A Poet of Bangladesh’s Past and Present – a Tribute to Kazi Nazrul Islam on his 120th Birthday

“Of equality I sing: where all barriers and differences between man and man have vanished, where Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians have mingled together.”[i]

Bangladesh’s national poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam (*1899, †1976), sings of equality. He sings of peace. He sings, humbly, of respect and love for humanity, and for his homeland. He sings, hurt, of the divisions he has experienced, the hatred that pervades society. “I have turned mad having seen what I have seen, having heard what I have heard.”[ii] He sings, feisty, of revolt against oppression, and of rebellion against chains of ignorance. Of course, among his four thousand works, not all call out for a common humanity, but it is because of his strife for change that Kazi Nazrul Islam came to be known as the “Rebel Poet”.


His poetry is beautiful even when translated. As a non-Bengali native, it is impossible for me to know how unconceivably beautiful his language must be in his own tongue. His writings are flawless; even his earliest prose is so perfect that no effort could have improved it any further. It flows, so I was told, like a fountain, with a rhythm that wraps around the audience like a warm coat, and at the same time rallies every being to stand up for their rights, fuelling their drive to break out of the familiarity of oppression and ignorance. It is said that his language burns with a flame that is unprecedented in Bengali literature. Nazrul became Bangladesh’s national poet because of how uniquely it lets Bangladesh come to life – its nature, its objects, its symbols (both Hindu and Muslim!), its historical heroes (again, both Hindu and Muslim!), its contemporary hurt. Through his influence on new generations of poets, Bengali poetry as an art came closer to life.


Kazi Nazrul Islam was known as the “Rebel Poet” not merely because of his fiery language, or because of his desire to liberate Bengal from the British. Nazrul was a rebel because he refused to bow to anyone.[iii] It is true that he was a devout Muslim, and a proud Bengali – what he refused, however, was to be shoved into a categorization that he would have to be loyal to as an end in itself. In a speech delivered in Kolkata’s Albert Hall on December 15, 1929, he said:


“Just because I was born in this country and society, I do not consider myself to be solely a subject of this nation and my community. I belong to every country and everyone. The caste, society, country or religion within which I was born was determined by blind luck. It’s only because I managed to rise above these trappings that I could become a poet.”[iv]


Though Nazrul was not uncriticized or unopposed in his time, he gave people little reason to hate him. A devout preacher of religious symbols, he applauded religion if used as a language of love, and praised practices of various religions. Instead, it was fanaticism, superstition and ritualistic behaviour he spoke out against:


“Do consider the honour of martyrdom
more glorious than slavery,
Consider the sword to be nobler than
the belt of the peon,
Do not pray to God for anything petty;
Bow not your head to anyone except God.”[v]


“I am a poet of the present, and not a prophet of the future.”[vi] Nazrul may have claimed that his time may pass, that his writings would become outdated and inapplicable. Considering contemporary incidences of hatred in Bangladesh – riots, violent protests and extra-judicial killings – it is clear Nazrul’s dream has yet to be realized. As the national poet of Bangladesh, his poetry is taught in educational curricula, the national anthem of Bangladesh is a Nazrul song, and his person is celebrated on its own national holiday (today). Why his message has not pervaded society remains a mystery. After all, while Nazrul’s language may be magical and enchanting, his messages are never hidden. The audience need never engage long with his material. Instead, his poetry has been said to “communicate even before [it] is understood.”[vii]

It is true that his memory and dreams carry on in contemporary Bangladesh. In 2012, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister prominently declared:


“We want to build a Bangladesh as dreamt by national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam […] breaking the vicious cycle of poverty. We want to build a Bangladesh where every citizen will enjoy equal and basic rights. There will be no difference between the citizens. Women would enjoy their just rights. I urge all to work towards building such a Bangladesh. May Bangladesh Live Forever.”[viii]


On this day, his 120th birthday, we celebrate his legacy. Yet merely praising him with words is not enough, instead, our love for Nazrul should extend beyond a dull admiration, and encompass the spirit of rebellion that is so famously attributed to him. Our compassion should rise above the boundaries created by religion, caste, and social status, and should extend to joint humanness. Today, the rebel poet still has a cause to rebel for.




[i] Islam, Kazi Nazrul. Rebel and Other Poems. Sahitya Akademi, 2000, page 37

[ii] Choudhury, Serajul Islam. “The Blazing Comet.” New Age Xtra. June 1, 2006. Accessed May 16, 2019.

[iii] Choudhury, Serajul Islam. “The Blazing Comet.” New Age Xtra. June 1, 2006. Accessed May 16, 2019.

[iv] Kazi, Ankan. “Diminishing a Poet.” The Indian Express, June 14, 2017. Accessed May 16, 2019.

[v] Choudhury, Serajul Islam. “The Blazing Comet.” New Age Xtra. June 1, 2006. Accessed May 16, 2019.

[vi] Choudhury, Serajul Islam. “The Blazing Comet.” New Age Xtra. June 1, 2006. Accessed May 16, 2019.

[vii] Choudhury, Serajul Islam. “The Blazing Comet.” New Age Xtra. June 1, 2006. Accessed May 16, 2019.

[viii] Hasina, Sheikh. “113th Birth Anniversary of Poet Kazi Nazrul Islam and 90th Year of His Poem ‘Rebel’.” Address, India-Bangladesh Joint Celebration, Dhaka, May 25, 2012.

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Freedom Book Fair: Canan Marasligil

This article is published on magazine, written by Tine Lavent.

She is writing a book about translation and why she translates. In French, dotted with Turkish words when her heart calls for it. Canan Marasligil’s poems, artistic practice, and workshops revolve around creating space. A safe space, to exchange thoughts about women’s rights, migration, languages and translation, female desire, writing and representation. At the 2019 edition of the Freedom Book Fair, she will moderate a talk about feminist poetry, hold a poetry translation workshop, and lead a discussion about reclaiming space through writing. “I’m not interested in someone saying thanks to the Dutch freedom you have space, as opposed to Afghanistan where you are in danger.”

With the City in Translation project, Canan Marasligil took fellow modern-day flâneurs on a walk through the city, on a friendly hunt for languages. The quest led their gaze from the walls’ bricks to paving stones and back, to collect the written word from T-shirts of passers-by, signboards above shop windows, and plastic wraps among trash left on the sidewalk. With the urban landscape as a canvas, the workshop led participants to observe how many languages actually flaunt through cities—and to imagine or document how this came about.

This endeavor started in 2015, yet the writer/translator has not slowed down since. The focal point of (almost) everything she does is, as simple and complicated as it is, words. Languages. “The reason I translate is very personal,” she says. “I grew up in Brussels, in a Turkish family. This means I grew up in a country surrounded by lots of stereotypes about being Turkish and being from a Muslim country. When you grow up in such an environment you always feel the need to say: no, I’m more than what you think! I’m more than that!” This was the very reason why Marasligil, at a young age already, started translating. Mostly songs, and other scattered fragments from Turkish popular culture. “Translation has always been a necessity for me. The older I got, the more I understood the power of translation and the power of letting other people know that we have many languages in our lives, and that this is a form of richness. My mother tongue is —if you wish— Turkish, but I grew up primarily in French and my French is better than my Turkish. So if you ask me, French is also my mother tongue. Yet I was told that I couldn’t write in French because it is not my mother tongue. I try to break through the idea that writing and translating literature is only for a certain elite, who ‘master’ certain tools.”

“I don’t believe in mastering a language. When we talk about mastering a language, we become exclusive. It’s possible to do wonderful things with languages without ‘mastering’ them. It’s a very problematic word because it excludes many, many people using the language. What about people who have learned it as a third or fourth language? Not allowing people to use a language is a way of silencing them. I’m more interested in what people have to say, than how.”


Migration, nationality, identities. She uses questions about translation to tackle these issues. In between the Book Fair of Arras (France) and a translation conference at the University of Amsterdam, Marasligil will join the Freedom Book Fair in line with her work on freedom of expression, artistic freedom, and social justice. Leading a panel on feminist voices through poetry, she will explore how women from Honduras and Afghanistan write poems, and the topics they write about. “I love to look at different places in the world and how, through poetry, voices in a variety of contexts find a common language. It creates a common space where we are able to go beyond certain issues and move people to a basic human level. Poetry has the power to transcend discourses. It’s emotion. It goes to the heart of how people feel and I believe in that power, very much so.”

Inspired by Lety Elvir’s book on women’s poems of protest and resistance from Honduras, Marasligil has carefully selected a number of poems for a translation workshop that reflects her anti-elitist train of thought. “I’ll propose a somewhat literal translation of these poems. People participating don’t necessarily have to know the original language they were written in. I’ll explain what they are about, and based on these tools, they can translate the poems themselves, free to create something new, far from a perfect translation. We’ll use this workshop as an excuse to share our views about poetry, resilience, feminism…” Marasligil bursts out laughing. “We are breaking the rules of language and translation —we care about the process itself— and create something brand new.”

History Geography is the one poem she continuously recommends. It is written by Turkish Armenian poet Karin Karakaşlı. “About the Armenian genocide,” Marasligil adds. “But when you read it, it can touch upon so many other things. That’s what I love about poetry, and this poem in particular. It shows how land doesn’t belong to anyone, and that we ought to think beyond geographies. We could be more than geography, than nations.”

“What can be done to help our colleagues in countries where freedom of expression is at stake, without putting them in danger, and without patronising? That is what the Freedom Book Fair is doing in The Hague, without saying we are here to save you, but more we are here to create a shared space and be equals.” Based on her experience as a literary curator, Canan Marasligil is aware of the pitfalls of puzzling over a critical program about freedom of expression. “I’m not interested in someone saying thanks to the Dutch freedom you have space, as opposed to Afghanistan where you are in danger. The team behind the Freedom Book Fair is careful when choosing thematics, and stay away from stereotypes. They also question themselves and their own role to create true solidarity and action. Because solidarity without action, without creating space, is useless.”

Canan Marasligil @ Freedom Book Fair

Freedom Book Fair — 2,3,4 May 2019 — Migratie Museum (Hoge Zand 42, The Hague)