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Eqbal’s nick name was “Munno”, 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.
Eqbal’s nick name was “Munno”, 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.

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.

Also read: Eqbal Ahmed — The astute alarmist

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.

Also read: Remembering Dr Eqbal Ahmad

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.

Author Image

Vaqar Ahmed is an engineer turned part-time journalist who likes to hang out at unfashionable places like shrines, railway stations and bus stops.

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

Comments (33) Closed

Malveros May 14, 2015 03:36pm

Excellent article and an interesting insight in to the personality.

Keen Reader May 14, 2015 04:08pm
            Heart touching article!              
Old Ravian May 14, 2015 04:29pm

I am so embarrassed to admit that I have just come to know about Eqbal Ahmad. He appears to be a giant against our so called TV intellectuals. Maybe, he also represents, the now extinct, " action intellectuals" who walked the talk and were willing to sweat out (and bleed out when needed) on what they believed in.

Kazim Reza May 14, 2015 04:57pm

@Old Ravian Like you Sir, I just came to know about the great personality.But some other names including the great Eward Said or Noam Chomsky I know them through their writings.Many thanks to Mr. Ahmed for this article.

kaliraja thangamani May 14, 2015 05:15pm

Great piece of writing,very informative,and interesting.We like and respect Dawn for this kind of writings.

zafar iqbal May 14, 2015 05:17pm

Hi all,

Well, i have to admit that i didn't know Eqbal until an article i read by Nadeen Paracha "an astute alarmist". than i read an other article by Noam Chomsky titled "secular sufi" and ever since i have been wondering that why isn't there any educational department or institution with in university named after him? and shortly afterwards i get the answer, and that is, eqbal is our forgotten hero, a prolific academic and secular Sufi, most of Pakistanis don't know about. given this all, i believe writing a biography highlighting Eqbal's work and life would be great service to the country and brilliant people it has produced.

Mike Trammell May 14, 2015 05:25pm

Mahatma Gandhi mentored two Hindu and two Muslim children just before the time of partition. Gandhi would give people the example of these four children and say "If these children can manage to become friends and play together, then so can the adults". One of these children was no other than Dr. Eqbal Ahmed. He came to the U.S. at and early age and lived here for 37 years. He was a distinguished teacher of History and Political Science at prestigious universities like Princeton, for many years,. He was also: A revolutionary of the Civil Rights Movement, An anti-Vietnam war activist, Editor of "Race and Class" magazine and a Columnist for New York Times.

Anarchist May 14, 2015 05:28pm

I became familiar with Eqbal through Chomsky in my university days. We need scholars like him, not self-proclaimed & pretentious 'analysts' that we witness on TV screens every evening.

Shahnaz Hakim May 14, 2015 05:46pm

Fortunately I used to read his articles published in a newspaper and came to know about his ideology. Though I would not agree with him all the time, his sincerity and genuine passion for the betterment of the Muslim ummah thoroughly impressed me and his words, and idealogy left a deep mark on my education. Sadly he did not live to see his dream of Khaldoonia University. Today, more than ever we want someone like him to guide our young ones.

Madiha May 14, 2015 06:27pm

Thank you for sharing these lovely memories.

Siddiqui May 14, 2015 06:30pm

An interesting article! A good attempt to educate the young generation about the accomplishments of Eqbal sahib!

Vaqar sahib should try to publish Eqbal sahib's unpublished work, and translate his work into Urdu!

@Eqbal_FBFanPage Admin May 14, 2015 07:01pm

@zafar iqbal - You can keep track with informal and formal Eqbal Ahmad legacy on social media at :

  1. Eqbal Ahmad Fan Page - Unofficial;


  1. Eqbal Ahmad Centre for Public Education - Official

Details of the new book by Stuart Schaar on Eqbal's life can be found on the pages.

urooj saifi May 14, 2015 07:10pm

Thank you for this article to which I can relate to a lot - working with the UN I have experienced similar experiences but will never be an intellectual like Eqbal Sahib. By the way I just shared the article with my seven nephew and nieces as they call me Munno Chahcha.

Balraj Cheema May 14, 2015 07:16pm

How correctly Noam Chomsky puts before us a name which inspires us to think, reason, and say things without mincing and concealing words or facts. Example of nobility expressed through his life speeches and writings make him stand above millions of writers and friends of humanity.

noname May 14, 2015 07:19pm

Vaqar, read the entire piece with a heavy heart and admiration. Write more about Eqbal as we usually have a tendency to neglect and forget about the real heroes that our Nation produced.

Laila May 14, 2015 07:36pm

You have introduced this great person to me and made me proud of my nation, whose son he was. Thank you for that.

Zahra Hussain May 14, 2015 07:43pm

Simply Beautiful. Thank you for writing this.

Arif Khattak May 14, 2015 08:10pm

Great article about a great man. I have the honour of having once met Prof Eqbal Ahmed when he visited Dr Z H Zaidi (another giant of a person).

Anand May 14, 2015 09:50pm

As an Indian with deep sympathies for the thwarted history of our subcontinent, I have even greater respect for Eqbal Ahmed. If there was one thing that I learned by reading him, it was that nationalistic, ideological and religious boundaries are all very dangerous. I disagree with you that Pakistan was his foremost love. His foremost love was humanity. I just hope that one day, present day India honors this great son of the soil! Excellent article that reaffirms Eqbal's humility, courage and intelligence. And thanks to Dawn, which despite all the India bashing is perhaps better than most Indian newspapers except perhaps the venerable Hindu.

Nizamuddin Ahmad Aali May 14, 2015 10:42pm

Thanks for the article. I was a graduate student in USA when Eqbal Ahmad was arrested along with Father Bergman in connection of kidnapping Henry Kissinger from a tunnel in Washington D.C. I remember watching his trials and reading about his mission. Being Pakistan I was proud of him. Pakistan has not done justice with Eqbal Ahmad for some unknown reason. We as a nation are very stingy when it comes to honoring our giants of their times. For Vaqar Ahmad: Your chacha was great man and he belonged to today Pakistan. I pray to God Almighty to bless him in Paradise.

taimoor shaukat May 14, 2015 10:57pm

Confronting Empire . a book by eqbal Ahmed a must read. Couple of years ago I did a prologue on the great man ..can be found here:

Shiraz May 14, 2015 11:20pm

Eqbal Ahmad was a larger then life figure. Calling him an intellectual, thinker, revolutionary, peace keeper, mediator or ... would't do justice to the grandeur of a man of his stature and nature.

I am lucky that my father used to guide me towards his articles in Dawn newspaper. It was a glorious time while I was learning to be a citizen of this world. Eqbal's articles, thoughts and words have influenced me a lot and I believe if I am able to think and act in a rational way, think and act on my own, Eqbal's writings are one of the reasons behind it.

javed qamer May 15, 2015 12:36am

I am glad you wrote about your uncle. I did not know about him but now it seems he is somebody I know. Thanks

Expat (usa) May 15, 2015 02:04am

Long ago, I came to know about Eqbal Ahmad when Edward Said mentioned his name in his writings. . Wish I had known Eqbal beyond it.

Salim Khan May 15, 2015 02:19am

You are a lucky fellow. No doubt you will follow the foot steps of your uncle. Thanks for such a nice article.

Jalaluddin S. Hussain May 15, 2015 06:13am

Thanks Vaqar Sahib for your excellent article about a great man, Eqbal Ahmad.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to listen to his learned lecture at McGill University, many years ago. He was truly inspiring!

ashraf May 15, 2015 07:13am

Thank you author for a glimpse of the life of a free spirit called Eqbal Ahmad. If you are up to the challenge , perhaps a biography of this great man would be a great service and surely be welcomed by many in Pakistan & around the world..

rana nasir May 15, 2015 08:36am

Thank you Vaqar sahib.

An Ismaili May 15, 2015 09:11am

I am fortunate to have loved and followed Eqbal Sahib and his best friend Edward Said Sahib for years @ DAWN. May they both rest in His eternal glory.

Badar Samejo May 15, 2015 09:25am

I learned lot of things in World politics after reading Eqbal Ahmed's selected articles. His article "Terrorism theirs and ours" is classic. He raised questions that probably never been raised. Reading him is always been treat, so is reading Viqar, weldone nephew of great uncle

Afia Mansoor May 15, 2015 10:31am

Thank you so much for this article!

God bless...

Citizen of Karachi May 15, 2015 10:55am

Eqbal's dream of setting up an institution in the grand tradition of real universities where non conformism flourishes, where boundaries are pushed and where torch bearers of humanism set forth should be revived. Let Vaqar set up a seed group of committed people who are prepared to take this dream forward.

jamil May 15, 2015 04:06pm

Really i feel ashamed of my self that i was never aware of the presence of this giant of a man among us.