Monday, October 05, 2009
Faheem Hussain — As I Knew Him
by Pervez Hoodbhoy
It was mid-October 1973 when, after a grueling 26-hour train ride from Karachi, I reached the physics department of Islamabad University (or Quaid-e-Azam University, as it is now known). As I dumped my luggage and "hold-all" in front of the chairman's office, a tall, handsome man with twinkling eyes looked at me curiously. He was wearing a bright orange Che Guevara t-shirt and shocking green pants. His long beard, though shorter than mine, was just as unruly and unkempt. We struck up a conversation. At 23, I had just graduated from MIT and was to be a lecturer in the department; he had already been teaching as associate professor for five years. The conversation turned out to be the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Together with Abdul Hameed Nayyar - also bearded at the time - we became known as the Sufis of Physics. Thirty six years later, when Faheem Hussain lost his battle against prostate cancer, our sadness was beyond measure.
Revolutionary, humanist, and scientist, Faheem Hussain embodied the political and social ferment of the late 1960's. With a Ph.D that he received in 1966 from Imperial College London, he had been well-placed for a solid career anywhere in the world. In a profession where names matter, he had worked under the famous P.T. Mathews in the group headed by the even better known Abdus Salam. After his degree, Faheem spent two years at the University of Chicago. This gave him a chance to work with some of the world's best physicists, but also brought him into contact with the American anti-Vietnam war movement and a powerful wave of revolutionary Marxist thinking. Even decades later, Faheem would describe himself as an "unreconstructed Marxist". Participating in the mass anti-war demonstrations at UC had stirred his moral soul; he felt the urge to do more than just physics. Now married to Jane Steinfels, a like-minded soul who he met in Chicago, Faheem decided to return to Pakistan.
With Bangladesh now a reality, things moved on. Bhutto's rhetoric of
socialism and justice for the poor had inspired nascent trade union
movements to sprout across Pakistan's cities. Many, however, quickly
turned into organizations for labour control rather than emancipation.
There were genuinely independent ones too, such as the Peoples Labour
Federation (PLF), an independent Rawalpindi based trade union that saw
through Bhutto's shallow rhetoric. In the early 1970's, Faheem and Jane
were highly influential in this organization, sometimes providing security
and cover to its hunted leadership. Iqbal Bali, who passed away in the
middle of this year, would vividly recount those days.
Very soon, I joined the small group of leftwing activists that looked up
to this couple for instruction and guidance. We formed study groups
operating under the PLF, both for self-education and for spreading the
message through small study groups of industrial workers. Some, including
myself, branched out further, working in distant villages. Gathering
material support for the Baloch nationalists, who were fighting an army
rejuvenated by Bhutto, was yet another goal for the group. The dream was
to bring about a socialist revolution in Pakistan.
All this crashed to an end with Bhutto's death by hanging in 1979 and the
subsequent consolidation of General Zia-ul-Haq's coup. Pakistan's Dark Age
had just begun. Although Bhutto's regime had turned repressive and violent
in its last desperate days, it was gentle in comparison with what was to
follow. With dissent savagely muzzled, the only option was to operate
underground. On 3 November 1981, three of our QAU colleagues and friends
were caught, imprisoned, and savaged by the military regime. Jamil Omar, a
lecturer in computer science and the "ring leader" - was tortured. Two
others - Tariq Ahsan and Mohammed Salim - were also imprisoned and their
careers destroyed. Their crime was involvement in the secret publication
of "Jamhoori Pakistan", a 4-page newsletter that demanded return to
democracy and the end of army rule. A triumphant Zia-ul-Haq went on
Pakistan Television, congratulated the men who had succeeded in arresting
the teachers, and pledged to "eliminate the cancer of politics" from
Although Faheem was not directly involved in "Jamhoori Pakistan", we knew
he was being closely watched by the intelligence and could have chosen to
hide. Instead, with characteristic fearlessness, he did all that was
possible to help locate the abducted teachers, and then to secure their
release. Tariq Ahsan wrote to me from Canada that "His solidarity during
those long years was an invaluable source of support for our families and
But the struggle took its toll. By the mid 1980's, Faheem was in the
doldrums. Situated in an academically barren environment, he was able to
publish little research of worth. Politically, there was no chance of
doing anything significant in the climate of repression. Things had gone
downhill in personal terms as well - his marriage with Jane was coming
apart. To the great sorrow of their friends, the couple parted ways and
Jane returned to America. Encouraged by Faheem, she had written school
books on Pakistani history that are still sold and used today. In 1989,
Faheem left QAU formally but his involvement in academic and political
matters had already dropped off in the year or two before that.
From this low point in his life, Faheem struggled upwards. Initially in
Germany, and then elsewhere later, he now concentrated solely upon his
profession and was able to learn an impressive amount of new physics.
Professor Abdus Salam, who by now had received a Nobel Prize for his work,
invited Faheem to become a permanent member of the theoretical physics
group at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy. Faheem
remained there until his retirement in 2004. Getting this position was no
mean achievement: theoretical physics is a fiercely competitive and
notoriously difficult subject. Faheem was the first Pakistani to publish a
research paper in one of its most challenging areas - superstring theory.
With a cheerful and positive disposition, and an abiding concern for the
welfare of others, Faheem quickly became popular at the ICTP. His laughter
would resonate in the institute's corridors. With time, he took on
administrative responsibilities as well and was instrumental in setting up
a "Diploma Programme" that admits students from third world countries for
advanced studies in various areas. Now married to Sara, a beautiful and
even-tempered Italian woman, he was equally comfortable with Italians and
Pakistanis or, for that matter, Indians. To Faheem, a cultural amphibian,
differences between nations carried no meaning.
And then came retirement time. What to do? I wrote to Faheem: come back!
He agreed. Finding money was not a problem - Pakistan's higher education
was experiencing a budgetary boom. But his old university, plagued by base
rivalries and a contemptuous disdain for learning, refused. Specious
arguments were given to prevent one of its own founding members, now one
of Pakistan's most distinguished and active physicists, from being taken
on the faculty. Initially at the National Centre for Physics in Islamabad,
Faheem was eventually offered a position at the newly established science
faculty of LUMS in Lahore.
Faheem's unpretentious mannerisms and gentleness of spirit ensured that
LUMS too was enamored of him. Asad Naqvi, one of Pakistan's leading
physicists and a faculty member at LUMS, wrote to me upon hearing of
Faheem's death: "I am lost after hearing this. I only knew him for about 5
years, and in that short time, I had grown really fond of him. We are all
poorer today, having lost such a lovely person who touched us so deeply."
Surely, there shall be many other such tributes from Faheem's many
friends. But, to be true to him as well as my own self, I must admit that
in later years we did disagree on some important things - "unreconstructed
Marxism" to me is an anachronism, a relic of the 1960's and still earlier,
meaningless in a world that has become far more complex than Marx could
have possibly imagined. Nor can I reflexively support today's so-called
"anti-imperialism" of the left that ends up supporting the forces of
regressive fundamentalism. But let these issues stand wherever they do.
Why is it necessary for friends to agree upon everything?
From atoms to atoms - death is inevitable, the final victory of entropy
over order. Meaningless? No! To have lived a full life, to have
experienced its richness, to have struggled not just for one-self but for
others as well, and to have earned the respect and love of those around
you. That is a life worth living for. Faheem, my friend, you are gone. May
you now rest in peace, with a job well done.
Pervez Hoodbhoy is the Chairman of the Department of Physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.
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