Report by: Ras H. Siddiqui

On Saturday, November 6, 1999 the Aligarh Muslim University Alumni Association (Northern California) held it's annual Sir Syed Day Banquet and International Mushaira (Urdu Poetry Recital) at the Mehran Restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area City of Newark. And in keeping with this tradition of celebrating the October 17th birthday of the Founder of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College at Aligarh in British India in 1877 (that became a University in 1920), more than three hundred people from Northern California showed up to pay homage to an individual to whom Muslims from both India and Pakistan are much indebted.

Syed Ahmed Khan, more affectionately known as Sir Syed, has not been with us in body for over a hundred years now. But his spirit and the movement that he started lives on and has had a profound impact on several generations of Indian and Pakistani Muslims. Out of the ashes of the crumbled Muslim Mughal Empire and its final defeat of 1857, which gave way to full British rule, this reformer rose to shake a people out of depression, self-pity and lethargy. He actually encouraged his people to work within the British system in India and showed them the progressive path of participation instead of self-imposed isolation. The one answer that he had for his community was that they should pursue a Western Education as soon as possible and learn from the British to build a future for themselves. And this was to be achieved without them giving up their Muslim identity. And if one looks at Indian/Pakistani history today, the affection with which Sir Syed is remembered in gatherings like these all over the world, one can deduce that his experiment was nothing short of a revolution.

This 182nd birth anniversary of Sir Syed in Newark, started off with a delicious banquet dinner with the help of South Asian Muglai cuisine. Amtul Suhail (excellent mistress of ceremony job this evening) first started by inviting Mr. Akram Khan to formally start the event with a recitation from the Holy Qur'an in the tradition of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). She also gave a short introduction on the aims and objectives of the evening and mentioned what a proud moment it was that people had all gathered here and recently in other parts of the world, to once again pay tribute to Sir Syed.

The AMU Alumni Association of Northern California President Dr. Shaheer Khan next thanked and welcomed everyone in Urdu. He added much information on the workings of the AMU association in the San Francisco Bay Area and it's success in helping the university in various ways, including with a scholarship program. Dr. Khan got a good response on his poetic delivery and verbal skills.

Muhammad Husain followed with a scholarly tribute to Sir Syed in English. He said that he was honored to be given this task of paying tribute to "a reformer, educator and great visionary". He dwelled into the modernist thinking initiated by Sir Syed and the movement that germinated around him in the late 1800's. Mr. Husain took us all on a historical journey in the backdrop of the life of Sir Syed, which was much, appreciated by an attentive audience. He went briefly into the many successful people that benefited from education at Aligarh and the impact that they made in various fields. He also said that it was time for all alumni to help Aligarh Muslim University from which they had gained so much.

Amtul Suhail next called Mr. Bilal Kidwai and Mr. Suhail Farrukh to introduce the Sir Syed Scholarship program. These former engineering graduates of Aligarh armed with their witty and positive humor were very popular with the audience. In their unique style they were able to successfully get the message of the scholarship program ($240 per pupil) across. They explained that 37 boys and girls from disadvantaged backgrounds have been awarded scholarships by the association this year. They also thanked everyone for their time and efforts.

Dr. Akhlaqur Rahman Kidwai was next called in as a special guest of alumni of Aligarh. Kidwai Sahib has been the head of the Chemistry Department and Chancellor of AMU, and has even had the opportunity to serve as Governor of the States of Bihar and West Bengal. Dr. Shaheer Khan called AMU Association patron Mr. Salam Qureishi to present a Certificate of Honor to Kidwai Sahib. In a short speech Kidwai Sahib expressed his happiness at the promotion of the Aligarh ideal, culture and character by groups like this association. He said that beyond the necessary education, the boarding/living arrangements at AMU were equally important because they taught cooperation and teamwork. He highlighted the fact that Aligarh had two eras of struggle. One at its inception at the time of Sir Syed and second after the Partition of 1947 when many educated people left (for Pakistan). He acknowledged the contributions of Dr. Zakir Hussain to the university in the post 1947 era.

The Chief Guest of the evening was Prof. Steven Poulos, Vice Chairman of the Center of South Asian Studies at U.C. Berkeley. The multilingual Professor who is comfortable with Urdu, Hindi and Sanskrit has spent two years at the Jubilee Hostel at VM Hall at Aligarh (1967-1969). Speaking in Urdu first and then switching over to English, Prof. Poulas expressed his nostalgic appreciation of his stay at AMU and shared several anecdotes with us. Needless to say Steven was amongst friends on this day who all share the high regard with which Sir Syed is still held in the realm of South Asian education.

The final part of this segment of the program was the singing of the Aligarh Anthem "Tarana-e-Aligarh" in which the participation of the ladies was significant. To quote the first line "Yeh Mera Chaman Hai Mera Chaman, Main Apnay Chaman Ka Bulbul Hoon" (This is My Garden, My Garden, I am the Bulbul-Song bird of My Garden).

The night ended on a festive note of Urdu poetry recited by local poets Anis Lucknowi and Prof. Noorul Hasan (Alig) along with the stars of literature today from India, Saghar Khayyami, Azhar Inayati and Shahryar plus Himayat Ali Shayer from Pakistan.

Thus was Sir Syed Day commemorated in Newark. It was great to see here seniors from both India and Pakistan (those few left) getting together to celebrate with the younger graduates of AMU, in which obviously there were no Pakistanis. But representing them were the children of old Aligarians like this scribe. My late father A. H. Siddiqui (AMU 1945) also carried the Aligarh spirit with him during his life. And thanks to the groups like the AMU Alumni association, this spirit of education and tolerance will remain alive well into the next millennium.