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.

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