The Empty Inkwells, the Queen’s Bath and the Pursuit of Happiness: An American Journey

(Commencement Address by Dr S. Amjad Hussain at the University of Toledo, May 6, 2007)

What a joy to look at the sea of colorful robes and regalia and see the beaming smiles of proud families and friends who are part of this very important rite of passage in your life. Parents, grandparents, spouses and siblings are ever so eager to observe and record this important milestone. I know the feeling for I have also been there.
This scene reminds me of the time when a proud father strategically positioned himself near the stage to snap a picture of his daughter receiving her coveted diploma. Just as the young lady was about to come on stage another father got in front of him and obstructed the view. The man tapped the intruder on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey buddy, I have spent $100,000 of my hard-earned money to get this picture’.
With your indulgence I wish to interject a personal note at this juncture. This morning I miss the presence of two very special women in my life. Had they been alive they would have felt a measure of pride and satisfaction that only a mother and a wife can feel on such occasions.
My mother was a woman of sharp intellect, wit and uncommon wisdom who made sure her children received the education that she was deprived of as a child and as a young woman. The other woman was Dottie, my wife and soul mate of 38-years and a nurse par excellence.
These two women touched my life and my being in the most positive way with their quiet grace and their unfailing support of whatever I chose to peruse in my life.
I am grateful to the University of Toledo-College of Nursing for accepting my family’s offer to start a Distinguished Visiting Lectureship in Dottie’s honor.
I dedicate this address to the loving memory of those two women.
A commencement address is a time-honored and a wonderfully redundant exercise where a speaker stands between the graduates and their degrees and causes unnecessary delay in the subsequent celebration that families and friends have planned. In this frame of mind you will soon forget the person who spoke at your graduation and also, I assure you, much of what I am going to say.
This was brought home to me rather vividly a number of years ago when I met this young and smart critical care nurse at St. Charles Mercy Hospital here in Toledo. She had recently graduated from Mercy College of Nursing where I was the commencement speaker at her graduation. With some excitement of being recognized, I asked who was the commencement speaker at her graduation. I don’t remember, she said. And neither did she remember anything worth remembering that the speaker had said.
I was too embarrassed to tell her the truth.
So you see I am very cognizant of the transitory and fleeting nature of this exercise. I am mindful to be short, brief, interesting and perhaps amusing. It is a tall order and is not unlike when a 6th grade teacher gave her class the assignment to write a short essay which should incorporate the elements of religion, royalty, intrigue, suspense and drama. One young girl came up with a perfect example. She wrote:
Oh my god, the queen is pregnant. I wonder who’s done it.
So I beg your indulgence as in the next twenty minutes I share with you my observations and my perspective as an immigrant to this country and tell you that as members of this society and as members of a broader global community your ideas are important to tackle myriad challenges we face at home and abroad. And that you have a choice and a voice to articulate those ideas.
My journey from the dusty little town of Peshawar located at the crossroads of Asia near the famous Khyber Pass in northwestern Pakistan to the city of Toledo in 1963 did not look too significant at the moment. I left home, as most young men and women do on such occasions, with a heavy heart and a rich album of memories for the new world. I had fully intended to return to my roots to pursue an academic career in surgery.
At the time I had thought that my future and my destiny lay in the land of my ancestors. I had naively assumed that seemingly sharp and impenetrable barriers of culture, religion and language separated me from the people of the West. To put it in proper perspective it was barely 16 years after the independence of India and the creation of Pakistan when I left home. The memories of a mildly benevolent but still an apartheid British rule over India were still fresh in my mind. There were lines that we natives dare not cross. Very simply we did not have a voice.
So with that heavy baggage and lots of preconceived ideas about America I got off the boat, figuratively, 44 years ago here in Toledo.
Immigrants to a different culture follow one of the three paths while trying to adjust to a new life in a strange land.
Some of them live in the past surrounded by comforting sounds and smells of a land they left behind. They live virtually in a physical and psychological ghetto. This is a common narrative of most first generation immigrants.
Then there are those on the other extreme who soon after their arrival dive into the avant-garde culture of the host country- a culture that is strange and alien to even some Americans. They emerge from this cultural baptism as new persons, cleansed of their past. Unfortunately such baptism does not change the color of skin, facial features or the foreign accent.
There is however a third choice, a difficult one and that is to integrate with the host society and act as a bridge of understanding and a voice of reason between two disparate worlds. As a South Asian Muslim I have followed that path. In this process I did not find my religion or my cultural underpinnings to be contradictory to the idealism of America.
I have been the recipient of unconditional kindness, generosity and grace by the people of my adopted land. I have received much more than I have given. There is a prevailing sense of justice in appreciation of one’s ability in this country. This is something that is uniquely American and is hard to find in the rest of the world; certainly not in Asia and not in Europe.
Perhaps it is so because ours is a country of immigrants. Except for Native Americans, we all came here from someplace else. Some of you arrived on the Mayflower and some of us a few hundreds years later by jetliners. And to this day people come, drifting on rickety boats across vast expanse of oceans or trekking the inhospitable Arizona desert, to the shining city on the hill as John Winthrop the Governor of Massachusetts described America so eloquently in 1630. We may have come with the uncertainty of today but we all had a promise of tomorrow.
According to the Declaration of Independence all of us have an unalienable right, along with life and liberty, to pursue happiness. There are many ways we could define happiness.
One could equate happiness with bulging shelves at the grocery store or seemingly unending lines of new cars at a car dealership. But to equate happiness with 19- brands of toilet paper or long isles of soft drinks in a grocery store is to demean the very concept of that pursuit and dare I say the true meaning of America?
To me happiness is the ability to think freely and express freely without the fear of a midnight knock at the door.
All of us as citizens of this great country have unrestricted access to Public Square where we are free to exercise our unalienable right to express our opinions no matter how weird, unpopular or unpalatable. Personally I prefer a noisy and boisterous public discourse to a maddening and deafening silence in public arena.
For the past 25-years I have been privileged to write for the Blade, our daily newspaper, and a few other newspapers here in this country and abroad. Every two weeks I stand on my little soapbox and say whatever is on my mind. With such unprecedented privilege, however, comes the responsibility to be fair, accurate and civil; sometimes critical, at times outrageous but never insulting or demeaning.
Within those boundaries I have tried to explain the events unfolding in parts of the world that may not be of interest or may not be well understood by many of my fellow citizens. One could say that I have tried to narrow the widening and yawning gap between the East and the West and specifically between Eastern and Western religious traditions. It has not been a cakewalk. Rudyard Kipling, the irrepressible champion of the British Raj, had said:
Oh the East is East and the West is West and never the twain shall meet.
And the echoes of that famous line are being heard with more frequency and with increasing ferocity.
Since the fateful day of September 11, 2001 my task as an op-ed columnist has taken on new urgency because I sense an expectation by some of my fellow citizens that I should condemn my religion for the crimes of some of the followers of Islam. It would be like throwing out the baby along with the bath water.
Nine-Eleven destroyed much of the amity that Muslims had developed with other religions in America. More than that it has critically silenced a meaningful dialogue between Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Islam is being blamed for the misdeeds and horrific acts of certain groups who call themselves Muslims and claim their nefarious inspiration from the same sacred text that I have cherished and followed all my life. So when I hear a blanket condemnation of my religion, and for that matter any religion, by those who ought to know better, it affects the very inner core of my being as it would, I am sure, affect you if the roles were reversed.
Through out history man has invoked the name of God to wage war against others. Time, reason and tactics might be different but invoking the name of God remains constant. A poem from WWI illustrates this point rather well. It was written by the English poet Seigfried Sassoon:
God heard embattled nations sing and shout
‘Gott strafe England!’ and ‘God save the king!’.
God this, God that and God the other thing-
‘Good God!’ said God, I’ve my work cut out!’.
Like two huge tectonic plates Islam and Christianity have collided many times in history and the reverberations from this collision were felt far and near and to this day we see those fissures visible in as distant places as the Middle East, the Balkans and parts of Europe.
But there have also been times when Christians and Muslims and Jews rose above their religious differences and worked in harmony. For five centuries from 750 CE to 1258 CE, the period of history known as the Golden Age of Islamic Civilization, one sees an unprecedented cooperation and collaboration between Muslims and non-Muslims. Together they spawned a dazzling explosion of arts and sciences in Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Spain and a few centuries later in India during the Mughal rule.
Looking at those accomplishments even through the fog and haze of present day distrust and paranoia they look dazzling. It was made possible only when there was active participation of all citizens of the realms and when Christian and Jewish voices were heard along with those of Muslims.
Pray tell, why then the same religion that provided a milieu for such cooperation and collaboration is now being called the source of all evil in the world? Faith and reason have become the buzzwords now when discussing Christianity and Judaism. But those concepts were put to test and followed by Muslims centuries before the Reformation. No, there has not always been the clash of civilization as popularized by Samuel Huntington.
This leads to the invariable question: What happened?
The simple answer is that colonization of the Arab and Muslim lands by the emerging European powers of the 15th century changed that dynamic.
In the post Colonial era in the Muslim and Arab lands a mindset has developed that tends to blame all their shortcomings on the effects of Colonization. Lost in this rhetoric is the fact that we the Muslims have also lost our intellectual and scholarly pursuit.
Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, had famously said that the ink of a scholar’s pen is more sacred than the blood of martyr. In a macabre reversal of that noble saying, for some, the blood of a terrorist has become more sacred while we have let our inkwells run dry. Add to that the political injustices that have been meted out, from Palestine to Kashmir to Chechnya to Kosovo to Afghanistan, and you have a perfect milieu for disenchantment, extremism and terrorism.
Now what all this geopolitical turmoil has to do with you, the newly minted graduates of this university?
I respectfully submit that it does.
It would be an understatement to say that the world has changed and has become much smaller in the past 50-years. What happens in one corner of the world affects us all. But we have lagged behind in our approach to and understanding of the world that once used to be remote, distant and somewhat exotic; a world we used to access through the pages of the National Geographic or BBC Radio. Now it is up close, in the face, real life and in real time.
All of us are given choices in life. Many times the choices we make determine our destiny and our legacy. Those choices make the difference between a life spent in pursuit of happiness that is not limited to the plethora of choices available in the grocery store and a life spent in pursuit of happiness that makes a difference to others.
Martin Luther King Jr. had said, "Every man must decide whether he will walk in the creative light of altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life's persistent and most urgent question is 'what are you doing for others?"
So what would you do for others as you leave the comforting and soothing confines of this university?
But before I suggest some choices I want to tell you a fable from the East. In Peshawar there is a street called the Street of Story Tellers where, in a bygone era, caravans from Central Asia would make a stop on their way to the plains of India and beyond. There, in town’s caravanserais, the weary travelers were entertained by professional storytellers. Hence my propensity to tell stories. The story I am going to share with you has its usual inferences and morals.
Once upon a time, (I love that fairy tale beginning), there was a benevolent king whose beloved queen fell ill of a mysterious illness. Despite all efforts her health continued to deteriorate. In desperation the royal physicians suggested a milk bath. The king decreed that each household supply a pitcher of milk for the common good of the kingdom.
The town criers went through the labyrinthine streets of the city and announced that every household was to deliver a pitcher of milk to the royal bath outside the city gates.
All through the night residents of the city-- peasants, artisans, professionals, traders and shopkeepers-- carried clay pitchers on their heads to the outskirts of the city and emptied them in the royal bath.
When the first light of morning dissipated the pitch darkness of the night the royal attendants, to their horror, saw that the bath was full but not with milk but with water.
Each household had assumed that one pitcher of water in a bath full of milk would not be noticed and it would not make any difference.
It did.
And it still does.
I would like you to keep this story in mind when you go about making choices in your life and carve out a comfortable niche for you and your family.
There is enormous poverty and hunger in the world and even in this country there are pockets of deprivation. People are poor for no fault of theirs. When you are asked to extend a helping hand just remember this story.
There will be times in your life when you will see injustice meted out to those who cannot defend themselves. You will be called upon to stand up for those disenfranchised segment of our society. You must share with them some of the milk you will carry.
You will also see bigotry and prejudice - may it be racial, social, political or religious - towards your fellow citizens. You will be expected to stand up and scream bloody murder. To look the other way would be like pouring water instead of milk in the bath.
The fabric and texture of our society is enriched by the presence of the arts, the music, the community theater, service clubs, libraries and such. As productive members of the community you will be expected to help with your time and your money. Just imagine if the Libbyes, the Stranahans, the Knights, the Andersons and the like would have remained oblivious to the needs of this community. I hope you will do your bit.
All of you have worked extremely hard to earn the diplomas that you are about to receive. This first-rate education will open the world for you. You have reached this milestone with the help of many people who have helped you climb this difficult ladder. You ought to remember the fable of the queen’s illness and the pitcher of milk when you are asked to help your alma mater. America is great because of its institutions of higher learning and institutions thrive when alumni become part of their future.
And don’t forget your teachers who, in all fairness, made you what you are. They are the real architects of the America of tomorrow but seldom get the credit or their due for that awesome responsibility. We all owe a perpetual debt of gratitude to these noble men and women. Whenever you can go back to your university, college, high school and your grade school and say thank you.
Last but not the least you should also apply the parable of the Queen’s bath when it comes to your own family. Before the relentless pursuit of success takes you away from your primary responsibility as a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife or as a parent do not forget that charity does begin at home. Your family would also need some of that milk.
Now I assure you it is not easy to balance a big, seemingly bottomless pitcher filled with the milk of human kindness, grace and charity on your head and walk a tight rope of responsibilities the rest of your lives. But then the ceremony you are about to participate in, has, hopefully, prepared you for this difficult walk.
To do so is the real pursuit of happiness and to this hyphenated American the real meaning of being an American.
In the end the choice will have to be yours. To remain silent or oblivious should not be one of the choices.
Let me conclude with the wise words of the 19th century American army general, poet and orator Albert Pike: ‘What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal’.
I wish you the world.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.