Search for identity

January 20, 2019

Dr Abdallah Daar establishes the fact that each of us is woven with the threads of fate and mysterious connections that we have in the form of people who cross our paths

Are we truly who we think we are? What is our real identity – the one which we are given when we come into this world,  is it what we become as we traverse through life experiences, is it the place we call home or just what we truly are at our core?

In his biopic Garment of Destiny, renowned surgeon and global health specialist Dr Abdallah Daar  underscores that we are all the same civilisation, all human beings – it is as basic as that. He makes his point from the opening pages itself quoting from Rumi to Dr Martin Luther King Jr and emphasising how, each of us individual's garment of destiny is woven with the threads of fate and mysterious connections that we have in the form of people who cross our  paths influencing us in myriad ways, handing down teachings sometimes we come to comprehend much later than when we thought we had understood them. And, how much ever we may like to think otherwise, it is one garment.

The title itself is inspired by Dr King’s words: “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

Dr Daar is a man of numerous achievements, with a career  spanning surgery, internal medicine, organ transplantation, bioethics and global health. His achievements alone can fill a tome.

Dr Daar is professor of Clinical Public Health, Global Health and Surgery at the University of Toronto; and permanent fellow of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

His numerous international awards include the Hunterian Professorship of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and the UNESCO Avicenna Prize for Ethics of Science. In 2017, Dr Daar was made an Officer of the Order of Canada for his contributions to global health and for co-founding Grand Challenges Canada. Dr Daar works extensively in Africa  focusing on developmental origins of health and disease.

But this book is not about his laurels. Traversing the world confronting its ethical, practical and esoteric queries as an Arab who was born in Tanzania, studied in Kampala and London, and went on to work in Oman and  Toronto among other places is the story of Dr Daar.

The underlying layers of human emotion, thought, curiosity, spirituality and destiny spring forth from between the words. The book exudes a focused zeal that can only come from having witnessed tragedies, having truly connected with and understood the resultant inner turmoil, and having studied and respected different cultures and religions.

The prose is  tinged with the pain of displacement – from land,  sometimes from his own identity and from his true goal, which comes into light when tragedy strikes on a deeply personal level.

Garment of Destiny shows the global health specialist's sensitive, vulnerable and humane side each time he narrates the atrocities or perils to human life and dignity in the form of diseases, disasters and man-made crises,  and how 'identity' in its varied definitions finds itself at the foundation of solutions to grave issues that it itself creates.

His narrative also rues the disparity between him and the children from his childhood in Tanzania's Dodoma, Morogoro and Dar es Salaam and how they could never rise from the 'limited subsistence levels characteristic of their parents' lives'. The melancholy of how knowledge alone cannot address major health issues affecting countries if social determinants are not addressed never leaves the reader.

He credits his path to success to luck and destiny - the events that shaped his life were the paths he feels led him to his  works - by quoting  Cervantes - “To be lucky in the beginning is everything.”

How he ended up attending Tanzania's most prestigious Mkwawa High School after resigning to the fact that he would not get to attend a high school at all is among the many examples he gives of the great hand of fate, and luck. And of course, how he came to marry his wife, Shahin, herself a lady of distinguished career in medicine.

He was professor of surgery in Oman's Sultan Qaboos University in 1997 when the death of his elder sister to as common an infection like malaria altered his course towards the bigger issue of global health. Dr Daar calls this his Rubicon moment. Coincidences led him further ahead on this path, nudging him on to it, whenever he faced the proverbial 'fork on the road'. 

The chapters keep revisiting his past – from his father who saw his brilliance and wished him to become a doctor to anecdotes of thrashings he and his elder brother received from the disciplinarian yet loving and respected patriarch. He speaks most lovingly and in adulatory terms of 'Mother', his 'profound teacher' – an open-minded woman with a creative approach towards faith whose unwavering moral compass was the tool for deep ethical conditioning in Dr Daar.

He talks painfully of how close family members were lost to common ailments because there was no access to treatment or the means were too crude to be relied upon.

If the issues of lack of proper sanitation, medical care, education, public health measures, cleanliness etc are grave in Third World countries now, they were  graver during Dr Daar's growing up years - diseases of poverty - that have been eradicated in the modern nations, but continue to claim thousands of lives in poorer states.

Dr Daar evidently cherishes his roots – calling himself a true African, although not in colour - a third generation Tanzanian. Idi Amin's decision asking all Asians to leave Uganda was an assault on his identity, which he never really recovered from (“A door had closed in Uganda, and I was pushed over the threshold...”). He sailed through St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in London, realising how solid his education in Makerere, Uganda, had been. But, not without sensing the discomfort of many Britons on the entry of so many Ugandan refugees into their country. This true Tanzanian could not shake off the pangs of not doing enough for the country which had given him a scholarship that opened doors for a fulfilling career. In what he calls  childlike naiveté, Dr Daar once wrote to the Tanzanian ministry of education that he would, one day, repay his debt. The reply, which he never expected, came – he calls this one of the most cherished love letters, an important influence in serving the health needs of Africa. Such naiveté is essential, he feels  - to be amazed by what your intuitions can surprise you with.

Poignant moments fill the pages, questioning the meaning of death and life, and also answering them through incidents that fuse together medical science and philosophies which show us that death may be an end for one, but for someone else, it's an extension, a form of transcendence. A ten day old pre-mature European baby, Wisse, with no chances of survival becomes a kidney donor to a 17 month old Omani child Ahmed – end for one, extension for another; two identities fused together. This transplant undertaken at Muscat's Sultan Qaboos University Hospital became a record as the youngest successful functionally ensuring deceased-donor kidney transplant in history.

Having being exposed to various cultures, religions and beliefs, his experiences make him write that one does not need to abandon one's religious identity. Simply recognise that others have taken a different historical, cultural and evolutionary path to where they are today with their religion.

Taking forward Nobel Prize winning scientist Abdus Salam's words, “Scientific thought and its creation is the common and shared heritage of mankind,” he emphasises that religion cannot and never will be a hurdle in the path of science, underscoring it with the reality that 'we are all constructed from the same kit and from the same toolbox. Doesn't it seem a profound puzzle, then, how we manage to fight  so much among ourselves about what supposedly divides us...'

(Soumya is an independent writer who has close to 20 years of experience as a print journalist writing on a range of topics from societies and cultures to lifestyle)