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The unflattering truth

Published Jul 06, 2013 03:17am


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SOME nicknames cling to people like indelible stains. So when the late Khalid Hasan, Pakistan’s finest satirical columnist, dub-bed Akbar S. Ahmed “Anthro-Panthro”, the name stuck.

For those not familiar with the background, Akbar Ahmed is an ex-civil servant who, according to Khalid, named a street after himself while serving as a district officer in Balochistan many years ago.

Trained in anthropology (hence the nickname), he has written about Pakhtun tribes, customs and history. In 1999, he was an Iqbal fellow at Cambridge University when Musharraf appointed him high commissioner to the UK.

However, within a few months, Ahmed was caught up in a scandal that led to his removal from the post. For years, he had been involved with the Jinnah film project, and had persuaded a number of Pakistani expats to contribute. This was in response to Richard Attenborough’s movie about Gandhi that had won worldwide acclaim in the 1980s.

Much to his credit, his persistence paid off and the movie was completed. But sadly, here is when things went off the rails: Jamil Dehlavi, the director, sued Ahmed to get his contracted fees. He went on to accuse him of taking the credit (and the money) for the script when the real scriptwriter was Farrukh Dhondi, the Indian-born author. (At the last Karachi Literary Festival, Dhondi confirmed his role to me.)

According to a Guardian report, £51,500 were paid to Akbar Ahmed, and £35,000 each to his son and son-in-law. Ahmed denied all charges of wrongdoing, saying that he took “nothing for his role as head of the project, but like Jinnah, was entitled to his professional fees”. And while he claimed his relatives had earned their fees, Dehlavi denied that they had contributed to the film in any way.

After the story broke, the Musharraf government withdrew its support and £1 million from the project. Although the film was completed, it could not find a distributor. In Pakistan, a heated controversy broke out over the choice of Christopher Lee to play Jinnah, as well as the surreal script. Finally, the film sank without a trace.

So why am I resurrecting this long-buried skeleton here?

Frankly, I had not even thought about Akbar Ahmed and the 13-year old scandal until I was invited to speak at the launch of his book The Thistle and the Drone at the House of Lords recently. The only reason I accepted was that the organiser is a dear friend I couldn’t say no to.

While I have not read the book, the author’s long-winded introduction suggested it was about how tribal structures in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen are being destroyed by the American drone campaign. According to Ahmed, this reflects the long-standing neglect of the periphery by the centre.

As we had been instructed to keep our comments brief, I made two quick points. Firstly, when we oppose a policy, we should be able to suggest a viable alternative. In Pakistan’s case, we have a large area where our army cannot or will not enter to clear it of the terrorists who infest it. These jihadis are using this sanctuary to launch attacks across Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over 40,000 Pakistanis have been killed by them. Should they continue to be allowed to commit mayhem without any reprisals?

Secondly, I said that while it was easy to romanticise tribal societies, we should not forget that it was tribal elders who kept women locked up in their homes, not allowing them to study and work. And at every election, jirgas issue edicts prohibiting women from voting. Both points I made were opposite to the book’s central argument, so the author went into a long defence of his thesis.

I will not try and encapsulate the discussion beyond saying that the host, Lord Sheikh, and a panellist, Vijay Mehta, sang the book’s praises at great length from prepared texts. I have been to many book launches, including my own, and have never seen an author showered with so much flattery.

In the question and answer session, one gentleman sang Akbar Ahmed’s praises for having written such a fine book, and said he would make it a point to get a copy. When finally asked what his question was, he replied: “I would like to ask the author what we can do to promote his book.”

If that wasn’t cringe-making enough, at the end of the session, Ahmed asked two young Americans who had apparently accompanied him from Washington to say a few words. Both declared what a privilege it had been to study under the professor. Friends in the audience said later they had never seen such a public display of sycophancy.

This is the only time I have met Akbar Ahmed. Apart from the old scandal about the Jinnah movie, I think what put me off was his constant use of the title of ‘ambassador’ before his name in all his emails. In the US, retired officials can carry their job titles for life as a courtesy. But as he served as our envoy in London for around six months, I think this is stretching it a bit.

This is from a column I wrote in this space at the time:

“What makes this scandal specially reprehensible is that the subject of the film was a man of such absolute and towering integrity. Not even his worst enemy has ever accused him of financial impropriety… For his name to be associated with a project that has become the centre of controversy … is a national disgrace.”


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (16) Closed

BRR Jul 06, 2013 03:48am

Sycophancy and obfuscation of the truth seems to come naturally to S. Asians. The sadder part is the need for such display of sycophancy by the recipients, the subjects, of such sycophancy. Educated people are not necessarily enlightened, and often have more warts than those who are less fortunate.

SBB Jul 06, 2013 04:07am

Interesting article, and I had never heard of this author before. But one ways says it all about this behavior - sycophancy.


Kamath Jul 06, 2013 07:27am

Irfan: your portrayal of 'ambassador' Ahmed is absolutely correct. But he has established himself as the leading Muslim intellectual , writer and thinker in USA. You can not touch him! Soon he will promote himself as the leading philosopher of Muslims from South Asia.

A Canadian Jul 06, 2013 08:15am

It is sad but the overall judgement in the article seems correct. From what I know about the subject of the article, he does come across as shallow, pretentious and self promoting in an obvious way. Rather embarrassing for some of his fellow citizens. He used the gimmick of using his American students to praise him on another occasion that I witnessed. I hope I am wrong and that he is a better person.

ss Jul 06, 2013 10:19am

Akbar Ahmad represents the worst in the Asian intellectual personality - seeking cheap popularity by pretending that failure of traditional societies is actually the West's fault, and doing great violence to truth in the process is a distinguishing feature of intellectuals of the sub continent. Distortion of truth and an insatiable appetite for lucre are their distinguishing features . No opportunity for makiing money is alllowed to pass unutilised by these gentlemen and not an iota of shame is felt by them in their relentless drive for self promotion and self aggrandisement. I sincerely hope the Americnas direct a few drones at this tribe.

Mustafa Jul 06, 2013 12:15pm

Sounds like the author has an axe to grind with Akber Sahib. I am also much relieved to learn that the script was written by an Indian, who else could portray Sardar Patel as a bliss full jolly person.

Parvez Jul 06, 2013 02:05pm

Always thought there was something fishy about Akbar S. Ahmed...........thanks for clearing that up.

Dr Khan Jul 06, 2013 02:23pm

I am a Pakhtun and have tribal roots. Akbar S. Ahmad,s book " The drone and the thistle" does not reflect the truth about Pakhtun,s tribal society at all. My knowledge about Somalian and Yamani tribes is nil, can,t say whether the book reflects true picture of these tribes or not.

Ashraf Jul 06, 2013 04:56pm

I noted a line somewhere which read "Liars, thieves, criminals, and politicians have fewer scruples than the rest of us". And again I noted another line somewhere which read "To call a politician an honest politician is like calling a thief and honest thief. Whoever wrote these two lines must have had some basis. Liars and criminals having fewer or no scruples than the rest of us is quite understandable. I wonder if is entirely true about all politicians. However, based on the information available from various sources it can be established that in Pakistan unscrupulous politicians, and for that matter bureaucrats, businessmen, etc. are there in overwhelming number.


Guest63 Jul 06, 2013 05:11pm

Since his departure to the heavenly abode , WHAT ELSE , we as a nation , NOT DONE other than to will fully , collectively or individually , TO DISGRACE HIM and his principles !?! I rest my case with that ......

Asim Jul 06, 2013 07:08pm

Praise is due for bringing this to light however, you sir have foregone the right to point a finger at Akbar when you accepted the invitation to speak at his book launch already knowing about all scandals. Dear friend organizer or not, you being present there amounted to hippocracy. How can we trust your word?

pathanoo Jul 06, 2013 09:09pm

Keep writing, Irafan. You are doing a great service to Pakistan. It can use people like you.

Roshanlal Jul 06, 2013 09:30pm

You seem to be quite comfortable with American drone attacks on those 'backward' and 'peripheral' people.

Onkar Sharma Jul 06, 2013 11:57pm

A very good article. How conceited to write Ambassador before his name for someone who was only there for 6 months only.

Dr. D. Prithipaul Jul 07, 2013 02:35am

Certainly Jinnah deserved, and still deserves, a film which would do him full justice. Christopher Lee was indeed a good choice, in view of his physical likeness to the Qaid-e-Azxam. As a man of absolute integrity, Jinnah belongs to the same league as Hitler (after all his exemplar), Franco, Mussolini, Tojo. These guys never picked anybody's pocket, their integrity and devotion to their cause were untainted. Franco even took the title Caudillo, a Spanish word derived from the "qaid" used earlier in Al-Andalus.

fida sayani Jul 07, 2013 03:16pm

I personally do not know Mr. Ahmed and cannot vouch for his character, all I know about him is that he made a trashy movie on my hero Mr. Jinnah. Now if Mr. Hassan had such a low opinion of him as laid out by him in this article than why did he attend the launching of his book? Mr. Hassan should have refused the invitation.