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Leopold of Arabia - Muhammad Asad

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Leopold of Arabia

By Amir Ben-David


Born in 1900 to a Jewish family in Lvov, Leopold Weiss died nine years ago as Muhammad Assad, a pious Muslim who helped create the country of Pakistan. While meeting the founding fathers of Zionism in Palestine in the 1920s, he dared to voice criticism of the movement's dismissal of the Arab presence in the land - a phenomenon that still haunts the region today. The riveting story of a Jew who changed his name, his faith, his wives, his nationality - and the face of the Islamic world


NEW YORK - Talal Assad, professor of anthropology, leans back and immerses himself in childhood memories. His words are spoken in a pleasant British accent and a detached academic tone, but at times, they seem to be the product of a successful collaboration between an Arab creator of proverbs and a Hollywood screenwriter who specializes in period sagas.


The circumstances in which the story is told add a contemporary layer to the twisting plot, which extends across an entire century. The conversation takes place in Assad's office in the Department of Anthropology of the City University of New York (CUNY), six floors above Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a little more than a month after Muslim terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center.


The surging patriotism that was unleashed by the September 11 attacks continues to gain momentum. Television programs and the major magazines are still preoccupied with the subject of Islam and Muslims, and with the overriding question: Why do they hate America? The phrase most bandied about in discussions is "clash of civilizations."


Talal Assad - a Muslim intellectual who holds American citizenship and was born in Saudi Arabia, raised in India, came of age in Pakistan, studied in England and lives in New York - hates no one and objects vehemently to the "clash of civilizations" theory. If the family story he relates has a universal message of any kind, it's that civilizations don't necessarily have to clash. The fact is they coexisted harmoniously in the biography of at least one person: his father.


Behind the barbed wire fence


Talal Assad remembers himself as a boy of eight or nine in India, accompanying his father almost every evening on relaxed walks - a memory which he treasures fondly. The two couldn't go very far on those walks, because they were incarcerated in a detention camp. Muhammad Assad, Talal's father, was arrested by the British in 1939, a day after the war started. As an Austrian national and the author of many articles in the German press over the years in which he bitterly attacked British imperialism, Assad had been under close scrutiny by the British for some time. The tension in Europe was reason enough to arrest him for the duration of the war.


A year later he was joined by his wife, Monira, and their son, Talal, and the three were transferred to a detention camp for families near Bombay. Most of their neighbors in the facility were well-established Jews from Western Europe who held German or Austrian nationality, who had managed to escape the SS by fleeing to the East, only to fall into the clutches of the British. So, in just one of the historical absurdities to be found scattered liberally throughout this story, these Jews found themselves imprisoned in India because of their country of origin, at a time when soldiers from their country of origin were murdering their families because of their religion.


The situation of the Assad family was even more complicated. They were the only Muslims in the detention camp. Talal's mother, Monira, the daughter of a sheikh from Saudi Arabia, had ended up in India purely by chance, because of her love for her husband. Muhammad Assad was very close to the Muslim leaders of the subcontinent, who had already begun to lay the foundations for the establishment of the Muslim state of Pakistan. However, in that turbulent period, he was troubled by a very different matter: the fate of his Jewish father and sister, who remained in Europe. His desperate efforts to obtain a visa for them and extricate them from the conflagration were unsuccessful, and they were murdered by the Nazis.


Talal Assad has a vivid memory of the day on which the bitter news reached the detention camp. "My father was an intellectual type, not particularly emotional," he recalls. "The only time in my life that I remember seeing him actually cry was when he was informed at the end of the war that his father and his sister had perished in the death camps. That was the only time he asked me not to join him on his evening stroll, the only time he wanted to be alone."


Muhammad Assad never hid his Jewish past, not from his son and not from his surroundings. To his Muslim friends, it wasn't a problem, as he had obviously chosen the right path. Jews, however, found his choice difficult to swallow.


"Once, when we were still in the detention camp," Talal relates, "Father escorted me to the school, and on the way we stopped at a shop that was run by Jews who were always very nice to us. Father stopped to speak with them, and during the conversation they discovered, to their great amazement, that he had been a Jew who decided to convert to Islam. Naturally, they couldn't understand that and they asked him why he did it. Father reflected for a bit and replied, `Don't you think that it's preferable. After all, before I didn't believe in anything. Now I at least believe in God.' Of course, they could not accept that."


Muhammad Assad spiced his many evening walks with his son by telling him stories about his childhood in Lvov, Galicia, his adolescence in Vienna and Berlin, his first visit to Jerusalem - which utterly transformed his life - and the many subsequent trips that led him, through Syria and Jordan, to the royal court in Saudi Arabia and the decision to convert and take an Arab name.


At the end of the war, after the family had been released and Muhammad Assad had taken part in the establishment of Pakistan and represented the new state in the United Nations, he wrote a memoir of his coming of age, published as "The Road to Mecca" - a book written with gusto in which he describes his road from Judaism to Islam. There are not many people who can write 380 engrossing pages about their life until the age of 32.


In the introduction to the book he wrote: "The story I am going to tell in this book is not the autobiography of a man conspicuous for his role in public affairs; it is not a narrative of adventure - for although many strange adventures have come my way, they were never more than an accompaniment to what was happening within me; it is not even the story of a deliberate search for faith - for that faith came upon me, over the years, without any endeavor on my part to find it. My story is simply the story of a European's discovery of Islam and of his integration with the Muslim community."


Alienated in Vienna


"Simple" is the last adjective that should be applied to the story of Muhammad Assad, even though he himself, with characteristic modesty, chooses to use it. Until his death almost 10 years ago at the ripe old age of 92 in Mijas, in the Costa del Sol region of southern Spain, his spirit was free of any prohibition or convention.


The fact he was born in Europe did not prevent him from becoming an Arab; the fact he was the scion of a family of rabbis did not prevent him from ending his life as a pious Muslim; the fact that at an early age he gained recognition and status as a journalist on the Frankfurter Zeitung, one of the most important papers in early 20th-century Europe, did not prevent him from dropping everything and settling in Saudi Arabia; the fact he was close to the royal court there did not prevent him from continuing to wander eastward, in pursuit of the dream to establish a Muslim utopia in Pakistan; the fact he was arrested by the British did not deter him from sending his son, Talal, to study at Oxford; and the fact that he took part in the establishment of Pakistan and reached a very senior position there did not stop him from abandoning everything and spending the second half of his life in the West.


And the fact that his major life project was an annotated translation of the Koran into English did not turn him into a blind follower of the Muslim religion; the fact that many of his naive dreams shattered in front of his eyes did not cause him to lose faith in people; and the fact that, in his last years, he was saddened by the developments in the countries and cultures he loved, did not make him lose the magnificent optimism that guided him throughout his life.


Nothing in his pleasant childhood presaged the adventurousness and restlessness that was to characterize him later. He was born in 1900 as Leopold Weiss, son to Karl Weiss, a Jewish lawyer, grandson to the rabbi of Czernowitz and scion of a generations-old rabbinic dynasty. The family lived in Lvov, which was then under Austrian rule. Leopold sometimes went with his family to the summer house of his maternal grandfather, an affluent banker, where he played on the banks of a river. He also traveled with his parents to Vienna and Berlin, to the Alps and the forests of Bohemia, to the shores of the North Sea or the Baltic Sea.


Years later, trying to decipher the mystery of his life and explain to himself his wanderlust, he remembered those family vacations and wrote: "Every time one set out on such a journey, the first whistle of the train engine and the first jolt of the wheels made one's heart stop beating in anticipation of the wonders that were now to unfold themselves."


Another key may lie in the stories he heard about an uncle on his father's side, whose name was never spoken aloud and who was, like many men in the family, an ordained rabbi. One day, without any advance warning, he shaved off his beard, left his wife - whom he didn't love - and went off to London, where he converted to Christianity and, according to the family legend, became an important astronomer and a member of the nobility. Leopold Weiss's parents talked about the mysterious uncle with the awe and pent-up anger reserved for a black sheep of the family

Edited by Al Furqaan

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