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Class Notes

The Pen Is Mightier…

Bashir Zikria’s historical novel offers insights for understanding Afghanistan today.

If the U.S. really wants to “win hearts and minds” in its struggle against Taliban influences, it must first take the time to truly understand the Afghan people, says Bashir Zikria ’58. Only by getting to know Afghan culture, history and religions will the U.S. gain greater wisdom to conduct a winning campaign for democracy there, he says.

But what most people don’t realize, Zikria adds, is that one American already succeeded in winning over the Afghans. That happened 175 years ago, when the Pennsylvania-born Josiah Harlan helped Afghan Prince Akbar repel the British Army in the first Anglo-Afghan War, earning a golden sword from King Dost Mohammad Khan, along with the title of prince.

Zikria describes Harlan’s adventures in his historical novel The Afghan Prince and IThe First American in Afghanistan, published last year. The book, he says, is an effort to capture the attention of young Americans and entertain them with lessons from history with powerful echoes for today and the future in this geopolitically charged region.

It’s not the first literary venture for Zikria, a professor emeritus and special lecturer at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, who published a book in 2010 outlining his vision for mankind’s cooperation and shared responsibilities for the planet. Specializing in surgical metabolism and oncology, Zikria spent his medical career researching obesity, inflammation and capillary leak. He holds 10 U.S. patents, the most recent in 2013 for a new method to reduce the glycemic index—a key factor in obesity—of carbohydrate diets.

Literature and medicine are necessary complements in his life, Zikria says. He recalls a comment that theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer made during a talk that Zikria attended while in medical school at Johns Hopkins. A student asked how Oppenheimer reconciled nuclear physics research with writing poetry, and the scientist said his only explanation was that they are opposites.

“Science simplifies things, and poetry reflects the complexity of man,” Zikria says.

The Pen Is Mightier…

“Science simplifies things, and poetry reflects the complexity of man.”