By C. Naseer Ahmad
Professor Akbar Ahmed’s remarkable book “Journey Into America- The Challenge of Islam” inspired my recent journey across America.
Through his books, documentaries, lectures and other events, Professor Ahmed takes his students, friends and followers on many interesting journeys. Actually, I met the author at the Corner Bakery, Union Station, Washington, DC, when we both were on a journey to New York in November 2001. Since then I have accompanied Professor Ahmed to the FBI Academy, a meeting of a DC Chapter of a Jewish Community Organization, a US military base tour arranged with the help of the White House before the Iraq War and many landmark events.
This sentimental journey became possible because of an empty passenger seat in my son’s car on his drive across America. Even though Professor Ahmed was not with us, his book made it feel that he was riding along in the back seat guiding the students in the front row.
This book was a valuable instrument in connecting the older generation with the younger generation so that the later does not suffer from the “ABCD – American Born Confused Desi” syndrome, which Professor Ahmed addressed eloquently. During the four night and five day journey, members of two generations talked frankly about all subjects – such as the search for identity, historical events in America and philosophy – in Professor Ahmed’s book. It was not a “father knows best” trip – but rather “it is best when father knows least” trip. Through these discussions, it felt that perhaps the primary cause of the “ABCD” syndrome are “PBCDs – Pakistan Born Confused Desis”, who refuse to gain from the abundant the opportunities to make the best of both worlds – East and West – in America.
There are so many things – incidents and anecdotes – in this book that I related to. For instance, during breakfast with my friend Bill Hernandez and his wife Ruby we discussed natural beauties along Interstate Highways I-81 and I-40. And then Ruby remarked “doesn’t this make you appreciate God?” I could not agree more. Even though we were sitting in a Cracker Barrel restaurant in the Bible Belt town of Crossville, Tennessee, it really felt that we had not left our Egyptian Finance Ministry Office across the Saad Zaghloul Monument in downtown Cairo.
In his book, Professor Ahmed writes about some uncomfortable exchanges, whom one runs into in many places in this small interconnected world. I still remember the day when I was actually pushed out of the Hussein Mosque near the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar when a bigot objected to the presence of my colleague – a professor at Tulane University – in the mosque. But, bigotry does not only exist in otherwise friendly countries like Egypt and Pakistan, it exists – subtly or not – within and around the Washington metropolitan Beltway also.
America’s welcome mat still is wide open. By simply extending my hand of friendship in the lobby of Hampton Inn, Little Rock, Arkansas, for a little while at least, I became the 66th member of the Kent and Brown Families Reunion – an annual event since 1972. And, “Assalamo Alaikum” was all that it took to befriend Jamal at the New Africa MarketPlace – which serves as a mosque also for African Americans in Little Rock Arkansas.
Journeys in life sometimes taken sudden and unexpected turns. As I was rummaging through files on the second floor of the Clinton Library, my wife called to inform that Nadia Nawaz – my nephew’s wife and sister of BBC Broadcaster Adnan Nawaz – died in an accident. That evening my son and I reached another solemn place: the Oklahoma City Memorial. There were many more places to visit and discover but I flew back from Phoenix to accompany a loved one’s last journey in life. I viewed the funeral services through the prism of Ahmed’s inspiring thesis: In America, I found bountiful grace that promises a bright future for the next generation of Muslims in America. This is because of the belief, in Bill Clinton’s words, that I found in the library when I received the call about the family tragedy: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”