Poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Dasht-e-Tanhai”—A Desert Soundscape

25 July, 2022
Desert image by Rabah al-Sham­ma­ry (cour­tesy Unsplash).


A poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, trans­lat­ed from the Urdu and read by Mara Ahmed, with sound design by Darien Lamen.


Mara Ahmed



While this record­ing and sound­scape are new and have nev­er been shared online until now, I first trans­lat­ed Dasht-e-Tan­hai, a remark­able poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in 2009. A lit­tle ner­vous about the audac­i­ty of such an under­tak­ing, I read all the trans­la­tions I could find online and in books and dis­cussed the poem at length with my par­ents, both lovers of Urdu poet­ry. In the end, I took some lib­er­ties and strayed from a lit­er­al trans­la­tion. I want­ed to sub­scribe to Faiz’s own under­stand­ing of poet­ry and how it is made of sense and feel­ing. In his essay, Poet­ry and Sense, he describes poet­ic ideas as “jet­sam” strewn on the mind’s beach by waves of feel­ing. It is then the poet’s job to col­lage those “bits of wreck­age” and build them up into a house.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911–1984) is one of the great­est Urdu poets of the last cen­tu­ry. A two-time Nobel Prize nom­i­nee, he was a best-sell­ing author on both sides of the bor­der, in Pak­istan and India, and a fear­less pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al whose polit­i­cal vision mobi­lized a mam­moth following. 

Pak­istan’s poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

An avowed Marx­ist who received the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962, Faiz was a key mem­ber of the All-India Pro­gres­sive Writ­ers’ Asso­ci­a­tion which was estab­lished in Lon­don, in 1935, by Indi­an writ­ers and intel­lec­tu­als. The Pro­gres­sives were a rad­i­cal group com­mit­ted to mod­ern­iz­ing South Asian lit­er­a­ture and strong­ly invest­ed in lit­er­ary realism.

In a 1998 lec­ture, Agha Shahid Ali explained how Faiz’s work pushed Urdu poet­ry into the polit­i­cal realm. Not that Urdu poet­ry had been apo­lit­i­cal before that. It had always chal­lenged ortho­doxy, but in ways sub­tle enough to escape the gal­lows. Faiz placed rev­o­lu­tion at the cen­ter of his work, turn­ing it into the intox­i­cat­ing beloved — one’s eter­nal desire and mis­sion. These depar­tures for Urdu poet­ry also meant that Faiz was fre­quent­ly jailed.

In fact, Dasht-e-Tan­hai was pub­lished as part of a col­lec­tion of poems writ­ten in prison. This was back in 1951, when Pak­istani Prime Min­is­ter Liaquat Ali Khan impli­cat­ed Faiz in a ludi­crous com­mu­nist coup and ordered his arrest.

Dasht-e-Tan­hai (The Desert of Lone­li­ness) or Yaad (Mem­o­ry) has always moved me, its words and metaphors like pearls strung togeth­er with ele­gant ease. It embod­ies Faiz’s style of writ­ing: filled with glo­ri­ous ideas of beau­ty and social jus­tice but always flu­id, unen­cum­bered, song­ful. With lumi­nous spaces in between. Nev­er pedan­tic or oppres­sive. Dasht-e-Tan­hai is a poem about sep­a­ra­tion and long­ing, about sen­so­ry mem­o­ry and its per­ma­nent aching imprint on the heart. It’s a love poem and there­fore a gem in Faiz’s rich port­fo­lio of prose and poet­ry. Some con­nect the poem’s theme of loss and nos­tal­gia to the 1947 par­ti­tion of British India, when a much-await­ed moment of decol­o­niza­tion turned into vio­lent frac­ture and exile.

To me it’s a love poem brim­ming with scents, sounds, land­scapes, and tex­tures. It speaks to move­ment and phys­i­cal phe­nom­e­na, to dis­con­nec­tion and union. Per­haps to the cycli­cal nature of life itself. Faiz wrote the poem while in prison, from a place of sen­so­ry depri­va­tion and seclu­sion, and there­fore all the phys­i­cal world’s vivid­ness and inten­si­ty are con­tained in his words. The poem demands more col­or­ing in, more relief than words on a page. 

My Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Dasht-e-Tan­hai became the most pop­u­lar trans­la­tion of the poem online, if one is to go by Google. I get thanks for it from lovers of Faiz’s oeu­vre from across the globe. Although most of my work involves visu­al art and film, I have become fas­ci­nat­ed by sound over the last few years. I work close­ly with my friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor Darien Lamen, a musi­cian, eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist, and film­mak­er. I agree with Darien when he says that “by virtue of its dis­em­bod­ied pres­ence, sound tends to evoke rather than dic­tate, coax rather than coerce our imag­i­na­tion, which has grown more pas­sive through our engage­ment with dom­i­nant forms of dig­i­tal media.”

In 2019, we pro­duced a piece called Know­ing is Beau­ti­ful. It’s about rain, its var­ied moods, geo­gra­phies, and con­texts. As a con­tin­u­a­tion of our work togeth­er, I record­ed Dasht-e-Tan­hai in both Urdu and Eng­lish and Darien devel­oped the sound design for it.

We dis­cussed Faiz’s poet­ry and pol­i­tics, his muse Alys George, a fel­low com­mu­nist who met Faiz in India long before the par­ti­tion, and then mar­ried him in 1941. We were inspired by Pakistan’s Thar desert, its sand dunes, wind­storms, and music. As Darien explains: “We dis­cussed the impor­tance of an aes­thet­ics of sparse­ness, in which we might intro­duce snatch­es of music and faint voic­es at var­i­ous inter­vals — tan­ta­liz­ing, fleet­ing, nev­er enough to sat­is­fy — in a chain of sub­sti­tu­tions stand­ing in for the absent object of desire: a per­fumed breath, a wife and muse, home, free­dom, rev­o­lu­tion.” He con­tin­ues: “The ambi­ent desert audio that forms the back­drop for The Desert of My Soli­tude is char­ac­ter­ized by the low rush of wind and the high skit­ter­ing of sand. I tried to build the sound design around oth­er ‘anal­o­gous’ sounds — the shud­der of an accor­dion bel­lows beneath the dry click­ing of its but­tons, the approv­ing mur­mur of an audi­ence as a har­mo­ni­um play­er chas­es after Iqbal Bano’s vocal orna­men­ta­tions. Devel­op­ing these son­ic ana­logues pro­vides a for­mal coher­ence to the sound design, while also invit­ing a mode of lis­ten­ing that is hope­ful­ly both active and immersive.”

For me per­son­al­ly, as some­one who is per­ma­nent­ly dérac­inée, who lives in between homes and lan­guages, and feels a par­tic­u­lar ache for Pak­istan, Faiz’s words of love and wist­ful­ness set off untold emo­tions. I tried to read Dasht-e-Tan­hai in Urdu at the Spir­it Room, in Rochester, New York, in 2018. I could see my par­ents and hus­band in the audi­ence. The import of releas­ing Urdu poet­ry into a win­try space, a world away from the fra­grant jas­mine Faiz describes, over­whelmed me. This record­ing is a way to be able to say all the words, finally. 



Yaqin, A. (2013). Cos­mopoli­tan ven­tures dur­ing times of cri­sis: a post­colo­nial read­ing of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Dasht‑e tan­hai” and Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers

Ali, A. S. (1998). Agha Shahid Ali on Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Saeed, M., Moghees, A., Dar, S. A. (2018). Sense and Feel: The Miss­ing Ele­ments in Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Trans­lat­ed Poetry

Magray, A. U. H. (2019). Prison poet­ry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz

desertPakistani writersUrdu poetry

Mara Ahmed is a Pakistani American interdisciplinary artist and filmmaker based on Long Island. She has directed and produced three films, including The Muslims I Know (2008), Pakistan One on One (2011), and A Thin Wall (2015). Her films have been broadcast on PBS, screened at international film festivals, and are part of college syllabi. A Thin Wall was acquired by MUBI India in 2020 and is currently available to watch on Amazon Prime. Mara’s artwork has been exhibited at galleries in New York and California. Her multimedia installation The Warp & Weft [Face to Face] which is based on an archive of stories she curated in 2020, was recently exhibited at Rochester Contemporary Art Center and her experimental art video Le Mot Juste [Part One] was selected for a juried exhibition organized by Chicago’s South Asia Institute in 2021. Her production company is Neelum Films.


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