There have always been abundance of literary journals in Urdu literature in Pakistan but the case with such journals for writings in English has been quite opposite. There was the Alhamra Literary Review almost a decade back which could not sustain long. These days there are the Papercuts Magazine of the Desi Writers Lounge and The Missing Slate which are continuing with both online and print editions, providing the unpublished writers and poets a platform to showcase their talent. That’s quite an achievement, given the fact that their teams consist of the young volunteers who are enthusiastic about literature. These journals are making sure the literary scene for English language writers is no more bleak, given the fact that publishing an English language book in Pakistan is anything but plain sailing.
Recently, the inaugural edition of The Aleph Review was published and launched from Lahore. Edited by Mehvash Amin along with Ilona Yusuf, Mahboob Ahmad and Afshan Shafi, all the English language poets, the inaugural anthology has a dedication to ‘Taufiq Rafat: Defining the Pakistani Idiom’. Dedicating the inaugural edition to Rafat turned out to be a sagacious move as the pieces on him have appeared as the best part of the journal and its prime focus. The premium Pakistani English poet’s defining long essay, Towards the Pakistani Idiom, originally published in 1969 in the Karachi University magazine and then in the Ravi magazine of the then Govt College Lahore, has been reproduced. This is a significant document as Rafat not only defines what he thinks of Pakistani idiom, he refers, for a comparison, to the English language poetry written in the countries that remained under the colonial rule of the British. The comparison is important when it comes to India and Pakistan as both were one country until 1947, hence shared the evolution of English literature, especially poetry.
Another important piece, My Friend, Taufiq Rafat, is an excerpt from the interview of Kaleem Omar, journalist and poet, mentored by Rafat. The duo remained close in Lahore from the 1960s onwards. In this piece, Omar describes his relationship with his friend and mentor since their first meeting, moving on to later stages where Rafat mentored him and both shared their love for poetry. The interview is an insight into Rafat, not only as a poet but also as a person, and leaves the reader craving for more. One hopes that the detailed interview would be available to the readers at some point. Kaleem Omar’s words significance multiplies when it comes to the subject of idiom or Pakistani idiom as he explains what is meant by the term which has been misconstrued by some English language poets in Pakistan.
“It had nothing to do with using local words or anything. What he was talking about was a sensibility. You know, everywhere you have a way of looking at things. So there is an American sensibility and a British sensibility. Your physical environment shapes your sensibility. You may not be aware of it,” he expounds.
In her essay, Shaista Sirajuddin sheds light on the poetry of Rafat while his son Seerat Hazir reveals some more aspects of the personality of the poet as a father.
The collection of poetry comes out as the mainstay of the edition after Rafat’s part with contributions from both senior and young poets as Athar Tahir, Waqas Khwaja, Adrian Husain and Ilona Yusuf are there from among the senior poets while Shadab Zeest Hashmi, Kyla Pasha, Mahboob Ahmad, Ramsha Ashraf and Afshan Shafi represent the younger lot.
Assassinated governor Salman Taseer’s letters to his children from his years of exile during Gen Zia’s dictatorship and then from jail are a delightful read as does his son Shahbaz Taseer’s piece on the last phone call he made home before, what his kidnappers told him, his death, not knowing that he was going to be released.
The interviews section is also engaging where besides Bapsi Sidhwa, three young fiction writers, Bilal Tanweer, Shazaf Fatima Haider and Kanza Javed, articulate their views and process of writing.
One section of the Aleph Review which is found wanting is that of fiction despite the fact that English fiction writers are coming to the fore with more frequency in Pakistan. All the pieces included in the section, except two, are excerpts from the novels/novellas of the writers which appear more like a part of marketing than any joyful reads for the readers. The only two complete stories are an allegorical story by Zulfikar Ghose and another one by Sonia Kamal which is the best in the section.
The edition also features foreign writers with no connection whatsoever with Pakistan. Though it may highlight the vision of the journal for its next editions, it raises questions about their relevance in an edition which has “Defining the Pakistani Idiom” on its cover.