A chance encounter, a discovery of kin on opposite sides of the world
It wasn’t inevitable that Harvard Law School graduate students Erum Khalid Sattar and Rebecca Zaman would meet so soon, or even at all. Sattar has been at the law school for three years, pursuing a doctorate of juridical science (S.J.D.); Zaman arrived in August to begin a year of study for a master’s in law (LL.M.). Sattar is from Pakistan, and studied law in London; Zaman grew up, earned her law degree and completed a judicial clerkship in Australia. Then again, they’re about the same height, with the same dark brown hair, and that might not be just a coincidence.
In August, a few days into LL.M. orientation, the two women met at a Graduate Program reception. “If we hadn’t been wearing nametags, what happened next might never have happened,” says Zaman.
“My surname is a very unusual surname for a white-appearing Australian to have,” explains Zaman. “A lot of the Indians, Pakistanis and Middle Easterners asked how I could have this name. When I met Erum, it was very similar. So I said, ‘Oh! My father’s father is a Muslim Indian from Hyderabad.’ And Erum said, ‘Oh, what a coincidence. My family was from Hyderabad, before they moved to Karachi after the partition.’ And she laughed, and said, ‘Maybe we’re related.’”
In about 1946, Zaman’s grandfather was sent to London to go to university. “While he was in London, he met my grandmother, an Irish-Catholic, and they secretly courted, and fell in love, and got married, and no one in the family knew,” Zaman says. Meanwhile, India achieved independence from Britain, India and Pakistan were partitioned, Zaman’s family left Hyderabad and went to Karachi, and her grandfather was told it was time to come home.
At this point, Zaman remembers, Sattar’s expression was just very strange. And she said, “Do you know your grandfather’s name?”
“Yes, his name is Waheed Zaman.”
“And your grandfather now lives in Germany.”
“How did you know he lives in Germany? He does live in Germany!”
“Because your grandfather is my grandmother’s brother.”
“We screamed and hugged,” Zaman remembers. A classmate took a treasured photo of the cousins at that very moment, holding their nametags up and smiling.
To continue the story, after several years Zaman’s grandparents moved back to the U.K., and with the economic, religious and social strains of living in post- war London, the marriage disintegrated. Her father lost contact with his Pakistani family; eventually, he married a British woman and moved to Australia. Over time, their parents and grandparents have reconnected, but the cousins never knew about each other.
Sattar grew up in Karachi, in an extended family of teachers, intellectuals and lawyers. She traces the family tree to the Nizam, the sovereign family that received massive land grants in the state of Hyderabad from the Mughal emperors, and ruled there for centuries, until Indian independence in 1947. A revered uncle insisted that she should not only study in the U.K., but train there as a barrister. It was Rosa Lastra LL.M. ’91, professor in international financial and monetary law at the School of Law at Queen Mary, University of London, who urged Sattar to pursue further graduate studies at Harvard.
For Sattar and Zaman, the story of how they met is about much more than finding a close relative they never knew they had. On the one hand, it’s a new way of looking at their parents and grandparents, and the way their family has diverged and converged.
Zaman says that she has always been interested in knowing more about her Pakistani family but just didn’t have a connection with them. “I’ve been a mixed-race Australian for the past 25 years and that’s who I am now,” she adds. “But there’s this window now that, through the past, is going to alter the future a little. I’m going to have access to all these parts of my identity that have been closed.”
Sattar and Zaman are also thinking about how homelands and family ties will inform their work. Sattar’s dissertation will focus, with a legal-historical lens, on how 21st-century Pakistan can create a stable, sustainable homeland for its Muslim citizens: “There’s been progress, but the massive structural change that we need has not materialized. How do we bring it about?”
It was Zaman’s commitment to working in human rights and development that brought her to Harvard, but she may look at these issues now from a new vantage point. “My interest in law is very much about how it can be used as a tool to lift people, to empower them or to prevent injustice. In my country, although of course we have problems, there’s not the same gaping, pressing need for grassroots advocacy and representation as in other places,” Zaman explains. “I grew up in a very rationalist tradition—I don’t believe in signs! But I’ve found myself thinking, Is this a sign that I should go to Pakistan?”
Her cousin urges her to, as soon as possible. And both women hope that all the roads leading to Harvard will end in more meetings like theirs. This just shows that you should tell your story to people, because you never know where connections will come from,” says Sattar.