Syed Abdul Aziz’s story intrigued me.
Not only because he was my great, great-grandfather, not only because he changed destinies in that crossing from Calcutta, but because he was known to have come from Afghanistan.
I was intrigued by how little is documented about Afghans who dissolved into the homogenous identity now known as Indo-Trinidadian, who nonetheless appeared with insistent counter-narratives amongst handed-down family lore in the Muslim community.
Who were these Afghans? Why did they come? What routes did they travel? How could we, as their descendants, tell a tale from the new world to challenge contemporary global stereotypes?
What was the significance of the fact that Aziz sent his daughter, Ayesha, my great grandmother, to school in the first decade of the century, raising her to be literate in Arabic, Urdu and English? What is the significance of her living, working and praying in her orhini, never in hijab?
This daughter of an Afghan born, Muslim leader in Trinidad could tell us about an authenticity and tradition different from modern fundamentalist versions. And, what would that mean for me, and for other family who long defined ourselves by this legacy?
As I traced Aziz’s steps, seeking proof in colonial documents, each finding led to more questions, and I began to think less of his migrations than of my own rollercoaster of emotions as the old photos I hoped to scour were in some unidentified location in the Princes Town Regional Corporation, or as I finally, in sha’allah, reached the knowledge trove I sought.
Euphorically, I sat in Maulaana Mustapha Kemal Hydal’s balcony, my insides fluttering in Freeport’s breeze as much as the photocopy he held of Aziz’s auto-biography, written in Urdu, more than possibly in Aziz’s own hand, and given to Kemal by his mother’s uncle, Aziz’s son Yusuf. In all my searching for any of Syed Abdul Aziz’s own possessions, finally, this single page.
It says that Aziz was born in the Hazara district in the ward of Mansehra in India, said Kemal, who translated the page himself.
I was aghast. The planned book project falling from my fingertips like crystal shattering.
Yet pieces that had made no sense immediately fit together, such as why Aziz’s indentureship record said he was from Lahore, and why he held a post in the British army, with a monthly pay of 14 rupees, meals and uniform, in the second Anglo-Afghan war.
The family is Husaini, extending through 30 recorded generations to the Prophet Mohammed, said that single page. They left the Arabian peninsula in 728 C.E., settling in what was then India and is now Pakistan. No, said Kemal decisively, Aziz was not Afghan.
Marveling that one piece of paper could so dissemble my constructed sense of self, and wondering at how I spectacularly failed to anticipate this risk of journeying into the past, I struggled to accept that every reference I found, in books, on websites and in theses, all confirming the Afghan connection, was based on repetitive citations of an original misrepresentation. But, how could this be the first time we are hearing this, my mother skeptically asked, and why then did Ayesha herself talk about her father as Afghan?
Again, answers begetting questions.
That same day, as I was about to become more Indian than ever before, I learned that my father’s great grandfather, who came from Hyderbad, said his family was originally from Afghanistan. So too, an ancestor of my father’s mother.
Now wary of oral and published histories, even official records, I’m left with Afghan origins on all sides which I’ve no idea how to verify.
Could I be more Afghan than Syed Abdul Aziz himself? How ironic, even absurd. Such plot twists are not for the faint-hearted as I pursue this story’s final word.
*May 12, 1862 is Syed Abdul Aziz’s birthday, 153 years ago today.