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
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
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
Oh my god, the queen is pregnant. I wonder who’s
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
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
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
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
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
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
‘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
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
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.
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
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
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
In the end the choice will have to be yours. To
remain silent or oblivious should not be one of
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.