University of Pennsylvania

I enjoy my longish stays in the US, usually in summers. One reason is the many opportunities this country provides for “the pursuit of happiness”, which, in fact, is enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence as an “inalienable right of man [and woman]” along with life and liberty.

I am not alluding to the happiness we usually associate with Western societies, certainly not anything of prurient interest. I am talking about the happiness one derives from learning new things — a new subject, a new language, skill, sport, or a hobby. One can pretty much learn anything here if one sets his/her mind to it. There are no barriers of age, gender, or race. Of course, you have to pay the fees — most of the time.

Last summer, I signed up for a flying trapeze class — almost — in a facility located near where I lived, in lower Manhattan along the Hudson River. We associate trapeze with circus and professional acrobats, but, here, regular people like you and me were learning it for fun. They would swing out hanging on to a flying bar, do a few somersaults in the air, and then land in the arms of a catcher, or fall into a safety net down below. Watching them was a thrilling sight, especially on a cloudless day against the backdrop of the Hudson River and Jersey skyline.

The class was open to everyone. The only condition was age. Not less than eight years. I easily qualified.

However, I chickened out at the last minute. Falling from high above, even though into a safety net, looked a bit hazardous. But the opportunity was there and the fee affordable. I might still muster enough courage to join a future course.

Continuing my search for available opportunities to learn, this time of an intellectual nature, I walked one day into the South Asian Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, to see what summer courses were available. Going through the material posted on the bulletin boards, I was amazed at the variety of courses being offered.

There was a course on Islamic history, Ottoman history, the modern history of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and even one on Urdu literature written about the Partition. Then there were language courses: Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, basic Pashto, and Pashto poetry. As if this was not enough to choose from, there was also a course on learning to play tabla and sitar.

A tabla class in progress

Summer courses like these are called continuing education and are offered to whoever is interested. I wish Pakistani universities would emulate this example and offer summer courses of general interest, not necessarily to earn degrees but for self-enhancement, self-actualization.

I chose to attend the Pashto poetry class. The class teacher was a young American from Maine who had spent considerable time in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He spoke Pashto fluently in the Afghan accent and knew the grammar and nuances of the language better than most educated Pashtuns. A young woman from Baffa, district Mansehra, had joined him, on a Fulbright scholarship, to assist in teaching basic Pashto to beginners. It was interesting to watch young American students struggling with pronouncing some of the Pashto words.

The first two poems we studied were by Ajmal Khattak and Shafiullah Babarzai, an Afghan poet. I found Ajmal Khattak’s poem more relevant to today’s Pakistan than, perhaps, when it was written, many years ago. It is titled Jannat or Paradise. As a home assignment, I attempted to translate it. Here is the poem, translated and paraphrased by me:


I asked a mullah, what do you think is Paradise like?

He ran his fingers through his beard and said

“Fresh fruits and rivers of milk”

A talib (student) was sitting nearby

I asked him, what do you say?

He put aside the book of Zulekha he was reading and said

“Beautiful women with (tattooed) green dots on their cheeks”

A shaikh stood nearby, rolling his rosary

He stroked his beard and said:

“No, it’s not like that!”

“Paradise is beautiful servant boys and heavenly music.”

A khan raised his head from a lengthy sajdah (prostration in prayer)

What is your opinion, Khan Sahib? I asked

He adjusted his turban and said

“The luxuriously furnished and perfumed mansions”

Nearby, a laborer stood in his tattered clothes

I asked him, do you know what Paradise is?

He wiped the sweat from his brow and said

“It’s a full stomach and deep slumber”

A man in disheveled hair passed by, lost in his thought

I asked him, “what do you say, philosopher?”

Smoothing his hair, he said

“It’s nothing but dreams conjured up to please man”

(Confused) I looked down into my heart and then looked up into the blue sky

And heard a murmur in reply:

“Paradise is your home where you are the master, and at liberty;

And if you cannot attain the freedom to be the master of your home,

Then sacrifice on the path to freedom, as an ideal, is Paradise. Be it hellfire or the gallows”

Happiness, as I said in the beginning, is doing things that one enjoys doing. Not necessarily for money but also for self-satisfaction and self-enhancement. And the societies that provide such learning opportunities end up enriching themselves in the process.
Note: Originally published in The News and ATP in October 2009

Here is a recital of the poem. Click on it to listen:

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