By Adeney Zo
UCLA Luskin Student Writer
As a student, concepts are reinforced by numbers and statistics, theories and ideas. Learning comes in the form of lecture halls and textbooks with names from a distant country or an even more distant past. For Public Policy alum Zahir Janmohamed, however, discovering firsthand the human stories lying dormant behind textbook accounts is the key to understanding the issues of today.
“I have always been interested in storytelling, of collecting and writing narrative based reports and essays to understand what is happening in our world. I realized that at Luskin,” Janmohamed said.
Following his 2001 graduation from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, Janmohamed immediately began work in the public policy field. On September 11, 2001, an unexpected tragedy shook America to its roots and forced Janmohamed to pause and reconsider his future.
“After 9/11, I felt a growing hostility towards people who are Muslim like me or perceived to be Muslim,” he said. “Suddenly the questions directed at me were more accusatory, as if I had something to do with the tragedy unfolding in America. A month after 9/11, I quit my job at a government consulting firm in Los Angeles. I knew I wanted to travel and specifically to get out of America.”
Upon receiving a fellowship from the America India Foundation to work in Gujarat, India — where his grandparents were born and raised — Janmohamed packed his bags and departed on a trip that would once again shift his life in a new direction.
“I arrived on February 15, 2002 and 12 days later, an anti-Muslim pogrom broke out, leaving over 1,000 dead and tens of thousands displaced,” Janmohamed said. “I found myself working in the relief camps, collecting stories, and trying to turn these stories into tools to educate and to raise uncomfortable questions, of myself and of our world.”
For the next nine years following his return to the U.S., Janmohamed worked as the Advocacy Director at Amnesty International in Washington D.C. and later worked in the US Congress as a senior foreign policy aide. He worked on lobbying and raising public awareness for issues in the Middle East and North Africa areas. He testified in the US Congress concerning human rights and was consequently awarded the UN Association Community Award. More and more, however, Janmohamed felt drawn back to the place and people who suffered so greatly as a result of violence and intolerance.
“I was always haunted by the memories of the Gujarat violence and specifically the children whose lives I saw destroyed,” he said. “I always wondered — how do they, and how do I, move on from a tragedy?”
Janmohamed finally made the decision to return permanently to Gujarat, and he is currently writing a book about the 2002 riots and the lasting aftermath of violence and instability.
“My biggest achievement was quitting my job in the US Congress," he said. "I am currently living in a Muslim ghetto of Gujarat, formed in part as a reaction to the violence, and I have limited water each day,” Janmohamed explains. “There are few paved roads in this area and police surround my neighborhood, and I have had a friend killed in the last two years. Life here can be tough but this is the way I believe stories should be told. You have to live what you write.”
He has been writing about issues in India ever since his return, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Review, Guernica, The Hill, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, Alternet, Kafila, Open Magazine, and Outlook Magazine.
After a long road from his beginnings in public policy, Janmohamed believes he has finally found his true passion, and he continues to work among the people whose lives he hopes to change through writing. He recalls the times he was at UCLA Luskin and would go out for Pakistani food with JR DeShazo, saying the professor "taught me that you can be immersed in policy work and also be in love with literature and the arts."
In spite of his many achievements in politics and government work, Janmohamed concludes, “I always knew I wanted to be a writer and I kept waiting for the red carpet to unfurl and welcome me. It never did so I just picked up and began on this writing path … That is my biggest achievement - I am finally, at age 37, doing what I have always wanted to do."