Pakistani Ghazals, Aik Alif

Bassam Tariq is a Boing Boing guestblogger who is the co-author of 30 Mosques. A blog that celebrated the NYC mosques during the Islamic month of Ramadan. He lives in Harlem, NY.

Ghazals are traditional Sufi poems that contemplate life, the meaning of our existence and the countenance of God. Some renowned writers of such poetry are Jalal-uddin Rumi, Bulleh Shah, Mirza Ghaleb, etc.

It's important to understand that many of these mystics (i.e. Rumi) were deeply rooted within the Islamic tradition and didn't separate themselves from it. There have been many movements, primarily in the West, trying to separate Sufism from Islam. But I'll leave that rant for another post.

I am happy to share with you two renditions of a very famous ghazal, Aik Alif (translated One Alif). Alif is the first letter in the Arabic alphabet. A very fitting title for a poem that talks about how difficult we make our life and forget to look within ourselves and see where we all come from. The ghazal was written by Bulleh Shah.

The video above is a traditional ghazal performed by Abeda Parveen. Abeda is one of Pakistan's most respected and prized performers. The second performance is a more dynamic one. Noori, a Pakistani rock band, collaborates with Saioon Zahoor, a simple darweesh who spent most of his life performing in durghas (mausoleums). Both renditions are nothing short of brilliant.


  1. That first video is a revelation! Her voice calls up the strength, emotion, and punctuation of Janis Joplin. She embodies the same soulfulness and urgency. I love it! Thanks for sharing, and I will certainly seek out more of her recordings. Any suggestions on where to start?

  2. Ghazals bring up thoughts of Pasha Malla for me lately. Let me quote his 2008 book of poetry, “All our grandfathers are dead.”

    This is from the section, “Challenging popular ideas of mediocrity.”

    Ghazal for Allah

    just kidding.”

  3. That was absolutely wonderful.

    Makes me wish I understood more Urdu than I do. I have read Ghalib’s poetry and it is absolutely wonderful, even translated into English, but I’m sure it is even better in Urdu.

  4. Beautiful. I don’t know which rendition I prefer, but both are simply beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I discovered the style some years ago, thanks to WNYC’s _New_Sounds_ program (which is webcast, has some listenable archives, and is just plain wonderful for finding out about music you wouldn’t otherwise encounter). Always liked it… but it’s very nice to have some subtitles so we can appreciate the thoughts as well as the pure musicality.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. What an expression of the divine!

    I was led to find more of the Coke Studio sessions after the second video, and was delighted to discover that the official site offers free high-quality mp3 downloads (320 kbs) of the songs — here’s the link directly to Aik Alif:

  7. thank you, thank you!

    how I love qawali, the only music that could possibly trump tuareg teshumara in my heart…

    I was lucky enough to see Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan live a couple of times.

    I’m really loving the posts from Bassam & Aman, thanks!

  8. I was lucky enough to see ‘The Manganiyar Seduction’ in Dublin recently

    Fantastic performance – 42 wonderful musicians/singers.

  9. oops – I meant to add that if you do get the chance to see the Manganiyar Ensemble, don’t pass it up. I was spellbound for the entire performance. Each singer was fantastic and I felt like I was getting a guided tour of the entire ouevre.

  10. Aaaahhh, the day Coke Studio meets BB is a great day indeed.

    Shukriya, Bassam Bhai…very well done.

  11. People seem to seem to confuse ghazals with other things. Ghazal is a discipline of poetry, in which a a number of unrelated ‘shair'(two-line stanzas) are connected only by rhymes and meter. The content can be about anything, not just God or mysticism, and can vary from shair to shair. Since the meter and rhyme is so important, these are popular among musicians.

    FYI, the poets mentioned all did poetry in different languages.

  12. Excellent! Thanks for posting these videos. I liked them both, although I couldn’t stand to watch the second video all the way through.

    I don’t know anything about Coke Studio, but I presume it’s a way of getting the brand name seen and mentioned by the target demographic, presumably young people raised on MTV and fast edits. That’s why the director, editor, and camera operators all collaborate to intentionally keep everything moving at all times. Bassam: “The second performance is a more dynamic one,” indeed!

    Once I noticed the continuous left-right-repeat panning at 00:43-00:48 and especially at 00:51-01:00, I just couldn’t notice anything but the obvious deliberate priority of camera motion over actually showing the performers. The sole static shot is of the drummer at 01:09-01:11, which I assume to have been a mistake.

    It’s as if the whole thing was shot for use in television commercials. I am sure any clips would be great for such commercials, but watching that constant you-can’t-catch-us videography for seven minutes is too much. It’s like watching the The Bourne Ghazal with Matt Damon on the run in Pakistan.

    Now I’m off to buy myself a lawn, so that I can yell at kids to get off it.

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