Remembering Prof. Faheem Hussain (1942-2009)

Posted on October 4, 2009
Filed Under >Pervez Hoodbhoy, People, Science and Technology
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Pervez Hoodbhoy

It was mid-October 1973 when, after a gruelling 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 1960s.

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.

Faheem and Jane made an amazing couple. Fully immersed in the outstanding causes of the times, they seemed to have a limitless amount of revolutionary energy. Long before I knew them, they had been protesting against the Pakistan Army’s actions in East Pakistan. As Faheem would recount, this was a lonely fight. Many Marxists in those times, inspired by Mao’s China, chose to understand the issue in geopolitical terms rather than as a popular struggle for independence. Some leftists ended up supporting the army’s mass murder of Bengalis.

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 1970s, 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 left-wing 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 Ziaul 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 Nov 3, 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 four-page newsletter that demanded return to democracy and the end of army rule.

Although Faheem was not directly involved in Jamhoori Pakistan, we knew he was being closely watched by the intelligence agencies 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. But the struggle took its toll. By the mid 1980s, 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 enamoured 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 five 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 1960s 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 oneself but for others as well, and to have earned the respect and love of those around you. That is a life worth living. Faheem, my friend, you are gone. May you now rest in peace, with a job well done.

(This article was originally published in The News on October 3, 2009).

20 responses to “Remembering Prof. Faheem Hussain (1942-2009)”

  1. Professor Abdur Rahim Choudhary says:

    It has been long years since we lost Faheem Hussain. I had met him only twice. Once for about a week in 1970 during the Heidelberg Summer School. Second time it was for about 30 minutes in the Summer of 2003 at Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics; when I was passing through as a tourist.
    These were brief and rather chance meetings, yet they left a lasting fondness for Faheem in my heart.

  2. Amol says:

    As a young Indian researcher in Trieste near the end of the millennium, I had the chance to interact closely with Faheem for almost two years. He was the mentor for many young physicists, and apart from academic matters, he was the friend (age and authority notwithstanding) with whom you could enjoy good food, books, music, cricket, and unending discussions about all of the above.

    He will be missed, and fondly remembered, by people of many nationalities.

  3. Anis Dani says:

    Mudh qadeem es duniya andar do qabeeley aey ne
    Hik jinhan ney zehr peetey, hik jinhan ney piyaye ne.

    This verse, which I remember from the 1970s when I first met Faheem at QAU is a fitting tribute to him. Faheem was a source of inspiration to many of us in the heady 70s. His combination of good science, uncompromising politics and humanitarianism was rare and will be sorely missed. Even today there is ample evidence that false nationalism and unfounded paranoia allow our politicians to hoodwink public opinion and undermine our polity’s ability to engage the comity of nations with confidence that democracy is here to stay. Faheem was always able to see through the political economy interests of those who benefit from weak civil institutions. For that he paid a price. But through it all he never gave up his cheerful demeanour and his humility.

    We owe it to Faheem to keep his memory and his ideas alive.

  4. Hameed Jahangiri says:

    I first met Dr Faheem Hussain when I was about 12 years old in my parents home in Islamabad. My father was his legal adviser-one of few who had courage to defend him and Dr Omar in brutal martial courts. I can still see ever soft smile of Dr. Hussain which sounded like buzz of honey bee. One day I will tell my grand kids that I met a great man who was free thinker and scientist in most difficult times, InshaAllah.

  5. Junaid says:

    I had the honour of studying the history text books of Jane.

    Her books are used by Singapore Book emporium as text books for history in O levels and Senior Cambridge.

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