FUAD NAHDI: AN APPRECIATION

By Professor Mohamed Bakari

Fuad Nahdi (1957-2020), a prominent British Muslim journalist, died in London on the 21st of March 2020. Barely an hour after he died, I received a phone call from my son Omar Mohamed Saggaf, breaking the news to me that Fuad had passed away barely an hour ago. Half an hour earlier he had called to let me know that Uncle Fuad was critically ill in the ICU. That Omar should immediately notify me about Fuad’s condition at the hospital with such suddenness implied that this time his hospitalization was more serious than at any other time.

He had been checking on him through his children and other closest members of his family. Omar was almost a member of the Fuad family, and he had a reason to care. Fuad had been checking in and out of hospital for over a decade, debilitated by an acute case of diabetes, which, a stoic that he was, you could never detect on his face. He was always gracious and cheerful, even under the circumstances, to his many importuning friends like us. A number of times I was his guest in their modest residence at Harrow, in North London, he dragged me along to his hospital appointments so that we could spend together the precious little time we had together in my fleeting visits there, with the ever cheerful Humera driving us around and then, in tow to ensure that he does not break any of the strict food regimes that diabetics had to live by. Fuad would stuff himself with biryani, disserts, the Subcontinent’s tea laced with condensed milk, using us his visitors as an alibi to indulge himself forbidden delectables. When Humera protested, we came to his rescue by interjecting that Fuad was just keeping us company in a way an indulgent host just should.

Fuad had been checking in and out of hospital for over a decade, debilitated by an acute case of diabetes, which, a stoic that he was, you could never detect on his face.

Omar had every reason to be concerned about Fuad and care about him. He knew Fuad as long as he has lived, from the time he was a toddler in Nairobi. As a student at the University of Nairobi where Fuad was majoring in economics, together with almost all other coastal students, I made a deliberate attempt to reach out to them. The group was manageable, so we would organize sumptuous weekend lunches at home for both male and female students. I myself was a struggling young PhD with an unreasonable brood of kids for a young man of my modest earnings. The students adopted my kids and in turn the kids stuck with them to their adulthood. Anyone who knew Fuad well enough will tell you how joyful he was with kids, and for that matter all kids. I think he was at his happiest when he could plant a smile on their faces, and they loved for that. He had the complete knack of transforming himself into one of a kind. He would roll with them, laugh with them and run around until he himself was exhausted. Omar and Abdulkarim, and their elder sisters adored Fuad. For as long as Fuad lived in Nairobi they were a part of his joyous little crowd. Then Fuad left then suddenly, as he did to us on the 21st of March.

I myself was a struggling young PhD with an unreasonable brood of kids for a young man of my modest earnings. The students adopted my kids and in turn the kids stuck with them to their adulthood.

Fuad was basically a minimalist in his habits, in his clothing and possessions. One day he let me know that he had got this opportunity to audit a series of short journalism courses, punctuated by internship at the Muslim Institute in London. This was the brainchild of none other than the burly and outspoken Muslim intellectual, Dr. Kalim Siddiqui, the Pakistani British self-made journalist, with a doctorate in political science from University College, London. Sensing himself as a minority, a rare Muslim journalist, and conscious of the central role of this profession in the Information Age, there was an urgent need to groom a generation of Muslim journalists to put the Muslim voice in the public space. While tuition was going to be provided for free, interested young ambitious wannabe journalists had to find private means of fending for themselves. Typical of Fuad, he impulsively took the plunge and headed to London, leaving everything to Allah to sort him out.

Fuad Nahdi (1957-2020)

To support himself in London, Fuad took to cab driving after learning thoroughly the intricate network of roads and streets of this megacity. The internalization of that network was quite a feat for a young man brought up in much simpler places like Dar-es-salaam, Mombasa and Nairobi. Fuad divided his time between his work and his apprenticeship. Not that Fuad came from an impoverished background. Far from it. He came from a family of hardworking Hadharim, just a few generations out of the Yemeni outback, to seek their fortunes in East Africa. Fuad’s extended family include the richest urban land owners in Kenya, headed by the introvert Sheikh Swaleh Nguru (Swaleh Nahdi), a grand uncle and an astute businessman with the Medusa touch.

Swaleh Nguru made his fortune by monopolizing the dry-shark (the nguru part of his name means shark in Swahili) franchise, and made it his niche, later breaking into construction and real estate after accumulating enough capital. Literate only in Arabic, fluent in Swahili and with only madrassa education, he integrated his sons into the new gig economy that was developing in the newly independent republic of Kenya. Many of his descendants now hold college degrees and leading quite affluent lives without flaunting their material blessings. A generous and God-fearing philanthropist, Swaleh Nguru built mosques and succoured the indigent and the helpless. Fuad’s father himself was a successful businessman in Dar es Salaam before he was afflicted with a cardiac problem, which forced him to relocate near his close relatives in Mombasa, and to avail himself of the far better medical facilities than were available in Nyerere’s impoverished peasant dystopia.

Abdallah, Fuad’s father, died in Mombasa at exactly his son’s age. Fuad preferred, like a good Hadhrami Muslim brother, to leave everything to his sisters, while focusing his distant eye on his sisters’ husbands just to let them know that he might be way out in London, but he is still looking! His brothers-in-law have an affectionate spot for his personality, his humour, his seemingly reckless ‘do not care what the world thinks of me’ freewheeling attitude and persona. Yet this was far from what the real Fuad was.

Fuad completed undergraduate studies in economics at the University of Nairobi and could easily have landed an easy job with plenty of opportunities for corruption and extortion, within the Kenyan behemoth of a bureaucracy, but opted to do what a Hadhrami worth his salt will never do, become a seasoned journalist, and chasing after other people’s news and gossip. Fuad proved his mattle by doing just that. In Dr. Kalim Siddiqui Fuad found a mentor and an embarrassing uncle. At that time, Dr. Siddiqui was set up as the bad boy of British Islam, a bugbear that the mainstream British media at Fleet Street could always pull out to scare the wits out of the tabloidetariat, and the far right with their fascist leanings.

Dr. Siddiqui took the Afro-Arab under his wings and showed Fuad how to play the English marionette. Fuad fine-tuned the art of scaremongering and activism from his newfound surrogate father. Wanting to further his journalistic career, he saw himself through the recently founded City University, within London, which was already establishing its reputation as the centre of excellence in journalism studies. It was fashioning itself as the British version of New York’s Columbia School of Journalism. In this it was breaking the old British mode of doing journalism as something you acquired by apprenticing yourself to one of the local newspapers, starting out as a tea-boy and climbing up gradually to a cub-reporter and finally taken in as a full-time employee.

City University was doing things the American way, studying journalism methodically and scientifically, just as the American had left behind the kind of journalism that was practiced by H.L. Mencken, the iconoclastic 1930s Baltimore Sun polemicist and Germanophile. That stint at City University completely shaped his journalistic outlook, and also provided him with a wide network in the global journalism world. It equipped him with all the skills and tools of a postmodern journalism. Later this network was to enable him to be stringer and a freelancer for such venerated news outlets as The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Independent, Reuters, AFP, Associated Press, and other less well-known channels.

Fuad Nahdi was the éminence grise of British Islam. The founding figure of modern British Muslim media, Fuad and the talented young journalists he mentored at Q-News (1992–2006), helped to define “British Muslims” and “British Islam” in the 1990s- Yahya Birt

Fuad’s rather bohemian excesses were moderated only when he met the sharp-witted and articulate Humera Khan, the Pakistani British future wife of his. In a sense, this was certainly a marriage made in heaven. They were both young idealists hellbent on social amelioration. Armed with a degree in social work, Humera plied her idealism at Tower Hamlet, a Bengali enclave in the heart of London, where, in one fateful visit Fuad manipulated me into giving a lecture there in some nondescript room, just so that he could have ample time just staring at Humera rather than listening to me. In 1989, on an invitation to give a presentation at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, the visit coincided with the Fuad and Humera wedding. I was delighted that I was able to join in the festivities of this dear friend. The arrangements were beyond my expectations. I had thought that I would be one of a handful of guests at the Civil Registry Office to witness the signing of the marriage contract, only to find that it was a full-blown affair. At the colourful wedding, Fuad, came out in a faux Omani garb and Humera, in Pakistani eye blinding glitter, with mirrors and all. It was quite a razzmatazz. The crowd in attendance was cosmopolitan, racially diverse and sophisticated, a testament to the life the couple intended, in future, to throw their lot in.

I was honoured by being asked to read something from the Qur’an, which I did, chose the appropriate verses for the occasion, from Surah Rum. Although Humera wore, and continues to wear kamiz-sharwal, her mindset is thoroughly British, complete with cut-glass English accent. Fuad and Humera were inseparable, until death did them part on 21st March 2020. They were blessed in many ways and planned wisely for two adorable kids that they nurtured with love, compassion, with some sternness from Humera and plenty of scoundrel time with Fuad. They turned out right, Nadir graduating from the University of Bath and Elyeh earning a degree in Linguistics from SOAS, her father’s alma mater. In the midst of all this effort to settle down, Fuad had already enrolled for a master’s degree in Area Studies at SOAS. Here he was able to expand his network of contacts, adding academics to his journalistic network. This was an astute move for someone who was planning to assimilate into the British middle class, for without credentials from reputable and established centres of academic excellence, it would have been difficult to be taken seriously. Outside the Oxbridge nexus, the University of London was a nice address.

Fuad’s upbringing in East Africa, and especially his education in Kenya, played an important role in his intellectual and social formation. Many people in Britain are unaware that the late Fuad picked his predilection for activism and abiding love for the underdog, and especially a Muslim underdog (don’t chuckle), during his stint at the University of Nairobi. This was a bustling and exciting intellectual place at the time Fuad was going to school there. His teachers included the world-famous Kenyan novelist, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o who taught Fuad Literature in English. At the time, Ngugi headed what was then Department of English, before he decolonized it; Prof Ahmed Muhiddin, a political scientist with a flair for things Marxist, and an advisor to Julius Nyerere; Prof. Mohamed Hyder, a world renown endocrinologist studying the tilapia, the denizens of Lake Victoria. The famous Nobel laureate for Peace and the most famous female environmentalist, Wangari Mathai was teaching animal anatomy out at the Kabete Campus, but a frequent visitor to the main campus in the heart of the Nairobi.

Many people in Britain are unaware that the late Fuad picked his predilection for activism and abiding love for the underdog, and especially a Muslim underdog (don’t chuckle), during his stint at the University of Nairobi.

Fuad immersed himself fully in the academic, political and social activities of the university. He was the Chairman of the University of Nairobi Muslim Student Association, and also belonged to the coastal tribal organization, Coast Students Association, just to keep in touch with his non-Muslim classmates and college mates. Out in Nairobi, he was active as a member of Young Muslim Association, a Muslim NGO doing active charity work among the Somali and Orma/Borana/ of the North Eastern Province, a region that shares the Kenyan border with Somalia and Sothern Ethiopia. He also published a student newsletter; was often asked to speak at the Salafi-organized World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) retreats. This was a Saudi ideological outfit fronting their ideology in the guise of spreading Islam. During school breaks he travelled back to Mombasa to spend time with Mom, when he was not organizing political campaigns for young local politicians. I know for certain that he organized and paid for hecklers to shout down his favourite candidate’s nemesis; he did all these things with panache. Of course, his cousin and college mate and friend, Khalid Daghar emerged the winner. A Chemistry graduate, he became an active Mombasa Municipal Councilor; did not take to politics well, however fun campaigning was, and is currently permanently settled in Toronto, with two daughters, one the only Hadhrami I know who holds a degree in Judaic Studies and Hebrew, from McGill University, just for the fun of it. These point to the roots of Fuad’s dalliance with interfaith preoccupations.

Fuad’s last real work in Kenya was a relatively short stint with the Islamic Foundation, Nairobi. He was given the grand title of Executive Officer, just as a nod to Kenyanization of jobs, then required through government directive. In reality, it was a retirement sanctuary for the Maulana Maududi proteges keeping guard of the manna dropping from Riyadh. However, to be fair to them, they managed to publish the Swahili translation of the Qur’an done by the then Chief Kadhi of Kenya, Sheikh Abdallah Swaleh Farsy. At least the job kept Fuad going for a couple of months before fleeing from those ideological clutches.

Fuad was to start what was the first nationally and internationally established Muslim New Magazine that appealed to the informed and the educated. Not having enough funding to pay contributors, he depended on the communal spirit of young Muslim intellectuals in realizing his dream of editing a serious magazine with a touch of humour while still addressing serious issues affecting Muslims both locally and internationally. He had contacts from all over the world from whom he could call upon to contribute a column. I had at the time just taken up appointment in Turkey. I remember him looking for me desperately for me on two occasions, wanting me to contribute to one of the numbers. One afternoon in 2003, taking a break at university while attending a public lecture by Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the distinguished Iranian American academic, I went to check my email only to find a note from Fuad requesting me to write something on Edward W. Said, the famous Palestinian American professor at Columbia, who had just passed away, after a long battle with cancer, for his magazine, Q-News. I promptly went to break the news of Professor Said’s death and started thinking what aspect to write to a general audience. The other occasion was the bombing of the British Consulate in Istanbul. He also called me to request an article which I promptly sat down to write after doing the requisite research. I was later to contribute occasionally whenever prodded by Fuad.

I last visited Fuad and Humera in 2014, when he last escorted me to the new British Library when I was an invited speaker to African Writers Conference, studded by Caine Prize contenders from all over Africa. Fuad was decked out in his signature red Libyan skull hat, and his imperious flowing West African or Maghribi agbada. Ironically, I never saw him putting on the more aesthetically appealing East African kofia. It was on this last visit too, that he gave me a copy of

Fuad Nahdi had one flaw. He had an abiding desire to please all friends and acquaintances and often promised to do things for them, which later overwhelmed him because he over stretched himself, the result was that he was constantly on phone and behind schedule. Twice did he make me late for appointments in London, but when people saw me with Fuad in tow, they knew the reason for my lateness to those appointments and I was forgiven!

It was on that last meeting, too, when he pulled from his bookshelf a copy of Rowen Williams’ Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (The Making of the Christian Imagination). This was one of the two copies of the book that he had been personally given by the author, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Anglican luminary was a personal friend of Fuad’s for well over a decade, and every time we drifted into discussions about interfaith matters he would mention him. He very much insisted that next time I was in London, he should make arrangement to book an appointment to visit him in Cambridge. This, unfortunately, was never to happen. I, however, have a cherished copy of the prelate’s book in my private library at the university. Knowing me as an incurable bibliophile, Fuad made sure that I did not leave his office or residence without a book that I should read and enjoy every time I was his guest. He would first ask if I had not read a particular book he wanted to give me before making his gesture.

I had spent two decades in Istanbul, teaching in Universities there. Did you know that Fuad was friends with Erdogan? At that time, the mercurial Tayyip was still mayor of Istanbul and had not yet done time for reciting a political poem to the secularists that they did not like. I had often to go and meet and spend time with Fuads’ friends I did not at first know. They came from Canada, Europe, Africa, the Far East, and of course different parts of Britain.

May Allah forgive Fuad Nahdi all his failings as a human being and rest his soul in eternal peace. Ameen. And may Allah give Humera and her children the strength to bear this terrible loss.

This article has been published here with the full permission of the author Prof. Mohamed Bakari, Vice-Chancellor, Raf International University, Kisaju, Kajiado County, Kenya. No part of it may be republished or otherwise without the author’s consent.

© Prof. Mohamed Bakari

Featured cover photo

African Writers Conference, British islam, Caine Prize, Fuad nahdi, Hadhrami, Maulana Maududi, Minority, ngugi wa Thion'go


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