It was 1962 and I was an eight-year-old boy living in Quetta. I was vaguely aware of an uncle, my father’s younger brother, who lived in the USA. One day, a ripple of excitement ran through the house: the uncle from the USA was coming to visit us.
In those days, particularly in a small town like Quetta, a visitor from the distant land across the seven oceans was rarer than sighting a Martian.
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My father packed his six off-springs in a jeep and headed out for the airport. I had always watched with fascination as a PIA Fokker Friendship plane flew high above in the sky and always wondered how this big bird would look on the ground. I am not sure whether I was more excited about seeing an airplane on the ground for the first time or a mysterious uncle from the fairyland known as the United States of America.
The plane appeared on the horizon, circled the airport, and landed. As it taxied close, I could not believe how big it was! I was still staring at the plane when a man appeared among us and hugged my father.
Shifting my gaze to this man, who appeared different from any man I had seen in Quetta, I noticed he was dressed in light green corduroy trousers, a beige shirt and brown pumps, he looked like an American; just the type I had seen in the movies and magazines. He looked like, dressed like, and spoke like no one I had seen before. Welcome to Quetta, Eqbal Ahmad!
It wasn’t long after reaching home that the stories started to flow.
New worlds opened in front of my very eyes, as he narrated story after story of lands I had not heard of before. There were tales of a revolution in Algeria led by a heroic figure named Ahmed Ben Bella, we heard, in which he had personally participated.
Then, he told us about a man named Habib Bourguiba from a country called Tunisia, who had banned fasting during Ramazan even though he was a Muslim president of a Muslim country. The children listened wide-eyed to the strange uncle who had better stories than the best they had ever heard or read.
On that fateful day, a door opened in my life to a world that I did not know existed; a world of revolutions, heroism, violence, ideals and dreams. That world, and the man who showed me a glimpse of it, became a central part of my life and remains so to this day.
Fast forward to 1971. We get a telegram from another uncle in the USA telling us not to worry about Eqbal as he is fine; the newspaper next day explains the telegram. A Pakistani intellectual named Eqbal Ahmad had been arrested, along with a group of anti-war activists, for planning to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blowing up the underground heating system tunnels of the Capitol in Washington.
Cover stories started appearing in publications like the Time and Life about this mysterious Pakistani. He was variously described as a world renowned scholar on Islam and North Africa, an expert on revolutionary violence, a threat and menace to the security of the United States, and an excellent cook.
The famous trial known as the Harrisburg Seven went on for a long time and finally all the defendants were acquitted.
Eqbal’s nick name was “Munno” (a small boy), an unlikely name for a larger than life figure. But, I think it was very appropriate as he was a very humble man who wore his brilliance very lightly.
He listened to everyone, high and low, young and old, world famous figures and the man in the street, with the same respect and importance and gave out a considered response to each.
When I was a high school student in Pakistan, I would write regularly to him. He always replied to my letters promptly and with detail usually reserved for peers. I was visiting him in New York in 1979 when his close friend Edward Said turned up to pay him a visit. Eqbal introduced me to Said with great enthusiasm saying, “This is my nephew, Vaqar. I learn more about Pakistan from his letters than from reading all the newspapers!”
Twenty years later, after he passed away, we were going through his papers in the last house he lived in the US (a faculty housing at the Hampshire College where he taught), where we found all my letters to him. One of my great regrets is that I lost his letters to me during the many moves I made between homes and countries.
Spending a few days at Eqbal’s New York mid-town Manhattan apartment was like a crash course in world politics.
The best minds from around the globe would turn up frequently and stay for a delicious dinner cooked by Eqbal. I remember meeting the famous lawyer Leonard Boudin, former Attorney General of the USA, Ramsey Clarke, the sociologist Jay Schulman, Eqbal’s fellow defendant at the Harrisburg Seven trial and leading peace activist Danial Berrigan, the iconic Cuban novelist Edmundo Desnoes, a young anthropologist Ashraf Ghani, the Palestinian intellectual Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, and of course, Eqbal’s closest friend Edward Said.
I happened to be staying at Eqbal’s apartment during the Iran Hostage crisis of 1979-81. The phone was ringing off the hook. One time I picked it up, it was President Abolhassn Banisadr of Iran wanting to talk to Eqbal. Later, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance came over. What was happening was that the Iranians wanted Eqbal to be involved in the negotiations with the USA as they trusted him to be an honest and honorable broker.
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It was clear that people from all parts of the world and all walks of life loved Eqbal. Once, when Eqbal was visiting Montreal to deliver a lecture at the McGill University, the two of us were sitting at a small café near the campus. When we finished our meal and asked the waiter for the bill, he said something to Eqbal in Arabic and walked away. Eqbal explained that the man said he was an Algerian and he does not charge friends of the Algerian revolution.
Pakistan was Eqbal’s foremost love. Not many know that even after living a large part of his life in the US, Eqbal retained his Pakistani passport and never became an American citizen. He passed away in Islamabad on May 11, 1999. He was 67.
Even as he lay in his hospital bed after an operation for cancer, never one to waste time, he was reviewing an article by my brother-in-law Parvez Hoodbhoy, when he succumbed to a fatal heart attack.
For me personally, he was a lot of things.
A guardian to me after my father passed away when I was 14, a mentor, a hero to look up to, and just plain good company! But above all, he remains the man I had discovered, along with the first sight of a plane on the ground, Munno Chacha, the ever affectionate uncle from the USA.
Eqbal Ahmad’s death anniversary is on May 11.