Why a middle-aged person who completed his studies with Hamza Alavi
in 1977 should still invariably refer to him as "my tutor".

by Zafar Shaheed
Geneva, 03.12.2003

Its great to see that Dawn and other dailies have recognized Hamza Alavi for what he was, by printing stories and editorials about him.  I think he would have been happy, since he was a true nationalist, despite his long sojourn abroad.  Like a good migrant worker, when he finished his employment, he came back home, to Karachi.  Not only to retire and enjoy his extended family -- but above all to keep in touch with like-minded activists and to meet newer, younger people, and learn together with them, as the universal teacher-activist that he always was.  

The newspapers have reminded us of his academic and professional careers.  But they have naturally left out some details -- and more importantly, they have not shown the more personal and human side of the reserved yet delightfully generous social being that was Hamza.  First, on details, it is helpful to recall that in between his period of studies and brilliant career in the State Bank, and his subsequent career of activist and academic career abroad, Hamza did a stint of farming in East Africa, where his wife Khatoun and her family were settled.  I think this practical experience in a totally different environment provided a salutary break from financial economics and banking, giving him a practical feel for agrarian issues, which occupied much of his research.  

On the personal front, let me recount three stories.  The first relates to his wife Khatoun.  Each time I would turn up at their home, in Brighton, in London, or in Leeds, Hamza would be in his study, and Khatoun would be everywhere yet almost imperceptible.  She was the person who kept his home functioning, his files in order, his notes tidy, his references retrievable, his visitors supplied with tea and biscuits, and -- if the discussion seemed worth more time - an invitation to "pot-luck".  Over the years, I grew to understand the richness and complementarity of this partnership between two individuals who needed and gave to each other even more than couples with children.  Progressively, I recognized the strength of Khatoun, and her anchoring role in Hamza's life.  When she fell ill, and went through pain and discomfort, and then finally died, bravely and quietly as ever, this was the end of a life for Hamza.  Only his love for his work, and the knowledge that his wider family was there, brought him through.  I realized only a little bit what my reserved friend Hamza had gone through when, years later, he sent a book for my wife, to help her cope with the loss of her father, about bereavement and its role in coping with the death of a beloved partner.  

The second relates to his generosity.  Judging from what he did just for me, one can try to imagine how much he did for others, in his quiet, simple way.  First, he took me on as a Doctoral candidate at Leeds without a predefined research topic.  As I left for Pakistan, he said, "Go find your subject in the field, and come back and work on it with me."  During the period of preliminary field-work, reading up in Leeds, going back for the field work, writing up the thesis, and finally defending it, Hamza and Khatoun were by my side, giving me distance when I needed, and being close when I needed that.  Hardly a week would go by, while I was in Leeds, that I did not visit their home, which was always graciously open, for discussing work or just discussing.  During the year I was away on field work, my sister Farida arrived in Leeds for an MA.  Although Hamza was not her assigned tutor, they effectively adopted each other in a process of mutual learning and nurturing that was Hamza’s way of teaching.  That summer, Khatoun and Hamza went off somewhere, and left us their house and their car, and everything else!  Those days spent in their home, between the study in the front with the bay window, the living room at the back, and the modern kitchen that was Khatoun's pride, were quite magical one's for Farida and I.  The presence and generosity of this couple remained with us, quietly, forever.  Even later, when I was employed, he continued to send me books – as he had started way back in the 1970s.  When he found an interesting book, he would order an extra copy for me.  Later, he began to send books for the children.

The third relates to my inability to repay his generosity.  I could reciprocate his hospitality in a very small way only once -- and we always wanted him to return.  He drove over to Geneva from Manchester, on his way to France, and stayed a week, not so long after Khatoun's death.  This was wonderful, because my wife Shahnaz got to meet him.  We had played with the idea of setting up a seminar or two, at the ILO and at the University.  But finally he declined, and said he just wanted to relax with us.  He learned how to cook nan from Shahnaz.  In the kitchen, he sympathized with her decision not to have a micro-wave oven, but admitted to having one himself only because he wanted to thaw his favourite ice-cream in record time to reach the right consistency!  Our children, although small at the time, still remember how after lunch, Hamza would put on some western classical music, and rest in the reclining chair we had bought for my father, and go into an awakened slumber for fifteen minutes, returning refreshed for the next discussion.  (This reminds me of how once, Farida and I had been having a discussion in our residence at Leeds about some aspect of Islamic history which we could not resolve – so we walked over to Hamza's.  He seemed to be having a siesta, so we thought we were disturbing him.  But the moment he opened his eyes and heard the gist of our query, he immediately ventured a number of possible paths to pursue, in full throttle.)

Since he settled in Karachi, Farida would see Hamza more often.  Once we went to see him together at the hospital, after an operation.  He was a man of delicate health, as noted by his brother Zain, when I called him – this made his relentless work even more Herculean.  Whenever I could make it, it was always a pleasure to reach that quiet island of peace in Garden East, where the Alavi clan lives.  He would meet me with open hospitality as ever, to stay as long as I liked or as little as was possible.  Here he spent the last years of his life, in his study, surrounded by his family, happy to be meeting new people, and reaching out to new ideas, and new ways of looking at perennial issues.   My last memory of Hamza is from August 2003, soon before he fell terminally ill.  He gave me a new book in Urdu, and showed me an award he had received recently from some research-cum-activist institution.  He was now using a stick, and walked out to the door to see me off, as usual: the person who will always remain my tutor.

Return to Hamza Alavi webmemorial page | Go to the South Asia Citizens Web