|'Here lies a man...'
DAWN - Mazdak; 22 May, 1999
DAWN - Mazdak; 22 May, 1999
'Here lies a man...'
By Irfan Husain
AS I write this, nine days have passed since Eqbal Ahmad died. But memorial
meetings continue to be held for him, just as letters mourning his death and
articles honouring his memory are still being printed in the national dailies.
Indeed, so much has been written and said about Eqbal that it might seem
redundant for me to write this piece about him. But I would like to share with
readers the personal side of Eqbal that I was privileged to see.
All the thousands of people around the world whose lives he touched still feel
a sense of profound loss and bereavement. When a public figure dies, there is a
ritualistic and public expression of grief: the high and the mighty send their
condolences to the family that are printed in the press, and there is an
obligatory, formal condolence meeting. But there has been nothing formal about
the spontaneous outpouring of grief for Eqbal's passing, and the fact that
nobody in power publicly condoled his death must have given great satisfaction
to his spirit. All his life, he stood four-square against the establishment and
only met its representatives when he had to, and with great reluctance and
Our paths first crossed in 1973 or 1974 when I was writing for that
iconoclastic weekly, Outlook. The editor, I.H. Burney, rang me in Lahore and
told me about a maverick Pakistani academic who was in Pakistan on a visit and
asked me to interview him. When he mentioned the famous trial of the Berrigan
brothers and their associates for the alleged plot to kidnap Henry Kissinger in
1970, the penny dropped. I made an appointment for the same afternoon at
Eqbal's hotel, and quickly jotted down a few questions.
I must have spent over an hour with him in his room; the late Safdar Mir was
present, but only joined in the conversation when the interview was over and
Eqbal ordered tea. The interview was duly published, and some months later when
I met Burney in Karachi, he said Eqbal had told him that no interviewer had
asked him such perceptive questions about the changing international scenario.
While I was flattered at the time, I came to cherish the compliment more than
any other I have ever received when I got to know him better.
Indeed, when I met him again some years later, I was sure he must have
forgotten me, and introduced myself. He replied that he remembered me very
well, and referred to the interview. We became closer when I moved to
Washington in 1989, and he came and stayed with me on several occasions,
introducing me to his wide circle of friends there. He and his wife Julie
welcomed me graciously to their apartment whenever I visited New York. I moved
back to Pakistan toward the end of 1990, and he followed a few months later.
Almost immediately after his return, he plunged into his Khaldunia University
project. When he showed me the draft feasibility report, I was overwhelmed by
the scope of the project, and secretly afraid for him as he had no experience
of the Pakistani bureaucracy or the power structure. I urged him not to ask the
government for land as all kinds of conditions would be imposed on him. He
suggested I leave government service and join him on the project, painting a
rosy picture of us sharing a house in Islamabad.
While nothing would have pleased me more than to have worked on the project
with him, the caution bred into me by all my years in the bureaucracy made me
suggest that he get government approval before he took on any overheads. In
fact, we even discussed my salary. However, the real reason I did not accept
the offer immediately was that I valued our friendship too much to jeopardize
it by working so closely with Eqbal. We had disagreed strongly over politics
before, and while these arguments did not strain our friendship in the least, I
wished to avoid potential conflict.
But while Eqbal waited nearly eight years for the permission that never came, I
did take early retirement and took over the helm of the Textile Institute of
Pakistan. When our board agreed that he should become our first chancellor, I
was delighted to persuade him to accept. Although he was with us all too
briefly, he was wonderful with the board, the students and faculty. Eloquent,
enthusiastic and unfailingly considerate, he was always there when I asked him
to come to Karachi for a meeting. Right at the end, I suggested that he use
some of the space at our large new campus to run a social studies programme. He
was agreeable in principle, but was also looking at another offer, again in
Karachi shortly before he became ill.
When I convened our students and faculty last week to tell them about the kind
of a man they had lost in their chancellor, I dwelt on his gift to listen to
people. While we all hear, we seldom listen, thus ending up in talking at cross-
purposes. This is as true for inter-personal relationships as it is for public
debate and dialogue. But Eqbal had the rare ability of making other people feel
that he was really interested in what they were saying. This made people relax
immediately in his presence, and made them cherish the briefest contact with
him. I read an article about Eqbal recently by a person who only spent one
evening with him.
I have never come across a better public speaker than Eqbal. Marshalling his
facts and arguments meticulously, he would speak with a conviction and passion
grounded in his immense erudition and his humanity. I once heard him address a
congressional committee in Washington on the thorny subject of Palestine.
Although he was a legendary scourge of Zionism, his address was measured,
devoid of the fire he was normally given to, especially on a subject so close
to his heart. He realized instinctively that if he was going to influence his
hard-boiled audience of Israel supporters, he would have to do so by logic and
facts, and not by emotion.
Although he was one of the least acquisitive people I have ever known, he
enjoyed his collection of Gandhara pieces. Towards the end, I think he must
have had some sort of premonition, because one evening in Islamabad a fortnight
before the end, he said to his close friend Agha Imran Hamid and me: "Yar, what
will happen to my Gandhara collection after I go?" Surprised at the question, I
replied: "I suppose it'll go to your daughter Dohra." He explained that it
couldn't as Dohra lived in the United States and it was illegal to export
antiquities. Imran and I urged him to stop talking such morbid rot, and changed
In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, when Mark Antony is delivering the funeral
oration for the murdered Caesar, he points at the corps of his friend and
says: "Here lies a man! When comes such another?" In Eqbal's case, we will not
see his like in our life-time.