Howard Zinn: from Pakistan with love and respect

The Zinn magic. Photo: Beena Sarwar

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of a cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness”

– Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn’s death on Jan 27 came as a shock to his friends and admirers around the world. The iconic historian, activist, and academic (Professor Emeritus, Boston University) was 87, frail, but in reasonable health. He had a heart attack while swimming, an activity he loved. As Arundhati Roy put it when she called his old friend David Barsamian of Alternative Radio: “Howard lived a glorious life and accomplished so much and to die swimming — what a way to go”.

Howard Zinn, Cambridge, Oct 2006 (photo: BJ Bullert)

David writes that Howard had rented a place with a swimming pool near the ocean for three weeks and “was thrilled to be escaping the dreaded Boston winter.”

A fluent Urdu/Hindi speaker, David sent this note to friends: “A light has gone out. There are new lights to be lit,” adding the following verse from Iqbal’s poetry:

Sitaron se aage jahan aur bhi hain
abhi ishq ke imtehan aur bhi
(Beyond these stars there are other galaxies
The real test of love is yet to come)

In November when he visited Howard David noticed a mug in his kitchen with these words: ‘Sooner or later the American people are going to wake up’ – Emma Goldman, Detroit 26 Nov 1919. “

It was going to be my lead question to him in the interview we were going to do,” wrote David. “I was to have left here on Thurs to join him.” (Howard died on Wednesday)

David sent a link to his radio tribute to Howard adding, “Please listen and of course feel free to distribute. It’s about 30 minutes.” His note ended rousingly: “Onward/Adelante/Howard Zinn Presente!”

Jack introducing the Eqbal Ahmad book launch and panelists. R-L – Chomsky, Margaret Cerullo, Stuart Schaar & me.

The book that Jack launched (at HLS)

We had been in email contact for some time but I met David for the first time at the launch of Eqbal Ahmad’s collected essays published posthumously by Columbia University Press in September 2006. The launch took place subversively at Harvard Law School – subversively because HLS is a rather conservative place where the views of people like Eqbal Ahmad and his friends and comrades – David Barsamian, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky to name some – are rarely heard (particularly in the context of the Middle East, Palestine, Israel). But some pockets of resistance exist in those gilded halls. They include John Trumpbour (Jack), Research Director at Labor & Worklife Program, Harvard Law School.

There was pin drop silence as Chomsky spoke in his characteristic low key way

Jack, who organised the launch, invited me to be on the panel (I was then a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Kennedy School). David flew in from Colorado for the launch. Noam Chomsky, a long-time friend of Eqbal’s, gave the main speech. (I sent my report on the event reproduced at Pakistaniat to Howard – he replied: “That’s a lovely story, with wonderful photos!”)

Chomsky was of course also an old friend of Howard Zinn’s. In an email responding to my note of condolence he wrote: “It is a sad moment, not just personally, but for wide circles far beyond his family and many friends. A really remarkable person, just as you say, as well as a close personal friend for many years.”

Jack recalls his last meeting with Howard, whom he had invited to teach at a class at the Harvard Trade Union Program in January, just a couple of weeks earlier. “Howard had lost some significant weight in the last year, but he was energetic and engaging as always. He showed a lot of clips from the new history movie he helped make, including appearances by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.”

Jack and Howard: photo by Canadian labor leader Nancy Hutchison, taken on Jan 15, after Howard finished teaching the Program.

“Many people know about Howard’s peace activism, but fewer know about his efforts to reach workers and the labor movement,” comments Jack.

“Howard had a lot of issues with serious back pain during the past year, and he had some significant medical attention for this. He indicated that he was doing better, though not great… There have been some fine tributes to Howard. And the bloggers at the nasty right-wing website of David Horowitz have sneered at him, which is to be expected.

“…This is a sad day for us all, but we are hoping Howard’s tireless advocacy for peace might inspire others in 2010 to build a movement that can stop the madness, madness which includes Obama’s support for more global interventions.”

“I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble” – Howard Zinn in his autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (1994).

Cambridge, Oct 2006: Howard and B.J (photo: Beena Sarwar)

Jack was indirectly responsible for my own meeting with Howard Zinn, in October 2006. In May that year, he had put BJ Bullert, a documentary filmmaker in Seattle, WA in touch with me. She was interested in finding out more about the Tarbela Dam (her father had been an engineer there and she had lived in Pakistan as a 13-year old) and issues of displacement (That is another story).

When BJ visited Cambridge in October 2006, we met for the first time since we had started corresponding. Later, when going to meet Howard, her old teacher, she invited me also. I was thrilled, and took along my copy of his inspirational, best selling book ‘A People’s History of the United States’. The book, currently #4 on the NYT non-fiction best-seller list, has sold more than a million copies and “redefined the historical role of working-class people as agents of political change” (as the LA Times obituary put it).

Howard autographs my copy of People’s History…

… and graciously makes me sign my offering (photos: BJ Bullert)

We sat outside in the little courtyard at Dunkin’ Donuts opposite the Kennedy School and talked, and joked. He graciously signed my copy of his book and even more graciously asked me to sign a copy of a book I gave him, ‘Dispatches from a Wounded World, (BlueEar & BookSurge, USA & UK, December 2001, to which I had contributed a chapter, ‘The Hijacking of Pakistan’, pushed by Ethan Casey). We joked, bantered and exchanged ideas. Jack turned up later to join us. Howard then had another appointment and we all went on our own ways. But we kept in touch.

Howard was prompt to endorse the ‘Academics’ Statement Of Support For Dr Ayesha Siddiqa’ in June, 2007, after the Musharraf government attempted to intimidate Ayesha following the publication of her book ‘Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’. The establishment pressurised the Islamabad hotel where the launch was scheduled to cancel the event. Ayesha’s phone service was disrupted as she gave interviews and she felt increasingly isolated and physically threatened.

The statement reminded the Musharraf administration “that the whole world is watching. The aspirations of the vast majority of the Pakistani people are inclined towards democracy and freedom of expression. It is obstructing these aspirations that will ‘derail the nation from its path of progress and prosperity’ to use a phrase from the press statement issued after the corps commanders meeting.”

Howard was generous in his appreciation for an oped I wrote for the Boston Globe about Pakistan’s struggles a couple of weeks later, saying it gave him “a clearer picture of what is going on in Pakistan, which of course I cannot get in the media.” (I think he meant the ‘mass media, particularly television, because after all, the Globe is media…).

In December 2007, I emailed BJ, Jack and Howard when David Barsamian visited to Pakistan for the Eqbal Ahmad Distinguished Lectures and needed some contacts. “Somebody ought to make a film about David,” quipped BJ.

David Barsamian at T2F (1.0) with Sabeen and Zak listening to an audience comment (March 2008). Photo: beena sarwar

Howard replied playfully, “BJ, a film on David Barsamian is a great idea. You will interview me and I will tell the world what a scoundrel he is. But seriously, you should do it! He deserves it, scoundrel that he is.”

In April 2008, the indefatigable e-campaigner Isa Daudpota emailed a Zinn quote to his mailing list, formatted as a poster that he had put up on his office door:

We need Civil Disobedience!

“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that numbers of people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running and robbing the country. That’s our problem.”

~Howard Zinn

“Well, that’s nice news about the poster! In Islamabad!” exclaimed Howard when I forwarded it to him.

I visited Cambridge soon afterwards. His wife was ill and he tried to stay home as much as possible. But he added cheerily, “Hope you come back and we’ll have another chance to get together.”

I learnt in September from David that she had passed away soon afterwards. In response to my note of condolence Howard replied: “Roz was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in July of 2007, had six very good months, refusing surgery and chemotherapy, then declined and died in May. lt’s hard, but I’m doing okay.”

Married in 1944, they were inseparable until Roz’s death in 2008. She was also an activist, and Howard’s editor. “I never showed my work to anyone except her,” Bob Herbert quoting him as saying, in his obituary for the NYT.

Howard’s energy was amazing. Shattered by his wife’s passing away, himself well over 80 years old, he continued to write, give talks and interviews. He also embraced new ways of getting the word out, as evident with the publication of ‘A People’s History of American Empire’, the comic book version of “The People’s History of the United States” in 2008 that combines cartoons, historical documents and photos, “making the whole thing visual, dynamic, and absolutely captivating,” as one review put it.

The last email I got from him was about yet another exciting project to spread these ideas and awareness, through the documentary, THE PEOPLE SPEAK. He sent an email out to his contacts about the screening of this film, “directed-produced by Chris Moore, Anthony Arnove, myself, with a great cast of readers and performers. That will be Sunday evening, Dec. 13, 8 PM (7 PM Central) on the History Channel.”

A must-read for any Zinn fan is ‘the most dangerous man in America’ Daniel Ellsberg’s riveting tribute. He recounts that he first met Howard Zinn at Faneuil Hall in Boston in early 1971, “where we both spoke against the indictments of Eqbal Ahmad and Phil Berrigan” for “conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger”. He recalls how Howard (who had been arrested in D.C.) returned to Boston for a rally and a blockade of the Federal Building, and was the last speaker at a large rally in Boston Common being addressed over loudspeakers.

Ellsberg writes: ‘Twenty-seven years later, I can remember some of what he said. “On May Day in Washington, thousands of us were arrested for disturbing the peace. But there is no peace. We were really arrested because we were disturbing the war.”

At the end, he said: “I want to speak now to some of the members of this audience, the plainclothes policemen among us, the military intelligence agents who are assigned to do surveillance. You are taking the part of secret police, spying on your fellow Americans. You should not be doing what you are doing. You should rethink it, and stop. You do not have to carry out orders that go against the grain of what it means to be an American.”

He paid for his words the following day when he was singled out for manhandling and arrest.

From Islamabad, Isa emailed the link to a series of recent interviews of Howard, titled ‘Remembering Howard Zinn’

As the legendary activist and author discussed in one of his final interviews, he wants to be remembered for “introducing a different way of thinking about the world,” and as “somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didn’t have before.”

Howard Zinn, wherever you are, know that there are people here too who will always celebrate your life and work and who mourn your passing away as a world citizen who cared for humanity above all and did indeed give people “a feeling of hope and power”.

Compilation of tributes and articles related to Howard Zinn, including his own works, at the Howard Zinn website.

Post script: Just came across Mahir Ali’s tribute to Zinn in Dawn, Feb 10, 2010: ‘Lessons from a past master‘ – “Every country would be well-served by a radical public intellectual of comparable erudition, commitment, wit and wisdom. Americans should be very proud of Howard Zinn.”

6 Responses

  1. Lovely post.
    I have read little by Zinn but have heard him on DemocracyNow!
    I was also surprised recently when I watched him make a small appearance in the semi-documentary – The American Ruling Class (2005).
    How I wish some people were immortal.


  2. Howard Zinn was an exceptional human being and an inspirng personality. I wish I had known about him and had a chance to meet him when I was a student in the States in the sixties. It is heartening to learn that at least one Pakistani had personal association with him. I am sure that his students, friends and admirers all over the world will continue for the causes he struggled for most of his life. Abdullah


  3. My only encounter was in 1981 in the undergrad. history class at Austin. Since then I have never forgotten the name of Howard Zinn and the book ‘ A People’s History…’. It changed my perspective of looking at human history. It gave me the respect I felt for the vibrant people of America and their struggle. It edicted me to the richness of reading history as against a dry subject conveyed through high school texts.

    Above all, I learnt that there is always a part of history which is hidden from the eyes of present generation.
    Just one book, a very positive impact on my life.


  4. […] A little cardboard sign in the bucket marked “Donations” has yielded just a dollar. He’s not trying to make money. His girlfriend suggested he ask people for donations so he can buy more books. One book he’s going to get on my recommendation is the illustrated version of A People’s History of USA by one of his heroes, Howard Zinn. […]


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