Books, Film, Music

Ghazal Cosmopolitan: The Culture and Craft of the Ghazal

A mix of essays, memoir, and original poems by Shadab Zeest Hashmi ’95.

By Johanna Droubay ’04 | June 7, 2018

Born in the Bedouin campsites of sixth-century Arabia, the ghazal might be the perfect poetic form to contain the homesick longing, cultural clashes, and surprise harmonies of today’s global community. Shadab Zeest Hashmi first encountered the form as a child in Pakistan, listening to popular Pakistani singers sing ghazals in Urdu on her parents’ LPs. Urdu, a mix of courtly Persian and folksy Hindavi, adopted the ghazal form early on. “The ghazal,” she writes, “not only allows contraries to cohabit, but in the best compositions, it makes a demand to frame polarity in the same space.”

 Literally “gazelle” in Arabic, the ghazal is thought to mimic the intensity of the hunted animal’s last cry. The cry is for an absent beloved, which might be a person, a place, or something less tangible. The cry-like effect comes from the abrupt end of each of the poem’s 5 to 15 couplets, which do not continue a thought from verse to verse but are instead self-contained. Agha Shahid Ali, the poet largely responsible for popularizing the ghazal in English in the second half of the 20th century, likened the ghazal’s couplets to stones on a necklace—each one precious in its own right. And what is the string? Not a continuous narrative, but rather a repeated rhyme (or qafia) and refrain (or radif), which provide atmospheric cohesion and a loose theme.

Hashmi writes that the characteristic features of the ghazal, intensity and disunity, are precisely what can make the form difficult for a modern American audience:

Intensity can come across as sentimentality or hyperbole. Disunity can be disorienting in this culture where clarity is valued and expected, and there is little tolerance for obfuscation or abstraction compared to Urdu aesthetics.

But these difficulties can be overcome. The praise Hashmi heaps on successful English ghazals is also due her book. Just as the ghazal’s couplets can stand alone, so can the chapters of Ghazal Cosmopolitan—a sumptuous mix of essays, memoir, criticism, and original poems, collected here in a slim, accessible volume that is part how-to, part ode. The stones on Hashmi’s necklace include a nostalgic vignette about soothing her colicky baby; an instructive essay describing the ghazal’s made-to-be-broken rules; a reflection on the ghazal’s influence on the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca; even a Q&A interrogating the English ghazal. Across these ardent, eclectic chapters, the ghazal is the book’s refrain, and cosmopolitanism its rhyme. 

— Reviewed by Johanna Droubay ’04 

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