By Jess Dankenbring, ’17
Usually a story begins with an event or conflict. But for journalism professor Shahan Mufti, it began with an old trunk and the ancient family treasures that it held inside.
Years into Mufti’s reporting as a foreign correspondent in Pakistan, his grandfather passed away, leaving behind old records, such as a parchment scroll that traced his lineage back 1,400 years to the inner circle of the prophet Muhammad, and a diary kept by an ancestor in the late 19th century that held detailed accounts of events and stories in his family’s past.
Mufti had heard many tales of his family lineage before, but hadn’t really considered their accuracy. “These are stories that are passed generation to generation but nobody really takes them at face value,” Mufti says. “You absorb them but never even bother asking ‘Is it true? Is it not true?’ Seeing the document, though, was real, and I realized this is more than stories.
As he considered both his family history, and the current events he covered on a daily basis as a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, he came to realize connections between the two that dated back generations. “That was also a time of war in that region of south Asia,” Mufti says. “It was a British colonial period. There was a similar tension between East and West.”
Mufti felt his heritage offered a rare perspective on the years of conflict in Pakistan and decided to write a book tracing the intersections between them. “I am 100 percent Pakistani and 100 percent American,” he says. “I consider that a strength to write about that. I have that interesting view as a journalist, having a foot in both worlds and looking at the dynamic between the two countries. I do have an intimate relationship with the country, and I did feel the need to give that context.”
The Faithful Scribe, Mufti’s first book, is a work of nonfiction that moves as a narrative because of how he intertwines personal stories with historical record. “It’s about people and characters, and a lot of those characters happen to be family. The book is a very intimate history; it starts with my parents’ wedding, which took place in 1971, on the first day of the war between Pakistan and India,” he says. It chronicles his childhood in both America and Pakistan, his experiences on the front lines as a war correspondent, and other family events, connecting them to events in Pakistan’s complicated history.
Not only did he have the chance to connect the past and present of Pakistan to his own life, the book presented Mufti with the opportunity to link his writing to his teaching. Last semester, as he finished the final pages of his book, he was teaching a seminar on literary journalism and war, when the conversations with his students in class gave him a new perspective and served as inspiration for the book’s foreword. “I feel very fortunate to have had that opportunity to work with students while you’re thinking these things through,” he says. “These classrooms become like laboratories for ideas.”