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North America 9

Fayyaz Baqir

April 18th, 2017

 

 

There was a vibrant cultural community of nonconformists in Moscow. I had a wide circle of friends in this community. This circle included Lutheran Minister Laurie Fox at Campus Christian Centre (CCC), A Quaker Piano player Terri Ellis who used to play at Best Western, an artist Wendy Stephen Fabian, a Mexican Dancer Isolda Duff, a local resident Kay Moore, a forester Wade, a South African exile Oupa, an Iranian exile Masoud, two radical American communists, local hippies and some students of  Latin American and European origin. I formed a wider community through the International Club when I became its president in 1983. John Cooper, Director International Centre International Club was also a source of invaluable support during this period. I used to regularly visit CCC for helping myself with free cookies and coffee. Lurie knew that I was a person without any religious faith but enjoyed talking to me and over time we formed a close friendship. One day a young Baptist priest discovered my views on religion during a discussion. He could not stand the sight of a dirty Commie gobbling down free coffee and cookies from a Christian centre and told me not to visit the Centre in future. When Laurie heard about it, she was furious and told the priest that I was her personal friend and he better keep away from me.

When I organised annual dinner by the International Club Laurie permitted Native American Students Association to practice their dance performance at the Centre. Terri agreed to play The Piano for us. When I told our executive committee that Terri will play for us, they told me that they could not afford to invite Terri because he must be expensive and not available on a short notice. Terri did not charge us anything and played for a long time. Our Vice President asked him how come you agreed to play for us free of charge; he laughed and said, “Fayyaz is my friend”. However, international students experienced challenging moments at the hands of the local community as well. Masoud narrated an event which took place soon after the 1979 Iranian revolution when American diplomats were taken hostage in Iran. A group of Iranian students gathered for dinner at a local Pizza shop known as Karl Mark’s Pizza. As they were eating a drunken cowboy carrying a gun entered and asked the guys sitting around the table, are you I-ray- nians?  Everybody was dumbfounded. One intelligent guy replied, no we are ee-raw-nians? Got it, said the cowboy, put his gun back in the holster and walked away. This was understandable. A well-travelled undergrad students once asked me, where are you from? I said, “From Pakistan”. “Is it in Iraq?”, she asked. No. “Is it in Iran?”, she asked again. No. I said again. “Is it a country”, she asked this time. “Yes”, I said, “You are right this time”. As a graduate student Mannan Sheikh made a few bucks as a newspaper boy to pay for his tuition. He once had an argument with the owner of Moscow Hotel. When he came to the hotel next time, the hotel owner turned his neck away. Sheikh was not going to give in so easily. He looked at the guy and said, “Why don’t you talk to me, Mr Smith? I am also a businessman”.       

Pakistani community consisted of two elders Ghazanfar Shaikh and Abdul Mannan Sheikh and their families and a handful of Pakistani students. Ghazanfar Shaikh known as Ghazi Bhai was a very charming and affectionate person and his home was always open to Pakistani students. He was a source of support to all of us. Mannan Sheikh was equally friendly but had very strong reservations about mixing with Hindus and Sikhs. Once he invited all of us for a Christmas dinner at home. One of the Pakistani students extended the invitation to two Sikh class fellows also. Mannan Sheikh reacted very strongly and told us that no Sikh or Hindu was welcome at his home. We once asked him why he was so bitter about Hindus. He said, “You know that there is an equal number of Muslims in Pakistan and India. How come there are so many Muslim students in your university from Pakistan and not a single one from India. How affirmative is their secularism to Muslims”. It was a strong point to ponder. However, many years later I stumbled upon a book in Islamabad which included the story of his father’s conversion from a Hindu to a Muslim. His father had narrated the torture and abuse he had suffered at the hands of his family and faith community on his conversion. The narration of this context completely changed my views about Mannan Sheikh. He died a few years back in the USA. He owned property in Moscow but he never surrendered his green passport and kept his Pakistani citizenship. 

Among my close friends were Ann Haroun Fichtner, Annmarie Zimmerman, Ted Mophet and Beth Cree.  Ann Fichtner was the granddaughter of an Arab, a thinker and a dreamer and we used to meet to talk about our dreams. Annmarie was Jewish and her father was a very successful doctor in Seattle and owned a mountain near Los Angeles. He was so committed to his practice that even his children had to set up a meeting with him to meet him. This turned Ann Marie into a radical. She was in search of a different style of life, where sharing and caring were more important than making money. Once, she invited me to dinner at her place and two of her housemates joined us at the dinner table. All of us held one another’s hands, kept silent for a minute to thank for having been blessed with food and a lovely company before having the bite. Ted Mophet was serving a term in the local penitentiary on charges of selling LSD and used to attend classes on Parole. He was very bright, fond of music and had a huge collection of LPs. We soon became very good friends and used to listen to music together at his apartment. He had a great talent in engaging people in conversation and I learned a lot from him. There were fascinating stories behind all these people and we constituted a low profile counter culture in Moscow. During the summer break when I was passing through the corridor Beth drew my attention to a lecturer’s vacancy in our department and asked me to apply for this position. I have no work permit, I said. “There is no harm in applying”, said Beth. I applied for the job and was selected against other PhD candidates. Michael, Max and John wrote excellent recommendation letters for me.

 

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