IT is the winter of 2006. Ashiq Hussain, an MPhil student from Jampur, arrives at Cologne airport. The air is tense with the news of Amir Cheema’s death in a Berlin prison. Cheema had attempted to kill a German editor for insulting the Prophet (PBUH).
But for Hussain, religious fervour or nationalism are excess baggage he prefers to leave in Islamabad. While emotionally charged youth burn German flags in Pakistan, cool-headed Hussain burns with only one passion — to be an academic his father can be proud of.
Fast-forward to summer, July 23 this year. After a week-long heatwave, Germany is cooler today. Few kilometres from Munich, in the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology, Hussain takes a break from the micro-world of sensory cells to enjoy the smell of coffee beans.
Dressed in a tailored suit, speaking in German with someone, 30-something postdoc neuroscientist Hussain is perhaps the only Pakistani academic here — but one with many ambitions, accolades and admirers.
“I have been honoured to deliver a lecture at Nobel Laureate Dr Linda B. Buck’s lab, who also reviewed and recommended my research paper in 2009. Cited 56 times, this is one of the most cited publications of Max Planck,” says Hussain in a tone filled more with the confidence of Frank Underwood than the conceit of Sheldon Cooper, both his favourite TV characters.
“Having won the I. H. Usmani gold medal, and the Capital Award from the Punjab governor, I finished my PhD in neuroscience from Cologne University with summa cum laude,” he says. “From a government high school in Jampur to Agricultural University, Faisalabad, and the National Centre of Excellence in Molecular Biology, I always secured a distinction.”
Meanwhile, his associates gather for a BBQ in the compound. Fellows at the MPI find him quite likeable. Anja, who helps Hussain with German text, says her interaction with him suggests that stereotypes about Pakistan are quite wrong. Habibi from Turkey describes him as “Zindabad”.
When American-born Indian Sami says Hussain’s going to be famous, he quickly responds, “I am already famous. My research about the discovery of sensory habits of zebra fish got coverage on the BBC and in German media.” Sami says that Hussain is very open-minded but when it comes to India and Pakistan, he gets a bit “emotional”.
But holding a permanent residence card makes you German, I point out.
“No, I am Pakistani. I want to go back and set up my own research institutes in both Germany and Pakistan,” he says.
Hussain prefers using his surname, and calls himself neither Seraiki nor Punjabi but a global citizen who uses his right to vote in Germany — but he won’t tell you his political affiliation. On racism, he asks: “Are Punjabis or Pakhtuns less racist than Germans?” Of course Germany is no exception but people in western Germany are more open to multiculturalism than those in the east.”
As a Pakistani or Muslim he hasn’t faced any discrimination, he says. Rather, he’s been entrusted to pursue research independently, never worrying about grants. Himself a teetotaler, he happily joins colleagues popping the bubbly to celebrate a new discovery.
As he rolls up his sleeves I ask if he needs a prayer break. “No, no. I’m a liberal person who likes to keep religion away from scientific investigation,” he explains, standing by his desk covered with science journals. Behind him, tables of German articles decorated with ‘Bismillah’ in Arabic peep between office memos.
Hussain blames the alienation of Muslim youth on the community’s lack of scientific thinking. He admits life in Germany has totally transformed him — once rigid, he feels he is now more progressive. “We shouldn’t involve religion in professional life and promote the culture of questioning,” he says. “Plagiarism is prevalent in Pakistani universities because we don’t teach our students to think.”
Being an ambassador of the MPI and the European Chemoreception Research Organisation, he wishes to share his knowledge with the underprivileged youth in remote areas like Jampur. Establishing high-tech research institutes in Gwadar and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is also on his wish list.
Hussain says streamlined funding is essential to improve standards of research in Pakistan. Apart from student exchanges, Pakistan can liaise with German institutes donating equipment worth millions. “We at the MPI are very keen on establishing a branch in Pakistan. Besides, I’m working out the feasibility of subscription-free science journals for Pakistani students. Like India, the Pakistani embassy should also offer counselling services for the placement of PhD candidates and avoid scams like Axact.”
For Ilona Grunwald, Hussain’s project head, he has what it takes to thrive as a leading scientist. She reveals that he has recently discovered a unique mechanism in the olfactory system of pregnant women which may break new grounds in the field of neuroscience.
Hussain dreams of grabbing a Nobel Prize for neuroscience one day, like German theoretical physicist Max Planck, in whose name the MPI was established. And his supervisor at the MPI believes that given his potential, this may turn into reality.
As the charcoal turns orange, Hussain helps his pal flipping the sausages while planning something for tomorrow.
Published in Dawn, August 7th, 2015