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Published: Sunday, 7/19/2009

Blade columnist shares 51 of his favorites

BY THOMAS WALTON
S. Amjad Hussain. S. Amjad Hussain.
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TREADING A FINE LINE. By S. Amjad Hussain. The Long Riders' Guild Press. 275 pages. $18.

It's not easy reviewing the book of a friend and longtime colleague. You want to be dispassionate and tell it like it is, but you don't want to offend - though in this case the author wears the thick skin of a seasoned columnist and wouldn't take it personally.

Fortunately, retired surgeon and Blade columnist S. Amjad Hussain's new book, Treading a Fine Line, simplifies the assignment. It's a collection of 51 of his favorite columns from the newspaper over the years, and most of these pieces I've seen before, either as Dr. Hussain's editor or more recently in my retirement.

They read as well now as they did when they first appeared. Dr. Hussain is a nationally recognized expert on a supremely troubled region of the world, including the land of his birth, Pakistan. He understands the long and bitter dispute over Kashmir and the pressures that help define Pakistan's neighbors, India, Afghanistan, China, and Iran. His commentaries on the Middle East always stir reader reaction.

Many of the columns in his book remind us again of his expertise and his skill in crafting essays that anyone only cursorily familiar with that part of the world can understand.

He is a learned man, a man of two cultures really, who quotes Tennyson and the Qur'an with equal and powerful effectiveness. He is, as Blade co-publisher John Robinson Block describes him in his preface, "beautifully American, a wonderful example how our country strengthens itself by opening its doors and offering opportunity."

Dr. Hussain can take the world view even if he is worlds away, as he did in a 2003 column excoriating the mainstream American news media for their reporting on Iraq, a piece he wrote while traveling through the Khyber Pass in Pakistan.

His scholarly and knowledgeable essays help Blade readers understand the geopolitical realities of a part of the world torn by social and religious mistrust and intolerance, but they are not the sum of what he and his book are about.

Many readers will recall the touching tribute Dr. Hussain wrote after the death of his beloved wife, Dottie. It was a mix of melancholy and unrestrained affection and admiration, a loving portrait of a woman amazing in her own right. She visited Pakistan frequently with her husband, and the Pakistanis loved her. We learn why all over again in Treading a Fine Line.

The columns Dr. Hussain wrote about Dottie's death - the angels of mercy he found at hospice, his extended grieving, the sometimes awkward attempts of friends to console, and the resilience of the human spirit - are among the most powerful in the book. They stand as a testament to true love and a primer for us all when we reach that bend in life.

Occasionally Dr. Hussain just delivers his take on America, usually with wit and often with self-deprecation. His column on casual dress in the workplace - he didn't like it - no doubt resonated with a lot of his readers over 50.

Not that he was a stuffed shirt in those days, but as he admitted in that August, 2003, piece, "a colleague once remarked that if I were Adam in the Garden of Eden I would be sporting a buttoned-down fig leaf."

Choosing 51 columns from among the hundreds he's written was a challenge Dr. Hussain acknowledges he wasn't prepared for. His book editor helped make the selections. She chose wisely, including a splendid essay that ends the book. It is a piece from November of 2000 that tells the tale of Dr. Hussain's search in his hometown of Peshawar, Pakistan, for what remained of the house he had been born in 62 years earlier, a brick and plaster structure with cement floors that once was home to nine brothers and sisters, three aunts, and assorted orphaned cousins.

Pieces of demolished homes are often recycled in Pakistan, and Dr. Hussain's quest took him to a warehouse. After sifting through the fractured fragments of others' old houses, he finally found familiar doors and windows that he recognized at once.

He asked the shopkeeper if he could remove an old and rusted latch-chain from one of the doors. The merchant offered to give him a new one for free, but of course, only the old one would do. It's a slightly updated version of the old story about Alladin and the Magic Lamp.

"Now, I have my old magic lamp," Dr. Hussain wrote of the discovery, "or at least a tiny bit of it."

But what makes this book more than a collection of his best columns is the company he keeps in its pages. He doesn't ignore reader feedback, he embraces it.

Anyone who ever e-mailed Dr. Hussain or wrote a letter to The Blade Readers Forum about one of his columns could find their thoughts shared one more time in his book. Their reactions generally are printed bearing their initials only, but their sentiments are exactly as originally expressed.

Often they are complimentary; frequently they are not. They range, as an introductory page warns, "from bouquets to brickbats to outright ugly."

After one e-mail correspondent told him a column about Israel was "pathetic" and "feeble," Dr. Hussain wrote back: "It is difficult to carry on a civil conversation when insults become part of the vocabulary. Nevertheless I am grateful that you took the time to write." Vintage Amjad - killing his critics with kindness.

More than once he is told to go to hell, in terms far more vile and colorful. They're all in the book, but be forewarned: There are epithets hurled his way that should not be read by children.

To one especially nasty detractor, this rejoinder:

"I apologize if I offended you, but I stand by what I wrote."

Good for him. Good for all of us.

Thomas Walton is the retired Editor and Vice President of The Blade. His own column and Dr. Hussain's appear on alternate Mondays on the Pages of Opinion.

Contact him at: twalton@theblade.com



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