Pervez Hoodbhoy

Unable to fathom my grief when they finally wheeled him out of the intensive care unit, the nurse asked if he was my father. No, I said, he was the head of our clan. But there was little point in explaining this was no usual clan, has no blood linkages, and knows no country, religion, or race. Its many thousand members are spread across the continents from Vietnam to the West Bank and Morocco, from India and Pakistan to Europe and North America. Their only bond is a shared belief in human dignity, justice, liberty, and all that is rich and precious in the human experience. Today they mourn Eqbal Ahmad, the man who brought them all together, and who they loved so much.

I had not heard of Eqbal Ahmad until I heard him speak in 1971 at an anti-war demonstration at MIT. As a student there, I had come to the US as a normal, apolitical, and indifferent product of Karachi Grammar School. But the cultural shock of immersion in the new society was that of being doused with a bucket of ice water. My eyes to the world had suddenly opened to fearful reality. The Americans were diligently carpet-bombing Vietnam with their B-52's back into the stone age, and the West Pakistanis were busy cleansing East Pakistan with a vigour that today would have done the Serbs proud. No Pakistani in Cambridge that I knew, student or immigrant, cared a hoot about Vietnam. And most applauded the Pakistan Army's actions, rejected the harrowing tales of suffering and destruction, and argued that the photographs and TV footage were mere Zionist concoctions.

Eqbal's lecture left me thunderstruck. Never before had I seen such a devastating combination of knowledge, eloquence, and passion used with unerring precision to shatter the myths and lies that surrounded America's imperial adventure. The audience, almost exclusively American, hung on to his every word as he alternately charmed, entertained, challenged, and educated them. When a crowd of admirers mobbed him subsequently, I too joined them. In the decades that followed, my relationship with him metamorphosed from deep admiration into deep friendship, and then into a conviction that here was a man of the rarest quality with whom every moment spent would be a privilege.

In time to come people will write books on Eqbal. They shall doubtlessly tell how he was drawn into the Algerian war of independence from France, eventually representing Algeria at the Paris peace talks. They will recount the epic Harrisburg trial, where Eqbal and six others were falsely accused by a nervous US government of trying to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up the heating system of the Pentagon. They shall have to detail how leaders of revolutions in Iran and Palestine, Cuba and Chile, sought his advice, never doubting the integrity and commitment of an internationalist for whom every country was his country. And, above all, his chroniclers shall tell us how hard he tried -- and failed -- to slow the moral degeneration and social deterioration of the country whose passport he held till his death, to stop the genocide being committed by its armed forces in Bengal, and later, to steer it away from the looming nuclear confrontation with its neighbour to the east.

Edward Said describes Eqbal as "the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist analyst of the post-war world". True, but with that also came incorruptible ideals, and a willingness to pay the price of integrity. Once a close associate of Ben Bella, Eqbal started distancing himself as Algerian revolutionary ideals soured. The elegant Havana cigars that I once used to see in his New York apartment, a gift from Fidel Castro, stopped coming when Eqbal differed with Castro on his repression of domestic opponents. Relations with Yasser Arafat, who for years had eagerly sought Eqbal's advice and wanted to give him a seat in the Palestine National Council, plummeted sharply after Eqbal became convinced that the US-sponsored Oslo accord would be a disaster for the Palestinians.

Ostracized by most of the American academic community for his passionate advocacy of Palestinian rights, Eqbal had remained an itinerant professor at several US universities for much of his life. He recalled that his colleagues at Cornell chose to stand elsewhere rather than sit with him at the same cafetaria table. Finally, in 1982 Hampshire College in Massachussetts awarded him a full tenured professorship. Students, even those who disagreed with him politically, flocked to his lectures and courses. A young Pakistani student recalls Eqbal's visit to the nearby Dartmouth College in 1992 to speak on Palestine. Her roommate, who was Jewish by birth and Zionist by conviction, started crying during Eqbal's lecture because she thought he was biased. But he then gently spoke with her in Hebrew and swung her around to seeing different dimensions of the situation.

Brilliant speakers are rare, brilliant listeners still rarer. With Eqbal you could be sure that he not only understood what you had said, but also why you said it. This was why revolutionary leaders, kings and princes, presidents and prime ministers, generals and admirals, all sought to talk to him. But such meetings did not leave him awed or intimidated. He was equally at ease with working people, children loved the attention he gave them, and even distant relatives felt close to him.

In 1997 Eqbal retired from Hampshire College. He asked me to come to his festschrift, organized by the College and his many friends. Hundreds flocked to the event from the New England area, others from places as far as California, Canada, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, and Pakistan. Noam Chomsky was to start it off on Friday evening with "The Prospects For The Third World And Abroad". But the numbers kept swelling until initial plans had to be abandoned and the venue was switched to the college gymnasium which too was soon packed to capacity. My guess is that there were 2000 people there. It was Woodstock once again, I thought to myself.

The second day brought together some of the finest, best known, wittiest, and committed intellectuals of the left. People like Edward Said, Howard Zinn, Daniel Ellsberg (of the Pentagon Papers fame), Cora and Peter Weiss, Stuart Schaar, Richard Barnet, and others (like Mohammed Guessous of Morocco and Masao Miyoshi, a Japanese) who I had not known but found to be immensely engaging. Zinn was in terrific form as he related the days of the Daniel Berrigan's hide-and-seek with the FBI and then Eqbal's famous Harrisburg trial. Cora Weiss was hilarious with "What If Eqbal Ran The UN", and I didn't know that Ellsberg could be so serious and funny as he was that day.

Yes, it was the Eqbal Ahmad clan which had come together at this occasion, and it left me slightly breathless. I knew that Eqbal had helped many people and engaged their affection and loyalty. What I simply did not know was they were so many -- so different from each other and from so many different parts of the world and that they loved him so much. It wasn't just his students whose voice cracked from emotion, but also Edward Said, his closest friend and the leading intellectual light of Palestine. I suppose what gave this celebration special meaning was that, in part, it was reliving the 60's and 70's of the Vietnam days and Eqbal's contribution in mobilizing the American resistance to the war. Certainly it was for me. For in truth, I may have been a very different person had I not encountered the Greats --Chomsky, Eqbal, and Zinn -- in my formative years at MIT. Therefore it was not easy to speak when Eqbal insisted that I do so. But he had introduced me in a way that left no choice but to comply.

The Hampshire celebration was the last high-point of Eqbal's life and marked his determination to spend almost all his time in Pakistan. Hitherto he had been splitting his time between teaching in the US, writing his newspaper columns, and working on setting up a university of arts and sciences in Islamabad, Khaldunia. This was a project which Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif ensured would not ultimately fly. How could you expect otherwise, people asked him, when you refuse to tone down your pen? He had no good answer, but remained optimistic.

And then Death, that cunning hunter of Life, began pursuing her quarry in earnest. From the time she first cast her pale shadow, to the time she enveloped him in her bosom, was but a scant six days. Death is not only inevitable, it is also the defining moment of truth. I think that if you want to know what a person was to the very core, you must know not only how he lived but also how he died. And so I want to tell you, the reader, how Eqbal Ahmad died.

When we took him to the hospital he was in an awful state, vomiting violently and feeling sharp pains in his chest. But there were quiet phases when he asked about the world outside. He shook his head in silent disgust as I told him of the preparations to celebrate Pakistan's anniversary of the nuclear tests. "When you get well I'd like you to look at an article I've just written against the celebrations", I said. No, he replied, give it to me now. He carefully adjusted the intravenous drip to take hold of his pen, asked me to raise his hospital bed to a semi-sitting position, and then went through the article adding his editorial comments here and there. That's what he's done all his life, I thought to myself, helping others, concerning himself with their problems, worrying about where the world is going. The next day medical tests revealed a large growth in the colon. It was a tense moment when the doctor came into the room. "Is it cancerous", Eqbal asked? I watched his face intently as the doctor silently nodded. There was neither fear nor resignation, just brief reflection. Moments later he was fully engaged in discussing strategies for surgery.

Yes, it was painful, bloody painful as he lay in the ICU after the 3 hour long extraction of the cancer. As painful as you can imagine, and beyond that too. The morphine would knock him out for a while, but you could see the pain would still be there. But he remained the quintessential Eqbal to the very end. His mind remained incisive, critical, analytical. He wanted to know about every medicine -- the dosage, the effects and after-effects. His wit survived the pain. "Mrs Diamond" (his mother-in-law, now over 90 years old), he remarked to his niece, "is for all practical purposes indestructible". After one of his quips I remarked that his sense of humour too was indestructible. "It's a useful thing to have sometimes", he said, "so I like to carry it along with me".

He knew he was dying but made no useless supplications, asked for nothing, expected nothing. His intellectual integrity and dignity remained intact till the very end. Let others apply soothing balm for themselves in whatever form, indulge in whatever religious claptrap they believe in. He would have none of that for himself, but if others felt better he didn't discourage them.

The doctors were awed by him and the nurses fell in love. Eqbal must have been the weirdest patient at the ICU they have experienced in their lives. Strapped in a maze of tubes and wires, and hovering at the very edge, he still engaged them, insisted on knowing everything, scolded one monumentally incompetent nurse who had stabbed him 5 times in search of a vein, praised the two good ones, but charmed even the one he had scolded.

It was 5:25 am, the morning of 11 May 1999, when he asked me to raise him into a sitting position. Moments later his ECG went flat. I saw tears trickling from one nurse's eyes when they finally covered him up.

Herald, ( Karachi) June, 1999.

index page