THERE are men taller than any tribute; Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan was among such men. An iconic figure, he has left his mark on history by providing an unassailable security shield to Pakistan. Beyond science, Dr Khan had many dimensions to his personality — energetic, innovative and full of ideas, he was above all deeply humane and a man of faith and love for Islam and yet he maintained a healthy commitment to the common good.
When I read his autobiography Dastan-i-Azam or listened to many anecdotes of his life I could not escape the feeling that a divine hand had shaped his destiny for a purpose. In the early 1960s, Berlin University accepted him and he was to pursue a PhD in steel technology with Professor Stark as his supervisor. But before he could join the university he was required to learn German in Frankfurt.
Soon he felt depressed and applied for a well-paying teaching job in a Nigerian university. He wrote to Dr Stark about his decision to leave for Nigeria. Dr Stark responded by suggesting that he was to pass through Frankfurt and the two could meet at the airport. They did.
Dr Stark, a bright-faced short old man, said, “If you go to Nigeria, your life will be comfortable, but you will end as a teacher. If you pursue research, you may accomplish something worthwhile.” Qadeer Khan then made up his mind.
Later, during his summer vacation wanderings in Europe, at a gift card shop in Delft, the Netherlands, he met his future wife Henny, when she gave him a postal stamp which he needed. That led to their marriage, his shift to Louvain to study advanced metallurgy, and finally his employment at the Almelo uranium enrichment plant using nascent centrifuge technology. The rest, as they say, is history.
In 1975, Dr Khan wrote to Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who asked him to return home. He consulted his wife who reflected and decided to stand by him. Life was tough. There were doubts about the project at home and outside. I remember Dr I.H. Usmani telling me in New York in 1979, “How can Mattah (churning butter from milk) technology produce atom bombs.”
Immediately after the 1998 Indian nuclear tests, India’s Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani claimed, “By testing we have called Pakistan’s bluff.” Yet, Dr Khan with his dedicated team (whom he generously credits in his writings for their genius and dedication) improvised, developed and brought to Pakistan the proverbial Promethean Fire. Pakistan succeeded in developing a third route to producing fissionable material. The other two were developed by the United States (and adopted by successive nuclear-weapon states) at the Manhattan Project in the 1940s.
A clear acknowledgment of his achievement ironically comes from American officials and scholars. Worthy of citation is the wistful remark by American CIA Chief George Tenet (1997-2004), who wrote in his memoirs At the Centre of the Storm, “Now I was going to ask him (President Musharraf) to take on a man (Dr Khan) who almost single-handedly transformed Pakistan into a nuclear power and who was considered a hero by the nation.”
That 2003 episode was ugly, and unfair and deeply hurtful to Dr Khan and his family. We fell into a trap and mistreated a great hero and benefactor of the country.
Dr Khan was a man of many parts. He felt most agitated by the sufferings of Muslims around the world. I saw him become emotional when talking about Muslims suffering atrocities in Bosnia or Kashmir or Palestine and the carnage visited upon them in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or other corner of the world.
Faith and strong belief were simply a part of his persona. He believed that logic must have its limits. But he tolerated sceptics like myself who thought some of his thinking was naïve.
His weekly Jang column Sahr honay tak always carried stories of holy men of Islam and quotes from the Holy Quran. But he could also talk about scientific theories of physics and chemistry with great ease. He was fond of sending books, and he sent me a range of books from life stories of Aulia Allah to subjects such as “the genius of science” and “the quantum labyrinth”.
Quintessentially he was a humanist committed to justice, peace and the common good. Many a time during discussion he would argue that the atomic weapons are for deterrence, to prevent war, and that they demand the utmost responsibility on the part of those who possess them.
His humane qualities were a sight to behold when he would engage in a monologue with a dozen pet cats who have the run of his house in E-7 Sector, Islamabad. Or, watching him feed bananas and bread to monkeys who would come down routinely from the Margallas and wait for him to throw the goodies from a specially built opening at the top of the big glass window beside his large easy chair. He also rescued stray dogs.
Talking once to a prying foreign media person who requested an interview for her documentary, he ended the call with the remark, “Madam you are looking for a villain for your film. I am no Dr Strange Love. I love animals.”
Loving animals was his spontaneous way of proving his love for humanity and nature.
One surprise book I received from him was The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, which suggested his fascination for the long lost empires of the Great Sahara and his passion for travel. He lamented that even his travels within Pakistan had become restricted. Once travelling in Mali, he and his friends pooled funds to help an intelligent local guide Abdurahman to set up an eight-room Adobe style hotel named after Dr Khan’s wife where the owner also served Pakistani curry taught to him by Dr Khan’s friends. The hotel closed down following the pandemic.
He was a simple man, but the most consequential of men. He enjoyed the company of old friends who were often invited for delicious meals of paya, daal and bhindi. He loved people and their adulation for him. No wonder, in his will he chose to be buried in the common H-8 graveyard as he was truly a man of the people.
The writer is former foreign secretary and a friend of Dr A.Q. Khan
Published in Dawn, October 11th, 2021