I just discovered -- to my unending horror -- while snooping around on the web, that Eqbal Ahmad passed away in Pakistan last month. Scathing, humorous, compassionate, principled, scholarly, unremitting, giving, eloquent -- the list of adjectives is probably inexhaustible. I wanted to say just a few, short, overwhelmingly inadequate words about him.
For three decades he was one of the world's foremost, widely published, and most-cherished critics of colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, fundamentalist religion, militarism, and so on. In short, of the manifold injustices of our time. He seemed impossibly well-read and well-traveled. His arguments were devastatingly persuasive, his knowledge voluminous, his dedication unquestionable. He didn't beat around the bush, his words cutting to the quick, and hitting the bullseye, resoundingly. But most important was that he quite simply exhuded humanity. His vocabulary was astounding. His accent was charming. His voice would rise to great crescendos, and drop to almost imperceptible whispers within moments. He was unfailingly polite, and even apologetic for having been forced to disagree with someone. He expressed a profound appreciation for culture -- poetry, books, song, food, etc. In other words, listening to him for just a few moments, one felt in the presence of an uncle (albeit one who was teaching you some very important lessons about the way the world works).
After leaving Pakistan with a price upon his head, established by its military government for his failure to not tell the truth, he came to the United States, eventually landng a professorship at Hampshire College in Amherst, retiring in 1997. With the institution of a parliamentary government in Pakistan, he was recently able to return, after an absence of many decades, to his home country; and in his last years split his time between Pakistan, where he was trying to establish an independent university (in a country with 75% illiteracy), and the United States. He died following surgery for colon cancer. To say that the world has lost an irreplaceable beacon, a champion of the cause of justice, and a great ally, seems such a colossal understatement that it's almost an injury to his memory to propose it. Yet there it is. Even when words fail, sometimes they're preferable to silence.
I have set up several links to archives of his work, individual articles, and remembrances.
I especially recommend "The Amherst Interviews"; a towering, epic, monumental set of interviews conducted by David Barsamian in December of 1996. It'd be difficult to pick out a favorite passage from his writing and speaking. There are so many brilliant, insightful, funny, cherished moments. But I think the following, from a 1993 interview, is, for me, the most unforgettable; the anguish in his voice so palpable, it is absolutely heartbreaking to listen to. After delivering a pointed, pained exposition of the failure of the American Left to not only attempt to prevent or lessen atrocities in Palestine and Bosnia, but to fail even to take a stance on them, he concluded that:
"I think we will have to stop talking about the American Peace Movement, or Left, or any such thing. What I had worked with isn't there anymore. I almost feel as if I had been dancing with a shadow. I'm sorry."
Although the catastrophic failure of American progressives to prevent, or even mitigate, the latest crimes in Iraq and Yugoslavia (to name but a few) would seemingly indicate the accuracy of this assertion, we owe it to his memory to prove him wrong. Rest in peace, my friend.