Preserving the richness of Urdu: A unique quest to keep the language alive and thriving

The Joy of Urdu’s focus on linguistic preservation, cultural enrichment, plus promotion of social justice, and positive change through bilingual presentations and discussions helps ensure that the richness of Urdu remains alive in modern times.

Abdullah Zahid Jun 01, 2024
Zarminae Ansari, proudly displaying the book “Three Tales of Gulistan-e-Saadi,” alongside Joy of Urdu patrons Dr Arfa Sayeda Zehra and Zehra Nigah at the Jashn-e-Rekhta festival in Dubai

The Persian literary masterpiece ‘Gulistan-e-Saadi’, a collection of moral tales and aphorisms by the revered 13th-century poet Sheikh Saadi Shirazi, has a new lease of life with the bilingual publication of three of Saadi’s classic tales. The Joy of Urdu, a volunteer-run, bilingual, international organisation launched in 2013, published the book for its tenth anniversary last year.

The organisation aims to celebrate the richness of Urdu language – the lingua franca and national language of Pakistan – and heritage through diverse perspectives. Multiple chapters in cities around the world develop community through discussions, interactive reading groups, and internship opportunities.

The organisation also celebrated the 88th birthday of Zehra Nigah, the revered contemporary Urdu poet on 14 May, with cultural aficionado and Joy of Urdu Board member Qasim Jafri reading selections from her poetry at Annemarie-Schimmel-Haus in Lahore.

“Persian, much like Arabic, historically served as a supplementary language in education,” comments Joy of Urdu founder Zarminae Ansari, an architect and writer from Pakistan now based in Portugal.

“And it is not as divorced from Urdu as it’s being politically made out to be,” she tells Sapan News over the phone. To the question of why Joy of Urdu chose this text out of a plethora of others for its first publication, Ansari says that these stories from Saadi’s ‘Gulistan’ and ‘Bostan’ hold significant importance for older, predominantly educated families. Presented in rhyming form, these tales helped children learn Persian besides conveying “deeper spiritual and metaphysical meanings” over the years.

'A foundation for learning Urdu'

The painstakingly crafted coffee table book took nearly six years to complete. The attention to layout, production quality, glossary section, end-of-book activities, and illustrations could “earn it a place on readers’ bookshelves alongside their most treasured English books, if not surpassing them in value,” predicts Ansari.

Targeting children, adults, and art lovers, the publication, edited by Ansari, features a foreword by acclaimed professor and linguistic expert Dr Arfa Sayeda Zehra. It was initially launched online through a Facebook livestream last November, with patrons and honorary board members. The occasion also marked the Joy of Urdu’s ten-year anniversary.

“A story may unlock the enchantment of language belatedly, yet it ignites the sparks of imagination early on,” said Prof. Zehra.

The narrative of these three stories transcends human existence, she added. The publication echoes Saadi’s timeless wisdom that has “illuminated the path to ‘sa’adat’ (prosperity) for generations.”

The publication was also launched at two prestigious Urdu festivals in early 2024: Jashn-e-Rekhta in Dubai, January, and at the Faiz Festival in February.

According to a Joy of Urdu press release, the publication is expected to be “a foundation for learning Urdu by providing an alternative to Urdu pedagogy and perception”.

Chloe Mais Hagen, a French teacher and PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota who is learning Urdu supports this view. She points to the side-by-side Urdu-English translation, extensive glossary and other linguistic features that make this a valuable pedagogical contribution.


CAPTION: University of Minnesota pedagogy teacher corroborates Joy of Urdu’s innovative approach to language learning.

Heartfelt video messages have been pouring in on social media, many posted on the Joy of Urdu’s YouTube channel. Zehra Nigah was moved to compose a touching poem titled “Yeh Kahaniyan” (These stories) set to music by the prominent composer Arshad Mahmud

It is often difficult to drum up the community support needed for public service work aiming to build bridges and extend real solidarities. Ansari has been fortunate to have people join the cause and stay with it.

One key supporter is renowned Lahore-based painter and artist Salima Hashmi. Speaking to Sapan News over the phone, she emphasises the sense of disconnection felt by children and adults who are displaced from their native environments. A way to remediate this situation is “perhaps by collecting the stories that adults grew up with and translating them in the shape of a book which would be beautiful to look at, delightful to read, and simply enjoyable to hold.” For her, the real joy lies in the details.

The book incorporates miniature paintings by artist Syed Shah Abdullah Aalmee, designed specifically to engage readers.

Sabeen and resistance

Behind Joy of Urdu’s creation and evolution lies an integral connection with the slain entrepreneur and human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud, who was a firm believer in Ansari’s vision.

Zarmina Ansari had moved from Moscow to Paris in 2014 when she discussed the project with her close friend Sabeen Mahmud. Ansari confided that she felt her professional expertise wasn’t a perfect match for this type of work. Mahmud’s response: “Just do the work, and you’ll get the help you need.”

Mahmud’s wisdom and clarity through their conversations was a key factor in setting up the Joy of Urdu. Ansari admired and emulates Mahmud’s ability to lead projects while remaining unassuming in the background.

In 2015, Ansari was supposed to meet Mahmud in Karachi to discuss the initiative. The meeting never took place, as Mahmud was killed.

Sabeen Mahmud’s death only strengthened Ansari’s resolve to honour her memory and continue the mission they both believed in. “In the next five years, I went underground pouring all my energy into fulfilling the promise I made to Sabeen by focusing on the Joy of Urdu,” she says.

Ten years later, “it’s wild” to think that people will volunteer for an organisation for ten long years. But “It’s not about me; it’s about a ‘cause.’ If others are working for Joy of Urdu, then so am I,” she emphasises.

Mahmud clearly instilled in Ansari a strong sense of moral values, evident in her thoughtful and considerate actions towards those with differing socio-political beliefs.

One notable manifestation of this is the “Poetry of Resistance” campaign, which emerged in response to Israel’s bombing of Gaza after 07 Oct. 2023. This initiative included various programmes, showcasing the work of several renowned Urdu poets like Faiz, Mahmoud Darwesh, and Habib Jalib, focusing on Palestinian resistance.

Since then, Zarminae Ansari has proudly worn a keffiyeh at every significant occasion – even at her first book signing – because “while I’m celebrating that momentous occasion, Palestine and human rights [violations taking place there] aren’t far away from my mind,” Ansari stresses.

Shadow banning

As clips from these shows made their way onto the Joy of Urdu’s Instagram page, accompanied by pertinent hashtags, their account, like many discussing Gaza, experienced shadowbanning, resulting in a reduction of followers.

By then, it’s already been extensively reported that algorithms are being suppressed, comments removed, and hashtags flagged by the microblogging website. Recent revelations further indicate that Meta is adjusting user content settings without consent, defaulting to “limit” political content on the feed, including posts about Gaza. Users can choose to disable this feature.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Joy of Urdu remained active, launching its “#gharbethiyekitabeinparhiye” (stay-at-home-and-read) campaign. It helped “people, especially those in diaspora longing to reconnect with [their] homeland and language.”

Participants ranged from Bollywood singers and politicians to four-year-olds.

Ansari has been juggling resources for the Joy of Urdu. She is the main mover and shaker behind the vision, with team members stepping in as needed. But at one point, the demands caused “extreme depression” and Ansari thought about pursuing government grants.

Seeking guidance, Ansari turned to Mahenaz Mahmud, Sabeen Mahmud’s mother in Karachi. “There was a time when there were many NGos chasing Sabeen, and people assumed she was getting money from thems. She showed no interest and refused,” Ansari recounted Mahenaz revealing.

Mahenaz’s words came as a “sigh of relief” for Ansari who had also assumed Sabeen Mahmud was being funded. “But it completely makes sense that she wasn’t,” Ansari remarked. “Sabeen knew the drill: when they offer you money, they come with their own hidden agendas. And you have got to play by their rules.”

Due to the broader reach and impact of the Joy of Urdu initiative, Ansari now grapples with the hurdle of carrying on without sufficient funding and resources. She hasn’t lost hope. Her motive transcends profit and clout.

“We are not there for likes and follows. We are not influencers or an entertainment hub. Yes, we are struggling and we need money. But we mustn’t lose sight of our mission – to fill a void and provide a service that was not there”, she explains.

The Joy of Urdu now has six books for adults and children poised to enter production soon. There are also plans for merchandise, workshops, and other related projects.

The Joy of Urdu’s focus on linguistic preservation, cultural enrichment, plus promotion of social justice, and positive change through bilingual presentations and discussions helps ensure that the richness of Urdu remains alive in modern times.

(The author is a communications student at the University of Karachi, Pakistan, Views are personal. By special arrangement with Sapan)

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