Notes From Jeddah Economic Forum (2008)




JEF Diary Day 1: Pleasant Surprises All

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on February 25, 26,27, 2008

Day 1 at the Jeddah Economic Forum was full of surprises, and they were all pleasant ones. The first surprise was the venue itself. Most of the previous eight forums were held at the Jeddah Hilton. This time, the forum moved to the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s International Conference Center on Madinah Road, where usually exhibitions are held. Many were skeptical about the change of venue, as the Hilton offers a variety of world-class amenities. The chamber reportedly spent millions on the center and gave it a complete new look. A lot of jaws dropped when people entered the beautiful and wonderfully decorated center which is much more spacious than what the Hilton offers. People who attended previous forums noticed the difference, and everybody appreciated the excellent renovations.

Speaking to JCCI officials on the sidelines of the forum, it was revealed that this investment would put the chamber in good stead for years to come. The Hilton represented a hefty annual expense; whatever money was spent on the center’s revamp will result in lower costs in the future. Although no one would go on record as to the cost of the renovations, sources confirmed that SR10 million had been spent.

* * *

The second surprise of the day was the speech by Bosnian President Dr. Haris Silajdzic that was delivered in Arabic. Silajdzic is both a politician and an academic as well as an Arabic language expert. His speech was delivered with the proficiency of an expert storyteller, with pauses for reflection. Saudi leaders in attendance listened to him with their undivided attention.

He said the example of Bosnia contradicted the concept of the clash of civilizations, noting that despite the turmoil of war, the nation remains a society of tolerance. The Bosnian president talked about the siege of Sarajevo, which spanned four years — the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. More than 12,000 people were killed and 50,000 wounded during the siege. Eighty-five percent of the casualties were civilians.

“The Muslims in Bosnia — about 50 percent of the population — proved to be a very civilized element,” said Silajdzic. “They were tested during the war. They did not create concentration camps. They did not commit genocide — they could. They are indeed the most constructive citizens of Europe.” The Arabic address dissolved all differences between the forum delegates. Saudis are proud people, and when someone speaks to them in their own language, their affinity for that person has no limits. At the end of the session, Silajdzic was mobbed by an appreciative audience and received profuse thanks for his thought-provoking address.

* * *

There were a lot of lighter moments during the first session. When Prince Turki Al-Faisal mentioned Saudi Arabia’s response to disasters worldwide — noting that the Kingdom provided aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina — the crowd laughed when he quipped that the Saudi aid arrived to the victims before the American government was able to respond to its own citizens. “Many people don’t know that the Kingdom contributes more per capita in foreign aid than any other country in the world,” Prince Turki said.

* * *

Attendees also had a hearty laugh when a Jeddah-based American expatriate, Rabia Hershey, asked panelists how individual foreign workers could contribute to the Kingdom’s development through the application of their knowledge and skills. She told them she had been in Saudi Arabia for 26 years and wanted to contribute to improving young Saudis’ communication skills but she couldn’t accomplish much because the local population uses the city’s training centers, which are out to fleece them. “I challenge you to answer that,” said Rabia.

In response, Palestinian Prime Minister Dr. Salam Fayyad said all individuals should contribute. Silajdzic agreed with her and said there is no way you can prevent people from helping to develop society. By the time Prince Turki’s turn came, the moderator, British ITN newsreader Alastair Stewart, said to him: “Your Royal Highness, we are running out of time, can you answer this lady briefly?”

“I will be very brief,” said the prince. “Whenever I am challenged by a lady, I surrender.”

* * *

Prince Turki broached the topic of the Danish cartoon controversy. “Printing those cartoons initially was reprehensible,” he said. “Reprinting them was inexcusable.” He also said the Kingdom was committed to making a difference in the Middle East. “Saudi Arabia’s goal is also to promote peace and stability in our region,” he said. “The Roman poet Horace once wrote: ‘It is your concern when your neighbor’s wall is on fire.’ Right now, our neighbors’ walls are ablaze. Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Palestine all require immediate attention. In each of these countries, the Kingdom is doing what it can to bring parties together, open up dialogues, and offer solutions for peace and progress.”

JEF Diary Day 2: Microcredit Mogul’s Day

“Rock star” is how one well-known Saudi editor described Nobel Prize-winning father of microcredit Professor Muhammad Yunus after his scintillating, straight-from-the-heart address at the Jeddah Economic Forum yesterday. The directness and simplicity with which “the world’s banker to the poor” delivered his speech left the crowded Jeddah International Conference and Exhibition Center spellbound.

His words are covered in great detail in one of this newspaper’s reports, but the audience also was taken with the professor’s charisma. They simply adored him, clinging to his every word. Most of the women clapped incessantly while some whistled wildly.

“The biggest resistance to my microcredit project came from men,” he said, much to the jubilation of the women in attendance. “I was empowering women, and they didn’t like that.”

He was not speaking from a written script, as was the norm at almost all sessions, but he crafted the finest speech of the day. “I call the poor people the ‘bonsai people,’” he said. “The bonsai grows tallest in the forest because it gets the soil it needs to grow. Take a bonsai seed and plant it in an ordinary pot and it will grow only up to a certain height. There is nothing wrong with the seed. The problem is in the soil and the pot — it doesn’t get the soil and the room to grow taller. Similar is the case with the poor people, society’s have-nots. They are talented like any of us, but they don’t get the opportunity to succeed. At Grameen Bank, we provided these poor people the opportunity to succeed, and they did in a remarkable way.”

Yunus said poverty was systemic. “It is the system, so the system has to be changed,” he said. “Poverty should be relegated to a museum. Every city and every country should decide when to put poverty in a museum and once that date is decided stick to it. It is possible, and the phenomenon of microcredit has proved that beyond any reasonable doubt.”

The concept of his Grameen Bank has gone worldwide, including Latin America and the United States. It earned him a Nobel Peace Prize. Moderator Alastair Stewart noted many an eye had welled with tears by the end of the speech, and he received a standing ovation at his conclusion. He had won over nearly every person in the audience, and they mobbed him at the end of the session as press cameras flashed and cell-phone cameras snapped photos of forum participants standing with Yunus.

“I was floored by his directness and simplicity. He is so down to earth,” said Lina Chehab El Alaili of Lebanon’s Union Bancaire Privee. “Earlier in the day, I heard Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board. He spoke well, no doubt. But those were all cold statistics... Greenspan was basically talking about the business of the rich, and here was Professor Yunus... talking about the business of the poor. Both are economists. The major difference is Professor Yunus’ economics makes a difference in the lives of millions of people.”

While Yunus received a round of thunderous applause, three proud Bangladeshis at the far end of the hall laughed and cried at the same time. Mukhlis Mian of Dhaka, Muhammad Munir of Comilla and Jashimuddin of Sylhet said they were at the forum because their company, Almajal Servicemaster, had brought them there for maintenance work. All of them wore their company’s uniform. “We were overwhelmed by the greatness of one of our countrymen,” one of the Bangladeshi nationals said. “Look, how every Saudi, men and women, were clapping and listening to him with rapt attention. He is a great man. We are seeing him for the first time in flesh and blood.”

The three said the professor’s presence in Saudi Arabia comes at the most critical time in the lives of the 1.7 million Bangladeshi expatriates in the Kingdom.

“There are all these reports appearing in the local press about our iqamas not being renewed and about recruitment of Bangladeshis being stopped and of our compatriots being in the news for all the wrong reasons,” said one of the young Bangladeshis. “There are websites that are running a campaign against us. Professor Yunus’ presence here will go a long way in improving the image of Bangladeshis in Saudi Arabia. All the top Saudi business leaders are here and after listening to Professor Yunus they will definitely have a soft corner for all of us. When they think of Bangladeshis, the Saudis will now definitely think of Professor Yunus.”

For the three workmen, the professor's presence was enough. “We don’t know what he spoke about,” said one of the workmen. “We don’t know English. We only saw the entire hall clapping intermittently and we saw that everybody stood at the end for quite a long time. Did you see anybody doing that when other speakers ended their speeches?” “Rock star” seems an extremely appropriate description for the microcredit mogul.

JEF Diary Day 3: Minister’s Musings

If Monday belonged to Bangladeshi microcredit mogul Professor Muhammad Yunus, then Tuesday certainly was Dr. Ghazi Al-Gosaibi’s day. He is a scholar and a poet — and the labor minister, too. He kept the audience glued to their seats until the very end and in splits throughout the session with his sometimes satirical, sometimes cryptic and sometimes funny quotes. When CNN’s John Defterios, who was moderating the morning session, introduced him, Al-Gosaibi was not on stage. He took quite some time to emerge on the podium. “The floor is all yours,” said Defterios, when Al-Gosaibi appeared after quite a pregnant pause. “But you didn’t introduce me,” said Al-Gosaibi. “Yes I did, Mr. Minister,” Defterios replied. “Well then, how come I didn’t hear the applause?” said Al-Gosaibi, prompting a good round of applause from the audience.

* * *

This question keeps cropping up at every forum. Should the local speakers speak in Arabic or English? If they choose to speak in English, then they invite the ire of the puritans. Al-Gosaibi was confronted with the same question yesterday. “Your Arabic language skills are legendary,” one Saudi participant said. “You are a litterateur, and it is a treat to listen to you. So we would have loved to hear you in Arabic, especially since you were in such a jovial mood today.”

That gave Al-Gosaibi the perfect opportunity to win over the non-Arabic speaking audience. “I asked the organizers as to what language I should speak in. I was told that there were simultaneous translations available to all. And so when I found out that we have a large group of honorable and eminent guests from outside, I thought it was part of our hospitality to speak to them in their language. Jeddah is known for its legendary hospitality. It is especially welcoming to foreigners. It embraces everybody. Jeddah provides a shade to all newcomers,” Al-Gosaibi said, drawing another round of thunderous applause.

* * *

With his tongue firmly in his cheek, Al-Gosaibi said he took what he called a “grand total” of seven courses in economics. “Four of them were in Cairo, two in California and one in London. In Cairo, I learned what the government wanted me to learn. In California, I learned what the professors wanted me to learn. In London, every time I tried to learn one principle of economics, the teacher would come and tell me ‘but on the other hand.’ So if you want to learn anything about economics, don’t go to London!”

* * *

Al-Gosaibi reveled in a little self-deprecating humor. “A lot of people believe that Saudi ministers know nothing,” he said. “Where did these ministers come from?” He spoke about the three schools that dish out ministers. “One was the railroad organization. There have been five directors general of the railroad organization who went on to become Cabinet ministers. Incidentally, I was one of them. The second school was the University of Southern California. For some strange reason, it was considered as the training ground because it was found that eight graduates of USC became Cabinet ministers. Others believed that the Shoura Council was the training ground because seven of its members had become Cabinet ministers. Now, for your information, the railroad organization is being privatized, and USC is no longer in vogue. So your only chance now is the Shoura Council.” John Defterios, the moderator, immediately quipped: “It is very sad to hear that USC is out of fashion. I missed the Cabinet call!”

* * *

Being the labor minister is tough. “I will never get the Nobel for popularity. Although I am working very hard for an Oscar,” Al-Gosaibi said, receiving a hearty laugh from women in attendance.

* * *

Speaking of training, Al-Gosaibi said: “If somebody tells you that the government can run a successful training program on its own, don’t believe it. On the other hand, if somebody tells you that the private sector can on its own come up with a successful program, don’t believe them, either. The government doesn’t have the talent, and the private sector doesn’t want to spend the money.”

* * *

Al-Gosaibi said everyday he looks for Aladdin’s lamp. “Should I get one, and if the genie appears, I will ask for two wishes. My first wish will be to have 100 businessmen like Muhammad Jameel, the chief of ALJ Co. He has single-handedly provided thousands of jobs to Saudi youngsters.” He paused and then said: “You want to know my second wish, don’t you? Take this ministry away from me.” It brought down the house.

Don’t Forget Your Heritage, Ghazi Al-Gosaibi Urges Saudis



By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Saudi Labor Minister Ghazi Al-Gosaibi made an impassioned plea to the private sector to create more opportunities and provide greater incentives for young Saudis.

Speaking on the last day of the highly successful Jeddah Economic Forum 2008, Al-Gosaibi said most young Saudis were talented and hard working. “The image that is projected by the media is wrong,” he said. “It focuses on a few bad examples. That is not the case with the large majority of our youngsters.”

Al-Gosaibi lambasted Saudi businessmen who criticize the Saudi work force. “Those who say that Saudi youth are not dependable, that they are not accountable, that they shun work, that they are not hard working, I ask them: ‘Where are they themselves from — Sweden or Norway? Did they not come from this same country? Is it not true that their fathers, mothers and sisters built this great Kingdom?’ If Saudis are not hard working, who built all these business empires — these big businesses that we see around us today?”

Al-Gosaibi specifically mentioned self-made Saudi financier Abdul Aziz Al-Rajhi. “He rose from being an ordinary man in a local market to a big businessman. Is he not a Saudi? Is he not one of us? There are lot Al-Rajhis out there looking for opportunities to grow,” he said. He went on to point out the recent case of a young Saudi who took a loan from Muhammad Jameel of ALJ Co. Ltd. and then parlayed it into a SR450 million contract.

Al-Gosaibi said the success of the economy rested with the private sector’s ability to motivate young Saudis — many who grew up in an era of luxury — to work.

“The private sector should facilitate their integration into the job market,” he said. “The kind of conditions now imposed on them makes things difficult for them at the workplace. In the past, Saudis worked only in the public sector. They would work four hours a day, five days a week, and God only knows if they worked at all. Now, you are asking them to work in the private sector. They are being told to work for 48 hours instead of 35 a week; they have to work not one shift, but two shifts. They are told that if they take leave other than the two-week annual leave, they will be fired... Nobody will accept these conditions.”

The labor minister emphasized there was no magic solution to the current problem. “If the private sector does not provide enough incentives to our youth then we will not succeed,” Al-Gosaibi said. “We have to close the gap between what the public sector provides and what the private sector provides in terms of job security, salaries, number of work hours, etc. If the private sector provides the same kind of incentives as the public sector, will our youth run away? No.”

Al-Gosaibi hailed Saudi Aramco and SABIC for their Saudization successes. “They stay there and grow there because they get the kind of incentives that are not available anywhere else,” the labor minister said of the young Saudis working in both companies. “Please don’t be critical of our youth. Don’t mistrust them. They want to lead a decent and honorable life. And when I am talking about youth, I mean both men and women.”

‘Look at the Silver Lining’

He said he was perplexed by the media and businesses focusing on failures rather than successes. “Why do we choose one or two young people who have neglected their work and focus on them? Only yesterday, we met 300-400 Saudi youngsters at a technical institute,” he said. “They were so passionate about their studies — working day and night. And they are proud of their work. This is the right image of our youth. I can see in the distance that on the horizon there are clouds. But why focus on them? Look at the silver lining. I see a bright future for Saudi youth.”

The minister said Saudis should remember their history as global leaders — and their faith. “First of all, we should believe in God Almighty and then we should have full trust and confidence in ourselves, in our nation, in our youth and in our daughters,” Al-Gosaibi said. “This is the region of the Two Holy Mosques. It is from here that thousands spread out to extend the message of Islam. We are their offspring; we are their children. Never forget our heritage. We are not a marginal civilization coming from the jungles of Amazon. We are a nation that has for more than 800 years led the world in everything — in intellect, in science and in technology. We have been through difficult times. There have been ups and downs but, by the grace of God, we have the capacity; we have the hope and the aspiration to return to our past glory — and we will.”

More Opportunities for Women

Al-Gosaibi said more opportunities are being created for women in the labor market, but successful social reforms will require dialogue and consensus.

“Slowly but surely, we are making progress,” he said. “In the past, the public sector absorbed 90 percent of the women, especially as school teachers and 10 percent as social advisers. When the public sector filled up... that is when the demand for opening the private sector to women came up. We are implementing these women-specific projects in stages, and we are achieving success. The issue of segregation will not change overnight. In fact, if we try to change things forcefully, then that may complicate matters. It is my wish that we work together and work within the system.”

Al-Gosaibi said there needed to be clear communication between the ministries and the private sector for Saudization to succeed. “The basic duty of ministers is to engage in dialogue with all members of society, but on many occasions this dialogue was between deaf people. We didn’t listen to each other. We, in the ministry, were talking about Saudization, and the other party would say ‘visas, visas.’ We didn’t listen to each other. That was not dialogue. Now when companies talk about Saudization, I tell them to talk about their plans and then we shall listen to their request for visas.”

Later, when fielding questions from the audience, a hearing-impaired man asked why special needs workers had it so rough, noting that employers were often unwilling to accommodate them, Al-Gosaibi announced from the podium that henceforth, employing one special-needs Saudi worker would count as four workers in Saudization targets. (Earlier, employing one special-needs worker would count as two.)

Citing 2007 employment figures, he said, “We brought 1.8 million expatriates into the country. This is the highest number in decades. Since I took over, there has been no increase in Saudization. Actually, we have reduced Saudization in most sectors.”

All Saudi businesses should consider the government’s expectations, he added. “My doors are open to businessmen. Come to me with your plans. I am only asking for 10 percent commission,” Al-Gosaibi said. “You want 500 visas for expatriates then 50 should be Saudis. One thousand visas - 100 Saudis, and that is all.”

Pakistani Poets Delight Captive Jeddah Audience at Aalami Urdu Markaz Mushaira


By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pakistani poets proved their prowess at the recent mushaira organized by Jeddah-based Aalami Urdu Markaz at the Pakistan International School in Jeddah’s Aziziya district. With fresh ideas, unique phraseology, superb coinage of metaphors and amazing imagery, these talented literary figures created an evening that will not easily be forgotten.

In attendance were some of Pakistan’s best-known poets. They included Sarshar Siddiqui, Shehzad Ahmed, Khurshid Rizvi, Professor Inayat Ali Khan, Ijaz Rahmani and Dr. Munawwar Hashmi — each highlighting the wonders of Urdu poetry.

It was Munawwar Hashmi who set the tone for a wonderful night with gems like “Hum Tere Shehr Mein Phirte Hain Magar Aise Hi/Hum Pe Pad Jaaye Kabhi Teri Nazar Aise Hi; Dasht Dar Dasht Safar Karke Jo Us Tak Pahonche/Usne Bas Itna Kaha Aaj Kidhar Aise Hi; Jaane Manzil Thi Kahan Aur Kahan Jaana Tha/Umr Bhar Karte Rahe Hum To Safar Aise Hi.” The audience responded with thunderous applause for Hashmi who lived in Jeddah for a long time before returning to Pakistan.

Ijaz Rahmani was next in line to wow the audience with simple, yet amazing lines. His first two couplets — “Jitne Afraad Khandaan Mein Hain, Utni Deewarein Darmiyaan Mein Hain” and “Apne Dushman Ko De Diye Humne, Teer Hi Ab Kahan Kamaan Mein Hain” — literally cast a spell on the audience. They listened to him with rapt attention; the silence was only broken by a crescendo of “wah-wahs” at the end of each couplet.

Ijaz Rahmani then recited two beautiful ghazals that brought the house down. “Hawa Ke Waste Ek Kaam Chhod Aaaya Hoon/Diya Jala Ke Sar-e-Shaam Chhod Aaya Hoon; Kabhi Naseeb Ho Fursat to Usko Pad Lena/Wo Ek Khat Jo Tere Naam Chhod Aaya Hoon; Abhi To Aur Bahot Us Pa Tabsare Honge/Main Guftagu Me Jo Ibhaam Chhod Aaya Hoon.”

The other ghazal was: “Kis Ne Kaha Main Aag Lagane Me Jal Gaya/Main To Padosiyon Ko Bachane Me Jal Gaya; Jhulsa Diya Tha Logon Ko Nafrat Ki Aag Ne/Jo Bach Gaya Wo Jashn Manane Me Jal Gaya.” Ijaz Rahmani’s velvety voice and lively delivery only added to his appeal.

Inayat Ali Khan’s couplets shared tinges of spirituality, humor and gravity. “Inayat Maine Likhi Thi Sana-e-Kibria Ek Din/Usi Din Se Mera Aajiz Qalam Mojiz Raqam Thehra.” His style was hilarious, and his one particular poem was a takeoff on legendary Urdu poet Ghalib’s popular ghazal called “Ye Na Thi Hamaari Qismet Ke Wisale Yaar Hota.” Wondering how a Pathan might recite a ghazal on similar lines, he said: “Khoche Kis Ko Bole Ke Kya Hai, Kho Begum Buri Bala Hai/Walla Tum Ko Bhi Dikhati Jo Na Pardadaar Hoti.”

What really struck a chord with the audience were Inayat Ali Khan’s four lines: “Pet Khali Ho To Kab Sar Pair Ka Rehta Hai Hosh/Ab Na Tonti Chahiye Humko Na Bata Chahiye//Muflisi Me Aata Gila Hona Sunte Aaye Hain/Gila Karne Ke Liye Thodasa Aata Chahiye.”

His satire was reflected in his intelligent compositions. He made the audience laugh out loud at each couplet. This one, in particular, “Azmat Se Apne Mulk Ke Haakim Hain Sag Pasand/Dar Hai Ye Khoon Na Aaye Kahin Apni Paud Me; Kutton Se Inke Ishq Ka Aalam Na Puchiye/Kutte Hain Gode Mein, Kabhi Khud Unki Gode Mein” had everybody in splits.

Dr. Khurshid Rizvi demonstrated his literary weight through couplets replete with meaning. He was inimitable and a treat to hear. “Usi Ek Pal Ki Talash Hai Shab-o-Roz Me Mah-o-Saal Me/Wo Kahin Bhi Mujh Ko Mila Nahin, Na Firaq Me Na Wisaal Me; Jo Kaho To Jaal Samet Loon, Faqat Ek Mauj Hai Jaal Me/Use Kya Khabar Ke Main Khwab Hoon, Wo Jo Gum Hai Mere Khayal Me//Main Tarashta To Raha Sanam, Ke Rahun Jahan-e-Misaal Me/ Wo Jo Patharon Me Namak Sa Tha, Nahi Aa Saka Khad-o-Khal Me.”

His poem on Sir Muhammad Iqbal, titled “Ekkees April,” was touching and held the audience captive. His last ghazal was equally appreciated: “Sab Kahe Deti Hain Ashkon Ki Rawaani Afsos/Raaz Dil Me Hai Ke Chhalni Me Hai Paani Afsos; Subh Hote Hame Dekha To Bhala Kya Dekha/Ab Kahan Aakhir-e-Shab Ki Wo Rawaani Afsos.”

The night then took an even more romantic turn with Shahzad Ahmad taking over the microphone. “Haal Uska Tere Chehre Pe Likha Lagta Hai/Wo Jo Chup Chaap Khada Hai Tera Kya Lagta Hai.” His play of words was masterly, and his couplets had a scholarly air. “Yun Naqsh Huwa Aankh Ki Putli Pe Wo Chehra/Phir Humne Kisi Aur Ki Surat Nahi Dekhi; Shayed Isi Baayes Wo Farozan Hai Abhi Tak/Suraj Ne Kabhi Raat Ki Zulmat Nahi Dekhi; Sab Ki Tarah Toone Bhi Mere Aib Nikale/Toone Bhi Khudaya Meri Niyat Nahi Dekhi.”

The president of the poetry reading session was the erudite poet Sarshar Siddiqui. He wowed the audience with excellent and meaningful poems in a refreshing idiom and took the mushaira to a high level. “Doston Se Ye Mili Daad Wafadaari Ki/Tohmaten Sar Pe Liye Phirte Hain Ghaddari Ki; Sirf Ek Shaksh Tha Jisne Mera Dil Toda Tha/Maine Kyun Saare Zamaane Ki Dil Azaari Ki; Kuchh Munafiq Bhi Mere Halqa-e-Ahbaab Me The/So Maine Bhi Unse Mohabbat Ki Adakari Ki.”

Indeed, Sarshar Siddiqui is one of the best exponents of Urdu poetry in all its forms, gifted as he is with a rare mode of thought and feeling about love and rebellion. He has given a new meaning to the craft of Urdu poetry. He proved that with a repertoire of classic couplets at the Mehfil-e-Mushaira.

Among the local Pakistani poets who presented their compositions were Naseem Sahar, Qamar Haider Qamar, Habib Siddiqui, Shaukat Jamal and Mohsin Alvi.

Jeddah-based Ashfaq Badayuni anchored the evening. Earlier, Pakistani Consul General Zaigham Uddin Azam congratulated Aalami Urdu Markaz President Athar Abbasi, Syed Mahtab Ahmad, Amer Khurshid, Hamid Islam Khan and Irfan Hashmi for organizing a successful mushaira and promised that the Pakistani mission would lend full support to Urdu literary events.

The one couplet that everybody was crooning about long after the evening was over was Sarshar Siddiqui’s “Maine Phir Usse Kabhi Ishq Ka Daawa Na Kiya/Usne Ek Shart Lagadi Thi Wafadaari Ki.”

Urdu Fest Puts Jeddah on Literary Map


By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Wednesday, June 11, 2008

For those who believed Urdu would die a natural death in India, this week's World Urdu Conference and grand mushaira must have come as a pleasant surprise. Not only is Urdu alive and flourishing in India but it has also found new fields in Jeddah, Riyadh, New York, Chicago and even Oslo.

Organized by the Hyderabad-based Maulana Azad National Urdu University and the Consulate General of India in Jeddah, the first Urdu literary festival brought together some of the best writers, academics, critics, poets and journalists in today's Urdu world. These included Gopi Chand Narang, Chandra Bhan Khayal, Ziauddin Shakeb, Shamim Hanafi, Taqi Ali Abidi, A.M. Pathan, K.R. Iqbal Ahmed, Zahid Ali Khan, Zafar Ali Naqvi, Abdul Wahab Qaiser, Basir Ahmed Khan, Hisam-ul-Islam Siddiqui and Masoom Moradabadi.

Narang's literary credentials are impeccable but his oratorical skills left everybody speechless. "He is a living legend, a giant among all Urdu critics and when he speaks, he speaks flawless Urdu," said the Indian Consul General Ausaf Sayeed. "His presence here in Saudi Arabia is proof of the fact that Urdu has come to stay in Jeddah."

Narang spoke on three occasions during the two-day conference and each time it was a treat to listen. "Urdu is a functional language," he said. "And functional languages do not die. Despite all the step-motherly treatment, Urdu has stood the test of time. Its past was glorious, its present is safe and its future assured," he said. "Yes, Urdu has been a victim of politics, but the fact that I am addressing you here in Jeddah explains it all. I have just come from New York where Urdu is also making waves. A lot is happening in Canada as well. Urdu is unstoppable precisely because this is the language that quenches society's cultural thirst. It makes an individual's cultural identity stand out," he said.

He paid glowing tributes to Maulana Azad National Urdu University Vice Chancellor A.M. Pathan who is playing a crucial role in promoting Urdu in India. "Here is a man who is a brilliant scientist. But since he took over the reins of this university, he has forgotten his science. The only thing that bothers him now is: Urdu, Urdu, Urdu. This is the magic of the language. You fall in love with it. It has that attraction. It has that freshness. There was a time in a not very distant past when there were only a couple of students at the Maulana Azad University. Today, there are more than 150,000 students studying various aspects of Urdu. This is phenomenal," said Narang.

Narang talked about the late 1940s when Urdu was eyed with suspicion. "When I enrolled for a degree in Urdu literature in Delhi, my own parents were upset with me," he said. "That was a horrible period. People would say, 'Urdu has gone to Pakistan.' I persisted and today this is the language that gave me everything. I am known because of this language. There is so much that is being done in Urdu that one need not be pessimistic at all."

Narang's views were seconded by Ziauddin Shakeb, the UK-based scholar and teacher of Urdu. Shakeb felt importance should be given to teaching Urdu at the primary level. "We should provide students with the basics of the language and then they will automatically read Ghalib and Mir. Our primary focus should be children. Unfortunately, all steps in the past to promote Urdu have been focused on secondary-level students," he said. "This is a mistake and will take us nowhere."

Shakeb lamented the fact that nobody was writing for children these days. "All important writers and poets in the past also wrote for children. Now that is not the case. In fact, today's writers have no target audience," he said, and referred to a recent seminar in which Urdu writers and poets acknowledged that they were composing their lines for themselves. They said they were writing for themselves. "In which case, they are writing soliloquies," he said.

Shakeb threw some interesting light on the debate about the controversy surrounding Urdu script. "Increasingly the young generation is writing Urdu in Roman script, especially on the web, in e-mails and in Internet chat rooms. You can't stop them, can you? There was a belief earlier that the language would lose its identity if people stopped writing in the original script. I think it is becoming increasingly popular. You cannot stop people from reading Urdu in the format they want. The puritans may say whatever they want to say. In India, Urdu books are simultaneously published in Urdu script and Devnagiri script. This has led to a larger readership so what is the harm?"

Taqi Ali Abidi, the well-known Urdu scholar from Canada, disagreed. "Our script is non-negotiable. I am aware of the fact some of our best writers have advocated a change of script, but I think that would be a nail in the coffin of Urdu. We shall not, and should not, compromise on our script. The script is the soul of the language and its identity. If you erase your identity, then there is not much left to it. This will make the task of those who want to merge Urdu with other languages easier. We should not fall into this trap," he said. Abidi suggested that pioneering work should be done to make technology available so that computers would be compatible with the vagaries of Urdu script.

Ausaf Sayeed, who himself runs a website in Urdu, pointed out in his presentation the work that is being done about Urdu in the world of technology. "There are a number of programs available on the Internet such as Nastaliq and InPage. There is a dire need to popularize them and to make them even more efficient and easily available."

A.M. Pathan, the Maulana Azad University vice chancellor, said his focus at the university had been to link Urdu with employment. "The biggest barrier we encountered initially was that those who learned the language felt — and rightly so — that it had no economic utility. Our primary task therefore was to introduce technical courses in Urdu. That changed the scenario dramatically. The other area that we want to focus on is translation.”

The Urdu literary festival, which was preceded by a grand mushaira, was quite a success and the outgoing consul general came in for effusive praise. "Promoting Urdu is out of the domain of diplomats but because Sayeed comes from a literary family, he has made this into a successful event," said journalist Masoom Moradabadi.

Sayeed acknowledged the difficulties. "Getting the permission, bringing the university on board, making preparations and arranging accommodation were the most challenging tasks. But I am happy that all went well and Jeddah has now become one of the most important centers of Urdu outside India."

Local writers who turned up in large number for the conference were delighted beyond words. "It is not every day that you get to meet a legendary figure such as Narang. He was fabulous," said Jeddah-based writer Aleem Khan Falaki. "Thanks to the conference, we are now pretty well-informed about what is happening in the Urdu world," he added.

For Dammam-based writer Nayeem Javed, the biggest achievement of this conference was the coming together of so many literary greats. "We have had 'mushairas' in the Kingdom for a long time. We have never had a conference of this importance. To have Narang, Shameem Hanafi, Chandra Bhan Khayal and Ziauddin Shakeb on one stage.... My God, that was spectacular. I doubt if we will ever have such a conference again in Jeddah."

Jamia Millia Islamia — the Beacon of Hope


By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Friday, November 14, 2008

The only Indian university to play host to two Saudi kings is Jamia Millia Islamia. King Saud visited this historic university in Delhi in 1956 and more recently King Abdullah visited it in January 2006. This university played a key role during India’s freedom struggle. It was established with the specific purpose of inculcating in its students a sense of belonging to the nation and to throw off the yoke of British imperialism.

The university has in its 88 years of existence produced some of the best politicians, writers, journalists, theologians, academics and other highly qualified professionals in various fields. A substantial section of Indian professionals working here in the Kingdom is a product of Jamia Millia Islamia. This was evident during a well-attended event organized by the university’s illustrious alumni in Riyadh recently.

Unfortunately, the university has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Some of its students were said to have been involved in anti-national activities. However, so far it has remained just that — an allegation. Nothing has been proven against the students of Jamia. Increasingly, the allegations of the Indian police are being challenged by the country’s robust civil society, which includes prominent lawyers, academics, judges, journalists and human rights activists.

Everybody is coming to the defense of this institution precisely because of the historic role it has played over the years in promoting the secular ethos of the country.

What is so special about Jamia? The best answer came from Shafaatullah Khan, founder of the Jamia Millia Islamia Alumni Association in Riyadh: “Jamia Millia Islamia is a saga of dedication, conviction and vision of a people who worked against all odds and saw it grow step by step. They, as Sarojini Naidu said very aptly, built up the Jamia Millia stone by stone and sacrifice by sacrifice.”

Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature, called Jamia “one of the most progressive educational institutions of India.” In 1947, after independence when riots shook northern India, Jamia’s campus remained calm and free from any violence. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, India’s freedom hero, termed it “an oasis of peace in the Sahara of communal violence.”

Hifzur Rahman, who throughout his years at the Indian missions in Jeddah and now in Riyadh has played a positive role in building the cultural bridges between India and Saudi Arabia, said negative media reports should not dishearten anyone. “These things happen in the life of an institution. Let us reinforce and remember the secular character of Jamia. Its promotion of patriotism, peaceful coexistence, communal harmony and service to humanity has been unimpeachable.”

According to Rahman, Jamia Millia Islamia is the only university in India that has no query of religion in its admission/application form. “The candidate is required to write only his name, and nationality,” he said.

The second point that he highlighted was that Jamia was the brainchild of a galaxy of Muslim theologians of India, with active support from Gandhi who was a religious and practicing Hindu. These Muslim scholars included Shaikh-ul-Hind Maulana Mahmud Hasan, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the first education minister of independent India, who wrote his famous commentary on the Holy Qur’an, and Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar.

Another illustrious Jamia alumnus who spoke on the occasion was Azra Naqvi, a prominent writer and journalist. She said she was proud to be an alumna of Jamia. “I attended Jamia’s Nursery School, which was founded in 1955 by Gerda Philipsborn, a German lady who was a close friend of Dr. Zakir Husain, one of the founders of Jamia. When I wrote a term paper about my early childhood education during a course in Canada, my teacher and classmates were really astonished to hear that such an ideal nursery school existed in India.”

Naqvi said secular and humanitarian educational philosophy of Jamia was the hallmark of this prestigious institution. “Recently I met a very senior alumnus of Jamia, Jatender Kumar in the States who came to India as a young child with his family from Lahore after Partition. For him, Jamia is a symbol of highest human values. In newly independent India, Jamia started education and community centers in different parts of Delhi, such as Balak Mata Center in Bachon Ka Ghar in Old Delhi, adult education centers in the neighboring villages of Okhla where Jamia moved to, after its campus in Karol Bagh, Delhi, was burned and ruined in the riots of 1947. These centers used to cater to the needs of people irrespective of their religion.”

The president of the alumni association, Mohammad Muneeb, who works as a senior executive in Riyadh, recalled the horrors of communal incidents in India. “We at the university have always been taught about the virtues of secularism, and we are fully alive to the historic role that our university played in the country’s independence.” He urged the Indian media to play a constructive role and not to whip communal passions. He asked for an impartial probe into the recent incidents that have caused grief to all those associated with Jamia.

Zohair A. Nawab: Keeping a Close Eye on Saudi Seismic Activity


By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Monday, March 9, 2009

One of Saudi Arabia’s leading geologists and the former deputy minister of minerals says the Western Province may be in for a mild tremor, but there is absolutely no reason to panic.

“Saudi Arabia is part of the Arabian Plate, and this plate shares a border on the west with the Red Sea fault,” said Dr. Zohair A. Nawab, president of the Jeddah-based Saudi Geological Survey (SGS).

“We call this a spreading center, meaning at this fault in the Red Sea, the Arabian Plate is moving away from the other plate, i.e. the African Plate. The Arabian Plate is moving away from the African Plate exactly in the middle of the Red Sea, and the Red Sea is expanding. We don’t see it on a daily basis. We feel it and measure it with our instruments. Some movements happen all of a sudden and that is when earthquakes happen. This seismic activity is stronger in the northern part of the Red Sea.”

He said the biggest effects of these plate movements were felt in Iran. “Since the Arabian Plate is moving one to one-and-a-half centimeters per year, there is a collision with another plate — the Persian Plate. The effects of this collision between the Arabian Plate and the Persian Plate are felt in the Zagross Mountains in Iran where there are big earthquakes, and also in the Makran mountains in west Pakistan. All these are a result of this collision.”

As the Red Sea is expanding, something else is shrinking. “The Red Sea is opening up and getting wider and wider,” Nawab told Arab News. “As a result, the Arabian Gulf is shrinking and getting smaller and smaller. Several million years ago the Arabian Gulf was a big sea but in the last 25 million years, with the expansion of the Red Sea, it has shrunk to its current size.”

Nawab said people in the Western Province had to get used to living with seismic activity. “Simply because the Western Province is closer to the spreading fault line in the Red Sea, most of the earthquakes take place in the northwestern and southwestern parts of the Kingdom with milder ones in the middle of the western part,” Nawab said. “We also have some mild ones in the central-eastern part of Saudi Arabia. All this seismic activity is action and reaction — action in the Red Sea and reaction in the eastern part.”

The well-known geologist, whose specialty is plate tectonics, noted that the earthquakes, many of which are so minor as to escape the notice of most people, come and go.

“It comes like waves,” Nawab said. “Two years ago we had such a wave leading to earthquakes in the western region. This was announced on television, and newspapers wrote about it. Nobody can predict earthquakes. You can only notice some kind of activity. When will it explode? Nobody knows — not here, not in Japan or in the United States.”

Fortunately, Nawab says the Saudi Geological Survey and Civil Defense constantly monitor the Kingdom’s seismic situation. “Here in the Kingdom, the Civil Defense is always on alert,” he said. “We provide them with continuous seismic activity data. If they receive any report from citizens about unusual earth movements, they contact us immediately. Sometimes people call the Civil Defense and it later turns out to be construction activity. We basically tell the Civil Defense what exactly that activity is.”

Nawab said the biggest danger from earthquakes was ignorance about them. “We cannot run away; we have to educate people to accept these facts. There is always a possibility of an earthquake, but one need not panic. We have to make people aware about the building code for earthquakes. If buildings are not planned according to the international earthquake building code, then these structures will collapse in an earthquake with a magnitude of only 4 or 5 on the Richter scale. If there is no good building code, then there will be a lot of casualties. If you take care and you apply the building code strictly, many lives will be saved, and you will prevent a huge loss of investment.”

Nawab made his remarks in the run-up to the four-day Saudi Geosciences Conference which begins today at the Jeddah Hilton. As geologists and researchers from around the world gather for this event, the former deputy minister is particularly excited about getting to see the man who originally got him interested in geology in 1962 when he was a student at King Saud University in Riyadh.

“I thought I should take geology because it was a totally new subject,” Nawab said. “I wanted to explore it. I had a feeling that since it was a new subject in the Kingdom, maybe at a later stage the country might need people who were experts in the subject. The world-famous Dr. Zaghloul El-Najjar was teaching in King Saud University’s Department of Geology at the time. It was El-Najjar who unraveled the mysteries of this new science to us in a language that we understood. He got us hooked to the subject through clear, concise and simple explanations in Arabic. I fell in love with geology. I graduated from King Saud University with a major in geology.”

El-Najjar will be the conference’s keynote speaker. “It will be interesting to hear from him as to how far we in Saudi Arabia have come in the world of geology since those early days in the 1960s,” Nawab said.

The Saudi Geological Survey maintains a website with a wealth of fascinating information about the Kingdom’s unique features. For more information, visit http://www.sgs.org.sa/

The Generous People of Makkah

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Friday, January 21, 2005

To the uninitiated, hosting millions of pilgrims from around the globe and assisting them in performing the Haj might sound impossible, and it might well be impossible were it not for the dedicated people of Makkah.

The hospitality and generosity of Makkawis is legendary. For years, they have taken special pleasure in serving the guests of God. Each year, at least one member of every Saudi family in Makkah does voluntary work during Haj. This is done as a rule and is not an exception. However important a position they hold and whatever place they are posted in the Kingdom, these young Saudis come home during Haj and staff the establishments with which their fathers and forefathers have been associated.

Here in the tent city of Mina, you meet them everywhere. There are some who specialize only in Haj services. One such Saudi from Makkah is Dr. Khalid Sami Muhammad Hussain. His forebears have been serving the pilgrims for the last 400 years. He is young, bright and dynamic. He is highly educated, as well, having earned his bachelor’s degree at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah and having completed his master’s and Ph.D. from George Washington University in the United States in engineering management.

Those skills are handily put to work as he is the quality assurance manager at the South Asian Establishment for Pilgrims. It was a pleasure listening to his chaste English as he explained the steps that are being taken every year by the tawafa organizations for better services. Although the Haj emphasizes the longstanding traditions of Islam, it takes some pretty sophisticated organizational methods to accommodate millions.

“We at the South Asian Establishment for Pilgrims have become the first such organization to receive this prestigious ISO9001 certificate for providing good services during Haj,” he said. His establishment is organizing Haj for 380,000 pilgrims this year. Despite the devastating tragedy that recently hit that region, many people from that part of the world are reaching out to Allah as pilgrims this year.

“It is amazing because we thought tsunami tragedy would reduce the number of pilgrims coming from South Asia, especially Sri Lanka,” he said. “We were worried, but Alhamdullilah, the number only increased. Last year, we hosted 360,000 pilgrims, and that number has gone up by almost 20,000 pilgrims, which is great.”

You might even call the preparations high-tech. “Each year we add value to Haj services. We are applying the latest technology and research in providing services in a very scientific way,” he said. “We call this continual improvement. This year we printed maps of the camps in Mina in many languages. Of course, that didn’t help some pilgrims from getting lost, but it has had its effect.”

They don’t look at their task as a logistical nightmare, but rather a challenge. “Let’s not forget that Haj logistics are a big challenge,” he said. “This is a unique event. Where else do you have nearly three million pilgrims on the move?”

Even with highly trained and educated people, such as Dr. Khalid Hussain, it still takes a little faith. “We once approached a European management center to ask them how best to organize them. They studied the videos, had lengthy discussions with us, and they finally told us: ‘This is impossible. Why don’t you organize Haj three times in a year,’” he said. “They are astounded even grasping what Haj is all about.”

Dr. Hussain himself performed Haj this year. The last time he performed Haj was nine years ago. “I was not associated with this Haj establishment then. I was with my relatives,” he said. “The one difference that you fail to notice is the number of people. There are so many people now — almost double of what we had nine years ago.”

Dr. Khalid Hussain is a representative of the generation that’s taking the reins from their elders to provide the best possible services to the guests of God. And if a little modern management and the latest technology make the experience more pleasant for the pilgrims, it’s all the better.

Pilgrim after pilgrim offer words of praise for the Saudi government and the Saudis themselves for doing what almost looks impossible and defies imagination. “This mass movement of people is amazing,” Dr. Khalid Hussain said, “and it provides a big challenge for the organizers.”

Sir Syed’s Message Still Valid: Understand the West, Don’t Antagonize It

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Friday, October 8, 2004

When early last year the most powerful man in the world declared major combat over, few even in the Muslim world could have foreseen what horrors lay ahead in Iraq. Fought on behalf of what George W. Bush claims as civilization, the war was going to be swift and clinical, claiming a minimum of civilian casualties and, above all, as few lives among the invading forces as possible. Here was “freedom”, coming down like a ton of bricks on “terror”. What confrontation more likely to rally the whole world behind the forces of good and against the forces of evil?

Yet the loathing with which the Muslim world appears to regard that civilization, that freedom, has taken even those by surprise who urged caution on a power-drunk US leader and the extremists behind his throne. It was one thing to say that Bush had not learned the lessons of American history, that in Iraq like in Vietnam ideas and beliefs are not defeated by bombs. But it was another to realize that with each bomb dropped, with each pronouncement on the blessings of democracy emanating from the White House to win the hearts and minds of the Islamic world, the divisions between Muslims and what they see as the West would become more deeply entrenched.

Do we, then, hate freedom and civilization? It is well to remember that circumstances rather than philosophy has brought Islam and non-Islamic ideas into conflict. Posturing and challenges issue from both camps, extremist views clash. Each camp becomes progressively shriller in its wholescale rejection of everything the other side stands for. Whatever the truth of the convictions on either side of the trench, the practical effect is to polarize cultures, and to hinder meaningful communication when it is most needed.

The most powerful media influences in the world come out of the United States. Newspapers, television and films are the subtle weapons of the war of ideas, the carriers of assumptions and ideas, attractively packaged and presented as entertainment. The symbols of society — and therefore the philosophy — that produced them are universally known. The technology that comes from the same society spans the world, from the aircraft that drop their bombs on innocent civilians to the computers that power the most forceful engine of the war of ideas, the Internet. How then can the Muslim world have any hope for the future?

In a word: Understanding. In the 1860s, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan — the man who united the Muslim community and taught it the value of Western education — recognized change and movement in history. He knew his Islamic history well and understood the religion. Both the conclusion he drew and the message he communicated were directed against the ill-founded assumptions about the West and ill-informed criticism of the reform movement. He saw no conflict between Qur’anic principles and science. He laid stress on interpretation, not conformity, on innovation rather than blind acceptance of what some would tell us is Islamic law.

Sir Syed’s reformist concerns underline the significance of the intellectual history of Islam in the Subcontinent in changing the stereotypical images of Islam and its followers. The ethos that drove his reformist views is as valid now as it was then. Demystify Islam, move away from dogma and entrenched views, reveal the truer, liberal face of Islam and listen to liberal voices. As widely acclaimed historian Mushirul Hassan wrote in The Indian Express in a 1998 column, “Sir Syed could have settled for a lazy existence in one of Delhi’s havelis, reveled in the glory of a bygone Mughal past. Instead, he chose a harsher alternative in the dusty road to Aligarh, deciding to leave his mark on the city, the state and the nation. He moved with the times, responded to the winds of change with a sense of urgency and urged his community to seize the opportunities offered by British rule.” Sir Syed’s Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) is now the principal seat of Muslim education in India.

Then as now, understanding was the key. Understand that the West leads the world in technology and scientific research and many of the forces that drive the planet — and, yes, that it organizes its own house more efficiently than we have learned to do, all its shortcomings notwithstanding. Understand that Western and non-Islamic culture is here to stay, is more physically effective and far wealthier than the Muslim world. Most important, understand that to prosecute the case of Islam, we must use the strength and proven effectiveness of Western method without necessarily being seduced by its philosophy. The rehabilitation of Islam and Arabs, for nothing less is needed after Sept. 11, 2001 and its fallout, is a task that requires all our wits.

Rather than relying on megaphone transmission of entrenched viewpoints, communicate through the peaceful technology the West has to offer. Present the human face of the Arab and Muslim world with its faults and richness, failings and strengths. Tell the population of the Western world that, though different in some ways, East and West have more in common than they realize.

How do the vast majority of people in the West get to know about the world? Their media tell them about it — through sophisticated manipulation of images, through a form of discourse immeasurably more advanced than our own. The task of the Muslim world is not to clash with the ideas, but to present effectively the human face of Islam and, by implication, the ideas associated with it, embracing the techniques developed in the West. Do not let the terrorists among us be the only ones who know how to use communication technology to their advantage.

Introduce the West to the historical fact that its existence was borne out of the civilizing influence of Islam: Do it not through screaming oneupmanship but by highlighting Islam’s contribution in terms the West can respect. Embedded in the fabric of the West are branches of the tree planted by our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in Madinah and Makkah 1,400 years ago, the early fruits of which were the foundations of modern mathematics, literature, medicine and science.

The West has developed enormously and differs substantially from Islam now, but the two cultures share the same roots. So where in truth is the conflict? Celebrate the differences, understand the commonality, and make a friend of the West. This was the message of Sir Syed in the late 1800s. And this should be our message in the 21st century.

Indian Muslims’ Support for Secular Parties Makes Sense

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Delhi’s Chandni Chowk parliamentary constituency with its large Muslim population is home to the famous Jama Masjid. It was from the pulpit of this mosque that the Muslims of India were exhorted to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the last general elections. “It is the only party capable of ensuring communal harmony in the country,” the mosque’s prayer leader Syed Ahmed Bukhari told them in the run-up to the elections.

Yet even in Chandni Chowk, where the writ of the Bukharis was supposed to run strongest — leaving aside the rest of the country — the Congress Party’s Kapil Sibal defeated BJP’s Smruti Irani by more than 70,000 votes. Ahmed Bukhari realized, like many others before him, that the Muslim community in India has never trusted or even paid much heed to what its self-appointed and self-anointed leaders say.

In Uttar Pradesh’s Rampur parliamentary constituency, the community voted in large numbers for the Samajwadi Party’s Jaya Prada, and against Congress Party’s Begum Noor Bano because it thought — and rightly so — that Jaya Prada was in a better position to defeat the BJP candidate there. And yes, Jaya Prada won handsomely in that constituency, despite all pre-poll surveys indicating otherwise. Once again, the ordinary members of the community showed political wisdom in exercising their franchise.

While Indian Muslims have as a rule refused to patronize their own parties in the political arena, there are notable exceptions, such as the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) in Andhra Pradesh and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in Kerala. But on the whole the community has tended to synchronize its political fortunes with that of the secular parties. When they wanted to punish the Congress Party in the aftermath of the Babri Mosque demolition in 1991, they went with the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, with Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, with Janata Dal in Karnataka, Telugu Desam in Andhra Pradesh, the leftists in West Bengal and the National Conference in Kashmir. All these parties did exceptionally well. In Maharashtra, they voted for the Hindu fundamentalist Shiv Sena in the 1995 assembly elections just because there was no alternative to Congress — and Congress lost power there.

Never once during the pathetic days of BJP rule did the majority of India’s Muslims endorse the fundamentalist elements in their own ranks, despite the fact that the rank communal elements continued to grab the spotlight in the national media with their rhetoric. Many within and without the community are off and on heard lamenting that there is no Muslim leadership. But there is no need for one. The community is wiser without it. The more it supports Arjun Singh, Mulayam Singh, Sharad Pawar and Rajasekhara Reddy, the closer it gets to the political mainstream.

Muslims know that their community leaders, once in power, tend to work more for other communities than their own, be it to avoid attracting negative publicity or simply to dodge the communal tag. The result is that they become a liability to the community rather than an asset. It is perhaps because of this that the community has a very poor opinion of those in power, caustically calling them “sarkari” Muslims. Can a Ghulam Nabi Azad or Muhammad Taslimuddin, for example, do more for the community than an Arjun Singh or Shivraj Patil? Hardly.

Indian Muslims have been variously described as retrograde, backward, fundamentalist and communal. But their voting record in all parliamentary elections indicates otherwise. They have consistently gone along with secular parties and defeated the fundamentalists in their own ranks. The way they vote, moreover, proves unequivocally that they are not politically naive. Yes, they are backward educationally, because successive governments, both in Delhi and the states, have missed paying proper attention to their educational needs. But things are changing. With Manmohan Singh at the helm, their schools will get their due share.

The outcome of this year’s elections has only reinforced Muslims’ faith in the country’s secular credentials, and in doing so has thankfully nipped in the bud all the talk about launching an all-India Muslim party. Even if there was one, it would have met the same fate as that of Syed Shahabuddin’s Insaf Party. The party was dissolved because, according to Shahabuddin, it was launched to protest against V.P. Singh’s behind-the-scene deal with the BJP. “As soon as the V.P. Singh government fell in 1990, the party was dissolved,” he was quoted as saying. Perhaps. Yet the fact remains that there were no takers for his party in the community.

After the 2004 elections, the fundamentalists and the self-styled community leaders have been pushed further into the background, which is where they belong. By the way, whatever happened to the members of the so-called “Support Vajpayee Committee” formed on the eve of the last elections? Who are they supporting now? It might be worth finding out.

Or, on second thoughts, maybe not.

What If the Agra Summit Had Succeeded?

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Wednesday, September 8, 2004

In its Independence Day Collector’s Issue last month, India’s popular Outlook weekly magazine examined a series of hypothetical questions such as “What if L.K. Advani had been PM? Godse’s Bullets Had Missed Gandhi? India Hadn’t Tested the Nuclear Bomb? Rajiv Gandhi Hadn’t Unlocked Babri Masjid? Indira Gandhi Hadn’t Been PM? Gujarat Hadn’t Happened?”

Brilliant essays — all by some of the best analytical minds in India. But they somehow forgot to throw light on the most pertinent question of our time: What if the Agra summit had succeeded? Would it have changed the political and economic map of the Subcontinent? Would it have assured a second term for Atal Behari Vajpayee? Would it have sounded the death-knell for the Hindu fundamentalists?

The unfortunate failure of that summit in 2001 exploded a long-held myth among a large number of the Subcontinent’s population that a lasting peace between the two archrivals was possible only if there were a hard-line Hindu government in Delhi and a powerful military general in Islamabad. The popular perception was that any give-and-take on Kashmir would not have invited the charge that national interests had been compromised by a Hindu nationalist government. A strong army man in Pakistan would have eventually rallied round the weakened political parties in his country. In short, a popular Indian National Congress and an equally popular Pakistan People’s Party or Pakistan Muslim League would have found it extremely difficult to offer anything besides rhetoric.

Who would have imagined that one day both countries would be ruled by world-class economists whose eyes are fixed firmly on the welfare of their countries? Dr. Manmohan Singh became prime minister under special circumstances and now has the unflinching support of perhaps the most powerful woman in Indian politics, Sonia Gandhi. Pakistani Premier Shaukat Aziz got the top job under equally interesting circumstances and enjoys tremendous support from the most powerful man in Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Both Dr. Singh and Shaukat Aziz are proponents of liberalization. Both want economic reforms with a human touch. Both have lived outside their countries and know very well their nations’ problems. Both know full well the futility of fighting proxy wars. Both want a big chunk of their budgets to go toward alleviating poverty and educating the masses.

Both lack the cunning of politicians and are therefore in a better position to focus on issues of vital interest to their nationals. They will at least try to cut down on burgeoning defense budgets. Whether they succeed or not is another matter. They are a dream team to lead two big nations which have the indisputable potential to become the world’s largest trade zone.

The recent cricket series between the two nations opened the floodgates of goodwill between two different ideologies. Every other day, Bollywood now receives a guest from Lollywood. Every other day Indian newspapers are filled with beaming pictures of Pakistanis arriving in India for heart surgery and other medical treatment. There are similar stories in Pakistani newspapers. The desire for peace with India is perhaps more evident in Pakistan than in India. Pakistani cricket legend Javed Miandad literally took India by storm during his recent Zee TV-sponsored tour.

Everybody thought he was the most hated person in India. He was in for a shock when he met Bal Thackeray. “I am your admirer,” said Thackeray. “I love your game.” Mainstream Indian actors discovered a new-found courage and are increasingly refusing to act in anti-Pakistani films. Perhaps they have been encouraged by a series of failures of such films in theaters all over the country. The verdict is clear: The peoples of the two countries have had enough of the politics of hate.

There is a kind of war fatigue in both India and Pakistan. The hate on which many in both countries were brought up is rapidly turning into something better. The rhetoric is gone. And for good.

This is perhaps the best time in the history of the two nations. Both countries are at ease with themselves. They no longer suffer from the insecurities of the past. Both realize the unwinnability of any future war. Both have two dynamic leaders with refreshing outlooks toward life. Neither carries the usual baggage of popular politicians. When Dr. Singh speaks about improving relations with Pakistan, he sounds convincing. And when Shaukat Aziz talks about converting Pakistan into a giant economic powerhouse, everybody sits up and listens. It is indeed a blessing in disguise that the politicians have been given a much-needed rest. In all probability, what the politicians failed to achieve in 50 years may now be achieved by technocrat prime ministers in three or four years. They will focus less on the disputed border and more on the people who live inside those borders.

Indians and Pakistanis will hopefully no longer have to suffer the sight of hundreds and thousands of hungry and emaciated compatriots lining the streets of their cities and towns as so poignantly described by V.S. Naipaul in “India: A Million Mutinies Now.” As for what would have happened if the Agra summit had succeeded, history would have recorded something very different.