Thought and Action Combine: "Waziristan to Washington"
By Elise Alexander American University Washington, DC
American University, my home institution, prides itself on its scholar-teachers.
It's kind of expected that any of the more sought-after professors have had some
experience, at least, in their field: a decade or so in government, starting up
a non-profit or a social movement and that kind of a thing.
While this affords students the opportunity to learn at the feet of those who really know what they're talking about, it can also mute our sense of awe. So it was that my classmates and I who were present at the performance of "Waziristan to Washington," the autobiographical play of our Professor Akbar Ahmed, were blown completely out of our scholarly complacency. Afterward, our exchanges mostly began with one, fairly inadequate word: "Wow."
Though I had long admired Prof. Ahmed for his lauded interfaith bridge-building work in DC, I - and apparently my fellow students - had known little about his colorful and accomplished past before he was the man in the front of the row of desks.
In his recounting of tales, many aspects of my studies came to life: Partition of India and Pakistan, the creation of massive waves of refugees by that event, the interaction of the Pakistani state and the tribal areas, and even the reaction of the American Muslim community to tragedies like the attacks of 9/11 and the killing of Daniel Pearl. In each of these, Prof. Ahmed combined the intellect for which we already respected him with a ready decisiveness, taking personal initiative in often-perilous situations to create respect among diverse people, be they the proud men of Waziristan or the grieving Jewish father of a son murdered with his religion on his lips.
The only exception to this was the case of Partition and its refugees, in which it was Prof. Ahmed's parents who performed so commendably, shaping the man he would become.
The performance of "Waziristan to Washington" was held, in a gesture cogent to the material contained in the play, at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, a large DC synagogue.
The attendees varied from Rabbi Bruce Lustig, the head of Washington Hebrew, to students like me, to young Muslims from the community.
Though I had been before to Washington Hebrew for an interfaith event, the sight of my Pakistani Muslim professor sharing his tales in front of a large display of the Ten Commandments, inscribed in Hebrew, was a powerful one. Especially moving was the story of his relationship with Judea Pearl, father of murdered Jewish American journalist Daniel Pearl. Standing in the front of a Jewish sacred space, Prof. Ahmed shared his struggle in this instance: how does one deal with being contacting out of desperation by someone in regards to a murder perpetrated in one's home town, likely not far from one's original house?
How easy it might have been to send a scholarly letter expressing formal sympathy and outlining the history and theology of tolerance in Islam. Instead, a face-to-face, emotionally charged meeting was held. Significantly, Prof. Ahmed took the initiative to have some Pakistani officials offer a sincere apology, a great thing to ask but a deeply meaningful one.
This account was only one of the many which flowed forth that evening. We were submerged in images: Prof. Ahmed journeying into unknown tribal territory without orders to pay his respects to a holy shrine, and so win the respect of its keepers; Prof. Ahmed, a young civil servant, running an arduous length in full gear alongside soldiers who were forced from their earlier scoffing; Prof. Ahmed ethically resigning as a civil servant after being blocked from his efforts as Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK.
Even in the tales of his life and times, my professor illustrates the concept which he drills into us in the classroom: no one is one thing, and any attempt to tie them down to one identity will prove futile and sometimes dangerous. The archetypes of both scholar and adventurer are vivid in Akbar Ahmed. We can only hope that they both will continue to shine out, and that we may learn from them.
(Elise Alexander studies at American University and is a research assistant to Prof. Akbar Ahmed)