By Asiyath Mohamed Saeed
Stepping through the doors of the apartment, I glanced around, searching for an elderly gentleman of 94 years among the six people who were inside. Yet, it was difficult to associate the image I had in my head with the man who hastily rose from the sofa to greet me in English.
Dr Ibrahim Abdul Malik appeared far younger than his advanced years. He was not surprised by my reaction; there has been countless others who were incredulous of the relatively young looks of the sage American professor, who had taken a long, arduous flight to the Maldives and was now meeting me in an apartment on the fourth floor of a building that did not have an elevator.
However, his first impression upon our meeting was not the only unforgettable impact he made. The experiences of the Muslim mastermind behind the founding of the former Science Education Centre (SEC), now called Centre for Higher Secondary Education (CHSE), who had served as its first principal and introduced A’ Level education to the Maldives were even more memorable, as were his sociable, humble, and benevolent yet amusing manners.
Greeting me with a droll remark of how I, a former student of CHSE, already exude the vibes of a journalist, Dr Malik effortlessly set the atmosphere of the interview from the get-go. It was another bolt out of the blue; as a learned man with two PhDs under his belt and a lifetime of experience, I had been expecting a more solemn demeanour.
With a doctor’s degree he earned in Science and Education at Harvard University, and another in Islamic Studies from Graduate Theological Foundation, Dr Malik has contributed to the education sector of New York City for over 25 years. He continues to work to this day and currently teaches at the Jersey branch of Fairleigh Dickinson University.
“Now I am teaching what we call Ecumenical Studies,” said Dr Malik. He explained that it is a course he teaches with two other professors, one Christian and the other Jewish, to help youth with different religious backgrounds, principally of the three Abrahamic religions, to understand the commonalities and differences between them. The course aims to overcome distortions and misrepresentations of religion and to teach students tolerance and open-mindedness in a community that boasts a variety of ideologies and beliefs.
“We in the United States are very conscious about the great diversity that we represent, ethnically, religiously, culturally,” he said in his gravest moment throughout the interview.
“We can choose to kill one another and all go down in flames or live harmoniously and perhaps even survive together. I don’t like the first choice. So I am doing my bit to help us achieve the conditions where we will in fact be finding more reasons to live harmoniously irrespective of our religious beliefs.”
That was his perspective as “a Muslim by choice” which, he said with pride, “says something.” Born to a Barbados family in New York, he had converted to Islam at the age of 52. However, that was not a topic he wanted to get in-depth then.
“That’s too long a story to go into,” he stated. “Just accept that I did. That deserves its own article.”
Indeed, the story he had cleared his schedule to tell was that of the founding of CHSE.
In 1979, four years after his conversion to Islam, Dr Malik received the opportunity to work in the Maldives via an application to UNESCO. He was interviewed in New York by Dr Mohamed Zahir Hussain, then a senior official of the education ministry and the first Maldivian Dr Malik met. That offer to work in the Maldives entailed the first such experience in his life.
“How many people do you know who have set up institutions?” he said. “You know, I had not done this. I taught extensively. I was an experienced in that regard. But this was unique and it was very much a challenge.”
In truth, setting up an institution was not the original responsibility placed on Dr Malik’s shoulders when he agreed to his post in the Maldives. This was confirmed by the then administrator at SEC, Masood Imad, who was offering Dr Malik the hospitality of his own home.
The former press secretary of previous President Mohamed Waheed explained that Dr Malik’s initial assignment was to set up a science laboratory in Aminiya School.
“But then he was asked to set up a school. So the school entailed setting up science classes and arts classes. What was envisioned to be the Aminiya School science laboratory became the Science Education Centre.”
Having witnessed that local students had no other option but to go abroad for higher education after completing their secondary studies, Dr Malik understood from the beginning the importance of an institution dedicated to preparing students for A’ Level examinations. However, he declined to take full credit for creating SEC, saying that he had simply contributed to it.
Taking the staggering challenge head on, Dr Malik reached out to several youth that were awaiting a chance at A’ Level education, getting them involved in creating SEC. He set up the laboratories within the institution, heading the arduous tasks of acquiring all the equipment and materials needed for the facilities. When SEC finally opened its gates, it did so with four teachers, 47 students and only the Science stream. However, before Dr Malik departed from the Maldives after four years of serving as the principal of SEC, he also introduced the Arts to the school. The Business stream would follow eventually.
Later rebranded as CHSE, the centre has grown into a prestigious institution boasting a student population of 1,500 and 90 teachers. It is now one of the main pillars of education in the Maldives.
Dr Malik was invited by the government to attend CHSE’s silver jubilee in 2004. By then, the institution was already achieving the goals Dr Malik had envisioned for it. Over the past 37 years, thousands of students have benefited and received higher secondary education on the foundation laid by Dr Malik, which to him is his most rewarding experience in the Maldives.
“It has been 13 years since I have been here last and when I came for the 25th anniversary, [I met] the children of my students, and now I am here meeting a second generation of young people and it’s exciting.”
Yet, how many alumni of SEC/CHSE have heard the story of Dr Malik? I certainly had not before. In his talk, Dr Malik expressed the pride and delight he felt for his old students numerous times.
“For one thing, you are interviewing me. You are one of the products of CHSE, and you are interviewing me for your newspaper Mihaaru. Well, look at that!” he exclaimed, his voice full of joy and awe.
Indeed, several of the high profile faces we see today, in various fields such as medicine, engineering, education, politics and the government, are people who studied directly under Dr Malik.
“The word ‘pride’ cannot fully express all that I feel,” he said. “There’s pride. There’s humility. I said ‘Oh my God! I had the opportunity to contribute ever so little to this person’s development.’ Thank God for that.”
“And here’s what I find interesting. Every one of them without exception has been as respectful to me as we were back in 1979 and they were sitting in the class that I was teaching. Every one of them. That is amazing.”
The hospitable, friendly and welcoming nature of Maldivians is the one thing Dr Malik noted has not changed since he first arrived in the archipelago nearly 40 years ago. Saying that he is made to feel welcome wherever he goes, he also did note that, with the changing of times, the claws of social media have also caught hold of him.
“You know what’s happening now? Social media have gotten a hold of my image and it’s everywhere, apparently. Today I am standing in a store and a lady comes up to me and she is smiling ear to ear and she’s telling me ‘Oh! Your picture is all over the social media!’ and before I knew she takes her camera and decides to take a selfie of the two of us,” he narrated enthusiastically.
However, Dr Malik has little interest in fame and popularity. He declared that he prefers to work in private settings, interacting with small groups of people at a time on the same level. In contrast to quiet and intimate locales, the chaotic world of social media holds little appeal.
“I see the power of social media. But I am not the kind of person who wants to be always in the public spotlight,” he declared.
If Dr Malik comes across as orthodox in accordance with his age, then that applies solely to his take on social media. A gentleman who has experienced the age of the primitive telephone now uses an iPhone 7. The same as people decades younger than him, Dr Malik keeps up with the ever evolving technological world, communicating with his colleagues and students via texts and emails.
“I have gone from [primitive telephones] to what we have today. I have lived through all of that. I learned. I had to learn all the electronics. So I learned. No problem. A lot people, my contemporaries, choose not to; that’s their attitude. It’s not mine,” said Dr Malik, who has two children, a grandson and nine other grandchildren “by extension”.
Perhaps his line of thinking is what has led Dr Malik to being as healthy as he still is. However, upon being asked the secret behind it, he responded that there is no “magic thing” behind it. His advice to youth is to respect the body and try to fully understand its workings. Declaring that more people need to appreciate how magnificent the human body is, he stressed the importance of incorporating healthy lifestyle habits which is “a lifetime of commitment.”
“It is that kind of awareness that I think must be a necessary part to achieving whatever the results that you see in me and others like me.”
Whether it is in the field of his work, making long travels, meeting numerous people in a single day, or even climbing four flights of stairs at his age, Dr Malik shows no hesitation. If those were not enough model points, it is his personality and his treatment of others that make him shine; his respect and esteem of others, his sincere desire for their success or his interest in their experiences; the moral lessons he unconsciously gives in his inspiring talks.
When the interview ended at last, Dr Malik turned his interest to the photographer accompanying me. With interest, he asked Hussain Waheed, who had been silent during the meeting, what kind of thoughts he had till then; how far his education had progressed.
Turning to me afterwards: Did I continue my education after CHSE? Do I have plans to pursue Master’s?
His last words were gentle, sound advice.
“Hopes are not enough. You have to work for it. Without work, hopes can’t be achieved.”