The Ghazal ‘By Exiles’

Agha Shahid Ali

‘The Ghazal ‘By Exiles”’ by Agha Shahid Ali is a painful piece of poetry. In it, the poet reveals how hard it is to leave the place where one spent one’s golden times.


Agha Shahid Ali

Nationality: American, Indian

Agha Shahid Ali was a prolific writer whose nine poetry collections are still read today.

Notable works include 'Backdropand 'A Pastoral.' 

Through the ghazal, the poet wants to make his readers sense his pain and pangs by repeating the word “exile” thirteen times. The frequent repetition of the word “exile” addresses the agony of the speaker in a way that puts him into a mood of loss and disintegration. The ghazal is, in fact, a lamentation over the endless nature of exile. It ends with three simple lines “…torn wild by exiles,” “…compiled by exiles,” and “…beguiled by exiles.”

The Ghazal 'By Exiles' by Agha Shahid Ali

Style, Form, and Language

By Exiles brings forth an explicit example of how his prosodic adoptions dramatize his literary loyalties and tangled culture. Through his prosody, Ali not just makes implicit criticism of Rich’s, but he also accomplishes parallel pedagogical functions, by defining the form in a strict sense. The first couplet of the ghazal sets the ghazal’s pattern. And the way, both lines of the ghazal ends with, “by exiles” it itself sets itself as the ghazal’s radif. “Dialed” and “exiled” brings forth the root-rhyme for the qafia. Following the ghazal’s traditional pattern, the next three couplets rhyme “dialed” and “exiled” with “filed,” “wild,” and “compiled.” As if Ali was not satisfied with the insertion of these severe rustications, he comes up with another one, which is surely not demanded by the ghazel form.

By Exiles Analysis

Though Ali’s dealing with the ghazal form establishes the extensive dispersions, performed by exile, it also puts forth a counterforce to these similar forces. Exploiting the full length that the canonical form permits, the twelve stanzas of the ghazal collect a community of exiles, according to the values of mutual trust and forgiveness. “Swear not by Art but, O Oscar Wilde, by exiles,” the poem counsels”

The Ghazal By Exiles, which you can read in full here, is an homage to Edward W. Said, a Palestinian-American, who carved a niche among his readers through his amazing writing styles. When its first two couplets start, the poet is depicted lamenting over the way he was exiled first from Delhi, then from Kashmir though technically it is not an exile. Using “You” as the second person for his friend, the poet reveals how painful it is to leave the place where you spent your golden times; the place or country where you learned about your strange fate, which was unknown to you when you came on this earth, but you were exiled by exiles by the time itself. The “Exiled by exiles” is the key phrase of this ghazal, as all of its rhymes come from the double rhyme. Through this prosodic flourish, the poet pays homage to the poem’s dedicatee and addressee, Edward Said.

The second couplet shows the imagination of the poet, who sees exiles dispersing throughout the earth to unknown or unborn galaxies. Through these lines, the poet composes a community of exiles, and continues to preserve the original form of ghazal poem wherein the convention of Takallus — radif — is seen at the concluding lines. Just as the poet sees exiles scattering all over the “Earth” to “unborn galaxies,” the twelve rhymes of “exiled,” coupled with the twelve repetitions of “by exiles,” radiate this phrase all through the poem.

From the very outset of the ghazal poem, the poet keeps it centered on Jerusalem, Egypt, and Palestine. The mention of these cities and countries may mean the exile people had to undergo due to the unrest in Jerusalem, which has been a bone of contention between the two countries, Israelis and Palestinians. Both countries claim the “City of Peace” as their capital, but no one wants to reach a resolution. Similarly, Kashmir is the state, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan as their own territory (though technically and politically speaking Kashmir has a very different socio-political background), and in these frantic efforts of both the countries, lives of innocent people are endangered, their houses are burnt to ashes, as a result; they have to leave their countries, due to the widespread violence and bloodshed. This could be the reason why the poet says, “Let stones be leavened, the bread be torn wild before the night passes over the wheat of Egypt.”

The poet further gives the reference of Mansoor, a great mystic, who was crucified for saying “I am the truth.” Through these lines, the poet may mean the exile the great Muslim mystic martyr experienced just because of showing courage to speak the truth. It is to be noted that right from the very start of By Exiles, the poet introduces his readers with several historically and poetically famous characters who represent each other in their religious, sexual, racial or crucial terms. By comparing these characters, the poet wants to depict the pitiable condition of Kashmir.

Let’s face it; the poetry of Shahid describes the historical period of postcolonial writers and poets who had to suffer literal relocation due to self-exile. His mind always used to waver between the deserted home and his desire to build homology to a probable new home. His mind had always been busy in the recollection of various traditional ceremonies, customs, and images of his boyhood and childhood. His inner-thinking was always imposed by these memories; thus he always tried to reconstruct them in his verses through the use of the English language in order that he could succeed in making a bond between two different worlds.

In the above couplet, when the poet says, “Tell me who’s tonight the Physician of Sick Pearls? Only you as you sit, Desert Child, by exiles,” he used every possible poetic tool to sustain the traditional ghazal form. Though the phrase ‘Physician of Sick Pearls’ has been used strangely in the poem, it still has the opaque pallor of a missed opportunity. Additionally, the reference of the great Muslim mystic martyr Mansoor and Oscar Wilde in the middle brings to light the exile that they had to go through. After having a close examination, the readers find that all referred figures in the poem represent each other. Where in religion Ali and Mansoor belong to the Muslim community, Ali and Wilde disclose their sexual preference. On the other hand, there are Said and Ali whereby the poem seems to put forth the cultural as well as racial terms. However, all these characters confront the same question of exile like Mahmoud Darwish asks in the epigraph of the poem ―Where should we go after the last frontiers, / where should the birds fly after the last sky?

Since Ali was immensely impressed by the great ghzalesque style of Arabic and had used many figures who were made famous by the earlier poets of Arabic ghazal, he also used the same words and style of writing in this ghazal, where he says, “Don’t weep, we’ll drown out the Calls to Prayer, O Saqi — I’ll raise my glass before wine is defiled by exiles.” Through these lines, he wants to bring forth the secular Muslim who goes to Makhana, and counsel, “O Saqi — I’ll raise my glass before wine is defiled by exiles.” “Ghazal I” makes use of the ghazal form with a view to expressing exile’s contractions, the specific despairs and hopes that is experienced by a secular Muslim exile, who kneel on “a wine-stained rug: to pray.

In the further couplets of this poem, the poet says that if my enemy is alone without any weapon, just give him my heart, which is silk-wrapped like a child. The meaning of this line may be that the heart is as pure as a child, but if my enemy is left alone and when his arms stop working, just give him my heart. The final couplet could be read as a cry of lamentation, anguish over the seemingly unending nature of exile. In other words, the final couplet of the poem brings forth an idealized model for reconciliation.

With its knotty syntax and grammar, the final lines mean that to witness is to get reconciled through their mutually sustaining acts of witness. The final couplets are like double doors, whose emotional force depends upon the probability of reading it in two ways. Moreover, the next to last line of “Ghazal I: reveals three forms of Ali’s name: “Beloved,” which is an adjective, “witness,” which is a verb, and “Shahid,” which is a noun. This way, Ali makes use of ghazal form both to indicate that exile’s “destinies” stay incompatible and to reconcile them.

Final Comments

By Exiles is one of my favorite ghazal poems by Agha Shahid Ali, with the best description of ghazal, its form, and style. Though the language of the poem is a little difficult to understand, it does impress its readers (like me) with the theme of exile. Through his ghazal poem, the poet not only criticizes America for not giving much consideration and importance to the ghazal form, yet it perfectly defines the pain of isolation and relocation, and how painful it is when exiled from the very place where you spend your childhood, boyhood. By Exiles is in fact a poem of isolation and relocation that Ali had to go through by being exiled first from Delhi, then from Kashmir, though technically it is not an exile.

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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