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This Sufi poet writes in a language of circles she created9 min read

September 14, 2021 6 min read


This Sufi poet writes in a language of circles she created9 min read

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Have you ever thought about how people communicated when there was no language?

Scientists believe that our ancestors from a million years ago used hand gestures to communicate.

Image: Giphy

This claim is supported by fossil fuels that show that the earliest humans stopped using their knuckles for walking around the same time. Sign language would have also suited earlier communication styles especially during hunting as any sound would alert the target.

But vocal tracts continued to evolve so that sign language could also evolve towards specificity making it possible to converse in the dark.

Image: Giphy

Some scientists (including the famous Charles Darwin) believed that singing came before speaking in humans. This same tendency is mimicked by other members of the natural world like monkeys who can recognise dissonant tones, and songbirds who use difficult patterns of pitch and rhythm.

But then, unlike other species, humans developed a need to converse about life, politics, and more. And so language began emerging as symbols of speech, where each symbol stood for a sound. If you think about it, isn’t language quite arbitrary? Is there anything about the letters c, a, and t that resemble a cat? But we have decided to go ahead and call a purring fluffy animal (like our very own resident expert, Billi) thus that.

Now that you know where language came from, have you ever wondered what it means to be able to read and write?

There is great privilege associated with the ability to read and write a language, also called literacy. But not everyone has access to the same means. More than 287 million people in India are illiterate. This means that they cannot read or write in any language. So, how do people communicate then? Well, they still have speech.

And today, we bring to you the story of a pathbreaking Sufi poet, Zareefa Jan, who never went to school but created her own alphabets to document her work! What makes it even more exclusive is that she is the only one who can decode them. She could very well be the only poet to have ever created her own language.

Let’s get to know this persevering poet, shall we?

Image: Vice


areefa Jan is a 65-year-old poet who lives in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district. She never went to school and as a result, she cannot read or write in any language. She can speak her native Kashmiri language. But this language too is dying as it is not a regular subject in local schools. She found poetry all of a sudden when she was on her way to fetch water from a nearby brook. She claims that she lost all senses and found herself in a trance. When she finally gained back her senses, a gazal (a poem or an ode originated in Arab poetry) escaped her mouth. She had lost her pitcher while altogether becoming a different person.

Image: Vice

This is what a page of her poetry looks like— it is a piece of paper with several circles drawn on it. A closer inspection will reveal that each circle is slightly different than the other, some being smaller, some having more lines, some bigger etc. They are laid out in lines, written from right to left. This is how Urdu, and Kashmiri scripts are written.

And this is how Zareefa, the Sufi poet was born.

Sufi is a mystical form of Islam, in which Sufis aim to experience direct and personal experiences with God.

Image: Giphy

Before this monumental meeting with poetry, Zareefa had no idea what it is never having read it. But ever since, she has composed hundreds of gazals and poems. She came into poetry at a time when her children were starting to learn English and Urdu in school. But they had limited knowledge of Kashmiri, the language she spoke. She did not want to ask them to learn another language just for her. At that time, she also was not sure if she wanted to share her poetry with others.

But she mustered the courage to share her mystical talent first with her husband, and then with her children, who were left awed by the content of her poems. Unfortunately, she could only memorise few of her poems and lost some in the absence of a written archive.

Image: Vice

Her son, Shafaat, began recording them on tape. Her elder daughter, Kulsum, began recording it on paper with the little Kashmiri she knew. But these methods also made Zareefa dependent on her children.

I can’t take my children with me everywhere I go to read my poetry and ask them to whisper my own lines into my ear so that I can say them out loud for others… Also, my children can’t be with me every time I have a thought and want to record it, either on tape or on paper.

Zareefa Jan, Vice

This is when she came up with another idea. She started drawing out her poems! Whenever a thought came to her, she drew different shapes on a piece of paper that would help her remember the words when Kulsum would later note it down. Most of the drawings were quite literal.

If there was an apple as a word in my poem, I’d draw an apple; if there was a heart, I’d draw a heart.

Zareefa, Vice

But Zareefa had never held a pen before, and whenever she tried to draw different objects, they invariable ended up looking like circles. Regardless, they worked as a good cue! This process lasted three years until Kulsum’s sudden demise.

Image: Vice

In her grief, she gave up on her writing for a while only to return to the circular shapes. This is when she found that she had created a sort of alphabet for herself— an alphabet that was only accessible to her. It is a language that she continues to evolve that only she can remember and decode.

These circular lines are now contained in books that hold these poems together coming to a whooping 300! Her family hopes to get it published in her own code alongside a transliteration.

Image: Vice

Ab Kareem Parwana, one of the most revered Sufi poets in Kashmir, believes Zareefa to be a mystic marvel:

No poet in the world can remember everything they have written…I have not seen or heard of anyone in my lifetime saying they remember their entire poetry collection. She is a mystic poet, and in mysticism, everything is possible.

Parwana, Vice

Do you want to read some of Zareefa Jan’s exclusive poetry? Rearrange the phrases below to decode it:

With excerpts from Vice, and NPR.

(In the Spotlight is a weekly column that features people who are in the news for all the right reasons)

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