Journey Into America — Part 2
By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Thursday, May 8, 2008
When applying for a visa to the United States, you have to provide a tentative itinerary of the places you intend to visit. I did, and included New York along with Washington, D.C. I was sure I would see the US capital but wasn’t decided about “the city that never sleeps.” I just added it as an afterthought. “If time permits, maybe I’ll go there,” I said to myself without giving the idea a second thought.
Commercial cities are plastic cities; they terrify me.
“No, you must visit New York City; there is no point of going to the US and not visiting the Big Apple,” insisted my colleagues at Arab News. “It is like Pakistan without Karachi, India without Bombay or UAE without Dubai. You’ll get bored in Washington after three days.”
There was quite a gap between the time I applied for the visa and the actual visit. Just 10 days before the journey that would completely change my perception of the United States and its people, I got an e-mail from a certain Jalil Khan with “Compliments from San Francisco” as its subject line.
Khan, who identified himself as a senior airline executive, had read an article of mine on the web, and the e-mail was in response to that piece. “If you ever happen to pass through San Francisco, it would be great to meet you,” he wrote while signing off.
“Where is San Francisco?” I asked him while informing him about my impending visit. “San Francisco is on the West Coast of America. It is a five-hour flight from D.C.,” he wrote back. “If you depart D.C. in the evening (say on Thursday) 7 p.m., arrive about 10:30 p.m. same evening (taking into account the three-hour time difference; California is three hours behind), spend Thursday night here, Friday and Saturday in San Francisco, return to D.C. on Sunday anytime. We have about 10 flights a day — to and from — D.C.”
He invited me to visit him and his family in San Francisco and e-mailed me some interesting aspects of his family and about their connections with the Nizam of Hyderabad. His story seemed compelling and irresistible.
“Yes,” I said. “Welcome,” he replied.
“Hurray, no New York for me,” I said. “Even though it is just an hour’s flight from D.C., and I could very well have taken a train or bus, which usually takes three to four hours.”
The World Is Indeed Flat
It was 10 p.m. local time when a packed United Airlines flight landed at San Jose Airport. It is a small airport and resembled the old airport in Dhahran. San Jose is the third-largest city in California and the 11th largest city in the United States. It has a large Muslim population. As the hub of Silicon Valley, it is a popular destination for business people and computer engineers. The term Silicon Valley originally referred to the region’s large number of silicon chip innovators and manufacturers, but it eventually came to refer to all the high-tech businesses in the area. Despite the development of other high-tech economic centers throughout the United States, Silicon Valley continues to be the leading hub because of its large number of IT engineers.
I saw a number of typically-dressed Indians at food joints and hotel lobbies and was immediately reminded of that famous quote in New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s best-selling book, The World Is Flat: “I tell my girls, when I was growing up in the 1950s my parents used to say to me, ‘Tom, finish your dinner. Don’t you understand people in India and China are starving!’ And I tell my girls, ‘Girls, finish your homework because people in India and China are starving for your jobs.’ And in a flat world, they can have them.” Indeed, Indians were everywhere in Silicon Valley as I discovered in the few days that I spent there.
‘Silicon Valley’s Top Doc’
When I landed at San Jose Airport the air was distinctly different from the one in Washington. It was still crisp in D.C.; San Jose was warm but very pleasant. And so was Jalil Khan — who was at the airport playing the perfect host. A man of cheerful disposition and impeccable manners, he had an air of aristocracy around him. He certainly seemed like he belonged to some royal family.
Khan’s Pakistani wife is a highly accomplished person. A dentist by profession and a graduate of the prestigious University of Texas, Dr. Fowzia Khan is described as “Silicon Valley’s Top Doc” and runs a popular clinic called Tranquility Dental (www.tranquilitydental.com) in one of the most prominent and elite shopping areas of San Francisco Bay called Santana Row. Their accomplishments were mind-boggling but what hooked the journalist in me were the stories that surrounded the parents and relatives of Mr. and Mrs. Khan.
The Philippine Connection
Dr. Fowzia Khan spent a number of years in Manila, the Philippine capital. Her father, Mohammed Abdul Hakym, was posted there at the Asian Development Bank headquarters. A well-known Pakistani of his time, he graduated from Vanderbilt University in the US and worked with the Planning Commission of Pakistan before he was appointed as a top ADB economist. He retired in the mid-1980s and made Texas his home. Mrs. Khan went to the well-known International School in Metro Manila and earned her dental degree from University of the Philippines. She moved with her father and brothers to the US and then earned a second degree in dentistry from the University of Texas in Houston. She made San Francisco her home after she married Jalil Khan.
Dr. Fowzia has a large circle of relatives spread across the length and breadth of the United States. All of her brothers and cousins (there are 30 of them!) are physicians and surgeons. “I am the only dentist,” she says and explains why. “I did two years of pre-medicine before opting out. I couldn’t stand the idea of delivering babies!” The whole family was naturally shocked because in her family it was a given that everybody would become a doctor or a surgeon. Her opting out came as a shock. “I am an artist, you see,” she said pointing at bright pictures of Americans with “Hollywood smiles” that adorn her posh clinic.
Mrs. Khan’s clientele includes CEOs and innovators and entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. She was one among dozens of highly successful Americans of Arab, Indian and Pakistani origin that I encountered in the United States. Her story mirrors the story of most immigrants who make it big in the United States.
‘Father of Veterinary Education’
Jalil Khan’s father, Dr. Mohammed Habib Khan, was a noted veterinarian, a pioneering giant in the field of veterinary education in India’s erstwhile Hyderabad State. He was awarded the Nizam’s Scholarship to pursue veterinary science in London; he then returned to Hyderabad and, complying with the wishes of the state’s ruler, founded under Osmania University the first veterinary medical college in the Indian subcontinent. He wrote the curriculum in long hand, which is now followed by all veterinary colleges in India and Pakistan. He subsequently served the United Nations for more than 15 years as an adviser to several governments and world leaders, having left Hyderabad with the entire family in the late 1950s.
Nizam’s Agent General
Jalil Khan’s uncle, Nawab Mir Nawaz Jung (Mohammed Mir Khan), was even more accomplished. He was the Nizam’s Agent General in London. Nawaz Jung was the only person, other than Moin Nawaz Jung, the Nizam’s finance minister, who could operate the secret bank account that the Nizam’s government opened in London in the turbulent 1940s ostensibly to buy arms to defend Hyderabad State. This bank account at the National Westminster Bank in London, in which a million pounds were deposited, is in the news these days because India and Pakistan finally decided to share the “frozen money” which has now grown to 30 million pounds. Nawab Mir Nawaz Jung, Jalil Khan’s paternal uncle, served as Pakistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York in the 1960s.
Stanford University and KAUST
“There’s Stanford University,” said Khan while taking me around for a tour of the region one morning. I literally jumped with joy in the passenger seat. This was the university whose name I would hear frequently while covering the foundation-laying ceremony of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).
The academics and experts who visited Saudi Arabia then would repeatedly cite the opposition and cynicism that surrounded the creation of Stanford more than 100 years ago. “‘Why create this monster in the middle of nowhere?’ was the question that Americans asked in 1890 when the university was being established,” said one knowledge-economy expert. “Now the whole Silicon Valley exists because of this university.” For a moment, I was mentally back in the village of Thuwal, 100 km north of Jeddah, where KAUST is rising. Who knows? A century from now, KAUST may be the Stanford of the Middle East.
Stanford is among the world’s top five universities. It has more than a dozen Nobel laureates on its faculty. The university has pioneered research in unimaginable areas. It attracts the best of the best in the world. And it is these universities that make America the superpower it is. It is this knowledge economy that makes it No. 1 — not those Abrams tanks, Apache gunships and F-16 fighter jets that we see in action in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan raining death and destruction. And it is precisely because of these universities and such fine institutions that you see long queues of young men and women at US embassies and consulates across the world.
Fair Share of Riffraff
One Friday afternoon I found myself in San Francisco’s biggest mosque. It was full with the faithful from all over the world — mostly young men and women. In my conversations with them, they would tell me of how they admire the United States, and how they face no difficulty at all. “This is a wonderful society. I have had no problem at all. In every society you have riffraff. This society, too, has its fair share of riffraff,” said an American citizen of 30 years. “I came here from Tunisia and, Alhamdulillah, I have had no problems.”
What are the things that appeal to him about American society? “They are honest. They know no other way. They have been taught that way. I like this society’s honesty, and this country has a great legal system. There were times when I thought I would be discriminated against in certain legal cases. But no, an all-white bench of judges ruled in my favor against the white Americans. This is what I call ‘adl’ (justice). This is what this society has given me. Why wouldn’t I love this country? I travel a lot, and I have a typical Islamic name. When I come back, the airport officials greet me with: ‘Welcome back, Mr. Ahmed.’ It is such a nice feeling.”
When Mr. Ahmed was talking about “adl” and justice, I was thinking about the hundreds of Arabs and Muslims who were arrested in the aftermath of 9/11 and deported for flimsy reasons. “Are you aware as to how much America is despised outside for what it has done and doing?” I asked Mr. Ahmed. “Look, every country on this planet is a self-serving nation. Rightly or wrongly, the government of this country thinks what it is doing is to protect its interests. Well, what can we say? We have the power to vote this administration out, and we will. Like all justice- and peace-loving people in other parts of the world, we are not happy with what is happening in our name. But please don’t confuse this administration’s policy with the people of the United States.”
“Yes, this is the land of the immigrants,” said Mr. Ahmed’s Lebanese colleague joining the informal discussion. “Mr. Ahmed told you about riffraff in society. Once at college, somebody made a racist remark against me saying, ‘You damn foreigner,’ and my reply to him was: ‘The only difference between you and me, Buddy, is I flew in with legal documents and in a plane, whereas you came in as a refugee in a boat.’ Everybody has come from outside here. Everybody has dreams and, therefore, they live their dream.”
Public Education vs. Private Education
Dr. Khaled Obeid is the principal of Granada Islamic School, which is fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in the United States. The school is run by the Muslim Community Association (MCA). He is originally from Palestine and came to the US in 1989 as a student with a bachelor’s degree in Arabic language and literature. He later earned a master’s degree in public administration from Notre Dame University and did his Ph.D. from the University of San Francisco.
The MCA-run school has a large number of Muslim students, both girls and boys. The mosque, where I met Mr. Ahmed and his Lebanese colleague, is run by this association.
When asked about the school, the soft-speaking Dr. Obeid provided all the interesting details. “A lot of parents want their children to know their values and their roots. In a public school, they think they may forget about their culture and their values because of the secular education. So here in this school, we teach all that is being taught at public institutions in addition to Islamic courses and traditional subjects. Our students have gone on to win some of the most prestigious scholarships available at American universities,” he added.
“Let me give you an example of how we connect the present with the past. The other day our children were being taught about medieval Europe; we immediately reminded them about what was happening at that time in the Islamic world. We told them how the Muslim world was way, way ahead while Europe was in the dark.... The whole idea is to make them feel proud of their roots, of their culture.”
The school currently has youngsters of 33 different nationalities.
Cricket in California
The best part of any journey often is that which is unplanned. I discovered this when I missed the flight to D.C. from Logan Airport in Boston. That incident caused me to meet an elderly but energetic Faizul Hasan, who — I was soon to discover — is the president of California Cricket League (CCL).
A Pakistani by birth, he made US his home by arriving there in the 1970s. He told me he was on his way to New York to take part in elections that day for the US Cricket Board. There has been a lot of infighting in the board, he says, and goes on to narrate in detail how different cricket clubs and associations are jockeying for power. It seems there are 700 cricket clubs and 37 associations in the US. The United States of America Cricket Association (USACA), which is the governing body for the game in the United States, is an associate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC).
The problems in the United States are not dissimilar to what we have in Saudi Arabia. The ICC has tied up with one group, and the clubs are affiliated with another. And, just as in Saudi Arabia where there are hardly any Saudis playing cricket, there are no Americans playing there, either. It is basically confined to the Indians and Pakistanis and certain other nationalities.
According to Hasan, the concept of the now-popular Twenty20 format was first introduced by them. “We organized a Twenty20 American Cricket World Cup in 2000. The ICC immediately took notice and wondered what this format was like. We explained it to them as to how people in America do not have the time and patience for 50-over matches. We had eight teams: Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, West Indies, Canada, USA, World XI and Asia XI. It was a huge success. And it was this success that drew the attention of ICC to organize similar tournament on the world stage. Yes, you can safely write that we are the pioneers of Twenty20 cricket.”
Now that I am back, and having exchanged my business card with Hasan, my inbox is filled with US cricket politics just as it is with Saudi cricket.
America is a land of many contrasts, many different interests, and it seems to have room for many different people provided they are willing to work hard and both respect and tolerate differing viewpoints and beliefs. Perhaps, as all the immigrants that I met told me, the United States’ greatest monuments aren’t the ancient stone edifices of Washington, D.C., or the towering ironworks of San Francisco’s magnificent Golden Gate Bridge but those pieces of paper written so long ago that have guided this country of six time zones toward a more-balanced society for all of its inhabitants. It is the government of George W. Bush and his neoconservative cohorts that have unalterably damaged its reputation. The world is eager to see what the upcoming US presidential elections will bring us.