The following is a guest post from Samia Khan, who works as a classification assistant in the Library of Congress Office of Workforce Acquisitions.
When Rob Casper asked me to write a post about my personal experience with poetry and literature, I was initially clueless. A History major in college, I hadn’t really read or recited poetry since 11th grade. But digging deeper—past college, past high school—I remembered how poetry was actually part of my childhood.
My family has a close-knit group in Columbia, South Carolina that emigrated here from Pakistan. All of our parents are close friends, and all of us kids grew up like second siblings. Once, after a dinner party at our house, we were hanging out watching TV in the living room and realized there were no parents where they would usually be—in the living room, in the kitchen, in the dining room. It was only after we looked around that we realized there was laughing coming from the basement. We rushed down the stairs to see the parents in a circle. Dr. Mohiuddin was singing, and the rest of the adults were joining in—they were having an impromptu Mushaira.
A mushaira is a symposium of poets and comedians performing songs, jokes, and of course melodic poetry. In Pakistan, poetry is the most highly revered form of expression, and poetic form is found in all aspects of Pakistani culture. The word “mushaira” comes from the Urdu word “shairi” or poetry. Therefore, a mushaira is a literal performance of poetry. The poets gather together and freely recite couplets to one another in front of an audience. They also poke jokes at one another, and build off of each other’s performances. In American culture, I imagine a mushaira would be akin to a comedians’ “roast” or improvised acting, because the performers and audience play off one another.
As a child, I knew what a mushaira was, but before then I had never seen one live. Even now, my Urdu is a little shabby, so I often had a hard time understanding the lyrical intricacies of the Urdu employed in the mushaira–it would be like someone learning English hearing a recitation of Shakespeare’s sonnets. When I heard recordings of them growing up, I would often have to ask my parents what certain words meant. Nevertheless, I could always tell when one of the poets had made an impressive recitation because the audience members would chant “wah wah!” easily understandable as “wow wow!”
As a first generation Pakistani-American, I feel proud of my heritage. That night, my friends and I saw our parents in a different light, sharing a cultural bond and legacy—something we would inherit and be able to appreciate as we entered adulthood. Does your family have a unique cultural tradition that involves poetry, literature, or song?
Feel free to share in the comments!