Whether you think of Lyari as Karachi’s Harlem or Harlem as a Lyari in New York, for Noon Meem Danish places provide a context but not a definition. ‘I am what I am’; he explains his signature with a characteristic mixture of pride and humility. Off-beat and defiant, he was a familiar figure in the literary landscape of the ’70s and ’80s. His poems expressing solidarity with the Negritude and the plight of blacks all over the world were referred to in Dr Firoze Ahmed’s social topography of the African-descent inhabitants of Pakistan. Karachi’s poet Noon Meem Danish now makes his home in the New York state of mind, and feels that he is very much in his element there. It is where I met him again after a gap of many years, as he came to the Columbia University to attend a talk I was giving. We made our way afterwards to the student centre, talking freely in the relaxed and informal atmosphere.
Noor Mohammed was born in Lyari in 1958. He received his early education in Okhai Memon School in Kharadar and soon metamorphosed into Noon Meem Danish, the poet.
He did his Masters in Urdu from Karachi University in 1984, obtaining a first class first. Soon afterwards, in 1985, he started teaching at the Urdu College. He started writing poetry in 1974 and soon attracted attention in mushairas. His collection of poems titled Bachay, Titli, Phool was published in 1997. Gaining recognition as an accomplished but angry poet, he carved a niche for himself when he gave voice to his ‘black experience.’ These poems received an enthusiastic response from Shamsur Rahman Farooqi, a leading Urdu critic, who published them in the reputable Shabkhoon, a leading literary journal published from India.
As we sit back for a chat, it is but natural that we start with Karachi. ‘Yes, I do think of Karachi. I remember my friends, companions and my brothers and sisters. I recall my childhood in Lyari. I want to pay a visit to Lyari, chakkar laganay ka dil chahta hai. But I cannot live there anymore. There is too much of a difference now. Throughout the days of riots in the rest of the city, it had remained a peaceful area. Perhaps it is being punished for this very crime,’ says Danish. In his youth, Lyari was a heady mixture of political activism, social consciousness and cultural activities, and in the prefatory note to his collection of poems, he has acknowledged the formative influence, but he speaks of the present situation with sadness. ‘All that has changed. The children whom I remember as eight or nine-year olds, are now hardened criminals and thugs I read about in the newspapers.’
More than home, Karachi was for him the city of the torment of recognition. ‘I was black and in Karachi it was always a shocking experience when people would ask me where I came from. They would ask how come you are speaking saaf Urdu. I had to explain myself each time. Here, in New York, I feel that I am in my own city and as long as I don’t say open my mouth, it is all right. It is the accent which gives me away. Here I receive social benefits too. Yahan ki fikrain aur hain, wahan ka azaab aur tarha ka tha,’ he explains.
‘For me, it has been a process of discovering a new world, in terms of my own identity, literature and knowledge. I was living inside a small well when I was in Pakistan and I have stepped out of it now. The things that reach us over there, do so when they are about 50 to 60 years old, specially in literary criticism, people just snatch things out of context. If I had not moved out of Pakistan, I would not have been able to get this understanding of the world which I have acquired now,’ he narrates his experiences.
More than home, Karachi was for him the city of the torment of recognition. ‘I was black and in Karachi it was always a shocking experience when people would ask me where I came from. They would ask how come you are speaking saaf Urdu. I had to explain myself each time.’
However, the process was anything but easy. ‘I did not have to face a cultural shock when I came here. For two years, I kept preparing myself that I have to start from zero. I have a working-class background so I was prepared for hard work and labour.’
Leaving Karachi may not have been an easy decision, but he speaks of it without bitterness or regret. After coming to the US in 2003, he tried his hand at various jobs including writing for the small New York Urdu press and teaching. He is currently a foreign language consultant to the University of Maryland. ‘Karachi University did not give me any opportunity to teach, but New York University gave me the opportunity to teach for four years and you can appreciate the world of difference.’
He feels the difference is not only between two institutions but two cities: ‘I find it hard to explain to Karachiwallas but it is something which New Yorkers can understand; how it is truly a global village. Even the subway can be a wondrous experience if you see the three levels of trains operating simultaneously. There is a great sense of freedom here and life is open to multiple cultures,’ he says with satisfaction.
He thinks back when I ask him about the poets who influenced his work. He begins with Mustafa Zaidi of the Koh-i-Nida period and Obaidullah Aleem. ‘I enjoy Sirajuddin Zafar very much and plan to write about his poetry, I find his poetry extraordinary. When I started to write, I concentrated on the ghazal. I would keep my nazm aside and think that ghazals are my real poetry. I wrote poems about my experience as a black person in the 1980s, only a bunch of poems, but I got to understand the real significance after coming here. I received confirmation that I was correct in comprehending the ideologies of life as I was comprehending them. My concept of beauty underwent a change. For the first time, I really understood that black can be beautiful too,’ he says spiritedly as he shifts the direction of his conversation from literature to ethnicity.
‘We are still stuck with Aryan notions and always begin with these concepts but they have become pamaal and farsooda for me. My sense of being black and being Baloch received a sharp focus. Here I found the answers to a lot of questions which had been bothering me. The Baloch also consider the Makrani to be separate from them. The Shedis living in Sindh and the blacks living in Balochistan are not one and the same, just as all whites are not German. They are culturally different. In each race, there can be more than one culture. The black man from the Sudan is more likely to be an Arab. When the Baloch living in the Gulf do research, they look for Arab tribes and start tracing their genealogies from Persian tribes. A more holistic view is required,’ he argues.
It was not only his notion of race which underwent a change. ‘After coming here, I became disillusioned with many things, especially the Progressive Writers Movement. I felt an affiliation with it right from the time I started, but I began to feel that as far as literary criticism went, the movement failed to come up with intellectual figures. Those who were considered well-read, they were limited only to basic references. When I came here and started catching up the gaps in my reading, I realised that the Marxist thinkers had been most active in the critical discourse, but our critics who paid homage to Marx worked with very limited information. It is our great misfortune that the total knowledge of the Progressives was limited to a few pamphlets. They had no real understanding of the dynamics of society or literature. Those people who called themselves Progressives were not updated. They regarded postmodernism as the opposite of the Progressive. The political part remained overbearing in our criticism, as far as postmodernism was concerned, with not enough emphasis on the philosophical and this created a sort of misbalance,’ he explains at length.
‘I started reading literary theory with fervour, I made friends with fiction. I began to study the use of language in prose as I felt that this particular aspect had never been given due attention. I did not write as much poetry here as I could have. When I came here, I had to start from scratch. I realised that I could not survive on poetry. Here I have to dig a fresh well everyday. There is nothing like a KMC job here. I was new so I had to be alert,’ he says.
Like everybody else, 9/11 was a shock for him too. ‘I could see the WTC from my place of work. I remember the morning of one particularly foggy day. I couldn’t see any of the tall buildings. I wrote a poem about the buildings which had almost disappeared. This was in August. Then came 9/11,’ he says referring to a reality which soon stepped out of the realm of poetry.
‘After 9/11? Things are all right till I tell people that I am from Pakistan. I recall that day clearly. I was at my job and I got stuck there. My supervisor was a good person and with him, I was watching the buildings crumble and fall. The supervisor asked me where I came from, when I told him his attitude changed. Somebody drew a caricature of a man with a beard on my desk. This was his expression of hate. People do not express their hatred openly here but their attitudes change,’ he says.
From Karachi to New York, such change in attitude is something which Noon Meem Danish has seen time and again and yet he remains as passionate as ever, talks about his interests as if he had never left off. From Lyari to New York, there is continuity.