Crusader against an unjust world
HOMAGE TO SYED KHWAJA MOINUL HASSAN
Fakrul Alam, The Weekly Holiday, Friday 10 2009
Looking at Syed Khwaja Moinul Hassan, it would have been difficult to imagine the depths of passion in him. He appeared, almost always, a gentle soul, courteous and amiable. A good friend and a popular teacher, he was well liked by those who came to know him everywhere. He was the type who seemed incapable of offending anyone.
And yet if one takes his poems as evidence, he was a passionate man and occasionally an intemperate one too. The Collected Poems of Syed Khawja Moinul Hassan, published by Kolkata’s Writers Workshop, assembled from five books of verse published in Dhaka and Kolkata, testify to someone continually disturbed by recent history, which he seems to have seen as a record of a world falling apart. “Between Barbed Wires”, the title poem from his first volume of verse puts it thus:
“The days are terrible and parlous/And the nights awful and fearful”. The nightmares of subcontinental history bothered him a lot as is evident in the poem “Dhaka 1971” where he gives vent to his disgust at the atrocities committed that year: “Filthy joints full of hogs,/Khaki serpents, querulous apes/ crying vultures and barking dogs/All in arson, loot and rape”. The second volume of verse, Inner Edge (1987), continues to reflect the fissures created by history in his psyche in emotion-soaked verse.
Consequently, Hassan’s early poems can at times sound like rant; there was too much powerful feelings in them, and obviously not enough tranquility had gone into transforming his raw emotions into poetry. His third volume of verse, Ashes and Sparks (1990) record his indignation and hurt at America’s first invasion of Iraq and George Bush the senior’s doctoring of “facts” to justify the unjustifiable. As he puts it in a poem of the collection: “America your Armada is in the wrong Gulf/America come home your house is on fire/There is a lot of smoke in the basement/Where your children spend the night opening coffins/like crates”.
Indeed, there is intensity as well as dismay in these and later volumes. Such feelings always made him write poetry of outrage directed at a basically unjust world that he wanted to sensitize and change. In Burning the Olive Branch (1995), the last volume of verse reprinted in his Collected Poems, he cries at the plight of Palestinians and against American aggression in the Middle East with characteristic indignation, accounting for his outburst thus: “Whoever is afraid of madness/Is afraid of the truth, /for only in the frenzy of our mad moments do we compel/our creator/to stand face to face/and beg back our mortality”.
Opposed to jingoism
There were many reasons why Hassan was moved so by the nightmare of contemporary history. Hassan was born in a distinguished family that had moved to Dhaka because of the political impasse that led to the partition of India. He was the son of Pirzada Syed Khwaja Borhanuddin, and the great grandson of Wazir Ali Naqhsbad, Zamindar of Beleghata, Kolkata. In his university years he was witness to the savage scenes that were everywhere evident in 1971 . His stay in the U.S.A. saw the country get stuck in the quagmire of history because of the jingoistic policies of the two Bushes.
An outstanding student, Hassan was placed First Class First in his B. A. (Hons.) examination and got another first in his M.A. Subsequently, he became a lecturer in English at the University of Dhaka. He left Bangladesh in 1983 and studied at Purdue University, where he was awarded a Ph.D. in 1994 for his dissertation titled “W. B. Yeats, Resistance, and Ireland”. After teaching in a number of institutions in the United States, he settled down as Professor in the English department of Claflin University’s Orangeburg, South Carolina campus. Since this university has a link programme with Dhaka’s Stamford University, he came to Dhaka for successive summer sessions of teaching in recent years.
A friend of Edward Said
In America, Hassan’s sensitivity to politics and exasperation at U.S. foreign policy was always visible. His outspoken denunciation of the first American invasion of Iraq led to his friendship with the great Palestinian-American intellectual, Edward Said, who not only advised him to cope with F. B. I. intimidators but also nominated him to the Palestinian National Council where he served for a while.
Hassan’s political activism is also reflected in his scholarship; he co-authored an essay called “The Wretched of the Nations” that has been published by Zed Books in Genocide, War Crimes, and the West: the Culture of Impunity”. (2004) His commitment to Islam and its history and culture is also reflected in his published works. His final publication, co-written with S. Nizamuddin, is called Petals of Light and is a book of forty hadiths.
Hassan died of a heart attack in the USA on the 3rd of April, 2009. His burial took place in Long Island, New York on the 5th of this month. He will be much missed by his friends, students and dear ones in Bangladesh as well as the rest of the world who will remember him for his gentle yet passionate nature, his sincerity as well as intensity, and his abundant love for his people.
Dr Fakrul Alam is a Professor of English, Dhaka University.