August Issue 2015
Book Review: Eqbal Ahmad Biography
When you leaf through the book, you may chance upon this black and white image of Eqbal Ahmad “in his Manhattan kitchen about to prepare a meal, 1984.” He looks happy, engrossed in what he is doing. Perhaps he is expecting some guests. There is, in a sense, a foretaste here of a pleasant evening enlivened by intelligent conversation. And you want to eavesdrop on the proceedings.
After all, we do learn about Eqbal’s “practice of inviting guests over for dinner, elaborately prepared and served, amidst intense conversation and great warmth.” In this way, he had established “a salon which he continued to maintain throughout his life.”
But Stuart Schaar’s highly researched account of Eqbal Ahmad’s exploits as “critical outsider and witness in a turbulent age” does not much dwell on a great intellectual’s personal life. This, despite the fact that the author had had a long and very intimate relationship with his subject. We are informed that Stuart Schaar had met Eqbal at Princeton in 1958 and they became close friends. Both of them had travelled together to India and Pakistan in 1980. Stuart has drawn on many conversations with Eqbal over 40 years.
Your expectations of getting to know Eqbal more intimately are raised at the outset when Stuart, in his introductory remarks, notes that Eqbal was “filled with anecdotes and wonderful stories in a storybook life.” A storybook life it certainly was and Stuart has summed it up so well in an elegant, academic manner. Yet the focus mostly remains on Eqbal’s encounters with the larger issues of his time. There, for instance, are separate chapters on issues like ‘Islam and Islamic History,’ and ‘Imperialism, Nationalism, Revolutionary Warfare, Insurgency, and the Need for Democracy.’
Eqbal’s is a familiar name in the literate circles of Pakistan. His global recognition as an analyst and a participant in people’s campaigns was well established when he wrote a regular column in Dawn and pursued his dream to establish Khaldunia University — a dream that was not realised. He died in Islamabad in May 1999. This means that this book that celebrates his genius is published 16 years after he left us.
But it is a timely publication because our need to understand the role that a public intellectual plays in a society that is in distress is so acute now. We may look closely into Eqbal’s life to probe serious questions about the desired credentials of a Pakistani intellectual and thinker capable of germinating thoughts about progressive social change. Would an exposure to some of the best institutions of higher learning in the world be an essential qualification?
The idea, of course, is to consider Eqbal Ahmad as a model, though he was exceptional in many ways and he lived in peculiar times. But he lived in both worlds and had the ability to embrace both as a critical observer. One measure of his stature was his deep affiliation with some of the most renowned intellectuals of our times like Noam Chomsky and Edward Said. In fact, the Chomsky quote on the book’s back cover is a heartfelt statement: “Ahmad was an inspiring figure, in his work and in his life. There could hardly be a better model to try to follow, as best we can.” When he died, Edward Said praised him as “perhaps the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist analyst of Asia and Africa.”
His initial claim to fame was his indictment in 1971, with others, for conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger, who was then President Nixon’s National Security Advisor. Eqbal was an anti-Vietnam War activist in the United States. This is how he became a critical outsider. He taught in Massachusetts and wrote columns and essays. At the same time he remained involved, emotionally and intellectually, with what was happening in Pakistan. This association deepened when he returned in the latter part of his life. One of his passions then was to promote peace between India and Pakistan.
As I have said, an exploration of the mental journey of Eqbal Ahmad has a particular relevance to Pakistan where universities do not seem very anxious to deal with ideas and social policies in the light of global developments. We are deprived of public intellectuals who are meant to advance knowledge and lead the debate on crucial matters. A public intellectual is also a symbol of rationality — someone who can be the guide, philosopher and friend of concerned citizens.
It is not that Stuart has ignored the vital biographical details of Eqbal. There is a chapter on ‘Reflections on Eqbal’s Life.’ But certain events in his life have only been hinted at, and not adequately portrayed. One reason may be that this is a relatively slim volume, with extensive notes.
We have some brief references to what could have been narrated in some detail. By 1997, Eqbal retired from Hampshire College and left his American family in the United States to move to Pakistan. Stuart writes: “There, and on frequent trips to India, after Julie and he separated in 1990, he afterwards shared his life with the well-known Indian intellectual, Radha Kumar. The two loved each other and they contemplated a future marriage, but he and Julie never divorced.”
Still, there are touching and revealing moments. Let me conclude with excerpts from a paragraph from the last chapter titled ‘Conclusion’: “Surrounding his hospital bed in Islamabad in May 1999 were some of the people closest to Eqbal: his daughter Dohra, Rashida and Raza Kazim,” and his niece’s former husband, Eqbal’s close collaborator and friend. The latter, a nuclear scientist, “had first met Eqbal in the US in 1971 as a member of an audience at an anti-Vietnam War teach-in at MIT at which Eqbal spoke. He later worked with him on the Khaldunia University project as well as Eqbal’s anti-nuclear work at the end of his life. [He] was a staunch secularist. When Rashida took out her Quran and started reciting a Sura, [he asked] Eqbal to have her stop. Eqbal looked at his dear friend, whom he loved, and whispered… ‘I am a Muslim.’”
This review was originally published in Newsline’s August 2015 issue.
Ghazi Salahuddin is a respected senior journalist in Pakistan. He currently works with the daily The News and the Geo television network.