“I am delighted to know that a documentary is in the works on the life story of the great Pakistani physicist, Dr. Abdus Salam. Dr. Salam has been and continues to be an inspiration for children who have a passion for learning, discovering and inventing. His great contribution to Physics is, what he called, the ‘shared heritage of mankind’, which we all celebrate. In addition, I have the honor of being a Nobel Laureate from Pakistan after him; the whole country is proud of his contributions. The initiative by Zakir Thaver and Omar Vandal of making a film on him is very timely. His story of brilliance needs to be told and amplified. I am greatly looking forward to watching the documentary soon.”
[Malala Yousafzai’s message of support for the team of the Abdus Salam Docufilm]
Pakistan is a deeply troubled country – ravaged by terrorism, bad policies, inconsistent government, and poor security; where children are shot in school under the banner of a “greater war”; and where religious intolerance has reached its bloodied zenith. Pakistan is a nation on the edge, oscillating wildly between hope and madness, reform and ruin.
Yet the heart of the country remains unscathed, thanks to its people, its bright stars: activists, geniuses, artists, reformers, thinkers – those who carry forth the country’s name with pride, attributing their successes to their homeland, putting Pakistan on the map from sports to science, education to art, and more.
One such star was Dr. Abdus Salam, the world-renowned physicist who took home the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979. While Salam was celebrated and honored abroad for his contributions to the field of theoretical physics, in Pakistan he remains forgotten, his achievements disregarded, overlooked. Why? His faith. In the early 1970s, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (then prime minister of Pakistan) passed a law that declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslims, beginning a new chapter in the persecution of the Ahmadi community in Pakistan, which continues to this day in the form of suicide attacks, hate speech, and murder.
Not only was Salam denounced during his lifetime, but the bigotry and disrespect continued well after his death, when the Pakistani government refused to honor Pakistan’s greatest scientist with a state funeral, and when, under court orders, the word “Muslim” was removed from his epitaph.
But two young Pakistanis, Zakir Thaver and Omar Vandal, set out to honor Salam by putting together an in-depth docufilm on the scientist’s life. They hope to release the film this year.
Thaver and Vandal met in college (Wooster, in Ohio) in 1996, the year Salam died, bonding over their love for science. It was then that the topic of Pakistan’s most renowned scientist came up. “We were quite amazed, and in a sense also embarrassed by how little we knew about Salam other than the fact that he was a Nobel laureate. In the course of reading about him and going through the archives, we discovered just how incredible a personality Salam was,” recalls Thaver.
Thus began their ten-year quest to piece together the story of a beautiful mind. Salam was a man who rose from humble beginnings to reach the world stage through his contributions to science. It has been a moving, enriching experience for Thaver and Vandal, having traveled for the last four or five years within Pakistan, the U.S., the U.K., and Italy, where the producers met with and interviewed Salam’s family, friends, and colleagues. “People were highly moved when recollecting memories about Salam,” Vandal states, mentioning that Salam’s driver, Pierre, broke down in tears when speaking about Salam.
“He had enormous charisma; he had a magnetic personality because of which these people are still there at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics [ICTP],” states Vandal, “We asked one of his colleagues A.M. Hamende whether he still misses Salam, and he said; “I still dream of him. I dreamt of him last night. He called me to his office [in my dream] and told me to do this, this and this.” That’s something you can’t quite capture on paper, and the film we hope will get this side of Salam.”
“We filmed Steven Weinberg, the famous American physicist who shared the Nobel with Salam in 1979 – [it] was an amazing experience; Weinberg to many is the most influential living physicist,” states Vandal, “Not to give anything away but we’d like to share what transpired during this very memorable interview: We had spent three incredible hours with Weinberg, and all of us were quite drained and waiting to wrap up. Luckily, when Weinberg handed back his mic, the camera was still rolling and we got an amazing five or ten-second sound byte from him, which was extremely moving. It elicits goose bumps whenever we think about it.”
For the producers, spending time in Salam’s room and scanning his notebooks (preserved as is by Salam’s family) was a memorable experience. “We had been to the room twice before, but in December 2013, we spent two full days looking through all his notebooks and selecting what pages were most interesting, for us to scan. We found very moving accounts of the persecution of the Ahmadi community, his love for Pakistan, his frustrations about not being able to do much for his motherland, ideas in physics in their raw form, and even personal anxieties and self-motivating notes. We felt privileged to have that kind of unprecedented access to Salam’s mind – and we’re very grateful to the Salam family for having allowed us that opportunity,” says Thaver.
“In addition to what we’ve filmed, we’ve accumulated the world’s largest collection of Salam material by scouring through the world’s databases, contacting libraries across the world. We have virtually every audio recording that exists of Salam, every video recording. This took a couple of years; it’s not easy work,” mentions Thaver. “Plus we had to read everything on Salam and by Salam, over and over again to understand every aspect of the man and the story. It’s all been very challenging but also very intellectually stimulating. Humans are complex. Geniuses like Salam even more so. So any good biography/biopic demands that the producers get to know the character well. The story warranted six years of research given the many different themes we had to understand: the persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan, Salam the (family) man, Salam the scientist, the Salam-Pakistan dynamic, Salam the global ambassador of science as well as Salam’s illness and his final years.”
But perhaps the most challenging aspect of the production was funding, which is why it has taken the team so long to complete the project. However, post-production is finally due to commence in April this year.
“When Salam returned to Pakistan to teach, he felt an incredible sense of intellectual isolation. The conventional response would be to remedy the problem for oneself, but Salam thought differently. Salam sought to remedy intellectual isolation, not just for all Pakistanis, but also for all developing countries,” Thaver says, recalling what moved him most during his research on Salam. “He dedicated a significant portion of his life, perhaps to the detriment of his scientific career, to give back, to bridge the knowledge divide between the developed world and the developing world. He ended up as a global ambassador for science, as influential as Einstein. It’s quite remarkable that he would actually take that on that challenge – and of course, end up doing a fantastic job at it. The ICTP, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014, is such a concrete expression of one man’s way of resolving intellectual isolation emanating from a personal experience of two years of intellectual isolation. We think that’s a sign of greatness – people normally think only of assuaging personal issues, great men try to alleviate issues globally.”
Sonya Rehman is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. She can be reached at: sonjarehman [at] gmail.com