Editors’ Note: We are publishing this two-part series of a deeply personal and moving account of how scholar and former Ambassador Dr Akbar S. Ahmed fought with cancer and reflected on life and its various gifts. This is also a reminder for our readers on the importance of self care, mindfulness and regular medical check-ups to overcome the biggest threat to public health.
For recovery from cancer, it is also important to have a support group. A loving family and friends help the patient recover quicker and allow them to pass time easier. It is important to understand that doctors are not magicians; and whilst they can successfully take a patient through a rigorous regimen of treatment, there is no guarantee in the end that they have conquered cancer permanently. They will check it and continue to monitor it, but they will also say that the cancer cells may return – and it remains a mystery as to how and why this happens. it could be radiation or modern living, but it is one of the diseases we need to know more about, and especially how to cope with it.
It is for this reason that I believe an open discussion of cancer should be conducted. This may assist those not prepared to talk about it, or even consult friends and family.
What constantly struck me was the juxtaposition of the absurdity of life and its profundity. What was more ridiculous than clutching a coloured rubber ring while lying naked on a washing board-like bed surrounded by mechanical contraptions out of a Kubrick sci-fi fantasy? And what was more profound than young technicians from different cultural backgrounds making an effort to reach out in a gesture of human empathy? The desperation to prevent peeing before my radiation as my bladder was bursting was juxtaposed with deep philosophic thoughts of the transience of life emanating from Rumi and Ibn Arabi.
At the end of my intensive two-month-long radiation treatment, I was asked, as was the custom in that ward, to ring a bell. It was a Buddhist touch. I was presented a certificate to state that I had passed my radiation treatment and I was invited to meet Dr Greco who was pleased with the results. There were still, however, years left of medicine and tests, and I had to have frequent check-ups with Dr Greco, my excellent doctor.
There is still a tendency in traditional societies for people to be un-accepting of cancer. They often look on the patient as if somehow, he or she were to blame. The patient may end up feeling guilty—is God punishing me? Was it my bad diet? My errant ways, my smoking or drinking? In fact, cancer is not a disease but a mutation of certain cells that takes place in the body
Support and love
A few weeks into my treatment, we celebrated my birthday in January 2019. Amineh, my eldest child, herself battling the Emperor with exemplary courage and grace, sent this message on my birthday:
Happy Birthday to the most amazing, special, loving, wisest, & most beautiful human soul I know. Pa, you have been our pillar & strength. God grant you the best of health, recovery & ease in everything you do. Love you lots always. Your fan daughter, Amineh.
Nafees, my youngest daughter, was studying at MIT/Harvard University and hearing the news from her siblings, sent me this letter:
Dear papa jaan,
Happy birthday. Hope you had a wonderful day. I wanted to write to you a few thoughts that have been especially acute for me over the last few weeks.
First, you are my rock. You have showed me the importance of internal strength. In the past few years, you have provided me with a sense of confidence and self worth in approaching life: to strive for external accomplishment, work hard, walk in any room with the supreme confidence of a CSP (“cool as a cucumber”), but then, always, to retain a sense of humility and self worth no matter the outcome. As I have grown and been challenged with new external drives from Africa to Harvard, I have thought about your advice. It has helped me to work within these circles while remembering that internal peace is paramount. Thanks to you, prayer, prose, and Qawwali continually help me develop this.
Second, you are my friend. Over the past five years, you have become one of my best friends. I feel extremely lucky to know you in a space away from the public eye. For example, your humor shapes so much of how you approach the world and I am lucky to be nourished by it, and to carry that humor on in my own daily life. I feel grateful for every Urdu song you’ve shared like “nain mile nain hue baware,” each story of your youth (like crashing a brand new Mercedes with Tahir Ayub), each time you’ve listened to me think through job, school opportunities, & each time you’ve listened to my stories of friends.
Third, you are my beacon of hope for humanity. So much of what I see in the world today seems cruel and insurmountable. However, I have consistently seen you fight for what is right and to fight the big fight. Unconsumed by material wealth and fortune, you have consistently fought on the behalf of your nation, and now on behalf of faith & humanity. I cannot express how lucky I feel to have you as a role model.
Pa, now you are going through an unprecedented journey. A challenge like no other. But I know that you are handling it with great care just as you handled the Massoud tribesmen, the Bangladeshi mobs, and even your unruly AU students. Even though it is your birthday, I now have a present that I need from you. I need you now to focus on YOU. I need you to focus on how you will conquer Cancer, so that you can continue to be all of these things that you are for me, as well as for mum, the siblings, and the grandkids. So, what can we do to help you get there? What will make you happy? What will make it easier? Whether that is what food you want to eat, exercise you need, or something larger, more fundamental. Reflect on these, tell us, and we will serve as your support team to help you get there. I want you to continue to be my rock, friend, and beacon of hope for many, many, many more years to come, inshaAllah.
The intelligence, love and wisdom of Nafees’ letter took my breath away and even now when I read it, I have tears in my eyes. To test the quality of the letter — was it just the admiration of a loving daughter? — I sent Nafees’ letter to my friend Ejaz Rahim, a distinguished author, senior civil servant and poet in Pakistan. He replied:
Dear Akbar Bhai, I am profoundly moved. Any daughter’s letter to her dad is always a treasure. But to read this epistle – no other word can do justice to its thoughtfulness, wisdom and sincerity — is to undergo a spiritual experience. When daughters can talk to their papas the way she has, it is like receiving a gift from the Almighty. She sees you as her papa, rock, best friend and light-sharing beacon. What more can a father aspire for in a world where “hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned”. May she prosper forever.
But I am very disturbed at the thought of the Big C. Please write back and tell me that the worst is over. I have a taste of it in my own home, as you know, and in some other dear ones. I was not prepared for this. I hope and pray that everything is in control. May the Creator never let you or your dear ones down. Prayerfully. ER
My wonderful sons said that their sisters captured their emotions perfectly. Zeenat’s brother Dr. Anwar Zeb, who himself was battling a complicated and nasty form of cancer, rang to say and wrote to his sister,
Dear Khorai, I am feeling very very weak. Otherwise I am a bit better. I hope Bhaijan’s is feeling alright. I am praying to God to give my life to him, as he is doing a lot of work for all of us.
Jordan Peterson believes everyone’s life is a tragedy and over the centuries poets have moaned about life —just read the exquisite but deeply pessimistic Ode to a Nightingale by Keats or Ghalib’s koi umeed bar nahi ati // koi surat nazar nahi ati and the Urdu poets of Delhi and the UP. In contrast, my friend Mowahid Shah rang frequently to enquire and cheer me up with robust Punjabi jokes and sayings, beautiful Sufi lessons and 1950s classic songs of Lata and Rafi. Mowahid said, “You are experiencing what in Punjabi is called kut or adversity and without that no man can be great.” His wisdom and friendship were priceless. He gave good advice to be cheerful and listen to music. Music truly is a palliative for any medical ailment. He was a breath of the fresh Punjab air.
My dear friend Dr James Shera, the Christian Pakistani prominent champion of interfaith understanding in the UK, rang almost daily from the UK and said, that God had intimated as he tried to sleep: that God was pleased and watching over me. All will be well. Dr Shera was moved by the letters of Amineh and Nafees.
Dr Khalid, my excellent friend and doctor, was always available and encouraging with a hearty laugh. My class-fellow Khalid Salam would often ring from Lahore and we would reminisce about our happy school days. I was appreciating the worth of my friends from a new perspective.
There is still a tendency in traditional societies for people to be un-accepting of cancer. They often look on the patient as if somehow, he or she were to blame. The patient may end up feeling guilty—is God punishing me? Was it my bad diet? My errant ways, my smoking or drinking? In fact, cancer is not a disease but a mutation of certain cells that takes place in the body. Doctors speculate that modern living may be to blame for the frequency with which people today are detected with cancer; the food with chemicals injected into it, the plastic all around us, the soil soaked in fertilisers and chemicals – all these mutate the cells inside us and trigger cancer.
Just as breast cancer is common for women, for men it is the prostrate that is the culprit. In fact, my doctors told me that after a certain age most men are susceptible to cancer related to the prostate. Older men are especially vulnerable. In traditional societies cancer is seen as a death sentence; indeed, a generation ago it was almost a death sentence. Even today it is important to check for prostate cancer among men and breast cancer for women at least once a year. It is also important to have a support group, a loving family and friends. They help the patient recover quicker and allow them to pass time more easily. It is also important to understand that doctors are not magicians and while they can successfully take a patient through a rigorous regimen of treatment, there is no guarantee in the end that they have conquered cancer permanently. They will check it and continue to monitor it, but they will also say that the cancer cells may return and why it happens remains a mystery. It is for this reason that I believe the open discussion of cancer should be conducted. It may assist those not prepared to talk about it.
Sitting in my beautiful garden in Bethesda, I contemplate the awful visit of the Emperor, but I have also learned something that I can share with the reader. First, the mundane: Perhaps the most important is that if you are a male, check your PSA regularly especially after 60 years of age. Doctors say that as you get older, you have a far greater chance of a problem. Caught in time, it can be treated so do not put off your check-up.
Secondly, learn to appreciate and enjoy every moment of life. I have found even now that the sunrise and sunset are sublime, the oceans and the mountains majestic and the flowers and trees beguiling. I have enjoyed these blessings of nature. Life is precious. It is a gift. Enjoy it especially with your spouse, family and friends. Enjoy your favourite music and TV shows. I enjoyed watching—and rewatching—The Graham Norton Show, Blackadder and other humorous programs. I enjoyed re-reading P.G. Wodehouse, a favorite from my school days, and he still had the power to extract a smile from me, however wan and weak. He is still unmatchable.
Thirdly, confronting issues of mortality concentrates the mind to think of the bigger issues of universal concern. Do not waste time on petty squabbles and intrigues. I have come across one or two real (what are called metaphorically) S.O.B.s. I have no time to follow up with them. I cannot forget their villainy. But let me forgive them. Their punishment is that they lied and cheated. I have nothing but compassion for such characters and pray they discover goodness and peace so they are cleansed.
Not for nothing do all the great religions emphasise forgiveness. Develop the quality of mercy. In Islam, God’s two greatest names reflect mercy, and the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) is described as a Mercy unto mankind. Through thick and think, through the ups and downs of the last three years, the Mercy of God never left me. At the worst moments of my ordeal, I was sustained by the knowledge that life and death are in the hands of God, and God alone decides the fate of every individual. This philosophy removes the burden of worrying from your shoulders. It also gives you great strength.
Into the treatment, two contradictory feelings begin to dawn on you: the first is the sense that your world is collapsing around you, and you wonder what will go next. But with that comes another feeling: one of elation and freedom. The worst has happened to you, and you are still standing. Wobbly, but still standing. You are weak but you can still smile. Nothing really matters anymore. You can take the worst that life can throw at you. You are indestructible. You are free to say and do what you want to, and no one can intimidate you.
In the last days of March, I stopped the radiation and Casedox and for the first time in months felt faintly, almost, like myself. On my most recent visit, Dr Greco has examined my PSA and found it satisfactory. I am now in what is called remission.
While I was undergoing radiation treatment the Covid virus was playing havoc. But that did not prevent me from continuing my teaching and academic pursuits. I published Mataloona, Pukhto Proverbs, and Mizh by Sir Evelyn Howell through Oxford University Press and The Flying Man, Aristotle and the Philosophers of the Golden Age of Islam by Amana – the same publishers who published Yusuf Ali’s famous translation of the Holy Quran. I am busy working on a major study called the “Mingling of the Oceans,” a title inspired by the great work of Dara Shikoh, the remarkable Mughal scholar-prince whose life ended so tragically. I am also producing a documentary with the same title on the same subject. I introduced my play The Trial of Dara Shikoh brilliantly staged by members of the Cosmos Club and afterwards had a successful question-and-answer session with the distinguished audience. I gave several keynote addresses and lectures, for example to MacFest and Eton College in the UK respectively. On Zoom I spoke to the 29th and 30th Common, i.e. senior Pakistani civil servants on Mr Jinnah the Quaid-i-Azam and good governance. In addition, I am preparing to teach my popular course called “The World of Islam” for the Fall term.
I hope my experience would help those who would like to know about the Emperor of all maladies. In the meantime, I am enjoying the smells of summer, the flowers in bloom, and the spectacular colours of nature in my garden. Cancer may have knocked me down, but not out. I can still stand outside my room watching the early sunrise or the slow sunset. I can appreciate the chirping of the birds and the laughter of children. Through the depredations of Covid and cancer, these things remain and they affirm life and make it worth living. It is good to be alive, and the biggest lesson of all is to appreciate every moment.
Qadam qadam pe shukar karo.