The Rediff Special/ Michael Scherer
Three weeks after the murder of his brother-in-law, Mian Zahid Ghani brought his family to the 38th floor of the United Nations building in New York, where, in hushed, respectful tones, Secretary General Kofi Annan asked how he could help.
"How are you? Good to see you," Annan said on Friday afternoon as the four mourning daughters and widowed wife of Waqar Hasan silently entered his office, all but the youngest wearing the traditional Muslim headdress of their native Pakistan.
Their story, however, is an American one.
Four days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, Hasan, a Pakistani businessman with his citizenship pending, was shot and killed in his grocery store on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas. With no evidence of robbery, Dallas police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are investigating the murder as a hate crime, a deadly response to the September 11 attacks.
Hasan's family heard of the murder at their home in Milltown, New Jersey. They had been planning to join him in Texas; his eldest daughter Nida, 18, had already applied to colleges there. But the phone call changed everything. Their mortgage is now in disarray; they have lost their immigration status; they are still waiting for the killer to be found.
Ghani has taken on all of these burdens, temporarily leaving his job as the UN correspondent for a Pakistani news service to plead his family's case in a country altered by outbursts of bigotry.
"Because I'm from the media, I talked to my colleagues, so it went in the papers," Ghani says, noting that his family is one of the few that have taken their stories to the press. "There are so many cases that are still blacked out."
Ghani immediately informed Pakistan's ambassador to the US of Hasan's death, one of two suspected murders out of more than 645 bias attacks against American residents of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent in the week after the
attack. The next day, UN spokesman Fred Eckhard announced Hasan's murder at his daily press briefing, describing it as a crime committed "presumably just on the basis of his appearance."
"These attacks are hitting very close to home," Eckhard told the world's reporters, after briefing them about refugees in Afghanistan, slavery in Burma and peace talks in Sierra Leone.
Two days later, The New York Times ran a front-page story mentioning Hasan's murder. New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr, offered to contact immigration officials on the family's behalf, while Ghani arranged local media interviews and kept in contact with the Dallas police.
"He knows how to push the buttons to get the attention," says Sreenath Sreenivasan, co-founder of the South Asian Journalist Association, who has tracked the reporting of bias attacks. "I know so many families who are afraid to talk."
Aware of the tragedy, the UN secretary general contacted Ghani, asking if the family could visit him at work so he could express his condolences. Alone in Annan's office, past the street barricades, with its view of Queens and the police boats patrolling the East River, the secretary general said he would take the family's case directly to his contacts in the US government.
Ghani then told Annan what he has told journalists since his brother-in-law's death: "Who is the man who killed my brother? A terrorist. An American terrorist. If the American government fails to find a terrorist in their own country, how do they believe they can find Osama bin Laden?"
Annan, Ghani recalls, laughed and agreed.
After seven years of covering the UN, Ghani does not mince words. A tall man, with gray streaks in his black hair and moustache, he speaks quickly and exactly, always noting dates and times with precision, often with a lit cigarette in hand.
Though the Dallas police have not yet made an arrest, he attributed the blame for Hasan's murder weeks ago.
"I said from the beginning that the American media are responsible. They generalised that all Muslims are terrorists," he says, in his North Brunswick home, a sparse apartment with Islamic prayers hung on the walls.
It was the media, he continues, who constantly repeated the refrain 'Muslim fundamentalist' in the days following September 11. Do American journalists so eagerly use the phrase 'Christian fundamentalist' with the Ku Klux Klan or abortion clinic bombers?
"The same American media, in the Oklahoma City case, they never use the words, 'white American'. They never wrote that a Christian did this," Ghani protests. "But they always would write Muslim. This they generalise."
Prior to September 11, his family faced no problems with discrimination. Now he feels wary about taking trains and buses into Manhattan. The FBI has already come to his door once before the murder in Texas and his elder brother-in-law was detained and released by the New Jersey police after stopping at a Burger King outlet wearing his traditional dress and a beard.
Ghani has no interest in offering himself or his four children as targets for more racial profiling. "We used to live like we were living in heaven," he says. "I used to send my daughter out to Pathmark. Now I say, even in daylight, no. If you need something, I go."
Unlike many immigrants from Pakistan, Ghani did not come to the United States seeking his fortune. His wife had been injured in a traffic accident, and because of his dissatisfaction with her Pakistani doctors, he felt he had no choice but to turn to American medicine.
After 14 months in bed and more than 80 medical procedures, doctors in America fitted Naile Zahid with the prosthetic legs that allow her to walk today. In order to stay in the country, where Naile could continue to receive treatment, Ghani took a job at the UN for the News Network International, a Pakistani wire service he helped found.
Since then, he has kept track of what he sees as the misdeeds of the American press. In 1997, Robert F Horan, Jr, who prosecuted a Pakistani national for a shooting attack outside the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Virginia, suggested to a local television station that the $2 million reward for the suspect might have been too high. "I am sure there are people over there who would turn in their mother for $20,000," he said on air.
The comment, which Horan said had been taken out of context and did not refer to the Pakistani people, caused a brief breakdown in diplomatic relations. Protests erupted in the streets of Pakistan. Angry Pakistanis burned American flags and an effigy of President Bill Clinton.
For more than a week, Horan refused to apologize, saying he had not made a racist remark. Then Ghani called him and persuaded him otherwise. In his letter of apology to the prime minister of Pakistan, Horan said a journalist had convinced him that the perception of having said something derogatory was as bad as having said it. "He is right," Horan wrote.
Another television station made the same mistake last week, Ghani says, citing a recent interview at his late brother-in-law's home. Ghani told the interviewer, Joe Collum of WWOR-TV, that he blamed the American media for the murder, but that comment was edited out. Only the quote that followed made the airwaves, one that Ghani saw as devoid of judgement and filled with ambiguity.
"Every time it is Osama and Muslim, Osama and Muslim," the network quoted Ghani saying, "So people start thinking it is Muslims who are doing this."
On Ghani's living room wall hangs a plaque, in English, with the text of the Prophet Mohammed's last sermon: "All mankind is from Adam and Eve," it reads. "An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab."
Ghani fears that it may be years before America again begins to approach these cross-cultural ideals in practice. The stereotypes have been sown, he says. It will be a while before he feels comfortable sending his children to Pathmark, even though the Milltown community has sent more than 100 cards, gifts and offers of condolences to his family.
In the meantime, the immediate problems his family faces will endure, though they take great comfort in the assurance that a world leader is on their side.
"Definitely his say will have an effect," Ghani said, emerging from the meeting with Annan. "He is resourceful."
Nida Hasan, Waqar Hasan's 18-year-old daughter, had a similar reaction.
"It's a sign of hope," she said. "Because with a man of his responsibility, I feel that something can be done, that the murderer will be brought to justice."
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