Agha Shahid Ali

Backdrop by Agha Shahid Ali

‘Backdrop’ by Agha Shahid Ali is a thoughtful poem that speaks about the Arabic language. It also reflects on the speaker’s connection to his ancestors.

Though he knew Urdu and Arabic language well, Ali chose to prefer writing and showing his poetic works through the English Language. His is a ghazalesque style, which means all his poetry has been presented in ghazal form, but in the English Language. This great achievement has not only gained him immense recognition among the hearts of ghazal lovers and poem lovers, but also among those who believe that ghazal just has one style and one form. Through famous ghazals like Backdrop ‘In Exiles‘ and many more other ghazals and poetic style, he has been able to gain huge success. Though born and brought up in Kashmir, educated in America, Ali never forgot his love for Srinagar, Kashmir, and had always raised his voice against the atrocities against Kashmiris. In order to express his love, pangs, pains, and sorrow, he used poetic tools and was, to great extent, successful in reaching his message to the targeted people.

Backdrop by Agha Shahid Ali

Style and Form

Backdrop, which can be read in full here, has been written in twelve couplets. Each couplet of the ghazal is composed of two-line, and it is world’s famous that Ali has written his almost all poetic works in ghazalesue style. The most important thing to be noticed in the entire ghazal is that almost every second line of each couple mentions Arabic at the end, and mentioning the Arabic like this, the poet clearly means to prioritize the Arabic language, which, according to the language, can play in important role in negotiating and resolving the personal disputes. Agha Shahid Ali, with his superb poetic works, has carved a niche among the hearts of ghazals and poetry lovers. He was the poet who helped gain ghazals immense recognition in the United States of America. Well-known for his ghazalesque style, Ali presented ghazals so beautifully in English Language that he was awarded many prestigious awards for his milestone contribution in the field of poem, especially because the ghazals written by him never missed and lost their feel. However, a ghazal has no meaning if it has no Arabic touch. The Arabic is the language that can best present the feelings of a beloved through ghazals.

Backdrop Analysis

Couplet One (lines 1-2)

The only language of loss left in the world is Arabic-
These words were said to me in a language not Arabic.

Expressing his concern about the declining state and the loss of importance of the Arabic language, Ali says through his ghazal, named Backdrop, that the only language that has faced loss over the period of times is Arabic. Satirically expressing his sorrows and worries towards the loss of this rich language, the poet says, “These words were said to me in a language not Arabic.” Though Ali opens this ghazal with the question of whether Arabic is a language of loss, in the further couplets of Backdrop, he himself answers the questions by bringing to light many of its facets and giving details about various famous characters and poets who made great contribution in the field of ghazals through Arabic language. Thus, Ali personifies Arabic as ‘pitiless’ in the first two couplets of his poem, Backdrop. He compares its form in a love letter to a lover’s apathy as well as beauty, but at the same time he also says that with the passage of time its importance is declining and diminishing.

Couplet Two (lines 3-4)

Ancestors, you’ve left me a plot in the family graveyard-
Why must I look, in your eyes, for prayers in Arabic?

Couplet Three (lines 5-6)

As soon as I read through the second couplet of Backdrop poem I immediately guess Ali is going to describe the very famous lovers of ghazal history: Laila and Majnoon. Picturizing the poor state of these two historically famous characters, he sheds light over the pitiable condition of Arabic language. Description of a Persian miniature, he also wants to depict the famous romance of Laila and Majnoon, which is undoubtedly a core metaphor in much of the Persian, Arabic and Urdu poetry. The presentation of these two lovers may also mean to bring forth the tradition of seeking the lost beloved in the desert when he says, “O, this is the madness of the desert, his crazy Arabic.” Through these couplets, he may also mean that the Arabic language, which once used to be a royal language, has now been ripped, and it still weeps for its past glory.

Couplet Four (lines 7-8)

In the third couplet, the poet talks about the influences of Arabic language on Kashmiri visual art by characterizing Ishmael (the quintessential outsider, who finds his origins in a religious myth) and Abraham. Underscoring the classical theological value of the Arabic language, Ali says, “Who listens to Ishmael? Even now he cries out: Abraham, throw away your knives, recite a psalm in Arabic.” Though Ali’s Ishmael doesn’t hold with the norm of bloodshed and religious sacrifice; he still pressurizes his father to “recite a psalm in Arabic.” Through this couplet, Ali repossesses the classical Ishmael by offering suggestion through him that instead of violence, poetry can be the best solution to upheaval.

The couplet may also reflect the belief of the poet who believes that political crises can never find any resolution as they always try to seek solution through violence. This is as with Abraham, who always considered violence as a last resort to prove one’s worth, one’s strength and one’s sense of loyalty. On the contrary, Ali believes that language is the best solution to seek more effective ways to discover our identities and resolve our disputes.

Couplets Five-Eight (lines 9-16)

From exile Mahmoud Darwish writes to the world:
You’ll all pass between the fleeting words of Arabic.


When Lorca died, they left the balconies open and saw
his gasidas braided, on the horizon, into knots of Arabic.

In the above couplets, the poet refers to other writers, such as Mahmoud Darwish, Federico Garcia Lorca, and the Israeli artist Anton Shammas, who were interested in identity and exile. Through the couplets, Ali wants to suggest that the imperative to understand identity and its contexts does not relate to a certain politicized location, rather it is a phenomenon that goes beyond space, time, and national identities. Again the poet wants to verify his own endeavors through the universality and the similarity of the experience of personal alienation and dislocation. He further suggests that harmony can only be achieved by acknowledging shared contexts of personal emotions and experiences. He, therefore, suggests that all writers should get united to express their fierce ideas through language.

Ali says it is only by virtue of repossessing classical notions and rediscovering the worth of theological and cultural truths in subjective as well as personal terms that a true sense of ‘universal’ value could be applied to and achieved. The poet says that the Arabic language has always left its influence. When the Koran (the holy book of the Muslim community) prophesied a fire of men and stones, it was all mentioned through the Arabic language. And when Lorca died, his gasidas braided, on the horizon, into knots of Arabic. So, this has been the status and importance of the Arabic language. The Arabic language was so influential that it left its influence even on Lorca’s Spanish poetry. Through the third and fourth couplet, it is realized that Arabic has been a surviving, a transplanted, and transmuting language, it was not then a language of loss as it is today.

Couplets Nine-Twelve (lines 17-24)

Memory is no longer confused, it has a homeland-
Says Shammas: Territorialize each confusion in a graceful Arabic.


They ask me to tell them what Shahid means-
Listen: It means “The Beloved” in Persian, “Witness” in Arabic.

In the first couplet of this part, the poet says memory has a homeland, it is not confused. And if it is so, then the graceful Arabic language is the best way to territorialize the confusion. Please mind it here that Arabic has been a focal point all through Backdrop. In almost every possible couplet, the poet has emphasized the importance of Arabic language. The repetition of the word, “Arabic” in the poem shows how strongly this language is rooted to its culture, history and religion. Defining the importance of Arabic language, the poet even dug out the historical characters and places, such as the Deir Yassin village, which once used to be enriched with Arabic cultures, but now is nowhere to see. The village now has no existence; it is no-existent as the non-existence of Arabic language in the village.

In the 10th couplet, the poet – addressing Amichai, an Israeli poet who first wrote in colloquial Hebrew – says that I was also like you who enjoyed seeing the dresses of beautiful women, and loved to see everything like you. However, Arabic now is a language of loss, which reminds of the dislocated people (the inhabitants of Dier Yassein). This is also the language, which has kept distant cultures of Africa, Asia and Europe historically connected with each other. The language ever since its uprising has been recognized one of the best languages for love poetry. The language is also an icon of political and religious conflict, being a counterpart to Hebrew.

Ali brings his ghazal to an end with a signature couplet wherein he not only tells his name but also explains its meaning “in Persian” and “In Arabic.” Explaining the meaning of his name, he says his name means “The Beloved” in Persian, “Witness” in Arabic.

Personal Comments

Thus, having gone through the poem, it comes to know how much love the poet has towards the Arabic language, and how the glorious language of its time has now turned into a dying language. The poet says that this language is also one of the best ways to resolve disputes though this point might have been missed by some critics of Backdrop. In all, the Arabic is a language of a beloved, a lover, and the one who wants to express his/her pangs and pains. This is the language that has revived many famous characters; this is also the language, which has helped many poets gain immense recognition, and this is the language where the poet can best define the meaning of his name.

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Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.
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