From the Khyber Pass to the Great Black Swamp: a conversation with Dr. Amjad Hussain

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Wahgah sketchOn particularly tough days of my first Ramadan in college, I had vivid dreams of Peshawar, my hometown. Eager to succeed as an international student, I would never have confessed to being homesick but for my Psychology course “Sleep and Dreaming” which required a dream journal. “It’s mid-day,” I noted in one of the entries,” I’m having piping hot, fried fish from that vendor next to Dr. Framji the dentist’s clinic in sheher (Peshawar city). I’m with my mother. The naan is fresh.”

For years, nostalgia emerged only in poems or in snippets of conversation with my brothers, but around the time I had lived away from Peshawar for longer than I had lived in Peshawar, I began to draw maps from memory: earliest home, school, airport, TV station, Abasin Arts Council, Qissa Khawani bazaar, chowk yaadgaar, Peshawar club… the maps were eccentric, juvenile, and completely inaccurate. The best map of my Peshawar, was handed to me in the neat hand of my father.

Pondering beyond the intimate and focusing on the larger, global significance of the ancient city of Peshawar, as I researched the Silk Road cultures for a manuscript, I found myself irked and emotionally exhausted by the material generated by Western authors; I did not recognize the city in their writings. I continued hitting dead-ends until I came across Dr. Amjad Hussain’s work. As a distinguished cardiovascular surgeon/researcher and long-time academic, Dr. Hussain is well-known in the international medical community, but he’s also recognized as a photographer, an expedition-leader, a builder of interfaith dialogue, a journalist and author; it was quite a stroke of luck for me to receive a beautiful, handmade map of Peshawar from him, to read his publications in Urdu and English, his running journal from a recent Silk Road expedition and especially, to meet this true polymath belonging to my beloved city in person.

Our conversations crisscrossed myriad topics, as expected. For this particular email interview, I decided to capture a part of the wide range of things Dr. Hussain’s work encompasses.

Shadab Zeest Hashmi: The title of your newly published memoir From the Khyber Pass to the Great Black Swamp: A life journey without a map is a wonderful oxymoron. On the one hand, the book delves into your passion for exploring places and shows the geographic particulars of the places you have called home (including the rare and rich details of Peshawar and its environs), and on the other hand, you describe your life’s journey as being “without a map’:” quite apt for somewhat of a mystic approach to life (in my opinion). As a reader, this book reveals many aspects of a life poised between science and art, between disparate cultures and traditions, and between the different kinds of losses faced by different generations that tie you to “your” Pakistan and “your” America. What did this memoir reveal to you, as its author?

Dr. Amjad Hussain: My dear Shadab,
It is obvious that we both share an unfettered love for Peshawar, our city.
Here is a short poem on Peshawar by Ejaz Rahim, a poet extraordinaire of English language and retired Cabinet Secretary of the Government of Pakistan:

My heart sprawls out
Like the environs of Peshawar
Seen from the sky.
In portions of Jamrud brown,
At place cantonment green,
The heart is a city of contrasts,
Held together by a dream.

You have posed some very interesting questions that would force me to delve deeply into my psyche. We are complex beings and sometimes it is difficult, if not impossible, to connect dots (Life’s wayside stops) to get a coherent line of trajectory. Some reportage of my life is best left alone because it is hard to recall the details and I don't wish to create a fuzzy, unfocussed picture, not to mention a self-serving one. But your request is something I can’t set aside. You seem to be saying:
Gahe Gahe Baazkhan, Ee(N) Qissa e Pareena Raa. (Oh the story teller, tell us the tales of the times past.)
Your request is very flattering. So here are few pages from Qissa e Parreena or the ancient tale.

Shadab Zeest Hashmi: As someone who has been writing about the history of the Silk Road in poems and essays for a few years, I am fascinated by the accounts of your Silk Road expedition last year (which has been partially published in the Toledo Blade and in newspaper coverage of your public talks). Among the many observations and historical insights you share, a special one is the detail of how disease and cures crossed over in different places along the Silk route. Your medical background sheds light on the topic in a unique way. Please share with us some of your findings.

Dr. Amjad Hussain: My life journeys had no set plans. In fact I did not know my next step most of my life. I failed chemistry in college and thus missed out the chance for admission to medical college that year. I also missed the admission the next year and got in on 3rd attempt. Third time was indeed a charm.
Deeply influenced by a young charismatic surgery teacher, Professor SAR Gardezi, I wanted to go to England (wilayat) and learn the art and craft of surgery. A few friends kept bugging me to apply to American hospitals but having set my eyes on England, I refused. A friend handed me an application form for a hospital in Toledo Ohio and said that I should use the form. I told him I was planning to go to England. What do you have to loose, he asked? So I applied and to my utter surprise I was selected.

After finishing training as a general and cardiovascular surgeon I turned down to an academic job and left for Peshawar to an uncertain future. After four years I came back to America, dejected and rejected. Considering that I was the only qualified cardiovascular surgeon in our province, I could not land a job in my chosen field.

The bitterness and resentment I had towards the country and its institutions and the men who ran those institutions were mercifully short lived. Every year for the past 40 years I have been going to Pakistan to teach and sponsor projects there.

Wouldn’t that qualify as a life journey undertaken without a map?

I love Pakistan and I love America. The former gave me the philosophical and cultural underpinnings and the later gave me the room to grow intellectually. I am in love with both countries. Such an ambiguity could be explained by this quote by Anton Chekhov: “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spend the night with other.” I guess it also applies to my life but in my case I had many mistresses.

Shadab Zeest Hashmi: Please describe your project related to the excavations in Peshawar, and your interest in Peshawar’s ancient history.

Dr. Amjad Hussain: It was in early 1990s that the well-known archeologist and chair of archeology at Peshawar University Dr. Farzand Ali Durrani while on a visit to Toledo asked me if I would help raise money for the excavation of Rahman Dheri near DI Khan. He was interested to excavate sites that are considered older than Moenjodaro and Harrapa. I retorted that why should I be interested in proto sites in Indus Valley when I have no idea how old is my own city of Peshawar. So some of my friends and I helped raise funds to excavate part of Gorkhatri citadel in the city. That excavation proved that Peshawar was a living city in the 6th century BCE. The department of archeology has protected the excavated site by covering it with a fiberglass roof. It is an amazing site to see 2500 years of cultural history of Peshawar compressed in 30 feet deep excavated pit.

It goes without saying that I have a deep spiritual bond with the city of my birth. It was this attachment that led me to revisit the magnificent Stupa that Kanishka built outside the present day Gunj Gate in the 2nd century CE. The site was excavated in early 1900s and the remnants of the Stupa were found that according to the archeologist David Brainard Spooner was the tallest and most magnificent structure in all of India and China. The discovery of a small reliquary casket containing a small quartz bottle containing three bone-fragment of Buddha was the sensational discovery.
I have spent many decades studying the travel accounts of Chinese pilgrims when they came, centuries apart, to visit Peshawar and the sacred Stupa. From all accounts it had to be the neglected 8th wonder of the ancient world.
Based on those accounts, I have tried to peel off the 1500 years from the face of Peshawar and commissioned an oil painting that in my view represents Peshawar as it looked at the time of Kanishka.
I have given presentations on the subject to the Taxila Institute for Asian Civilizations at Quaid-Azam University, Peshawar Museum and the Archeological Institute of America among many other venues. My hope is that the Government of Pakistan would accept that we were Buddhists at one time and the magnificent Stupa was build by our own ancestors. A designation of International Heritage Site by the UN would go a long way to give that neglected relic its proper recognition.

Shadab Zeest Hashmi: I found your idea of a monument in “No Man’s Land” stunning. Could you describe the idea and the response.

Dr. Amjad Hussain: During a teaching sabbatical at the Government Medical College, Amritsar in May 2006, I was invited to speak to the Rotary Club of Amritsar. I had just crossed Wahgah from Pakistan into India. I decided to talk about the unfinished business of the Partition.

When I was crossing the border I was reminded of Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story “Toba Taik Singh.” After the Partition some harebrained bureaucrat decided to send Hindus and Sikhs patients of Lahore mental asylum to India and bring back Muslim patients from India mental asylums. So they took patients from Lahore to Wahgah where they were to be exchanged for Muslim patients from India.

A patient Bishan Singh from the village Toba Taik Singh was a long-time patient in Lahore asylum. He refused to be repatriated because in his ‘crazy mind’ if his village was still in Pakistan and was not going with him to India, why should he go to India. He drops dead in the middle of the night in No Man’s Land, the narrow strip between India and Pakistan.

I told the Amritsar Rotarians that Indians and Pakistanis have different versions, often opposing, narratives of the Partition. The people on both sides of Wahgah border have not owned up to the cataclysm of the Partition where more than one million people were put to sword and anywhere between 10 and 15 million people were uprooted from their centuries-old homes and forced to flee to the safety of newly demarcated border between India and Pakistan. It was, by any standard, one of the most tragic watershed events in human history.

I suggested that we as people should come to term with the crimes we committed against each other. I proposed a monument to be erected on the spot where the fictional Bishan Singh aka Toba Taik Singh dropped dead in the No Man’s Land at Wahgah. It should show a Hindu, a Muslim and a Sikh with their heads bowed down in shame. A short sentence engraved on the monument should state that, ” We are ashamed of what we did to each other during the Partition”.

There were no takers in the Amritsar Rotary and my proposal went down as a lead balloon. There have not been any takers in Pakistan either.

Shadab Zeest Hashmi: Your writing stands out for its authenticity, its inclusiveness and humanity, its generosity of vision, humor and a persistent sense of adventure and discovery. There is much to admire in your work as a practitioner/scholar of medical science, the rigor with which you have pursued the scientific and artistic aspects of Peshawar’s cultural heritage, but mostly, the value of devotion to family and the deeper, personal connection to culture/s that comes across as the building block of your ethos, the essence of your life’s work. I was deeply moved by the genuine admiration and attachment you have with the women of your family— your wife, your sisters, your daughter, and especially your mother, the piece about whom is a gem of a tribute. Please share with us the female influence on you and your work.

Dr. Amjad Hussain: The last of your question is both easy and difficult.
I lost my father when I was 6 year old. I had five elder brothers and one elder sister and two younger sisters. My mother was an unlettered woman. The only gift of education given to her was the reading of the Quran with Tajweed. She passed on that gift to three generations of children from the neighborhood.

My brothers played a major role in my upbringing. The elder brothers were like father-figures; stern, disciplinarians, and keeping us on a straight and narrow (very narrow) path. The women in the household were loving, caring and nurturing. After all as children we are deeply influenced from our surroundings and it is in our childhood that we gather building blocks of our personalities. They stay with us throughout our lives.

I was also fortunate to fall in love with Dottie, a woman who understood my needs (not wants) and my deep attachment to my roots and she nurtured them. She accepted my family with grace and understanding. And then came along my daughter Natasha who made me understand what it means to live as a professional woman in a man’s world. I am a feminist because of my daughter. So the influence of women in my life have been tremendous.