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PROFILE: THE HISTORIAN WHO HATED HISTORY

August 04, 2019

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Murtaza Ali | White Star
Murtaza Ali | White Star

Nestled in the heart of Lahore, Prof. Ahmad Saeed’s living room is home to an extensive collection of books stacked neatly behind a glass window. The red sofas contrast with wooden chairs and a table, and a janamaz sits comfortably across the room. His phone buzzes a few times, and every time it does, the national anthem — it’s ringtone — crescendos, only to be silenced abruptly at the click of a button. There is one bulb that is lit on the wall behind the professor, and the air is pregnant with nostalgia and longing.

Saeed may not be the first name that comes to your mind when you think of Pakistani historians. Unlike K.K. Aziz or Ayesha Jalal, who are widely recognised for their pioneering research on South Asian history, Saeed’s name would be unfamiliar to many students of history or readers interested in historical literature. This is despite the fact that he has authored dozens of books on a range of themes — from a history of Anjuman Islamiyya to a biographical dictionary of Muslim South Asia.

Much of his work, however, is based on painstaking annotation of primary material. One example is his ongoing project on Maulana Zafar Ali Khan. So far, Saeed has published six volumes comprising Khan’s editorials, collected from his Urdu newspaper Zamindar. For the last three decades, Saeed worked in different libraries of Lahore to photograph or make copies of these editorials, got them typed and assiduously checked and double-checked them for any errors. The result is a majestic six-volume compilation of Khan’s editorials. There were several other volumes in preparation, Saeed told us, but change in management at the Zafar Ali Khan Trust — the organisation responsible for sponsoring the publication of these volumes — caused disruption. The new set-up, it seems, has lost interest in continuing this project.

Prolific historian, writer and professor, Ahmad Saeed talks about how he got enamoured of his profession and what motivates him

HOW DID IT ALL START?

“When I took the exams for my FA, Prof F.M. Bhatti was my teacher,” Saeed recalls with a warm smile, “and I was quite an incompetent boy back in the day,” he chuckles. He tells us about the time he failed his intermediate history exam. After re-sitting the exam, he managed to score well enough to pass the class and got admitted into Government College Lahore.

“While planning my class schedule, I’d always seek the combination that would not require me to take any history classes,” Saeed adds light-heartedly. He looks back fondly upon his time there, recounting how lucky he was to have been taught by people such as Dr F.M. Bhatti and Prof. Saeeduddin Dar. He says it is people like them who shaped him and his journey towards being the man he is today.

“I was fortunate enough to be taught by a professor like Mr Dar,” Saeed continues. “When I started taking classes at the Government College, I was engulfed in self-doubt and felt inferior to everyone there. Those people were far ahead of me in everything possible — academics, wealth, family background.”

Saeed says his uncle got him a membership at the public library where he once chanced upon Mr Dar, who questioned him about the two tests he had failed already in his time at college, asking him what kept him occupied since he neither performed well in sports or in academics. “During this encounter, he referred to me by my last name,” Saeed recalls a memory so deeply embedded in his mind, “and since then, till the end of my teaching career, I have never noted down the roll numbers of my students in the register. Just their names. This creates an understanding between the two that is essential for a mentor-mentee relationship.

“Dar Sahib nudged me towards this discipline, but on a more foundational level, the credit goes to Dr Abdul Hameed.” He goes on to call Dr Hameed a phenomenal man to whom he feels indebted. The author of History of Muslim Separatism: A Brief Survey, 1818-1947, Hameed was a well-known scholar who taught history at Government College Lahore during the 1960s when Saeed was a student there. Not only did he become a mentor for Saeed, he also inspired him to become a historian — and a prolific one at that. Saeed quotes one of his fondest memories of when Dr Hameed said to him, “If you teach, you should also write.”

Those who have knowledge of the history of this country, says Saeed, have an obligation to pass it on to others. He wishes, however, that more people would appreciate the effort that is put into recording this history.

Saeed published his first essay in 1972, which was later fleshed out into the form of a book titled Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi Aur Tehreek-i-Azadi. He says it was Dr Hameed, along with famous personalities such as K.K. Aziz, I.H. Qureshi and Sharifuddin Pirzada, who kept him close and guided him as he settled into his professional life, and soon he became a prolific writer. Through an array of works that are credited to Saeed, it is made evident that he works inexhaustibly on Indo-Pak history and focuses more specifically on topics such as the freedom movement in Pakistan, alongside various other politically and socially significant events within this history.

“In my opinion, and that of some of my close literate friends too, my most important work has been Muslim India: A Biographical Dictionary,” Saeed adds as he emphasises that it’s less of a biography of the Muslims mentioned, and more a bibliography of the work they have done.

RELATIONSHIP WITH PAKISTAN

However, the path to Saeed’s success has not been smooth or easy in the least. Based at a government college and writing scholarly works on history in Urdu, for which there is little readership or appreciation, Saeed had to face a multitude of problems that set him back several times. He relates several anecdotes from the time he spent researching at the Punjab Archives. “The attendants lay on daris [rugs],” he says, “and did not seem like they wanted to be disturbed.” When Saeed inquired about a file that he required for research purposes, they dismissively told him to come back the next day. As instructed, Saeed returned the following day to collect the file, but what transpired left him dumbfounded. He painfully describes how the attendants cursed under their breath as they saw him. This encounter left Saeed utterly disappointed and hurt and, to this day, he remains thoroughly dissatisfied with the poor upkeep of archives in Pakistan. Unfortunately, this was not the only time Saeed has been confronted with disappointment.

“We love to talk about haqooq Allah [the duties towards Allah], going for multiple pilgrimages a year and such — anything that allows you to add grandeur to your status — but no one even mentions haqooq-ul-Ibad [the duties towards fellow human beings],” he says. “It’s something we completely ignore.” Following this train of thought, as he expounds upon the politics of publishing, and the difficulties he has faced through his journey towards being a prolific writer.

“This country, Pakistan, is all we have. And without it, we are nothing,” Saeed says in response to a question about how he derives motivation to continue working despite the hardships he faces. This also explains the ideological tint in his writings which he, as a historian, is willing to acknowledge. Those who have knowledge of the history of this country, says Saeed, have an obligation to pass it on to others. He wishes, however, that more people would appreciate the effort that is put into recording this history. While talking about Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent visit to Turkey, he says he wishes the PM would’ve taken a look at the Zamindar files that contain the receipt for the Zamindar Turkish Relief Fund — with Mustafa Kemal Pasha’s signature — to remind him of Turk-Muslim relations of the past. The reverence with which a Turkish diplomat approached the Zamindar files reminds Saeed that there is hope for these records, and the people who appreciate them.

As the interview draws to an end, Saeed reveals his plans for the near future. He plans on publishing his book that chronicles a comprehensive social history of Lahore — from the first martial law experienced by Lahoris during the colonial period, to even minute details of processes such as calendar-printing in Lahore, the circuses held in the city and its famous summery drinks. It is going to be a real people’s history of Lahore as it includes a chapter on the taanga (horse carriage), their routes, and how the taanga-walas (horse-carriage drivers) of Lahore used to vocalise their grievances. He thinks back to the poetry used by the carriage drivers to organise and make their voices heard: they refused to be identified solely through the numbers allotted to them and fought back against the idea that anything as reductive as a serial number could encapsulate their existence.

Saeed hopes that the politics of publication do not deter him from getting his work published. He says that he relied heavily on the Zafar Ali Khan Trust in the past to get his work published, but recently they have taken to a more digitalised form of publication, where they would want to produce more and more online content instead of hard copies.

This worries Saeed, for he would prefer having his work published in the form of books, not online, though he says he does not have much of a choice in the matter.

Eitherway Saeed’s new book would be a great service to both Pakistan and its history.

Ali Usman Qasmi teaches history at Lums. He is the author of The Ahmadis and the Politics of Religious Exclusion in Pakistan

Ayesha Lari is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature at Lums and is deeply fascinated by creative non-fiction

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 4th, 2019