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Celebrating Excellence: The Aligarh Spirit

The San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Aligarh Muslim University Alumni Association marked the annual Sir Syed Day Banquet and International Mushaira Nov. 15. Our correspondent Ras H. Siddiqui was there and filed this report.

(Above): Alumni of Aligarh Muslim University at the Sir Syed Day Banquet and International Mushaira in Milpitas, Calif.

October 17 of the year 1817 was the birthday of a remarkable individual from South-Asia. Today his legacy lives on in many parts of the world, even far beyond the countries of Bangladesh , India and Pakistan as pockets of the populations worldwide look back at the educational institution that he founded keeping the spirit of this unique alma mater alive today. The name of this individual was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and his unique contribution to the world was the Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College located in the North Indian town of Aligarh. This college later became the Aligarh Muslim University whose illustrious graduates (and their children) are today spread around the globe. In the San Francisco Bay Area the Aligarh Muslim University Alumni Association is one such group. And their annual Sir Syed Day Banquet and International Mushaira (Urdu poetry recital) attracts quite a bit of well deserved attention, this year being no exception. This year Nov. 15 this event was held at India Community Center in Milpitas, California.

After dinner in the Mughlai tradition and light entertainment by Raghu Kedar, Sir Syed Day 2008 started off with a recitation from the Holy Qura’n (Tilawat-e-Quran) by Afzal Khan. Emcee for the evening was Faisal Siddiqi who made an introduction and stressed that education was the key to many societal and historical challenges. He then invited Nihal Khan, president of the AMUAA of Northern California to present his words of welcome.

Nihal Khan, while thanking everyone for participating in the event directed them to look back 110 years after Sir Syed’s death and to reflect on the vision that he presented to a then sleeping community (after the ascent of the British and the demise of Muslim rule in India during the mid 19th century). He pointed out that the light of knowledge that Sir Syed lit is still shining around the world as the graduates of Aligarh carry it forward. Nihal Khan elaborated on the AMUAA Sir Syed Scholarship program which has disbursed approximately Rs. 5 million to about 1,300 deserving students in India. He also highlighted the Aligarh Education Endowment Fund and recognized Drs. Hasan Kamil and Talat Hasan for its genesis.

Dr. A.S. Nakadar, trustee of the American Federation of Muslims of Indian Origin, presented his keynote speech. “The global community enjoys the fruits of the AMU today,” he said. “Many have tried to emulate your success but your work remains on the top,” he added. Dr. Nakadar dwelt for a moment of AMU as a part of history, heritage, culture and identity. “This Muslim university emerged on the map of the world education about 110 years ago, much after Harvard, Yale, Oxford , Stanford or even Al Azhar. And yet, no other university in the world can claim to have enriched the lives of millions of people as this university has done in a short span of time,” said Dr. Nakadar. Revisiting the demise of Muslim rule in India in 1857 and the somewhat similar challenges that the community faces today, Nakadar talked about images and mirrors and about bringing educational, economical and socio-political emancipation. “We need to build another AMU brick by brick and block by block. I am not talking about building an AMU in its physical structure but I am talking about building the AMU in its spirit and soul,” he said, as he highlighted steps that can be taken to achieve that goal. “If you can motivate one student you already have laid one brick of AMU.”

Concluding on a spiritual note he added that, “Taking education to the last man and woman of our community is a noble task and indeed a task most liked by God and His Messenger.”

(Above): Dr. A.S. Nakadar delivering the keynote speech.

Dr. Shaheer Khan was honored for his long years of service to the AMUAA with an award presented by Abdus Salam Qureishi. From our long years of association with him we can certainly attest to the fact that his efforts have been exemplary, especially due to his association with the Sir Syed Day Aligarh Magazine which can be obtained from the association (Please visit www.amualumni.org or call (650) 212-2544 for details).

No Aligarh program is complete without the singing of the university anthem or “University Tarana” written by Majaz Lakhnavi. The stage at the ICC echoed the words as a tour of AMU was graphically presented.

The second part of the evening was the International Mushaira or Urdu poetry recital which draws lovers of the language from great distances. Headlining the Mushaira this year at this venue were local poets Tashie Zaheer and Mahnaz Naqvi along with Nausha Asrar ( Houston), Shahnaz Noor (Pakistan), Popular Meeruthi (India), Dr. A. Abdullah (Washington ), Azhar Inayati (India) and Himayat Ali Shair (Pakistan/Canada).

Dr. Abdullah started the proceedings with praise for the vision of the people who helped to build this cultural center where the event was being held. He kicked off the poetry segment with a remembrance of the late poet Ahmed Faraz who had graced many Aligarh gatherings like this one over the years and had agreed to be at this one, sadly that was not to be. His “Kaali Dewaar” (Black Wall) poem that he wrote on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. was read passionately by Abdullah Sahib, certainly setting the mood for a great poetry evening.

Tashie Zaheer started by entering a modernistic time warp with “Daylight Savings” as his searching stopped and then started in verse, followed by Mahnaz Naqvi with inclusion (Shumaar karna) and flowers (Phool Usnay Bhejay Hain). Dr. Nausha Asrar next illuminated the event with some profound words explaining the Ghazal, “Jab Lahu Aakhon Say Ublay To Ghazal Hoti Hai” (When blood cries from the eyes, that is a Ghazal…). Nausha Asrar is a versatile presenter who took us through a journey that ended on an empty bottle that could talk (Khaali Botal).

Shahnaz Noor started off with tarannum (song-like style) with self discovery, birds and the feminine spirit being crushed by stones (symbolism noted). And from that seriousness we ventured into comedy and “popular” Meeruthi who expresses himself both through his words and facial expressions causing contagious laughter. Abdullah Sahib next brought us back to reality revisiting water and stones causing ripples and visiting a dwarf (Bona).

Azhar Inayati, a synthesis of India’s Aligarh and Rampur cities, next commanded a great deal of attention. “Humaray Sheher Main Kirdar Qatal Hotay Hain” (Characters — not life — are murdered in our city). His poetry reached great depth that generated appreciation. “Is Raastay Mein Jab Koi Saaya Na Paayay Ga, Yeh Akhri Darakht Bahot Yaad Aayay Ga” (On this path when no-one will be able to find shade, this last tree will be very fondly remembered). “I have lit a lamp, now the winds are responsible,” he recited in Urdu.

The last poet to present his work was Himayat Ali Shair (Shayar) who currently resides in Toronto, Canada . Amongst the most prolific lyric writers for film songs in Pakistan , one who is fondly remembered in the songs of the late Noor Jehan (“Na Chura Sako Gey Daman”) and Mehdi Hasan (Nawazish Karam, Khuda Wandha), Shair was chosen to preside over the poetry segment due to both his seniority and years of writing. “Aaknen Khulin To Apni Haqeeqat Bhi Khul Gayi” (When my eyes really opened, so did my realization of where I stood), he said. Highlighting the plight of the immigrant no matter where he lived, Himayt Ali Shair journeyed through the new shorelines of our experience. “Jis ko Jahaan Bhi Sukoon Milay Woh Wahaan Rahay”, (One should live wherever one can find peace). And possibly because of his long association with the world of entertainment, he said that music and poetry were inseparable Siamese twins.

It is always a pleasure to cover an event held by AMU Alumni. These Aligarh Old Boys (and now Old Girls included too) represent a vision of the founder of the Aligarh institution which is now not exclusive to Muslims. The original vision was to produce an educated and open-minded Muslim in India.

Sir Syed faced many obstacles. But thank God that he persevered. Today, there is an urgent need to emulate this vision to counter some of the problems facing the community and India. As we join all people of good will in condemning the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the vision of a enlightened and open minded society is all the more relevant.

Ras Hafiz Siddiqui is a South Asian American writer who lives in Sacramento, Calif.


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