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     Volume 8 Issue 66 | April 24, 2009 |

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In Memory of Omar Azfar

Tanweena Chowdhury

Omar Azfar

When despair and hopelessness seem to be the order of the day, when one fears that nothing good can ever happen again, then suddenly there is a story - a true story almost stranger than fiction-- where such sterling courage is displayed by ordinary men and women armed only with love, in the face of a foe no less than death, that one is again reassured that there is meaning and hope in life after all….

Amid the verdant expanse of Central Park in New York City, Omar Azfar, the brilliant and handsome young man from Pakistan proposed marriage to the equally brilliant and beautiful Bangladeshi woman, Mursaleena Islam (Mursi or Kakon as she's often called). This should have been one of the happiest moments of their lives; and it was. Except that, on that very day doctors had diagnosed Omar with a particularly virulent form of cancer. They were married for a year and eight months when Omar lost his final battle with his fatal illness.

Many people in Bangladesh may remember Omar's grandfather Muhammad Azfar, posted in the then- East Pakistan in the late 50's and early 60's as Chief Secretary and his father Kamaluddin Azfar, former Governor of the Province of Sind, Pakistan. Perhaps if Omar had been well, he would have come to Dhaka and during his visit he would have liked to trace his grandfather's footsteps in the old Secretariat building of Dhaka, and to visit St Gregory's School and Notre Dame College in old Dhaka, where Omar's father studied. But in life, where everything is uncertain and the only certainty is death, it is fate that has the final word.

Omar Azfar was my brother and I hardly knew him before he died. I wrote that line unthinkingly before I checked myself. Of course, in all honesty, Omar was my brother-in-law-my husband's sister's husband. But had I ever dreamt up a brother, I now like to think he might have been like Omar.

I met Omar all of four times, once when he was dating my sister-in-law in New York, next when he and his parents came to meet her and her family in London, next when we visited the happily married couple in New York, and finally that last time, less than a month before Omar died. It is incredible that such a brief connection can sear into your mind and leave you wishing for more time, for time to turn back, for time to stand still at one perfect moment -- perhaps Omar and Mursi's wedding.

Mursi and Omar.

Omar's biographical details, his lineage, education and career, are noteworthy and impressive, but I would rather dwell on the man himself and what he meant to the friends and family that were drawn to him. I've looked through his memorial book and am struck with the consistent portrait they draw of a man of intellect, wit and moral stature. They speak of a man with whom you could start with late night deeply felt political debate and end with heartfelt, sound advice on a personal dilemma shared in the early hours of dawn. And in between, laughter and song, as he was also mischievous, happy to make a fool of himself to entertain others and light hearted enough to share random trivia about modern day life. But above all, his closest friends and his wife Mursi speak of a man who was good, with purity of heart and mind, who was graceful and generous to the end.

My own memories of Omar are bound up in my love for Mursi and my daughter Pareesa. When Mursi first spoke to me about her feelings for this Pakistani man who was wooing her but had not yet proposed, I asked her: but does he love you? She paused and said quietly: yes. Finally, I thought, a man who knows and appreciates this “angel” as Omar would later call her. Clearly, this was a man of intelligence, good sense and good heart! I now know that when we met that fourth and final time this December, a month before Omar passed away, the cancer had insidiously and silently spread across his body and he must have been in pain. Yet with such fortitude, gentleness and patience, he bent over to read Ten Little Dinosaurs with Pareesa, dutifully practised baa-baa-black-sheep again and again, sat cross-legged on the hard wooden floor to play roll-a-ball with her and very seriously discussed the noises that her new wooden farmyard animals might make. Pareesa recognised this kindred spirit immediately, and would often just walk up to Omar and hug his legs. It's sad to think that soon she will forget her beloved phupa and that special connection they had. Perhaps one day we will find it in our hearts to spin bedtime stories about a boy called Omar and his pet dinosaurs.

The setting of Omar's burial site, at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, fits what he would have wanted in more ways than one. Omar wanted a serene location, and Sleepy Hollow lies on the Hudson River, not too far from Manhattan, yet far from city noise and tucked away in nature. It is guarded on the north by Rockefeller State Park Reserve, on the south by Pocantico River, an unspoiled stream, and on the east by Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park. Omar wanted a place that people would like to visit - his site is next to a brook, with deer wandering around, and with picnic tables conveniently nearby, from where the laughter of his picnicking friends and family could easily emanate and waft over to his resting place. Omar was the very opposite of exclusive and he would be happy to know that Sleepy Hollow is entirely non-sectarian and non-profit. Omar loved stories, was a history buff, and would enjoy knowing that “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, penned by Washington Irving in 1819, is set in these very same grounds. The legend features a headless horseman, who makes nightly rides in quest of his head. So, the history of this cemetery is complete with a scary yet quirky tale, which too Omar would have appreciated.

To those who never had the good fortune of sharing such moments with Omar, he may indeed become a distant hazy memory or a nameless face in a grainy photo in a dusty family album. But we, his adopted second family, know that our memories of Omar will always be as vivid and alive as the man himself once was.

Omar Azfar was the, eldest son of Kamaluddin Azfar and Naheed Jafri Azfar from Karachi, Pakistan. He was the beloved husband of Mursaleena Islam and son-in-law of Anwarul and Zeenat Islam. Omar was a Professor of Economics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. He held B.A. Honors from Balliol College, Oxford University in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and a Ph.D. in Economics from Columbia University. He was the author of numerous research publications in Development Economics and the Economics of Corruption - he was working on a research paper, on police corruption and its impact on the lives of the poor, an issue he felt strongly about.

Omar passed away peacefully in Manhattan, New York, on January 21, 2009 at 5:30 a.m. Omar was diagnosed with bone cancer in May 2007 which later metastasised to the lungs. He endured months of tests, treatments and six surgeries with strength, courage, and good humour. Omar happily watched the Obama inauguration the day before he passed away. He was in good spirits, surrounded by friends and family, until the end. He is survived by his wife, grandmother, parents, brother, sister, nephew, and countless friends.


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