The bygone worlds of Naseem Hijazi
It is said that reality is stranger than fiction itself. If we were to collect a record of reality, it would
surpass fiction in its twists and turns.
Nowhere is this strange fact more apparent than in historical fiction, the genre where we recreate times gone by. Though the official genre is perhaps only a few
centuries old, its roots and prototypes go way back. Every major nation and language group in the world has produced historical fiction. I mean who wouldn’t want to re-imagine themselves and their history. We all like to think that our past was greater than our present.
Urdu language and its speakers are not far behind either. It has its fair share of historical reimaginations. But if we were to trace this genre’s birth, development and popularity in Urdu, there is one name that would stand out. One name that carried Urdu historical fiction almost single-handedly to its peak. That name is Naseem Hijazi, the great storyteller of our history.
Born as Sharif Hussain in Colonial Punjab, this odd creator of medieval tales went on to become a household name over the latter half of 20th century. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that even today, most people can only think of Naseem Hijazi when they discuss historical fiction in Pakistan. Readers, particularly from the older generations, have most probably read at least one or two Hijazi novels in their lifetime. Khaak aur Khun, Shaheen, Gumshuda Kaflay, Qaiser o Qisra and many more are still found in the old collections of many bibliophiles. For many people, he was often their gateway into South Asian and Islamic history.
It would be quite a task to describe Hijazi’s complete work, simply owing to the large collection of novels he produced in his career. Unfortunately, his legacy has also been tarnished with unfair accusations on his ideology. But the purpose of this little piece is not to discuss Hijazi’s personal beliefs and ideas. That would be unfair to him and to the many potential readers who have yet to discover his work. As a novelist, there is no denying that he was in a league of his own. He understood the art of story-telling in ways that very few of his contemporaries and successors could. Here, we look at four things that made Naseem Hijazi a master of his craft and why his novels were and still are so addictive. It is a lesson in excellent story-telling. Here we go:
As far as historical fiction is concerned, this goes without saying that accurately recreating history is central to a novel’s quality. If a writer can manage to put you mentally in the time period they write about and to make you care about it, then they have succeeded.
It would be an understatement to say that Naseem Hijazi was successful. He was more than that.
Hijazi is often compared to Sir Walter Scott (the first great historical novelist), in that both men rewrote a romanticized form of history, often simplifying their medieval worlds. However, it could well be argued
that he was ahead of Walter Scott in many ways. He is more in the league of other historical fiction giants like Maurice Druon (Accursed King Series) and Dorothy Dunnett (Lymond Chronicles). These writers did not just rewrite history, they breathe new life into it. Similarly, in Naseem Hijazi’s works you don’t just read history, you live inside it.
A typical Hijazi novel experience will transport you to the time period he wants to take you to. In his novels, there aren’t just plain descriptions of food where you simply read about what is being served, you can actually inhale the odor and feel the taste of that food. You don’t just passively read the dialogue of traders in Medieval Bazaars, you can listen to their voices and arguments clearly. You can imagine yourself sitting inside one of the shops watching two people from 12th century bargaining over a piece of medieval cloth. You are not supposed to just sit tucked in your bed skimming through a battle description. You’ll discover yourself standing inside the battlefield and seeing without your own eyes the cavalry charges, hearing with your own ears the passionate speeches, and find your heart beating fast as the tense atmosphere of a contest overtakes you.
It’s a blockbuster experience and one that makes it hard for anyone to put down Hijazi’s books once they’ve started. This is down to the pain-staking research he undertook before writing his novels. The past feels alive because the author spent significant time trying to understand it before penning it down. Interestingly though, this is hardly his strongest point. Let’s move on to that.
Choice of Story
As a historical writer, Hijazi had a rich variety of events and narratives to choose from. He could’ve written celebratory odes to any Golden era of Muslims or to times where they reigned supreme. That sort of self-glorification is what many of his contemporaries did without compromise and in fact, some of his readers and admirers do too. Naseem Hijazi refused to do the same.
Most of his novels are written in truly testing periods of Islamic history. His stories are set in time where the world of his protagonists is falling apart. The fall of Spain, the invasions by Mongols, the debauchery of Umayyad’s and Abbasids, the fall of India to British. His narratives describe upheaval, tragedy, and permanent change where the old order is always falling apart and a new destructive alien force is taking over.
Very few of his novels are ever set in a historically amicable era, where the characters do not have to constantly worry for their lives, beliefs and culture.
This deliberate choice of destructive time is Hijazi’s distinctive signature. This is what brings a sense of poignancy to his stories and why they will leave you far more emotional than you expected. His novels do not always have nice endings nor is there always a great celebration in the end. There is a sense of loss, a bit of pathos in how Hijazi’s stories unfold.
Obviously, tragedy is not all that Hijazi has to offer. There is hope embodied in his characters too.
Tragic worlds often call for brave people. Hijazi understood this better than anyone else.
His harsh and cruel worlds are perfectly complemented by his larger-than-life protagonists. They are smart, patient, brave, persevering and honorable. They understand the threats to their societies and are willing to fight against them.
Hijazi’s characters are often described as ‘ultra-perfect and flawless’ by some critics. Some of this is true because he deliberately chose to create historical figures not as they were, but as we would imagine them to be. Put simply, his characters are heroes in the most classical sense of the word. Thus, many of the warriors, queens, priests and scholars Hijazi recreated are always shown at their best and finest. For instance, Hajjaj bin Yousef of Hijazi’s novels is just a great general and a concerned family man. He is not the same controversial guy who marched onto Mecca with an army.
However, despite their perfection, his characters do not feel annoying or overbearing in the least. This is because despite their personal brilliance, they are always on the losing side. They are the ones who are fighting against the tide of time. They are the ones who are getting slaughtered, maimed and destroyed. From the heroes who tried to stop the Spanish Inquisition to the lone Tipu Sultan who bravely defied the
invading British, his protagonists are always waging a battle that they are pre-destined by history to lose.
We all know that Mongols destroyed Baghdad, that the Partition train passengers were laughtered, that the British eventually defeated Tipu Sultan. It is the struggle in these events that we desire to see and Hijazi excelled at showing it. This is also why he traces his character arcs in a way that few did. His belief was that if a reader wanted to follow someone’s story in a tragic world, it had to be a hero’s.
His novels contain such a vast tapestry of characters from every possible spectrum of life that you can never feel left out. His stories will describe the life of a peasant with just as eagerness as that of a Badshah. And let not this description fool you into thinking that the novels were just about good people doing good things. His novels are filled with intrigue, deception, politics and feats of audacious cunning. He was not afraid to let the villains win either. All this goes hand in hand with the cruel worlds Hijazi portrays.
For any fan of historical fiction, this ought to be enough to make a novel addictive and attentiongrabbing. But, there’s one final thing that firmly cemented his spot as a true master of this genre.
Art of Climax
Very few writers, particularly in modern Pakistani literature, understand the art of building a climax. It takes effort to hold onto your cards, hide away information, and push back against the temptation to give away the ending early. Many venerated writers of Pakistani fiction failed at this. Which is why it is surprising that Hijazi so breezily accomplished it, and that too for decades.
Hijazi’s novels do not have climaxes that you would expect. Yes, the novels are full of epic set-pieces. Battles, sieges, hurricanes, duels, chases are all there in abundance in his novels. However, never has a Naseem Hijazi novel ever peaked at a battle or a major set-piece. These large-scale events are wellknown and decided in history. Hijazi doesn’t want you to feel excited at them. We all know what happens in the events mentioned in the story. Spain fell, Mongols conquered everyone, and British overtook India. His novels climaxes are never about those events, they are about people in those events.
The most unknowable, worrisome and thrilling moments of his novels come from the personal stories of individual characters. The background maybe a war or a mega-scale event but it is the individual character’s fate that he wants you to worry about. Has the protagonist live through the bondage? Were they able to escape from the barbarians? Will they manage to come out of this siege alive? These are the questions that are going through the reader’s mind as the novel goes through its final act.
In one of this famous novels Aaakhri Marka, set during Mahmud Ghaznavi’s ransacking of Somnath temple, Hijazi takes less time on the battle itself. Instead he spends several pages making his readers dread about the dying protagonist who has been jailed in a highly secret chamber of the temple and whose odds of being discovered are nearly zero. So while the battle outside was important, for the protagonist the real horror is his own fate. And this horror is felt by the reader because while we know that Somnath was conquered, the reader has no way of knowing if the protagonist survived or not. There is simply no historical record available for that.
Hijazi pulls this trick several times, in many of his novels, where he makes the readers feel the real threat always present for his protagonists. The personal battle is made far more exciting than the grand battle.
It is perhaps Naseem Hijazi’s misfortune that his own beliefs and ideologies are conflated with his work. Some of it is down to the fact that he is accused of misguiding young people into a fall sense of glorification. This is an unfair accusation simply because this argument could be made just about any other Pakistani author too. When Hijazi was writing about Islamic history, he definitely did not think that one day his fiction would be associated with dangerous ideas. For he is, by far and large, one of the
finest proponents of Urdu fiction. His stories prompted many young readers into studying history and to look into the past. His own craft serves as a glowing sample of great story-telling and world-building. If you are a young person who wishes to write historical fiction or even fantasy in Urdu, you have Hijazi’s works as a ready-made blue print. All of you have to do is to pick up any of his several books. If you were to ask me, I’d recommend starting with Shaheen.
By Hamza Sarfraz, a recent graduate interested in studying Pakistani pop culture and fiction.