Who was Eqbal Ahmad?

I gave these comments at an AAAW event at Museo El Barrio some years back

I.

I miss that which refused to become a commodity. I want that which cannot be assimilated in the histories of “Left” or “Dissent”. I seek that which dissented from participation in our purchasing power. Eqbal Ahmad is one such figure, I think – an essayist and speaker who left no one book for us to buy and put on our shelves; a thinker and activist who made no distinction between theory and praxis; a specialist only of resistance not of geography; a comrade for all, whether religious, academic, white or brown. His is not a history we can excavate from obscurity, because he was on the pages of New York Review of Books, New York Times, Left Review.

I encountered Eqbal Ahmad as a young man in Lahore, reading his sometimes weekly columns in the Dawn. I did not know him more than his sub-head, but I liked his columns. They always informed me of structural issues, drew my attention to histories elsewhere and had a clear moral eye towards critique of power. When, in the mid 1990s, I was an undergraduate in a small, white, liberal arts University in southern Ohio, I was assigned Edward Said’s Orientalism in a number of classes. I liked the book, but as a regular reader of British Orientalists in Pakistan, the book was not the revelation that it was for some of my class-mates. But I kept reading Said, and it was when I opened Culture and Imperialism and saw the dedication For Eqbal that I realized I needed to go back to reading the columnist. I followed Ahmad after that; reading his essays, or making vague plans of visiting him at Hampshire College where he taught. But I never managed it, before his death in 1999.

II.

Ahmad was a prolific writer– and his Collected Works are proof. To illustrate, I will just cite one footnote from Edward Said’s 1989 essay “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocuters” in Critical Inquiry to give you a rough idea of Eqbal’s production. In Said’s essay, the first and third footnote is Fanon and the fourth is Ahmad, glossing this sentence:

“To have been colonized was a fate with lasting, indeed grotesquely unfair results, especially after national independence had been achieved. Poverty, dependency, underdevelopment, various pathologies of power and corruption, plus of course notable achivevments in war, literacy, economic development: this mix of characteristics designated the colonized people who had freed themselves on one level bit who remained victims of their past on another.”

The footnote reads (in its entirety): “See Eqbal Ahmad, “From Potato Sack to Potato Mash: The Contemporary Crisis of the Third World, ” Arab Studies Quarterly 2 (Summer 1980); Ahmad “Post-Colonial Systems of Power,” Arab Studies Quarterly 2 (Fall 1980); Ahmad, “The Neo-Fascist State: Notes on the Pathology of Power in the Third World”, Arab Studies Quarterly 3 (Spring 1981).”[^Footnote Said]

I think that is a pretty amazing sentence to get glossed by the thought of one intellectual’s work over two years.

III.

Ahmad’s first piece of writing in the United States was an essay for The Nation (August 30, 1965) titled “Revolutionary Warfare: How to Tell When the Rebels Have Won”. He grounds that essay in his “own personal observation of the Algerian struggle” and proceeds to lay out a rather structured, bullet pointed reading of guerilla warfare in Algeria and Vietnam. In doing so, he directly critiqued W. W. Rostow, Dean Rusk and other “failed prophets” of Washington for their shoddy policy work. The war in Vietnam was lost, he said, in 1965, when the truth of that statement was not held in Washingtonn for another decade. He ends that essay with a quote worth quoting:

“I know how Asians feel about America’s action. They call it neo-colonialism; some think it is imperialism. I know this is very wrong because Americans are naturally sympathetic to peoples’ struggles for freedom and justice, and they would like to help if they could. I prefer the term “maternalism” for American policy in countries like Vietnam, because it reminds me of the story of an elephant who, as she strolled benignly in the jungle, stepped on a mother partridge and killed her. When she noticed the orphaned siblings, tears filled the kind elephant’s eyes. “Ah, I too have maternal instincts,” she said turning to the orphans, and sat on them.”

That essay, was read into the Congressional Record at the very first hearing on Vietnam and it proved to be a seminal essay for Noam Chomsky whose “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” (February 1967) was the launch of that linguist as a war-critic.

IV.

Ahmad’s revolutionary praxis was to speak. He spoke most often at college campuses and most vividly at churches and mosques. He spoke to young students, and he spoke to citizens – and he spoke always to Americans in a truly engaged manner. He spoke a lot and he spoke everywhere. I have heard from a number of people that he was an electric speaker. Incidentally, it was his speaking (not his writing) that got him into trouble. J. Edgar Hoover announced on Thanksgiving Day 1970 that this “Arrogant, Self-Righteous Alien” wanted to kidnap Kessinger and blow up some pipes in the Pentagon. The unsuccessful trial against Ahmad lasted more than a year– and the Harrisburg 7 as they were called were freed with no charges. The whole thing was a suggestion that Ahmad made over dinner in Connecticut that they should take advantage of Kissinger’s ego and philandering and have him put under Citizen’s Arrest for crimes in Vietnam.

V.

Ahmad’s was not only a writer and speaker on anti-colonial movements in North Africa, Middle East and America, he kept his critical eye trained on India and Pakistan– his place of birth and his nationality. In 1971, at the height of criminal proceeding against him, he wrote against the brutal military regime of West Pakistan in East Pakistan and the subsequent creation of Bangladesh. In the NYRB, he wrote a Letter to a Pakistani Diplomat:

“I know that I shall be condemned for my position. For someone who is facing a serious trial in America, it is not easy to confront one’s own government. Yet it is not possible for me to oppose American crimes in Southeast Asia or Indian occupation of Kashmir while accepting the crimes that my government is committing against the people of East Pakistan. Although I mourn the death of Biharis by Bengali vigilantes, and condemn the irresponsibilities of the Awami League, I am not willing to equate their actions with that of the government and the criminal acts of an organized, professional army. I do not know if my position would at all contribute to a humane settlement. Given the fact that our government is neither accountable to the public nor sensitive to the opinion of mankind, our protest may have no effect until this regime has exhausted all its assets and taken the country down the road to moral, political, and economic bankruptcy. However, lack of success does not justify the crime of silence in the face of criminal, arbitrary power.

VI.

How do I present Ahmad without making him into a commodity for you to buy? A book of essays? A wisp of ideals? I think I must tie him to some idea that I shall struggle to explain to you. I must articulate that he was counter to a culture in a specific key, a resonance that we must strain to hear. We must think back to the culture that he represented as a Perso-phone Urdu-speaker from Bihar, and that we need to pay attention to his particularity, his nuanced life.

I do not find it easy to salve his anti-Vietnam, anti-Zionist, anti-Indian military, anti-Pakistani-military intellectual positions, with his love for India, for Pakistan, and for America. I find it harder still to see in him a lover of Persian and Urdu poetry. Hence, I must turn to this difficulty and face it.

So, let me call him something that he will instantly recognize, if he hears me today.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Beirut, 1979 Meray Dil, Meray Musafir

Yes,
we are burdened by fidelity
o world’s beloved;
But,
does anyone treat
one’s lovers
as you do?
May your gatherings last beyond eternity;
we are but
a moment’s guest,
no matter.
(translation mine)

What does it mean to be burdened by fidelity to love. To do what you must, because you are obliged in love. Ahmad, the thinker, the rebel, the intellectual, was always working under the burden of his love – for his birthplace (in Bihar), for his community (Pakistan), for his comarades (in anti-imperialist struggles), and for his home (in America). His ethics is an ethics that comes out of love, and this enabled him to never turn his eyes away from what his love was enacting – what violence, what hubris. It enabled him to speak as only one who loves can speak to the lover – with deep awareness of an unbreakable bond, and a realization that nothing can be left unsaid, that the lover may be transient but the love remains, and if it is to remain, it must speak truth.

Past Pleasant

The practice of publishing old texts is common in Pakistan; British-era district gazetteers and other colonial texts are routinely reprinted as de facto introductions to the history of the Subcontinent. The unwholesome after-effect of this is that colonial biases and frameworks remain uncontested and widely popular. There is neither any attempt to decolonise our history nor is there any awareness of what violence colonial knowledge practices have wreaked on writings about our pasts.

Seventy years after Partition, it is about time that readers and writers in Pakistan rethink and reimagine their histories. The past requires analysis in the light of new questions and new critical frameworks. We cannot be held hostage to British narratives about Muslim arrival in India as religion-inspired invaders from Arabia.

I have a review essay in Herald Dawn– How to counter colonial myths about Muslim arrival in Sindh— which is half book-synopsis and half review of an unpublished dissertation from 1973 Utah. Fun fact about 1973 Utah was that Aziz S. Atiya, scholar of Coptic Egypt and the Crusades made it his intellectual home after the President of University of Utah, A. Ray Olpin, invited him to direct the Middle East Center in 1965. They produced much important scholarship on Islam in USA though rarely get mentioned alongside places like Yale, Princeton, Chicago etc.

Anyhow.

In Memory of Kavita S. Datla

At the end, here is my desperate search for the beginnings of memories. I turn first to emails but I cannot find a beginning in these emails, even the very first one is already in medias res. I have now searched my emails for all correspondences and they stretch from Berkeley to Chicago to Madison to Berlin to New York. There are dinner invitations and regrets, coffees and lunches, comments on working papers and introductions, links to academic controversies, thoughts on tenures and promotions, exchanges of meanings of esoteric Urdu words and phrases, discussions of new books, always. There is a photograph that I have in my memory– but not in my possession– from somewhere in 2002/03/04 at the annual South Asia conference at Berkeley. The photograph is taken at night and in the haze of bad light and smoke, I see Kavita standing alongside friends. I am not sure this memory of a photograph is not an invention but I keep looking for it nonetheless.

Kavita Datla was an Associate Professor at Mt Holoyoke. She was the author of The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial India (2013). You can read my interview with her at the publication of her book in 2013. Her most recent article, The Origins of Indirect Rule in India: Hyderabad and the British Imperial Order evolved the arguments regarding indirect rule and sovereign rights– of states and peoples– outside of European political history. This was part of her new work that she completed even as the illness claimed her. She passed away yesterday after nearly three year battle with cancer.

I am in sorrow and I offer my condolences to the loved ones, colleagues, and family of Kavita. She was the finest mind, the best read scholar I ever met, and the kindest to both arguments and humans. The loss to the field of South Asian history is tremendous, but I also mourn, alongside her loved ones, at our loss of her beautiful heart.

update 08/01: A tribute to Kavita Datla at H-Asia.

A Passage to America

How May I Help You?
Deepak Singh (DS) is a writer, radio producer, and journalist. He is a frequent contributor to PRI’s The World and has written for The New York Times, NPR, The Boston Globe and The Atlantic. His new book, How May I Help You? An Immigrant’s Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage by UCPress in Feb 2017. We are happy to carry a conversation between Singh and long-time CM friend Aftab Ahmad. Aftab Ahmad (AA) earned his PhD in Urdu literature from Jawahar Lal Nehru University, specializing in Urdu humor and satire. He was the director of AIIS, Urdu Language Program at Lucknow, for four years. He published Bombay Stories (Random House India, 2012, and Vintage International, 2014) and Mirages of The Mind (Random House India, 2014, and A New Directions Book, 2015) with co-translator Matt Reeck. Recipient of PEN Translation Grant, he has taught at UC-Berkeley. He now teaches Urdu language and literature at Columbia University.

AA: For the benefit of those who have not read the book yet could you say briefly what is this book about and what in your own opinion have you achieved and accomplished through this book?

DS: This book is about my experiences as a ‘fresh off the plane’ immigrant in the United States of America, selling electronics in a retail store in a small town Virginia, where I learned about the struggles of my colleagues and I adapted to my job and my new life. There are a lot of qualified, educated Indians and immigrants in general, staffing the many motels, grocery stores, super markets in the United States. They came to the U.S. looking for a better life, but we often take for granted what they had to give up to be here, the sacrifices they made. We can’t paint all immigrants by a single brush. By telling stories of low-wage employees, I have attempted to bring openness and humanity to debates about work, race, ethnicity and immigration in the United States.

AA: This goes back and forth about your experiences in the USA and India. Each compelling experience in USA brings some memories back to your mind from your life in India. While writing the book did you have to suppress certain experiences that you thought wouldn’t go well with Indians – that would have brought a negative image of India? Did you feel the burden of not saying anything about India that could throw a negative light on it?

DS: Throughout the writing process I constantly asked myself if I was being true to myself in expressing my experiences and my feelings. Most days, I sat and cried at my desk before I typed the first word. I have tried my best to bare my heart in this book and I tried to live by the famous Robert Frost quote: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” I do hope that my honesty comes through for my reader.

AA: In India we only hear about Pakistan and people over there. We get immediately riled up just by the mention of Pakistan. Our patriotism is aroused.  We just live with a certain image of Pakistan without any real experiences with people. Most people in India die even without ever seeing a Pakistani man or woman. In the USA, we get the opportunity to meet people from all parts of the world.  Would you like to say something about your experiences with Pakistani people in the USA?

DS: This book has taken place almost entirely on the sales floor, where I did meet a few Pakistanis, but wasn’t able to engage in a meaningful conversation. To answer your question, I’d say yes, I would’ve never met a person from Pakistan if I hadn’t left India. I had a certain perception about Pakistanis before I arrived in the U.S. Laughing and joking with folks from Pakistan in the U.S., I’d often forget they were not from India. And, I’d often think, “They aren’t all that different from me, are they?”


AA: Would you like to say something to your readers that you would have said if you wrote the book today, in the light of recent political developments in both India (including the new CM in UP and the rise in Hindu nationalism) and America? 

DS: Growing up a high caste Hindu in Lucknow, India, I wasn’t aware of the privilege it afforded me. Although, most of my friends were Muslims, I didn’t know what it was like to be a minority, or to not be a Hindu in a Hindu majority nation. No one questioned my patriotism for India, or treated me as if I didn’t belong to the country, or asked me to leave India if I didn’t like it. I joked and criticized its government without worrying that someone might think of me as an antinationalist. Coming to the United States, I became a part of the minority. It took me a while, but I learned what it feels like to belong to the lower strata of the society—a society that is underprivileged, disadvantaged. The book took 6 years to write. I wasn’t writing every single day of the last six years and the most of the revision happened in the last year. I don’t know what I would say if I was writing the book today, but I do want to say that my heart grieves to know what’s going on with minorities—be it India, Pakistan, or the United States.


AA: What fundamental differences do you see in the thinking and attitudes of people in India and the United States in general?  I’m thinking about differences that reflect deeper cultural orientations to the world. Your analogy of Black Friday and Kumbh Fair in India brings this question to mind. A vast majority of people in India live on pathetic wages. They seem to be barely scraping by and many times living by gathering debt. Yet they appear to be happy. Are they really happy?

DS: I left India about 13 years ago and since then the country has changed drastically. Smart phones and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram didn’t exist then. Home phones were a luxury and cellphones had just been introduced in early 2000s. No one knew the word ‘selfie. Working in retail in America, I noticed that Americans didn’t hesitate to buy something on credit. They actually seemed thrilled if they were able to purchase something on credit and often times people planned to spend their paycheck that they were expecting in two weeks’ time. I noticed they indulged in shopping to forget about their sadness, depression. I think it is hard to be poor in a rich country. There’s a stigma attached to being poor in America. You’re considered to be a slacker, someone who is lazy. Where as in India, poverty is everywhere. You can’t spend a single day without witnessing a hungry child on a street. I don’t know what I am trying to say here, but the point is that people in India seem to have other things—their family—to hold on to when they are down and out, where as in the U.S. you’re on your own after a certain age.