Memories of a Ugandan Refugee: Encounters of Hope from Kampala to Vancouver by Jalal Jaffer, Q.C.
316 pp. FriesenPress
US$ 29.99 (Hardback), US$ 19.99 (Paperback) and US$ 6.99 (eBook) as listed at FriesenPress; also available in all formats at Amazon.ca, and as a Kobo eBook at Indigo.ca (CDN $7.99).
(We acknowledge, with thanks, the permission of the author Jalal Jaffer to reproduce the following foreword to his book — Ed.)
Foreword to “Memories of a Ugandan Refugee”
By FAROUK MITHA
“For Canadian Ismaili Muslim readers, Jalal has performed an invaluable service by writing this autobiography. It is an eyewitness account of how Ismaili communities established roots and built institutions from 1970s onward. Much of this historical record will soon be lost if it is not preserved. In this light, Jalal’s autobiography will become an important reference work when the history of Canadian Ismaili Muslims is written”
It is 1965 and Jalal Jaffer is on an airplane for the first time. He is flying from Kampala to London, to begin his University studies, and while airborne, he movingly describes his oscillating emotions:
“I stared out of the small window as the plane took off, anxious but not fearful, watching the flickers of light diminishing as the plane climbed higher above the clouds… I was leaving behind a world that I knew, a world of family and friends, a world that had nurtured me, and now entering a new world that I knew little about, a world without family, a world in which I would have to find new friends, a world in which I would live on my own… However, I did not have the slightest doubt about my purpose in pursuing higher education in London. I had an absolute obligation to help support my family and to take care of their financial needs. It was critical that I studied hard, completed my education and came back home. My family needed me… Besides, the financial support through the Imam’s [Ismaili Community] bursary program undoubtedly imposed additional expectations that I was obligated to fulfill. After completing my education, I would not only support my family, but also give back to the Jamat the benefit of my knowledge, my experience and wisdom.”
Human stories of departures and arrivals are not new, yet this vividly rendered autobiography carries the reader along with Jalal on a momentous, unpredictable journey across continents with unforgettable lessons in the art of living. Jalal captures not only the journey of an individual, but through the arc of his dramatic life he offers rich insights into the life/worlds of Ugandan South Asian communities, particularly communities who have been shaped by multiple migrations and experiences of statelessness. The above, prescient passage contains in a compressed way salient themes running through this autobiography, namely, tensions negotiated by Jalal between individual aspirations and demands of family duties; between emotional uncertainties accompanying experiences of cultural change and intellectual excitement accompanying experiences of cultural discovery; and perhaps most poignantly, between the struggle to nurture deep faith commitments for his inner life as an individual Ismaili Muslim and yet to equally nurture his commitments for a public life of active community service and to the legal profession in Canada.
“What has stayed with me indelibly after reading this book, is Jalal’s passionate voice. It is the voice of a passionate optimist, rooted in love for his faith traditions and for his spiritual guide, Hazar Imam, the 49th Imam of the Ismaili Muslim community”
I have known Jalal for almost three decades and in many ways see him as an exemplary mentor for the generation of Ismaili Muslims who, like me, migrated to Canada as teenagers in the early 1970s. For me the most enduring lessons from his life story reside in his example of self-belief and in his tireless curiosity. Jalal’s steely determination is palpable on almost every page, whether recounting his courageous response to a tragic, freak accident while playing at a neighborhood construction site in Kampala at the age of 6, which led to permanent disfigurement of his left arm; or when recounting how he and his wife, Shamshad, literally escaped out of Uganda in 1972, dodging one military checkpoint after another on the road to Entebbe airport, and finally departing with only two suitcases and fifty British pounds each; or when recounting that after several dead-end job opportunities in Toronto, he hunkers down and completes a law degree at UBC and is called to the Bar in 1978, while, remarkably, at the same time working as a full-time realtor in Vancouver and devoting most evenings serving voluntarily as a senior community leader for recently arrived Ismaili communities across Canada. These and many other continuing transitions in Jalal’s life are narrated in these pages. Fast forward to 2016, and the fact that he is awarded the title of Q.C. (Queen’s Counsel) by the Government of BC for his record of professional integrity and exceptional service as a lawyer – is a telling marker of how far Jalal has travelled by dint of hard work and as a selfless leader.
For Canadian Ismaili Muslim readers, Jalal has performed an invaluable service by writing this autobiography. It is an eyewitness account of how Ismaili communities established roots and built institutions from 1970s onward. Much of this historical record will soon be lost if it is not preserved. In this light, Jalal’s autobiography will become an important reference work when the history of Canadian Ismaili Muslims is written. In several chapters, there is significant archival material presented, excerpted from newspapers and his journal entries. Indeed, this autobiography makes an important contribution to the emerging archive of post-World War II, non-European migration into Canada.
What has stayed with me indelibly after reading this book, is Jalal’s passionate voice. It is the voice of a passionate optimist, rooted in love for his faith traditions and for his spiritual guide, Hazar Imam, the 49th Imam of the Ismaili Muslim community. Equally, it is the voice of a passionate family man, whose love for his wife, two sons and extended family is an abiding source of his happiness. This passionate voice comes across immediately in the many poems included in this book — poems written by Jalal across different stages of his life. By my lights, these four lines convey the kernel of Jalal’s life-affirming outlook:
We are not a wave —
Only a tiny part
Of the mighty sea.
Indeed, we are the sea!
A Review of Memories of a Ugandan Refugee
By ROBERT WILCOX SWEET
“Memories of a Ugandan Refugee” is quite simply a delight: rarely have I so enjoyed — or so benefitted from — a book. Anyone wishing to learn more about the Ismailis — that most magnificent and inspiring people — the expulsion of Asians from Uganda, and the great challenges emigrants face (particularly those who have had everything — their country, their community, their home and possessions, their job — taken from them), should read Jalal’s wonderful book.
Why in particular I found his book so fascinating: most of what Jalal and his wife, Shamshad, went through is quite beyond my experience — and even my imagination. What also struck me — indeed, amazed me — is Jalal’s great bonhomie, his great good nature in the face of difficulties under which most of us would simply wilt. (How inspirational that is! My difficulties seem — and are — so very small in comparison.) To arrive penniless in a new country and achieve the success he has achieved, is little short of miraculous. (And yet, what does he do the moment he arrives in Canada? He begins to give to, to help, others.)
The German historian Christian Meier wrote that Julius Caesar “viewed difficulties simply as tasks.” So, too, does Jalal. Better: Jalal views difficulties simply as adventures! The greatest compliment I can pay “Memories of a Ugandan Refugee” is that it is unique: I have never read another book quite like it. I am exceedingly grateful to Jalal for having written this book, for having taught and entertained me. (On entertained: Jalal has the most delightful writing style, unfailingly cheerful and witty — almost effervescent — no matter the situation he is describing.) I so wish I belonged to a book group: how I would love discussing this book with my fellow readers!
(For more reviews of Jalal Jaffer’s book as well as his profile, please visit his website by clicking HERE — Ed.)
Date posted: May 16, 2022.
Last updated: May 17, 2022 (added book review by Robert Wilcox Sweet)
Dr. Farouk Mitha, author of the foreword to “Memories of a Ugandan Refugee” reproduced above, is a lecturer and Research Affiliate in the Faculty of Education at University of Victoria, Canada. He is currently the Academic Director for the Postgraduate Research Fellowship Programme at Institute of Ismaili Studies. He has published in the area of medieval Islamic thought and on teaching Shakespeare, as well as on Canadian literature and Iranian cinema. His book, Al-Ghazali and the Ismailis: A Debate on Reason and Authority in Medieval Islam was published by I.B Tauris in 2001.
Robert Wilcox Sweet, author of the review, studied history and literature at Oxford University as an English Speaking Scholar, and Arabic and history in Syria as a Fulbright Scholar; he holds two master’s degrees. He is Senior Philanthropic Advisor to Aga Khan University and the author of ” Life Fighting: Why We Must Sometimes Fight, and How to Do So Well.”
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