The Antinomies of Aijaz Ahmad (1941 - 2022): From Ghalib to Gramsci

The Antinomies of Aijaz Ahmad (1941 - 2022): From Ghalib to Gramsci
I heard about Aijaz Ahmad – who passed away at 81 earlier last month in the United States on March 9 – initially during my college days in Lahore when he appeared on the cover of Monthly Review, a reputed American socialist journal, in an interview titled In Defence of History, where he railed against the formidable Palestinian literary critic Edward Said, whose tome Culture and Imperialism I had recently reviewed for my first-year course in English and was in great awe of.

Then after formally joining the then-Communist Mazdoor Kisan Party (CMKP), I often heard of a ‘Professors Group’ within the Mazdoor Kisan Party (MKP) – the older incarnation of the CMKP – comprising ‘professors’ who had mostly built their reputations abroad: Feroze Ahmad, Eqbal Ahmad, Hamza Alavi and Aijaz Ahmad and had joined the party in order to conduct Marxist study circles for the workers. Later on, when I went to Leeds to complete my MA, I returned to Pakistan for a short time during the summer to conduct interviews for my dissertation, where I interviewed Alavi in Karachi and Dr Mubashar Hasan, the stalwart of the Pakistan Peoples Party in Lahore; and whenever the intellectuals and professors who had worked for the labour movement in Pakistan would be mentioned, Aijaz Ahmad’s name would definitely be taken.

In the 1990s, the columns of Eqbal Ahmad and Edward Said used to be published in the Daily Dawn; I started reading them with great pleasure. I had already been introduced to the classic writings of Hamza Alavi on the Pakistani bureaucracy, state and class, and the peasantry in my undergraduate sociology courses; though by the time I finished my undergraduate degree in 2001, Alavi’s books too began to be found in progressive publishing houses translated into Urdu. When I read Tariq Ali in English and the great Pakistani Marxist Sibte Hasan in Urdu, they would also sometimes mention Aijaz Ahmad in their writings. The real introduction to Aijaz Ahmad’s writings though took place when (since they were very hard to find in Pakistan) I started my postgraduate studies in Leeds.

One day, I caught sight of his classic book In Theory: Nations, Classes, Literatures in the library. Unlike Said’s Culture and Imperialism which had been assigned to me for a compulsory term project, I had no such compulsion this time, leaving off everything else to read this book. Certainly, I studied the chapter on Edward Said first of all. Said’s very famous book Orientalism is considered a most important book in universities around the world (and outside the academic circles as well). Though the manner in which Said had even deemed Marx an orientalist in this book created a huge uproar. The full response which Aijaz gave to this accusation of Said has itself become as important as Orientalism.

A rare photo of Aijaz Ahmad from 1969 (Image Credits - Vijay Prashad)

Then upon my return to Pakistan when I combined teaching at a public sector university with taking up a project on the Railway Workers Union’s struggle for democracy, I interviewed many veteran communists, progressive trade unionists and journalists like Tahira Mazhar Ali (mother of Tariq Ali), Sardar Shaukat Ali, Ahmad Bashir and Begum Naseem Shamim Malik. The names of Feroze Ahmad, Eqbal Ahmad, Tariq Ali, Hamza Alavi and Aijaz Ahmad would frequently be mentioned in the same breath. The old comrades and senior journalists would tell that these great intellectuals were big names not only in Pakistan, but on an international level.

In early 2010 while I was a graduate student of Middle Eastern history in Arkansas, I was surprised to receive a long email from the Aijaz Ahmad in response to an essay I had written on Yemen in Counterpunch, reminding readers of its revolutionary past in contrast to what the likes of Thomas Friedman and even Patrick Cockburn were peddling both in mainstream and ‘alternative' American journalism about that benighted country at that time. He encouraged me in my humble work on the history of Yemen’s communist past and shared his own past attachments to it. That was the beginning of an on-again, off-again correspondence which lasted until the October of 2021.

In April 2013, I had the opportunity to visit India for the first time to present an academic paper on Yemen at the Historical Materialism conference in New Delhi. I contacted Aijaz sahib immediately after reaching there. He sent his cellphone number and insisted on communicating via text in future. My first meeting with him was at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), also the venue of the conference, where I had also been put up by my hosts. He had come to give a talk there at the invitation of the student union. If JNU is a left-wing bastion, then was it any wonder that the hall was packed? His talk on religious fundamentalism was very much substantial, one sentence of his I still remember:

"The BJP is programmatically communal while the Congress is pragmatically communal."

The hall erupted in applause at this line and the students burst in laughter. I also remembered more than a decade ago when ace Pakistani Urdu writer Fahmida Riaz had recited her incendiary poem Naya Bharat in this same university, with its opening line Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle (You turned out just like us) comparing Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan in the 1980s with the BJP’s newly-ascendant Hindu fundamentalism, leading to an army officer pulling out a gun with Riaz having to be escorted out of the venue by her hosts. No such luck for Aijaz despite the fact that the Indian state regarded him as a ‘Pakistani’ based on his living in Pakistan for the early decades of his life; thereby refusing to grant him Indian citizenship despite having lived in India for three decades! After the seminar, we met briefly. After exchanging pleasantries, he said “Let’s meet at the India International Center over dinner, just me and you, we will talk there.”
The full response which Aijaz Ahmad gave to this accusation of Edward Said has itself become as important as Orientalism itself

After a few days, we met at the India International Center for a memorable meeting. He knew I was a member of the CMKP, whose earlier incarnation the MKP Aijaz had been a part of when he used to live in Pakistan. He asked about it, as well as the Awami Workers Party, which had been newly established at that time. He also inquired about the broader Pakistani left. He had also visited Pakistan during Musharraf’s rule; he mentioned it. He inquired a lot about the situation in Afghanistan. He also had a keen interest in Yemen and knew that I had written a lot on that country and had visited it a few years back. He said that he too wanted to visit there to renew solidarities but was not sure (due to the security situation) whether to go or not. I advised him that he should definitely visit, and that Yemeni comrades would look after him fully.

Aijaz totally avoided talking about personal matters. I too did not dare ask him if he missed Pakistan or not. During the conversation, he also let slip that he sometimes writes poetry but only for himself: neither had he published it anywhere nor did he plan to.

I commented: “It would be a grave injustice not to publish it. At least do email me a few poems, I will only read for myself.”

His smiling response was: “No, they are not that good.”

Aijaz Ahmad's last book

He also mentioned Tariq Ali, Abid Hasan Minto, Mirza Ibrahim, Abdullah Malik, Major Ishaq and a few comrades of the left – some of whose names I was hearing for the first time.

In those days, India was preparing for elections. He was worried about the potential victory of the BJP. He asked me about my opinion. I said, laughing, “I think if Manmohan ji can win from anywhere, it could be the constituency of Jhelum and Chakwal. Their people are very proud of him.” He roared with laughter.

This splendid and memorable meeting went on for three to four hours. After dinner, we left the India Center and went home in one rickshaw.

After that dinner, while I was in Delhi for a few more days, we met on some more occasions. Every other day a message would come from friends and one or two times from Aijaz sahib himself that there is a seminar at such-and-such place, and Aijaz will speak.

After my return from India, there was a lull in our email correspondence. Though when I visited India again for literary festivals in Delhi and Lucknow a year later in February 2014, I could not meet him; rather I spoke to him on the telephone to find that he had gone to Calcutta for a Communist Party of India (Marxist) election rally. Little did I know then that after the rise of the BJP to power, it was becoming difficult for him to remain in Delhi.  A few months later he emailed me to invite me to contribute a chapter on the hidden history of revolutionary Yemen for an edited book he had commissioned from Columbia University Press (CUP). I was amazed that even during the lull in our email conversation, he had been keeping track of my essays in Counterpunch; he cited the one I had written on the great Turkish communist poet Nazim Hikmet’s 50th death anniversary. I now know that this was his way of quietly encouraging younger scribblers like us. I highly regarded then and still do his very kind invitation a great honour for someone like me whose Arabic was at best at a beginner’s stage and was by no means an ‘expert’ on the country. Nevertheless I had a series of enthusiastic correspondences with him about this draft chapter; and then suddenly Aijaz ceased responding altogether.

It was four years later when almost on a whim, I decided to email him, after hearing conflicting reports from comrades that he had either been ‘chucked out’ from India or had relocated to the US under pressure from Hindutva fanaticism. Not sure how he would respond after such a long gap, with a bit of hesitation while reciting this couplet of Faiz within my heart:

Bada hai dard ka rishta

Tere naam par aayenge gham-gusaar chale

(Great is the relation of affliction

The well-wishers will come on in your devotion)
Aijaz Ahmad was one of a dying breed of Subcontinental intellectuals who owned both India and Pakistan as their homes over and above the din of divided loyalties. His love for Lahore can be gauged by the fact that he had named his daughter after that quintessential symbol of the Punjab, the river Ravi

I wrote to him. Aijaz responded back promptly saying that not only did he remember me well but that the CUP project had had to be shelved not only because of a difficult new editor but also due to political pressures, which hastened his departure from India to the United States. What he did not divulge was that his health was deteriorating and his busyness was increasing hence his being a ‘tardy correspondent.’

In the last year, I came across the phenomenal book brought out by Vijay Prashad Nothing Human Is Alien To Me in which he has interviewed Aijaz about his life and legacy and Aijaz opens up more about his seminal years in Pakistan, and his association with the MKP and the time spent with some of the great poets and personalities of Lahore, not all of them progressives like Aijaz! This book will indeed become his testament, especially for a new and uninitiated generation politicized by the depredations of Hindutva and for whom it is perhaps difficult to appreciate that the fertile ground for the emergence of non-communist intellectuals like Arundhati Roy and Pankaj Mishra in this century owes itself to the pioneering efforts of the generation which produced sharp communist intellectuals like Aijaz Ahmad in the last century.

In all these years, whenever his writings were published in Frontline, Monthly Review or Socialist Register, I would definitely read them leaving off everything else. After the publication of Prashad’s work, I often used to bother Aijaz on email regarding this or that detail, whether on his association with Major Ishaq or Hamza Alavi; asking him about Rauf Malik and Zafarullah Poshni, both distinguished nonagenarians who passed away last year; or inquiring from him about the significance of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case as a cultural marker. Sometimes his response would be wonderfully detailed, at other times it would be disappointingly curt. It was during one such communication that he admitted that he knew neither the year nor date of his birth, and had to make it up to satisfy school registration requirements! Not knowing that he was seriously ill, I longed to write to him earlier this month while writing a piece on the 50th death anniversary of the remarkable Urdu poet Nasir Kazmi, Aijaz’s friend with whom he spent many an hour in Lahore.

Aijaz Ahmad’s writings will keep guiding not only myself but the future generations. My meetings and correspondences with him were without doubt important and a source of honour, but the best means to meet him are his immortal writings which are a permanent symbol of his commitment to Marxism, revolution and the working class.

Aijaz Ahmad was one of a dying breed of Subcontinental intellectuals who owned both India and Pakistan as their homes over and above the din of divided loyalties. His love for Lahore can be gauged by the fact that he had named his daughter after that quintessential symbol of the Punjab, the river Ravi. Yet the literary festival which happened this very weekend in Lahore as I write this, ironically made no effort to ever invite its prodigal son as a keynote speaker from just across the border while falling head-over-heels to invite younger successors like Pankaj Mishra all the way from London.

Be that as it may, he was one of the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist analysts of Asia and Africa of our time, an intellectual unintimidated by power or authority, a companion in arms to such diverse figures as Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Howard Zinn, Tariq Ali, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Richard Falk, Fred Jameson, Alexander Cockburn and Daniel Berrigan.

His latest - and now sadly last -  work is a delightful recounting of his long physical journey from Pakistan to India and onto the United States, and his stunning intellectual journey from Ghalib to Gramsci. Nothing Human Is Alien To Me is a delightful book of interviews on a variety of topics done meticulously by my friend and comrade Vijay Prashad and published beautifully by LeftWord Books. Please get to know Ahmad's brilliant and utterly vital work.

All his life Aijaz sahib was a personification of what he has outlined in this final work of his should be the fundamental responsibilities of communist intellectuals: to write absolutely in the conjuncture, in the here and now, about the fundamental problems of the time from a strictly Marxist point of view. Secondly, to amass a body of writing that helps the growth of a kind of intellectual culture that would then be spontaneously receptive to communist ideas.

Aijaz sahib! Many thanks for the memorable dinner. Alas you could not come to Pakistan and I could not invite you to that dinner in your favourite restaurant which you had accepted with your customary smile.

Note: All the translations from the Urdu are by the author

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979