Meet Zareefa Jan: A Kashmiri sufi poet who writes poetry in her own language of circles

Zareefa Jan has written approximately 300 poems to date.

Zareefa Jan – a Sufi poet who writes poetry in her own coded language of circles.

Zareefa Jan, a 65-year-old Sufi poet, created her own coded language to archive her poetry. She lives in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district in India and never went to school. While Zareefa can speak her native Kashmiri language, she can’t read or write in it. Therefore, she created her own language to record her poetry on paper.

Zareefa Jan’s initiation into poetry

Speaking to a media outlet, the poet shared:

I started doing poetry a few years after my marriage when I was in my late thirties. I had gone to fetch water from a nearby brook when I lost all sense of the world around me and fell into a kind of a trance. When I came to, I had lost my pitcher and felt like a different person altogether. Upon regaining my senses, I just uttered a ghazal.

She further stated:

Until then, I had no idea of what poetry was because I had never read it. But ever since, I have written hundreds of poems and gazals.

She read out a few lines from one of her poems:

Panie soaraan aam yawuniyey
Lalwuniyey thovtham naar.
Yawun myon chambi dulwuniyey
Yi chu samsara napaidaar.

(I didn’t destroy my youth as a fire kept nourishing me. My youth is insubstantial in the transient world.)

“No one can read this language, but me,” says Zareefa Jan.

Initial struggles with documenting poetry

Eventually, Zareefa Jan realized that she had a penchant for poetry. However, she struggled with recording her poetry. Her children were learning to read and write in English and Urdu at school, but her poems would come to her in Kashmiri. Therefore, she deemed it futile and unjust to ask the children to learn another language to help her.

So for a while, Zareefa tried to memorize her poems but she could only remember a few of her works; most were lost to memory with time. After giving up, she finally mustered the courage to involve her family and ask for their help in the documentation of the poetry.

Zareefa’s family was amazed at the content of her poems. Initially, her son Shafaat tried to record them on tape. Then, her elder daughter, Kulsum, tried to write them down with the little Kashmiri she knew. However, Zareefa was unhappy with both ways of archiving. She said:

I can’t take my children with me everywhere I go to read my poetry and ask them to whisper my 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.

Here is an image of Sufi poet Zareefa Jan’s language of circles.

Zareefa devises her own documentation technique

Deterred by all other ways of recording poetry, Zareefa Jan devised her own technique. Whenever she had a thought, she’d grab a page and draw different shapes of things on it. Explaining her way of writing, she said:

If there were an apple as a word in my poem, I’d draw an apple; if there were a heart, I’d draw a heart. Later, whenever my daughter had the time, I would decode those shapes, and Kulsum would write down the poem in a conventional script. But I am illiterate, and I had never held a pen before. So everything I drew was just a different shape and size of a circle. Like, even if I drew a banana, it would be circular!

As time went on, the circular shapes proved to be a good cue for the Sufi poet to remember her lines until her daughter could note them down. However, it all came to a stop three years ago when Kulsum suddenly passed away. In grief, Zareefa neglected to document her poems for a time until she decided to revisit those circular shapes.

Speaking about starting again, Zareefa said:

I realized that the many years of assigning my own meaning to my circles had helped me create an alphabet of sorts. Only I can read it, but I am content with that. It’s not even a fixed lexicon where one shape always stands in for a particular meaning. It keeps evolving as I give the circles meaning that only I can remember and decode. This is my language, the language of circles; I’ve developed it over the years.

Zareefa’s son Shafaat said:

Nobody in the world can read those lines except my mother.

Zareefa Jan has written approximately 300 poems to date. Now her family is trying to get her work published in both her coded scripture and its conventional transliteration side by side.

Experts dubious of Zareefa Jan’s language of circles.

Experts speak about Zareefa’s language

According to experts, Zareefa might be the first poet in the world to have created her own alphabet to preserve her creations. Seraj Ansari, an Urdu teacher, said:

As a student and teacher of poetry, I haven’t seen this kind of thing anywhere in the world of poetry. If what she is saying is true, then she is probably the first poet in the world to do so.

While most experts have praised Zareefa’s poetry and unique language, some experts are also dubious of her claims. These experts suspect that Zareefa really remembers her poetry and only pretends to read it from her circles. To negate the criticism, one of the oldest and most revered Sufi poets in Kashmir, Ab Kareem Parwana, said:

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.

The Sufi poet Zareefa Jan has attracted major praise and acclaim from experts in the field. People are now eagerly waiting for her work to be published and distributed for the masses to read and admire.

Story originally published in Vice

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