Most of us are part of some WhatsApp group or another. There are times when everybody is quiet for days, then there are times when all members start chatting good-naturedly. Or sharing pictures and videos. On one of these good days, one of my cousins sent a picture on a WhatsApp group:


The writing is in Urdu. A rough translation: One should have zarf even when asking for forgiveness. Those with less/little/smaller zarf never ask for forgiveness.

Now, what on Earth is zarf?

Mustering every bit of courage and swallowing each bit of shame, I (a Pakistani, whose national language is Urdu, and who should know things like these) ventured to ask what zarf meant. My cousin aptly replied, ‘Zarf is the only word for zarf in Urdu’.

She was right, but this frustrated me to no end. After asking around for a while, my sister finally gave me the meaning. It was so beautiful, and it went something like this.

zarf is like a bowl in someone’s heart. Some people have bigger bowls whilst others have smaller ones. The bigger the bowl, the more of everything a person can put in it. The bigger the bowl, the more a person can handle. The bigger the bowl, the more a person can tolerate and endure and bear. But the way she explained it made it obvious that the person doesn’t only tolerate these things. He acknowledges them, addresses them, accepts them, then places them in his bowl. He does not let them go. They are in there, in the bowl that is symbolic of his zarf. They have taught him a valuable lesson through his ability to handle and persevere, and they are now a part of him.

The more he places in the bowl: his mistakes, his failures, his successes, his trials; the more he grows as an individual. The size of his bowl allows him to absorb all these lessons with ease. The person ends up a lot more open to all sorts of tribulations that one is wont to experience in this custom-designed journey we call life.

This is still not a perfect definition of zarf. I really do hope you see the depth of the Urdu language through this, though. Urdu is so poetic and heartfelt, it touches chords in your heart you never knew existed.

For a quick analysis, pick out one word for me from the English language that can be used as a synonym for zarf. Would it be ‘bowl of the heart’? That is not even one word, and it sounds so dry.

Sorry folks, English is a dry language. In fact, it’s almost robotic.


This is a book excerpt. This is an excerpt from the Peter and Jane series. This excerpt is an example. This excerpt is an example of how dry English can get sometimes.

Dr Seuss, I like you, but here’s another example:


I like Dr Seuss, I really do. But sometimes his words can be a bore, boo hoo!

Of course, you have amazing English poets and writers, but the power of their words cannot be compared to the words of an Urdu writer or poet. Something written in Urdu can have such a profound impact because it literally touches your heart. I don’t care how corny that sounds, it is true.


urdu poets
Pakistani poets and writers. From upper left picture, moving clockwise: Muhammad Iqbal, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Mirza Ghalib, Ahmad Faraz

There are many other words in Urdu which have no literal English translation: such is their depth and intensity.

This piece was about a language that is possibly the second most beautiful in the world. Which is the first? The first was the one saving grace of a civilisation that could not possibly be further away from civility. Steeped in ignorance as these people were, their language was so poetic and so mesmerising that an entire book was revealed in this miracle of a tongue as a source of guidance. It is said that this book can never be reproduced because of the complexity of its structure and the rhythm of its words.

Here is only one example of this language’s beauty.


In English, you either have a friend or you don’t.

I looked up images for zarf on Google. Here’s what I got.


Oh, Google. For a top-scoring search engine, you’re pretty thick.