Today I had the honor of being a judge at an American Mushaira contest. High school students came to the US Consulate to participate in a competition: reciting poetry by great American poets and also poems that they wrote themselves on the themes of freedom and peace.
It was quite an experience to hear two Pakistani girls reciting Maya Angelou’s Still I rise, another one performing Caged Bird also by Angelou. One student chose a poem by Langston Hughes. There is something about the struggles of African Americans, from slavery to emancipation, and the dignity of their journey, that really appeals to Pakistanis. I remember teaching my writing students the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr.; the class ended with a roaring ovation from the students.
The winning poem was Refugee Blues by WH Auden – I was startled to hear the line “But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews” coming from a Pakistani. And yet what better than poetry to counter anti-Semitism?
Other students wrote their own poems about freedom, peace, and democracy. One girl recited a poem she wrote called “True Democracy” and another, “Peace Between Pakistanis and Americans.” The tone ranged from serious and questioning to light-hearted and laughing. One girl recited Alfred Noyes’s “Daddy Fell Into the Pond” in a strong Pakistani accent with such gusto that the entire room erupted in laughter. Another chose Sonia Sanchez’s “Anthem” and struggled to remember the words, burst into tears, then bravely started over and read the poem from start to finish.
The mushaira is a very desi event: a poetry symposium for Urdu poetry popular in Pakistan, North India, and in Hyderabad Deccan, where a very elegant style of Urdu is spoken by the city’s inhabitants. To pair this event with American and English poetry was an interesting experiment (this has been done with Japanese and French poetry before): the most American of words accompanied by extremely desi ways of performing, gesturing and speaking.
The energy and enthusiasm at the event infected all of us. Students crowded around us (renowned ghazal singer Tina Sani was another judge) for selfies. We handed out prizes and certificates at the end; I recall from my own school days how events like these left a lasting impression that steered me towards a life of literature and writing.
But it was the letter I received from the US Consulate that left me with the lasting impression of the day:
At a time when Trump is threatening to cut funding to the US Foreign Service and to arts programs, this letter makes you realize exactly what is at stake.
Cultural diplomacy and the arts are the soft powers of nations. They bring people together, as I saw today at the American Mushaira. Both the USFS and arts programs do more for peace overseas than most Americans can ever know. To terminate programs like the Mushaira competition or the International Writers Program (a fellowship for international writers to spend three months at the University of Iowa) would be a huge mistake.
Don’t let him do it.