Across the Great Divide
By Paula Span
Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page W14
Could a public conversation between a Muslim from Pakistan and the Jewish father of murdered reporter Daniel Pearl be something more than "just two grandfathers on a stage, talking"?
On the second anniversary of his son's death, Judea Pearl stands onstage at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, lighting a memorial candle. A larger-than-life image of the beaming Daniel Pearl appears on a screen behind him.
"You lived an extraordinary life, Danny, and you died an extraordinary death," he says, as people in the auditorium listen silently. He talks a little about his son, the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered in February 2002 by terrorists in Pakistan. He chants a Hebrew prayer in his warm tenor, and then translates: "Age would not slow his growth, and time will not fade his youth." He speaks of his need for "revenge" -- by eradicating the hatred that took his son.
It's a long evening, with panelists discussing Jewish identity -- "I am Jewish" were among Daniel Pearl's final words, captured on the videotape his killers made -- and then a book signing. Through it all, Pearl remains cordial, lively, greeting friends and strangers. He signs copies of I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl for someone's birthday and someone else's grandchild.
Only when the last book has been inscribed and everyone has left does Pearl sag. As though someone had switched off the current, the brightness leaves his face.
A much-honored computer scientist at UCLA, Pearl has been more accustomed to addressing conferences on artificial intelligence. Now he's on a different mission.
"I wasn't born for this," he says. "This strange mixing of tragedy and celebrity and friendship." He looks very tired.
Akbar Ahmed, on the other hand, probably was born for a high-profile public life. On an early spring day in Washington, Ahmed is in a taxi heading downtown from American University, where he holds a chair in Islamic studies, for a quick BBC interview.
Too often he has heard supposed experts on television. " 'Islam is terrorism,' 'Islam is extremism' -- they're 'explaining' Islam, and I'm telling myself, America is being misled," Ahmed complains in the cab. "It's frightening for a superpower to be so ill-informed."
Today's headlines report Pakistani troops hunting al Qaeda forces in Waziristan, the remote region where Ahmed -- who for decades balanced a high-level career in Pakistan's civil service with his academic appointments -- was once the chief administrator. If he doesn't accept media requests, will the interviewee replacing him know as much about that part of the world? Or even be a Muslim? "If I don't do it, who's going to do it?"
In the studio, mike clipped to his tie, he crisply tells an interviewer in London about the terrain and tribes in Waziristan, the potential dangers, and what he sees as the long-term insignificance of one day capturing Osama bin Laden. Minutes later, he dashes out to the waiting cab, back to campus.
At some other point in history, Ahmed and Pearl probably never would have crossed paths. Despite some similarities -- both are immigrant academics in their sixties who as children witnessed the costs of religious and ethnic strife -- Pearl was usually cloistered in a California lab while Ahmed was making himself a fixture at lecterns in London and Washington.
Yet they've become partners and, gradually, friends. Every few weeks they travel to another city for an event with a title like "Towards Interfaith Understanding: A Journey Through Dialogue."
It's a low-tech communications medium: two chairs on a stage, two mikes, two men talking about their religions and the misunderstandings and tensions between them, while several hundred people listen. It can seem a paltry effort in the face of the unceasing violence in the Middle East and the accompanying rift between Judaism and Islam. Yet Ahmed and Pearl are a hit, with organizations around the world begging the interfaith roadshow to stop in their towns.
It was supposed to be a one-time event in Pittsburgh last year, until the participants grasped that a lot of people wanted to hear what Daniel Pearl's father had to say to a Muslim intellectual who grew up in the city where his son died -- and vice versa. So, although they've also learned that merely sharing a stage is a controversial act in some quarters, their public conversation continues.
"The world must be in worse shape than I thought," Ahmed says, "if just two old men talking gives people hope."
IT'S LATE EVENING before Ahmed can settle into an armchair. He and his wife, Zeenat, have led a peripatetic life; this brick colonial in Bethesda is the first house they've ever owned.
A former Pakistani ambassador to Britain, he still looks the part of the dapper diplomat -- pinstriped suit, tonsorial fringe of gray hair, lots of eye contact. He sounds like one, too, with his British-Asian accent (schedule becomes "shedyool"), his impressive memory for names, his trove of stories.
His family lived near Delhi, he says, and, as Muslims in India, confronted a stark, sudden choice when the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947: to remain in Hindu India or to depart for the new Muslim nation, Pakistan. His parents had 24 hours to decide whether to leave their elegant home and, if they chose to relocate, pack a few suitcases and find space on outbound trains so overcrowded that passengers huddled atop the cars.
"There was widespread rioting," Ahmed recounts, blending childhood memories and family lore with history learned later. "Muslims were being killed in India, Hindus and Sikhs were being killed in Pakistan, a general state of anarchy." Trains carrying refugees between the capitals, Delhi and Karachi, were being stopped, passengers slaughtered. "Very often they'd leave the driver, so when the train pulled in, you had a whole trainload of dead bodies."
Ahmed's father opted for Pakistan, whose founder hoped to forge a modern, democratic Muslim state, and wangled passage for his family. The frightening journey to Karachi was made more ominous by the fact that they'd let an earlier train go -- Ahmed's mother wasn't quite ready to leave -- and then learned that its passengers had been murdered. Who knew what might happen?
© 2004 The Washington Post Company