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The unflattering truth

July 06, 2013

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.”

irfan.husain@gmail.com