By Akbar Ahmed
My last image of President Ayub Khan is of a man standing in his porch in the hot sun waving me goodbye. It was just before he died in 1974, and I had called on him to tell him I was leaving for England for a short course. He had not been well, but was animated in our conversation, asking about new books and ideas. As I got up to leave he and Maaji both came out to the porch to see me off. It was the courtesy of a true officer and gentleman, although I was aware of our age difference and insisted that he not come outside. The late spring sun beat down upon us.
I got into the borrowed car of a friend which refused to start. I pumped the gas vigorously, pushed the gears about, switched off and on; the ignition, all to no avail. President Ayub and Maaji continued to stand patiently in the porch. Finally, I gave in to the ultimate humiliation of going round the back of the house to look for a gardener or guard to help push-start the car. After a few awkward coughs and splutters the car started. My last sight of the two of them was in the porch in that heat, standing to the last to see me off.
Ayub Khan has his well-wishers and his detractors. Some look back to that time as Pakistan’s golden age, others as the period that established the precedent of imposing martial law. My piece does not enter that debate. I simply wish to share my personal memories of the man.
I had seen Ayub Khan as a president at the height of his power, then as a president ignominiously ousted, and finally as a president old and frail, “all power spent,” just before his death. Throughout the ups and downs of his life I noted a consistency in how he carried himself with simplicity and dignity. He had risen to the heights of dizzying power – he carried the title of Field Marshal, was hosted by the Queen at Buckingham Palace and the Kennedys at an unprecedented state dinner at Mount Vernon and was honored by a ticker tape parade in New York; world leaders such as Eisenhower and De Gaulle were his fans. But at heart he was that simple villager from his humble village Rehana in Hazara. He had begun life there and he would return there to be buried with his ancestors. With him on his journey, always by his side, was his faithful wife. She was a cousin and just as simple at heart as he was. Everyone called her Maaji-or dear mother.
I first met President Ayub Khan in 1964 when he was visiting London and the Pakistan High Commission invited the presidents of the Pakistan societies in the UK to meet him. There were some 20 of us in the room when the President walked in, escorted by the High Commissioner. He urged us to study hard and be good ambassadors for Pakistan. When he found his way to me and I introduced myself he appeared to brighten and talked about his youngest son Tahir who had been at school with me at Burn Hall, Abbottabad. He said Tahir would be joining Cambridge University and as I would there too he would be grateful if I kept an eye on him.
Most of the students were undergraduates, and my age of 21 years was about the average in that group. At that age young men tend to be notoriously impressionable in their judgment. With his pep talk and confident and dignified bearing accentuated by his immaculate appearance- well-cut suit, smartly knotted tie and karakuli -Ayub Khan made a positive impression on us.
Besides, which young Pakistani in the mid-1960s could forget the pictures of the enthusiastic crowds who received him at Heathrow airport? The headlines, I recall, went something like this, “A reception the Beatles would envy.” We saw on black and white television how world leaders at the Commonwealth conference honoured Ayub Khan. I recall President Kenyatta of Kenya saying several times, “as my distinguished colleague, President Ayub Khan has stated…” or words to that effect. When he arrived at Cairo airport he was greeted by President Nasser and some of the world’s most famous leaders in an unprecedented reception.
We were aware of the rare honours he was given in Washington, DC which began with President and Jackie Kennedy receiving him at the airport. In turn, Jackie Kennedy visited Pakistan and was rapturously welcomed by adoring Pakistanis. The sight of their President alongside Jackie in a stately carriage as it drove through Lahore excited the crowds. Indeed Jackie would always harbour a softspot for President Ayub Khan and his country. He presented her with a beautiful black stallion named Sardar. It was part of President Kennedy’s cortege at his funeral.
Ayub’s Muslim Family Laws Ordinance aimed to empower women especially in matters of marriage and divorce. Pakistan had just launched a sleek new airline, Pakistan International Airlines, and the economy appeared to be doing well. In all, Ayub Khan built over a hundred large and small dams. The World Bank and the Harvard Group gave the example of Pakistan as an economy on the verge of take-off. South Koreans came to visit Pakistan to study the secrets of its economic success. Pakistan stretched from the Middle East to Far East Asia and the world wooed its leader. Pakistan was part of SEATO and CENTO and was a key player in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. In spite of his close alliance with the West, Ayub Khan had the geo-political vision to reach out to China and was warmly received in that country. Subsequent Pakistani leaders built on that relationship and came to see China as an “all-weather” friend.
In 1965,Tahir and I came down from Cambridge to London as we were asked to have lunch with President Ayub at the Claridges Hotel where he was staying. As we entered his suite we saw Mr. Z.A. Bhutto in conversation with him. Bhutto sat at the edge of the sofa and his demeanor was respectful. When Bhutto left, lunch was brought in and Tahir and I enjoyed a leisurely lunch with President Ayub Khan. Tahir was always a favorite of his father and it was a pleasure to see them interact as father and son.
Later that year in Rawalpindi I was staying with Tahir in the President’s annex and he told me that his father was expecting me for tea. As I walked onto the vast lawn of the President’s house I saw him sitting by himself listening to a radio. There wasn’t a soul around, although I could glimpse a figure far in the bushes from time to time, gardeners or security, I thought. He sat on a cane furniture sofa with a big Grundig radio by his side playing loudly. When he saw me he lifted himself out of the deep sofa and as he was a big man he had to make an effort. He shook hands and welcomed me. As we sat down I noted he turned down the radio and he asked me about my studies. Having just completed a Diploma in Education at Cambridge University, he gave me an opportunity to launch into a lecture on the theory of general education and how it could be applied to Pakistan. Even though I was barely out of university and was lecturing the man who actually ran the country, he was too polite to cut me off. He appeared not only to be listening to me but considering my advice seriously.
In spite of our age difference and the fact that I was at the bottom rung of the administrative ladder and he was at its pinnacle, he always showed courtesy to and respect for me. This was perhaps natural because I was his son’s friend. I also felt that he appreciated my frank discussions with him about new ideas and books. Besides, I had a feeling that as I never asked him for any personal or professional favor he must have appreciated this fact, considering that almost every individual he met had a request for him.
Ayub Khan had an old world chivalric and tolerant approach to the world. When I was doing my revenue training in Kohat I was told a story by the Mess Havaldar at the Air Force Officer’s Mess. He said that, during the 1965 war, some Indian pilots were captured and brought to Kohat for the duration of the war. In the middle of the war a senior Indian army officer who knew Ayub Khan from the old British days rang him and said his son was a prisoner in Pakistan. His mother fretted over him. If only he could have his drinks in the evenings the situation wouldn’t be that bad. Ayub explained that the mess was dry and no drinks were allowed. But the Havaldar said with a smile that not long after that they received regular supplies and the Indian pilots spent the war in a state of mild inebriated bliss.
Another story I heard came from none other than General Osman Mitha, the distinguished “father of the Pakistani commandos”. When his name was put up to Ayub Khan for promotion some officers demurred suggesting that as Mitha was from Bombay he might not be fully trustworthy. He was not a son of the soil. Besides, Mitha’s wife was a Hindu. Mitha was unsure as to what would happen to his career. To his relief the file came back from President Ayub Khan and, he recalled with a chuckle, it had just two neatly drawn circles on it.
That was the Pakistan I grew up in and in which I came of age. The optimism and hope of that time would carry me through the next decades even as things kept sliding from bad to worse.
(The second part of the article will be published next week. The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity.)