How many billboards?

A lesson in illegibility

Feb 26 2010

Especially in its location on Fairfax Ave just south of Melrose where one drives into Fairfax Village (long-time epicenter of Jewish commerce, kosher stores, and Hebrew signage), the Arabic-derived Urdu script of lauren woods’s billboard—illegible to the average Angeleno, though perhaps not to the city’s large Persian population—carries a political charge that baits our latent or not-so-latent fears based on current geo-politics. The beautiful but perhaps threatening foreign text seems confusing and cryptic, if not confrontational. From right to left, the Urdu script is actually a line of poetry that reads: As long as the earth and the sky last, Smile like a flower in the garden of the world. It is a verse from the prolific medieval Urdu poet Vali Dakhni (aka Vali Mohammed). When we learn (if ‘we’, lay viewers, ever do) that the indecipherable text is not hostile, extremist, nor religious in nature but a line of ecstatic, environmentalist poetry, we may feel embarrassed by our prejudiced presumptions. There is a bit of “gotcha!” tactics at work.

If woods’ billboard offers a teachable moment, then we may as well learn something about the poet she uses to school us: Vali Dakhni developed the ghazal, a modern form of Urdu poetry consisting of rhyming couplets and a refrain. When he visited Delhi, his example initiated a shift in the poets there from writing in the courtly and aristocratic Persian to the more vernacular Urdu; his influence, then, had a populist thrust. He wrote in the regional Dakhni dialect of Urdu, which was early on advanced by the writing of the Sufi sages and associated with southern India. Vali Dahkni (1667-1731 or 1743) was born in Aurangabad and went as a young man to Gujarat in search of a Guru. Studying under Vajihuddin Gujarati, later returning to settled in Aurangabad. His influential trip to Delhi earned him fame and established him as a father of Urdu poetry. He composed 473 ghazals besides masnawis and qasidas. Vali Dakhni died in Ahmedabad and Hindu fascists recently razed to ground his tomb in the aftermath of Godhra riots.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

No responses yet

Leave a Reply