Memories of a Ugandan Refugee: Encounters of Hope from Kampala to Vancouver By Jalal Jaffer, Q.C.
336 pp. FriesenPress, 2022
US$ 29.99 (Hardcover), US$ 19.99 (Paperback) and US$ 6.99 (eBook) as listed on the publisher’s website FriesenPress; also available at Amazon.ca (Hardcover, C$ 33.70; Paperback, C$ 26.57; Kindle C$ 8.91); and at Indigo.ca (as a Kobo Ebook for C$ 8.99). Note: Various formats of the book may sell for less. Please also see Jalal Jaffer’s website for more options to purchase.
[Nizar Motani’s review of Jalal Jaffer’s Memoirs comes to us for publication close to the 50th anniversary of the announcement on August 4, 1972 by Idi Amin to expel Asians from Uganda; the decree took effect on August 9th. The early major settlement of the first group of Ugandan Asians in Canada has been listed by Carleton University’s special Uganda Asian’s project as follows: Vancouver (1,034); Montreal (480); Toronto (440); Winnipeg (205); and Ottawa (124) — Ed.]
BOOK REVIEW BY NIZAR MOTANI, PhD
Being a diarist since his schooldays; a gifted writer and a poet; a voracious reader; a disciplined life of service, gratitude and contentment with its rewards; and a firm belief that the Divine hand has always been on his shoulder, Jalal Jaffer would be expected to chronicle an exceptional memoir. And he has done it splendidly!
His life story is centered on three overlapping, intertwining, love stories, which beautify and fortify each other. The first love story is about the wonderful family he was born into and his abiding deeply reciprocal love for his parents and eight siblings.
Besides his biological family, he developed a special bond with his spiritual father, the present 49th hereditary Shia Imami Ismaili Muslim Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan IV. However, its foundation was serendipitously laid in his predecessor’s spiritual rein, when the 48th Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan III, named him Jalaluddin, at age sixteen days, during his visit to Kisumu, Kenya, in 1945!
The final love story is about his own biological family, in Vancouver, Canada, after his marriage with Shamshad P.K. Pirani, which remarkably was performed by the 49th Imam, in February 1972, at Kampala, Uganda, Jamatkhana — just six months before Idi Amin’s mass Asian Expulsion order of August 4.
Jalaluddin’s name got shortened to Jalal, who has “tried to traverse through life with prayers and conviction that the Divine hand is, and has always been, on my shoulders to help me, guide me and protect me” (p. 1X). The Divine hand can be seen throughout his autobiography. It came to his rescue when he seriously injured his left hand in an accident, at age six, helping to turn this tragedy into a lifelong triumph, which enabled him to excel at everything; it was at the hotel in Bangkok where two young students he kindly invited into his hotel room to learn about their lives and dreams for the future, instead they drugged and robbed him but could not kidnap or kill him; it was evident at the beach in Karachi where he and his young son, Jamil, could have drowned; and throughout his and his family’s lives.
The Foreword by Dr. Farouk Mitha and The Prologue by the author whet the readers’ appetite for the thirty-three chapters that follow. In the interest of brevity this review will highlight only the most salient aspects of the three love stories, mentioned earlier.
His abiding love for his families (parents’ and his own) is poetically portrayed in Chapter 29: Loving Family and Friends, and Chapter 32: Encounters. ”My encounter with my parents must rank as the most impactful experience and the highest form of learning in my life” (p 299). His biological father passed away at the age of 96. At the lunch after the funeral, Alwaez Sultanali Nazerali delivered a poignant eulogy describing Ali Jaffer Esmail as a saintly person: “an angel in human form”. Jalal has beautifully translated and summarized it in English (p. 297).
Since their auspicious February 20, 1972 marriage, Shamshad, his beloved “Sham”, and the author, Jalal, have been on many adventurous honeymoons. In a poem titled The Lioness’ Journey, he shares his special love and appreciation for Sham, his bride, wife and partner (p.178-180). Such poetic expressions of his love, for all, appear frequently enhancing the value of this alluring autobiography.
An equivalent of a professional knighthood, Queen’s Counsel (Q.C.), was conferred on him in 2016. It was a great honor and he can and does proudly exhibit it. However, his heart was given to seva (service), in any capacity, at any level, to his murshid (his spiritual leader, the Aga Khan) and to his fellow murids (devotees).
To his amazement, he was blessed with eighteen years of seva at local, national, and international levels (1987-2005). “I was far from exhausted, but my cup was full. I had been blessed to have had these enormously important leadership positions for such a long period…shukar” (p. 210).
For his seva in “these enormously important leadership positions,” which were Imamat-appointed, he reaped enormous “once in a lifetime” meva (reward/blessing, recognition): an invitation to the majestic Diamond Jubilee Homage Ceremony at Aiglemont, France, on July 11, 2017, followed by special seating at the Darbar in Lisbon, Portugal, on July 11, 2018. Both these historic events inevitably moved Jalal to capture his feelings and thoughts in two trademark poems.
Chapter 24: Politics, describes his “insatiable appetite for world affairs and politics” from his childhood days. Of all the conflicts and turmoil engulfing the world, he was sufficiently outraged by the Israeli brutality and inhumanity towards the defenseless Palestinians in the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip. This led him to chide the “chosen people’ in a “short poem” called I Wonder (p. 220-221). It is a subtle poem but readers will judge its “length” as Jalal’s concept of “short” and “a few words” is uniquely his own!
Two paragraphs to indicate his and his bride’s love, friendship, and respect for their friends will end this not-so-short a review. Chapter 31 captures the astonishing natural beauty of Khorog, Tajikistan, and the surrounding Pamir Mountains and some of its inhabitants. They were guests of Shamim and Iqbal Talib who for almost a decade were engaged in boosting the local economy and had established a spacious second home with ideal accommodation for the rare guests who venture out to Khorog. The Talibs’ unforgettable hospitality competed with the high mountains, and the Jaffers left with fabulous memories and new knowledge of this exotic Ismaili enclave.
However, on another occasion of honoring friendships, he was distinctly derailed when some friends asked him to emcee the wedding of their children. He remembers saying “a few words” that he has recounted over seven meandering pages (271-278)! His captive audience may have endured or even enjoyed his “few words” but his readers could skim through this aberration and enjoy the rest of this memorable memoir.
Date posted: July 30, 2022.
Last updated: July 31, 2022.
Correction: In our earlier version of this post, the title of the book was incorrectly referred to as “Memoirs of a Ugandan Refugee….”; the correct title is “Memories of a Ugandan Refugee….” which is now reflected in this latest update of the post.
Nizar A. Motani has a doctorate from the University of London (SOAS) in African history, specializing in British colonial rule in East Africa. He has been a college professor at Bowdoin College (Brunswick, ME) and Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, MI). He was the first Publication Officer at the Institute of Ismaili Studies (London, UK). He now lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
Dr. Motani’s previous pieces on Simerg and its sister website Barakah are:
- Book Review: “Humanizing Medicine Making Health Tangible” – Memoirs of Engagement with the Aga Khan Development Network
- Simerg: Book Review of Mansoor Ladha’s Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing East Africa for the West
- Barakah: The Aga Khan – From an Ismaili Muslim Imam to a Global Citizen and Virtual Head of States
- Barakah: The Talks, Titles, Treaties and Walks of the Aga Khan IV: Glimpses of his “Extra-ordinariness”
- Simerg: A Review of His Highness the Aga Khan’s “Where Hope Takes Root”
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