Poem Guide

Agha Shahid Ali: “Tonight”

A contemporary take on an ancient Arabic form.
Cropped black-and-white portrait of Agha Shahid Ali, head turned and looking downwards.

There are no instant classics, but Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazal “Tonight” comes close: appearing in three versions between 1997 and 2003, this version, which is the poem’s last and longest incarnation, gave its title to Ali’s posthumously published Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals. By that time ghazals were frequent and easy to recognize in American poetry, thanks in large part to Ali’s poems, essays, and lectures, which sometimes used “Tonight” as a test case. It is a poem about lost love and loneliness, about Islamic and Western religious inheritance, and—in characteristically evasive ghazal style—about Ali’s life between cultures, languages, and continents, first within and then away from his native Kashmir. It is an exemplary ghazal meant to show Americans how, and why, we should think about the form. And it is a poem given to blasphemous rebellion against religious dogma—a rebellion that itself belongs to the international, multilingual, thousand-year-old tradition of the ghazal.

What is a ghazal? The term (pronounced “guzzle”) originated in Arabic, where it denoted a topic: early Arabic ghazals were lyric poems about erotic love, and like other Arabic poems they used monorhyme (all the lines end on the same sound). Poets of medieval Persia codified the form by employing couplets of uniform meter and length, with the same word or phrase, the radif, at the end of each couplet. A rhyme—the qafia—also appeared in each couplet, twice in the first and once, just before the radif, in all others. All the couplets had to be complete and independent in sense and syntax, almost as if they were separate poems. The final couplet also contained a name (usually the poet’s own name or his pen name, the takhallus). Like other kinds of classical Persian poetry, ghazals had stock phrases and comparisons, shared freely among writers; sometimes the poets cited earlier ghazals directly, or quoted Islamic sacred texts. The form encompassed secular, erotic longing and (as in the work of the poet Jaladdin Rumi) mysticism, in which the Beloved is God. It also lent itself to sung performance and to public contests, called mushaira, in which poets would sing or recite their work.

Persian ghazal form, with its qafia and radif, spread throughout and beyond the Islamic world, from Indonesia to Sweden. It became especially important in Turkish during and after the Ottoman Empire and in the Urdu language under the Mughals, who ruled many parts of what is now India and Pakistan. Mirza Ghalib (1797–1869) and the revolutionary leftist Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911–1984) were masters of the modern Urdu form; contemporary Urdu singers, especially Begum Akhtar (1914–1974), gained broad fame for recordings of classic ghazals.

Agha Shahid Ali (1949–2001) grew up in Kashmir, the violently disputed territory (once an independent state) between India and Pakistan; he and his family lived in the part of Kashmir controlled, since 1947, by India. Most Kashmiris are Muslim, which is one source of friction with India’s large Hindu majority. The poet grew up bilingual in English and Urdu, attending English-language Catholic schools; Faiz and Begum were Ali’s family friends. Ali came to the United States in 1975 as a graduate student in literature and built his reputation as a poet during the 1980s and 1990s, often writing about his homeland. Peaceful for much of Ali’s childhood, Kashmir again turned bloody in 1989, when the Indian army put down an armed rebellion. That violence (which continues, sporadically, today) forms the background for Ali’s 1997 collection The Country without a Post Office, where the first version of “Tonight” appeared.

When Ali translated the ghazals of Faiz in 1991, he used free verse on the grounds that the form’s original rhyme and refrain would be too hard to render into English. But Ali had long been thinking about the ghazal tradition and form, of which American poets—even those who wrote poems they called ghazals—were largely ignorant. Ali devoted his last years to the ghazal. He assembled an anthology (Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English) and wrote an enormous variety of ghazals himself. Many presented his own multilingual heritage; some tacitly imitated Michael Palmer, James Tate, Mark Strand, and other American poets he counted as friends. Many of Ali’s ghazals seemed apolitical, though some commented directly on global trouble spots. And some ghazals’ whimsical leaps from topic to topic challenged the very idea that a poem should be about one thing. The real ghazal, Ali liked to insist, derives its unity from its formal properties of length, rhyme, refrain, and the rest—as for a subject, it ought to be hard to pin down.

“Tonight” may seem hard to pin down—the poet Kazim Ali called it an ars poetica of the ghazal and its independent, colliding fragments serve that purpose. So do its impieties, its religious allusions, and its overlapping figures of national exile, homelessness, religious disillusionment, and hopeless love, each of which comes to stand for all the rest in a kind of playfully flighty lament, a sorrowfully circuitous game. However playful, the ghazal does end up with something to say: about religious tradition and its violent misuse, about Ali’s own place among and between religions, nations and languages; about impossible love, and about lost love; and (as the poet Raza Ali Hasan suggests) about fanaticism and violence in Kashmir.

The games begin with the epigraph, the first line of “Kashmiri Song” by Laurence Hope (pseudonym of Adela Nicolson), whose melodramatic quatrains about lost love each conclude with the word “farewell” (perhaps borrowing from the ghazal form). Set to music in 1902, “Kashmiri Song” became wildly popular in Britain and in the United States. The epigraph amounts to both tribute and insult, thanking the English writer for her interest and then promising to show what a real Kashmiri song (a real ghazal) by a real Kashmiri (writing in English) can do.

A real ghazal, Ali shows, can reflect inner torment—it can console, or confuse. “Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?” “You” are the beloved, but also the listener: are “you” Kashmiri? American? Both? Whoever you are, the poet misses you, no longer falls under your “spell.” He must now live without whatever pleasure or shelter “you” once gave him. (“You,” never “he” or “she”; in the fully traditional Urdu ghazal the beloved is always grammatically male, though his or her real gender may remain unknown.) “You” might also be Kashmir itself, the land that (immersed once again in sectarian strife) had alienated the poet who lived in America, though other Kashmiris (some of them religious militants) now hear its “spell.” If “you” are a human beloved then Ali must be lonely, but if “you” are God, or religion, then Ali has lost much more than a lover, and his ghazal must consider the loss of religious belief.

Much of “Tonight” has to do with religion, with Ali’s place outside or between the restrictive shelters of orthodoxy. Such impiety, even blasphemy, belongs to the ghazal tradition too. The mystical Persian ghazal figures the beloved as God, who is approached directly without need of elaborate laws. The Persian tradition also includes Hafiz, sometimes described as ecumenical or humanistic. And the well of ghazals from which Ali draws also holds the often skeptical or hedonistic Urdu ghazals of Ghalib, who wrote (in Yusuf Husain’s translation) “Faith halts me and unbelief pulls me on,” and who declares (in Robert Bly and Sunil Dutta’s recent version) that “Heaven doesn’t exist.”

Ali draws on older poems throughout “Tonight,” and not only on ghazals. The second couplet quotes a writer who lived (like Ali) in Amherst, Massachusetts. “Where Thou art—that—is Home / Cashmere—or Calvary—the same,” Emily Dickinson wrote, in a poem that Ali quotes elsewhere. The soul, she suggests, can never be without a country, or else it is always already without a country, always in a condition of internal exile. The Dickinson poem that Ali quotes here begins,  “I am ashamed – I hide – / What right have I—to be a Bride.” Dickinson’s “Fabrics of Cashmere” are glamorous apparel, too rich for her. But she will marry nonetheless, “no more ashamed” (her poem concludes) of her “dowerless” status, her lack of material wealth. Ali, however, cannot manage such confidence, quoting only the more troubled, earlier parts of Dickinson’s poem: “‘Me to adorn—How tell’?” Where Dickinson finally declares herself ready for marriage (perhaps to a man, perhaps to God), Ali imagines himself still dispossessed: the “I,” the “me,” who quotes Emily Dickinson here does not know how to adorn himself, nor to what purpose, since the beloved is gone.

Instead he seeks “haven”: “prisons” should open their gates, not to let prisoners out but to take him in. (Both Ghalib and Faiz were really imprisoned and Ali may yearn to become more like them—either to take visible political stands, or simply to write ghazals as vivid as theirs.) To love and be loved in return, to dwell within and be a citizen of a nation, to find oneself at home within a set of religious beliefs, are for Ali attractive forms of confinement, but forms impossible for him, especially (perhaps) since religious intolerance has done such damage to Kashmir.

What if all organized worship (Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and all others) came to seem unbelievable, or pointless, not only to human beings but to God? Such a God would be lonely, and sour too: he might turn against his archangels, freezing them out. So Ali’s fourth couplet suggests. It is also the first couplet without a personal pronoun, and the first to diagnose not Ali’s own malaise but a wider problem in “Western” or “Eastern” culture, or in both.

What problem? Perhaps the modern loss of religious faith; perhaps, instead, the tendency of religions to harden into brittle and mutually incompatible doctrines. Hindu shrines often have statues of heroes and deities (Shiva, Vishnu, and many more); by contrast, Islam, like Judaism, insists that there can be no pictures of the one true God. Such pictures are “idols,” like the idols that Abraham destroys in the Koran and in the Jewish Talmud. Ali’s fifth couplet takes in the icons of Hindu tradition and the iconoclastic strain within Islam and other Abrahamic faiths. That couplet, in which the idols talk back, amounts to a mischievous play with dogma, suggesting that anti-iconic beliefs rely on the very pictures they attack: without them iconoclasts would have no way to prove their commitment. (During the 1990s the Kashmiri conflict destroyed many temples and shrines, most famously the Charar-e-Sharif shrine to a Sufi saint.) Ali’s fifth couplet also plays with the traditions of the ghazal, in which the beloved is herself, or himself, an idol, pulling the singer away from the one true God.

If the fifth couplet rules out religion, what remains? Art, and tradition pursued for the sake of tradition: “mirrored convexities,” as in the architecture and poetry of the sixth couplet’s Mughals, whose Muslim empire included diverse Kashmir. (That empire, renowned at its peak for religious tolerance, collapsed during Ghalib’s lifetime.) To be under the “spell” of these Mughal mirrors is to love and be loved by art. But it is also to enter a mirror, to become double or multiple, as Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri American living within and yet outside Islamic traditions, working in English while thinking of Urdu, was double (or triple, or more) throughout his career.

To be ornate, multiple, and hard to pin down—in Ali, as in his friend James Merrill—is almost always a good thing, and the ghazal itself, with its disconnected couplets, renders its poet multiple too. But to be split up in that way, within this poem, is also to live in disorienting freedom: “He’s left open—for God—the doors of Hell tonight.” We may pity ourselves because we have lost our belief, or pity a God whose Heaven and Hell seem interchangeable, since neither exists. (We may also, if we are angry enough at religious fundamentalists, want to consign their false God to Hell.)

We are deep, at this point, into the religious dimension of the ghazal heritage, in which love and heartbreak stand for doubt and faith. But Ali will not remain trapped in that dimension, nor in any dimension, of his rotating allegory, in which any element can come to stand for anything else. The eighth couplet reverses the vehicle and the tenor, making the smashed idols stand for erotic abandonment. The lover’s heart is an idolatrous temple itself, wrecked and empty when the beloved proves unworthy; a temple looks empty whenever it lacks a “priest,” here a Hindu or else a Buddhist cleric with saffron robes—Ali does not confine his impiety to the Abrahamic faiths.

And yet it is those faiths he contravenes. “Executioners near the woman at the window”—their threat notwithstanding, Ali says, “I’ll bless Jezebel tonight.” Elijah, a prophet in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) and in the Koran, denounced Israel’s wicked King Ahab and his wife, the promiscuous, pagan Jezebel. To damn Elijah and bless Jezebel is seemingly to defy God. Yet it is also to join traditions of antinomian worship, as in some strains of Sufi Islam, in which what sounds like impiety or blasphemy (e.g., praise for wine) expresses the believer’s intense faith (he is “drunk” on God). Such doubling between explicit unbelief (what most American listeners hear) and antinomian, Sufi-influenced piety makes yet another ambiguity within the series of doubles and disunities that make up the poem. (It may also slap at fundamentalists, of several religions, who damn fashionably or scantily dressed women as Jezebels.)

Despite the surface disunities, the poem certainly coheres as a matter of sound. Urdu ghazals have meters based on quantity (syllable length) rather than stress (as in English): Ali insisted that “real ghazals” use constant line length, and indeed all the lines in “Tonight” have 12 syllables. They do not, however, have constant meter: the first couplet is perfectly iambic, the third a mouthful of triplets (pri-sons, let o-pen your gates), the sixth, with its “mirrored convexities,” ametrical. Moreover Ali rhymes stressed with unstressed syllables: “spell” and “expel” with “infidel” and “Ishmael.” Both the rhymes and the syllabics encourage us to ignore the stress accent of English, to emphasize syllables in other ways: the voice may rise in pitch, for example, as it finds the qafia and the radif. And in doing so it may suggest, at least to many American ears, the variable pitch and pace that distinguishes the fluent English of South Asia. Ali is thus (to quote the critic Aamir Mufti) “writing Urdu poetry in English,” learning from his other mother tongue not just in imagery but in sound.

Gazelles are traditional images for an evasive beloved, and here they also make (gazelle-ghazal) a bilingual pun. Is the poet the wounded, dying, captured animal? Or is he the pursuing lover, the hunter (as in so many Petrarchan sonnets) who may never catch his prey? The hunt ends at dusk, with the last of the Islamic calls to prayer. Dusk is also when the poet’s “rivals” assemble, called together by the beloved, who thereby reveals herself as cruel or unchaste. Such an assembly is also traditional in the Persian and Urdu ghazal. If the beloved is God, the rivals might be other, orthodox forms of worship; if the beloved is the land of Kashmir, the rivals might be the members of militant factions, terrorists, or national armies whose “love” for their homelands has sent Ali away. And now the poem—already a maze of mirrored self-description—describes its own end: “This is mere insult, this is no farewell tonight.” Ali’s ghazal claims to contain no formal “farewell,” though “farewell” is indeed a farewell, being the last rhyme (qafia) before the ghazal concludes with the poet’s pen name.

That conclusion does a lot of work. Exclaiming, “And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee,” the poet declares himself a refugee again: he has “escaped,” as an agnostic or an apostate, from the catastrophe of belief, but also “escaped” from the country that he still calls home. Ali thus returns to the intercontinental displacements on which he began the poem. He also returns to quotation: the penultimate line adapts Job 1:15–19, in which four witness bring the good man Job the bad news that all his kin and belongings are gone. “Shahid,” as another of Ali’s ghazals reminds us, means “‘The Beloved’ in Persian, ‘witness’ in Arabic.” The poet presents himself as a witness to the carnage of the clash of orthodoxies (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and so on) throughout history. God Himself might grow sad at such a sight. But of course an omniscient, omnipotent, and incorporeal God would not “sob”: the last line is blasphemy in the context of Job (whose God is always right), and also a sidelong reference to the Christian pietà. Will Ali cast himself as Jesus? As Mary? No, his pen name will be Ishmael, the rejected son in the Bible, the son whom Abraham exiles (Genesis 21:14) but the chosen one, the ancestor of all the Arabs and of the prophet Mohammed, in the Koran. “Call me Ishmael tonight”: with this last, rhyming pen name Ali affiliates himself decisively with Islamic tradition, even if he has rejected Islamic, or any other orthodox, belief. He also performs a virtuosic formal move, since the last line—while it must contain both a final qafia and a name or a pseudonym—does not require that the name be the qafia.

And here again Ali is tricky, doubly allusive, as well as international: “Call me Ishmael” is of course the first sentence of that other story about exile, blasphemy, failed pursuit, and international travel, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. To read “Tonight” again is to catch more such references, perhaps political, certainly religious, literary, polyglot, intercontinental. Some references will emerge for any careful reader, but others might emerge only for those who know more about Ali’s own home region, or for readers familiar with the Urdu, if not also the Persian, Turkish, and Arabic verse whose intricate resources Ali began to open up for Americans through this tormented yet playful paragon of ghazal form.

Originally Published: October 4th, 2010

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. Burt’s books include We Are Mermaids...

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