility was never in doubt. Increasingly, over the decade that followed, I saw and felt how the language of those in power forced us — diasporic children of Muslim immigrants aspiring to a convincing antiwar, social justice position — to enter public discourse through the door of explaining why politicians and public commentators were wrong. This feeling of stifling discursive confinement intensified after 9/11, by an order of magnitude. We were choosing to inhabit the tight, airless spaces created by a warmongering language of belligerence and condemnation, at whatever cost to our spirits. These were the only spaces in which it seemed possible we could be seen and heard.

By 2003—the ignominious year of the Iraq War 2.0—I had come to regard even the space of my protestor's placard as a discursive extension of the violence of war itself: a harsh reduction to which I could no longer consent.

In the years that followed, when I finally came to the serious study of Urdu poetry, I was elated to be able to grasp what Faiz had achieved in his 1953 tribute to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, "Ham jo tareek raahon mein mare gaye," the poem you translated as "We Who Were Executed." The fineness of his compassion and moral anger; the way his language insisted on beauty, even in the very teeth of injustice, galvanizing readers and giving them hope—this was my arrival, although still a beginner, in the blessed state of comprehension.

At first the study of Urdu poetry opened the door to a secret, impossible yearning of mine: to escape from English altogether. To bring Urdu texts into English is beginning to prove more gratifying than the fantasy. To strive to render more complexity, more urgency, more unfamiliarity into English, the way your lyricism does, makes it more inhabitable—more mine.


  1. Ali, The Country Without a Post Office, 45.
Rahat Kurd
Rahat Kurd is co-author with Sumayya Syed of The City That is Leaving Forever: Kashmiri Letters (Talonbooks, 2021) and the poetry collection Cosmophilia (Talonbooks, 2015).
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
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