Autobiography of a restless soul

Book: Then We Were One, Fragments of Two Lives
Author: Fred A. Reed
Publisher: Talon Books
Pages: 294
Price:  $19.55.   M. Azhar Ali Khan

This book is both enchanting and disturbing. It’s written in a beautiful, lyrical style that draws admiration and awe. But it also shakes you as it discusses current issues, challenges conventional wisdom and searches for lessons from the past and the present.

I met Fred Reed who, like me, is a journalist in Canada. Now a Canadian, he came from the United States while my origin is Indo-Pakistani. What lured him to Canada was a search for truth and inner peace. That quest took him earlier to Greece to study its civilization and treasures of knowledge. He went to Muslim countries where he discovered the beauty of Islam, and also the flouting of Islamic principles by its adherents. He was mesmerized by the principles of Islam and found through it peace and fulfillment.

The book, however, doesn’t dwell on his conversion to Islam and what attracted him to this faith. It’s about the struggles of Fred and his younger brother Jim. Both grew up in lovely Pasadena in a middle class California family. His parents sought to guide the two to a secure future. Fred studied at Stanford, and later at California. Both are elite schools and provided Fred the opportunity to build a relatively comfortable, and sedate, life. They also gave him the chance to seek knowledge through books and scholars.

Fred didn’t fit into the institutions, however. His mind was too vast to be confined to educational institutions, however prestigious. He was fascinated by Greek civilization and went to Greece to learn its language, absorb its culture and interact with its people. He kept in touch with his parents and brother, to whom he was very close. But this closeness was sometimes an illusion. Fred felt the restlessness of many other youth, who were dismayed by the U. S. war in Vietnam and by its imperialistic ambitions that hounded North American natives, then Latin ones and then others beyond. The U. S. was a democracy and a haven for the dispossessed and the persecuted. But it was also a persecutor and predator.

Fred would have none of this. He refused to go to Vietnam to fight and chose exile. He travelled frequently to Muslim, and other, countries. That made him cosmopolitan and a scholar who learned from books and from people. Even when he got a pardon for refusing to serve in Vietnam he spurned the chance to return to the U. S. He chose to live in Canada with his family, a country that respects diversity and isn’t tainted with imperialistic and expansionist ambitions.

This beautiful book is about Fred and his family, Fred’s country and the world that Fred saw with wide open eyes, unbounded curiosity and sympathy for its people. Fred’s younger Jim brother joined, or had to join, the Vietnam war. Though he was a medic and not a combatant he was deeply wounded psychologically by the cruelty and sufferings he witnessed. His life fell apart and he ultimately took his own life in New Zealand, far from his country and family.

This lovely book is a testimony to why Fred Reed won the Governor General’s award for translation three times. He has written six other books and translated 20. His translations would be fascinating. But I think I’d prefer to read his own books to reflect on today’s world and its challenges, opportunities, fears and hopes.

He clearly has a good understanding of the Western and Muslim worlds and now is a reflection of both. His book provides us hope and glimpses of the human soul, but it also challenges us to think and reflect on our own place in it and seek ways to improve our world for all of its inhabitants, human and otherwise.

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired journalist, civil servant and refugee judge in Canada