Himal Interviews: The Abdus Salam story
By The Editors
7 January 2019
Podcast with Zakir Thaver, the co-producer of ‘Salam’, a documentary on the Pakistani physicist.
The legacy of theoretical physicist Abdus Salam (1926-1996) is controversial in his home country Pakistan. Remembered by some as the Nobel-prize winning scientist and a pioneer of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, Salam was also rejected for being a member of the community of Ahmedi Muslims, who have been persecuted for their faith. Officially declared non-Muslims by the Pakistani state, Ahmedis have faced violent attacks and risk imprisonment if they claim to be Muslims.
In our latest episode of Himal Interviews, we spoke to filmmaker Zakir Thaver who joined us from Karachi. Along with his friend Omar Vandal, Thaver co-produced a recent feature-length documentary on Abdus Salam and his legacy – both in the field of the sciences, as well as the world of politics. More than a decade in the making, Salam: The First ****** Nobel Laureate – the title is a reference to the obliteration of the word Muslim from Salam’s headstone at his grave – was screened in Colombo in December 2018. In this interview, he spoke to our Editor Aunohita Mojumdar on why the documentary cannot be screened in Pakistan, the dichotomy between Salam’s international fame and domestic rejection, and the challenges of getting archival footages from Tennessee to Seoul, and everywhere in between.
This is an unedited transcription from the podcast. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting from it.
Aunohita Mojumdar: Zakir Thaver thank you for joining us on the Himal Southasian podcast from Karachi. You’re the producer of the documentary ‘Salam’, on the Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam and we were really fortunate that we’ve managed to see it here in Colombo, where it was screened at Amnesty’s Art for Rights festival. This documentary can’t be viewed easily in Pakistan. Why is it so controversial there?
Zakir Thaver: Hi, thank you for having me. It’s controversial in Pakistan because the religious community to which Salam belonged which is the Ahmadi community was declared heretical by an act of Parliament in 1974 in Pakistan. So after which this community has been – well even before – but after which this community has been more rampantly persecuted in Pakistan, and members of it are vilified and so that’s the reason why film on an Ahmadi, however illustrious, is controversial in Pakistan. What also compounds the fact that Salam was the first Muslim to have won the Nobel Prize (and in Pakistan you can’t call him a Muslim, so much so that the word ‘Muslim’ has been whitened out of his epitaph which now reads the first Nobel Laureate, which obviously isn’t true.)
AM: So have you been able to show it at all in Pakistan?
ZT: Well, no broadcaster will carry it. In fact, two previous attempts to document Salam’s life were sabotaged, so not to the general public. We haven’t been able to submit it to any festivals here because the criteria for this year was films completed before a certain date which we didn’t match. If in principle we were to submit to film festivals, [there is a] high chance the film would not be accepted, it would be deemed too controversial to show here, so not to the general public – we have not been able to show it.
AM: But people have watched it in private settings?
ZT: We have been able to show it you know in closed door settings to a group of friends, but these are you know, a hand-picked group of cherry-picked friends – it’s preaching to the choir.
AM: The film is really poignant and it explores this dichotomy between the international public acclaim that Salam received, and the rejection of him and his faith within Pakistan. You are as we said the producer of the documentary, yet the term producer seems inadequate to describe your involvement with the making of this film. ‘The Salam’ was 14 years in the making and clearly a labour of love for you. Can you tell us something about this process?
ZT: Sure, so my fellow producer and dear friend Omar Vandal and I met in college in the US, and despite being aspiring film students from Pakistan we did not know much about Salam and we discovered Salam only after we read his obituary in the New York Times in the US and what became apparent immediately was the story had been kept from us and if the likes of ourselves who were rather well informed, intellectually curious, if we may say so ourselves, did not know about Salam, you know, the rest of Pakistan wouldn’t have access to his very inspirational story either and so that’s what motivated us initially to at least discover the power that the story had. You know the story of Ramanujan has inspired generations of Indian mathematicians and computer scientists, Marie Curie’s story inspired a whole generation of women to pursue science, which was then considered a male-dominated profession. Salam’s story had pretty much the same potential but remained largely untold. So that motivated us to tell the story, we re-convened in New York in 2004 and I think in a post 9/11 climate felt it would be relevant to tell the story of someone from our own culture, the story of an illustrious Muslim and so that’s what motivated us. We spent 14 years researching it before we brought on – or 12 years researching it and developing it before we brought on a director/editor and we got pretty obsessed with Salam and started uncovering everything there was on him so when it came time to recruit someone to edit and direct the story we had every single piece of archive on Salam, any time Salam spoke when a recording was on we pretty much had it. We scoured the world’s libraries, everywhere from Multan, Pakistan to Seoul, South Korea and everywhere in between. So we also did the research and developed the framework for the idea, but I think producers is pretty much an all-encompassing term but yes we’re also sort of listed in the end credits as the researchers of this documentary.
AM: Well It sounds like what you’ve uncovered can probably lead to several films on the subject. How were you able to access the incredible footage that you do use in the documentary?
ZT: Oh, it was extremely difficult. In Pakistan there’s no proper tradition of preserving archives so it just meant asking people for help, finding out who potentially in the US could have had recordings of Pakistani archives. The one thing that occurred to us while we were researching is that cataloguers or bloggers in the West might have misspelled Abdus Salam because it was an unfamiliar name. Some of the most interesting content we ended up with we found because we even Googled Adbus Salam, that’s A-d-b-u-s, deeming it a common misspelling, and even A-b-u-s Salam. We just got obsessive and looked in all directions, looked everywhere, searched high and low, recruited a whole number of people to help with the project, and of course progressives at universities across the US and the UK who had access to libraries and these great archives were also very willing to help.
AM: And did a considerable portion of the footage come from Pakistan itself?
ZT: Well, a considerable portion of the archives is from Pakistan but it didn’t really come from there. Places like the Associated Press had content from Pakistan and once copyright owners in Pakistan were willing to give us permission to use that content it became relatively easy to get the content from elsewhere. Vanderbilt University for example was recording TV news channels in the US from the 60s and they have it catalogued beautifully, and you could actually query specifically for content and then order the content in electronic format in a DVD or USB drive. There was a lot of PTV content used in these clips and once PTV gave permission to us to use this content we ended up getting it for an access fee from the various US networks who use PTV content, which is a good thing because the content is or at least some of it is preserved somewhere.
AM: Well I think it’s your obsession which probably overcame all these various hurdles that you’re describing or the film may not ever have been made. As you were saying, earlier attempts to make it were sabotaged. It’s ironic that you had to go outside Pakistan to access all this footage, because even within Pakistan Abdus Salam has been awarded with the nation’s honours while being rejected at the same time. Your film of course is a biopic of the famous physicist but at the same time it’s an extremely political film which uncovers how this one community is being treated by the state and by groups within Pakistan. One thing which I think came as a surprise to many of us who were at the screening of the film was the Q&A session in which we heard that even when you apply for a Pakistani passport, you have to actually declare that you think that the Ahmadi community is not a real Muslim community.
ZT: Yes that’s very sad actually, that was military dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s doing, he introduced what’s called Ordinance 20 in 1984 which criminalised Ahmadis posing as Muslims and yes one can’t get a passport in Pakistan as a Muslim unless you’re willing to sign a declaration that you are a Muslim and deem Mirza Ghulam Ahmad who is the founder of the Ahmadi community an impostor prophet, so yes it’s sad. What’s interesting is in 1954 when in Pakistan where there were disturbances in Lahore and there was an earlier attempt to declare the Ahmadis non-Muslims, these 2 judges Munir and Ayani who were commissioned to look into the disturbances of Lahore and they asked 10 religious scholars to define the minimum criteria one had to meet to be a Muslim. The responses were wildly divergent and if you looked at the definition of any one Islamic scholar, only that person would qualify as a Muslim and everyone else would be a Kafir. So it’s interesting how when the definition is inherently divergent and ambiguous and nebular there’s this attempt now to establish oneself as a Muslim by negating another as not Muslim.
AM: Zakir you were mentioning the Ordinance which is discriminatory against the sect of Muslims and of course recently in the news we have seen the blasphemy law and how people have responded to it. I think not just in Pakistan but all over large parts of Southasia, India included, violence from extremists, nationalists protected directly or indirectly by the state has been on the increase, targeting those who are speaking out and challenging extremisms. Documentaries such as yours also put its makers at risk, this must be something that you have considered?
ZT: Well we got into it knowing two prior documentaries on Salam had been sabotaged and we were also very mindful of the risks. So we stayed under the radar at least initially and we haven’t really come out with the film until now, it had to be made and I think as science students in the West, who had to go to the West to discover Salam we felt moved to tell the story and we started off when we were 14 years younger and I think as this young idealist when you discover that your state has kept a story from you, your knee jerk immediate reaction is to want to tell it yourself. We also hope that our audiences realised just what all Pakistan has lost out on, the shape of physics or even science in Pakistan would have been very different had Salam been allowed to affect or influence the direction of science here. What’s also sad is that what Pakistan lost out in physics – visibly Salam, it recently lost out in economics – visibly this other illustrious Ahmadi from Pakistan called Atif Mian who’s a professor of economics at Princeton and societies pay a price for prejudice, that’s something we also try to get across via the film. Pakistan has suffered tremendously because the religious right is averse to knowledge and given the day and age we live in, we simply can’t afford to just keep shooting ourselves in the foot, which is what Pakistan seems to be doing.
AM: Well it also sounds like there are many more films that you will need to make on all these different aspects and perhaps this is part of a larger tradition of challenging extremist views and the establishment support to it. With that we’ll bring this interview on a choppy line to Karachi to an end but we hope to have you on again sometime in the future. Thanks so much for joining us today.
ZT: Thank you so much for having me and my profound apologies for my choppy connection; my internet service provider is entirely to blame for it.