The American from Mozang
By Dr Asif Javed
Among his peers and students, he had developed a somewhat undeserved reputation of being too Americanized. He did not deny it either. Once, while sipping the forbidden nectar at a Christmas party, he told me that he had boarded the plane to USA from Lahore in 1969 and had vowed to return to Pakistan immediately after finishing his training in medicine and not to marry an American. Neither vow was kept; this was vintage Usman Ahmad.
I write this in the Saadat Hasan Manto’s tradition who once famously wrote in the epilogue of Ganjay Farishtay that he was not in the business of cleaning up his subjects to make them more presentable to the readers.
Back to Usman Ahmad: I once asked him what had made him choose the USA rather than the UK for post-graduation. “It was a no brainer,” he said. “The British are more style than substance while the Americans roll up their sleeves and simply get down to the business.” Having come from the UK at the time, I did not like his comment, but looking back I find it fairly accurate.
As I think of him, a few things stand out: he was one of a fairly large crowd of young Pakistani physicians who came to the USA in the sixties and seventies and made their millions but he was among the select few who rose to professional heights in their specialty; he rose to be the program director of a residency program and professor of medicine. This was not easy; in hushed tone he once told me how, earlier on in his academic career, he had been forced to “walk behind” a senior Italian American physician, who had been sympathetic to foreign physicians. Getting a foothold in academia in white-dominated organizations is not easy, as many of us continue to discover.
Usman Ahmad spoke English with a rare fluency and poise for a foreign medical graduate. I recall a farewell party for a retiring office manager of his in Pittsburg where he delivered a speech. The audience - mostly white Americans - sat spell-bound by his eloquence.
His punctuality was almost legendary. Being late is endemic in our culture, a despicable trait that many of us brought here from back home and never get rid of. But not him: over a period of four years I remember only one morning when he did not turn up for the morning report at 7 AM sharp. Somewhat surprised, I looked outside the morning report room, only to discover him on the phone in the hallway, taking an outside phone call from a distressed patient.
Usman Ahmad disliked using any language other than English in public. If you spoke to him in Urdu or Punjabi, he would answer back in English but you would also receive a cold stare as a polite reprimand. On one occasion, however, I managed to hear him talk to a fellow Pakistani physician in the typical Lahori Punjabi, but that was it.
He was a practical man and would, from time to time, pass on a word or two of wisdom to his juniors. When my son was born, he asked me his name: “Taimoor Javed,” I said triumphantly. “Look,” he said, “Unlike you, your son is a born US citizen and is likely to spend his entire life here, so choose a traditional Islamic name by all means, but make sure it is easy for Americans to spell and pronounce,” he said with a conviction. He then went on to suggest a few names, Ali, Karim and Hakim among others. My wife and I chose Ali, instead of Taimoor, and remain grateful to him twenty years later for his advice.
Unlike many of us, Usman Ahmad did not publicize his Pakistani origin. In fact, at times, one got the distinct impression that he was positively hiding his roots. It took me some time to realize that he did open up to a select few in private gatherings, and then the real Lahori Mozangwala inside him would surface. I was amused once to notice his car number plate; it read “MOZANG”. Once, having just returned from Pakistan, he told us about a music show in Qazzafi Stadium at Lahore that he had been taken to by a friend. “Fantastic show and this Arif Lohaar is something,” he said with a chuckle.
He was in love with Pittsburg and spent his entire career in the USA — training and practice — in the steel city. He played golf and was very fond of Tiger Woods. In 1997, I recall asking him why Tiger was considered better than Daly who could hit longer tee shorts. “Because Tiger has a much better thinking head on his shoulders,” he said with a smile. He loved Steelers and once took me along with his young son to a Steelers football game. I then realized that he was a diehard Steelers fan. With a twinkle in his eye, he told me that he had been present at the Three Rivers Stadium—since demolished--the day Terry Bradshaw had thrown that famous pass to Franco Harris, now referred to as the immaculate reception that has since become part of the Steeler folklore. But the American football fan in Usman Ahmad had not been able to completely suppress the Lahori cricket fan inside him. Having seen Sri Lanka’s triumph over Australia in the cricket world cup final in 1996, he remarked, “Oh, this was no contest.”His excitement was palpable the way he described the match. After all, he had spent his youth in the city of great Fazal Mahmood and the legendary skipper, Hafiz Kardar.
His ties with the family back home remained close despite the obvious handicap of an American spouse. Many years ago, he was talking of a brother of his who had come down with a debilitating neurologic disorder in Pakistan. The treatment was expensive. “Is he able to afford it?” I asked him. “I am his only Blue Cross,” he said with sadness.
Usman Ahmad was not particularly handsome in the traditional sense, nor was he a particularly well dressed person; it was his elegance and the warmth of his personality that impressed you and sometimes overwhelmed you.
He would rarely miss an opportunity to remind you that we were in the USA rather than in Pakistan. Once I protested to him that he had taken a complaint against me from a nurse seriously. “A complaint from a nurse?” I said. He was furious and retorted, “You should have left this stupid colonial mentality back home.” Years later, as I think of his remarks and my unwise statement, I remain grateful to him for the message conveyed.
He did have a temper and would occasionally unleash his fury as a resident. Once, when a young intern from Philippines broke down in tears from his scolding, I felt as if he also had not left behind his colonial baggage.
It was sometime in the mid-nineties that he introduced me to Pakistan Link. Clearly, he had more ties and affection to the land of his birth than he would freely admit in public. I subscribed to Pakistan Link at his suggestion and, except for a brief interruption, have been a regular reader, and an occasional writer. Little did I realize that one day I will write his obituary in his beloved newspaper.
As I write these lines, Usman Ahmad has been buried in a Catholic cemetery in Pittsburg. I am told he had a cardiac arrest having just returned from Lahore, having visited his family that includes an elderly mother. A mutual friend reports that there were scores of people at his funeral from all walks of life to pay their respect to the talented Pakistani American. It seems as if the hidden, but diehard, Lahori wanted to pay one last homage to his beloved Mozang before finally calling it a day in his adopted homeland.
(The writer is a physician in Williamsport, PA and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Repeated)