As it happens, Omar and I first met in this very building on the first day of graduate school in the fall of 1990. And we immediately became friends because of the funny elevators here, which some of you may have puzzled over just now on arriving. They start at the fourth floor or the sixth floor, but there’s no ground or first floor.
Well this confused both Omar and me in the same way when we first stepped into them. We were going to the same orientation meeting, that much we could see because we each carried the same mustard colored flyer. We exchanged a few words about being lost and then set off to find the session together.
Within the next ten minutes we quickly found out enough about one another to get a few teasing digs in. Omar mocked me for my unsuccessful summer job fishing for salmon in Alaska. I teased him for coming to Columbia after having studied at Oxford. I then took every opportunity to refer to his undergrad years at “Cambridge”. This kind of banter and teasing marked our friendship for the next almost two decades.
We were soon surprised to find that we were both dupes. The orientation session had attracted a mere fraction of the incoming students, most of whom were lazing around in the campus lawns or exploring the neighborhood. After suffering through the remarks of several university administrators, Omar and I slipped out the side door as well.
Let me tell another story about Omar, who was an endless source of good stories. I’m sure some of his friends who are here today will recount some of their funny Omar adventures.
Omar, I and Siraj, who is unable to make it today, were great friends all through grad school. And we studied together most of the time in Butler Library on the other side of campus. It helped our friendship that all three of us were in different fields and never had any classes together. That meant we had to discuss real things instead of the shop talk of our course.
Omar would sit at a particular seat in the library, and as the semester drew to its difficult close he would tug ever-more urgently on his forelock. Coincidently, this was when he gained that gray stripe in his hair that you can see so clearly in the pictures on display here today. Of course, Siraj and I couldn’t resist temptation and told Omar that his persistent tugging had made the striped forelock appear.
Over the course of the semester Omar would gain a wilder look. He’d let his beard grow thick and his accent would become gradually heavier. He’d become harder a bit harder to understand. Then, tests taken and papers submitted, he’d jet off to Pakistan for the holidays.
Omar would return after a profound transformation. His beard would be shaven, he’d reacquired his Oxbridge accent, and he’d have regained his chipper attitude. Sometimes he’d even return wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches, weather permitting.
Omar and I remain great friends over the years, even if his and my detours took us to different places. My mother always remarks that Omar is the only person outside our family who made to both my marriages. And he was best man at both.
It really only in the past two years, since Omar and Mursi returned to New York that I’ve gotten to know Omar’s family. And I’d like to pay tribute to them for their loyalty and persistence since Omar fell ill.
It’s a unexplainable injustice that Omar with his promise should be take from us. He was still young, of course, having only just celebrated his 40th birthday late last year. Omar and I shared a view that there’s no good explanation for why these thing happen.
Those around Omar stood up and assumed their duties, however. For this they can be proud and feel at peace.
I’d like to salute Mursi first of all for her bravery in caring for Omar. As many of you know, she agreed to get married right after learning of his diagnosis.
I also salute Naheed and Farid (and Kamal on his visits) for their persistence in searching for the best treatments for Omar. Others who have stood by Omar include Shaheryar Tasneen and Samar, Shomee and Fatema. Omar’s buddies from out of town –- Noor, Merwhan and Azfar (as well as Farid) – suffered through the agonising nights at the hospital when Omar couldn’t sleep, and wanted to walk yet more rounds of the ward.
All of you stepped up to lend a hand. You can be proud of having stood by Omar all the way.