Syed Ali Zia Jaffery
Syed Ali Zia Jaffery Image Credit: Supplied

Syed Ali Zia Jaffery is the triumphant manifestation of the power of mind over matter.

Jaffery, thirty, is currently the Deputy Director of the Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research (CSSPR) of the University of Lahore (UoL), and the Associate Editor of Pakistan Politico. Previously, he worked at the Information Technology University, the Center for Strategic and Contemporary Research, and Global Village Space as a research associate, research analyst, and sub-editor, respectively.

In January 2018, Jaffery joined UoL as an associate editor and research associate. The same year, he started teaching undergraduate courses at UoL on foreign policy, national security, arms control and disarmament, and non-proliferation. Jaffery, a 2019-2020 Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington, D.C, writes on strategic issues for various national and international publications, including Routledge, South Asian Voices, The National Interest, CSIS, The Atlantic Council, Dawn, Daily Times, and The News. The focus of his research work is on the fields of nuclear deterrence, strategic stability, and geopolitics.

Three decades ago, Jaffery contracted meningitis. The deadly disease affected his eyesight, right hand, and right leg.

Youngest of the six siblings, Jaffery was—and continues to be—the darling of his family. His father was a Pakistan Army officer and mother a working woman. They devoted their time, attention, and resources to keeping their son safe, healthy, happy.

In 1996, Jaffery had eye surgery, after which he says he “could see the world.” In 2002 and 2008, he had surgeries on his hand. Physiotherapy helped his healing process. Jaffery tells me, “My right hand is problematic as the current movement is negligible. I can hold some things. It is mainly because of my carelessness about taking care of my hand; otherwise, it could have been much better. I still limp. My right foot is twisted towards the right, but I can walk easily.”

Nothing that Jaffery suffered from and experienced ever affected who he was—a much loved child who blossomed in the warmth, attention, care, and encouragement of his parents and siblings. Their positivity enveloped him without ever making him feel he was “different.” Their love turned his disabilities into his strength.

There was one thing Jaffery couldn’t do: join the army. That he says is “one of the reasons why I chose the field that I did; I wanted to be an army officer without being an army officer. I decided to study the theories of war and other related stuff.”

His father’s passing on January 17, 2020 is the biggest tragedy of Jaffery’s life. “I was my dad's boy. He was a towering figure who greatly influenced me.”

Rabia Akhtar, Director CSSPR, and the person Jaffery holds in very esteem as his mentor, texted me a glowing testament when I asked her to say something about him: “Ali Jaffery is unique in all aspects. Rarely do you see someone as young as he is who is not only into reading books—a rarity among his peers—but also has the analytical ability to assimilate that information to create new knowledge. He has an incredible work ethic. I have never had to follow up on anything that I have tasked him to do. It always just appears on time. The past five years of getting to know him and working with him have been an absolute pleasure. I have learned so much from him, both professionally and personally. His dedication, grit, integrity, and pursuit of excellence are simply inspirational.

“Ali is destined for bigger things in life. I am just the wind beneath his wings. That's a very small contribution to the embodiment of excellence that he is.”

Having interacted with Jaffery for many years on Twitter, and during a 2021 summer CSSPR fellowship and two events at the UoL in February and December 2022, I observed a few utterly remarkable things about him—his unwavering attention to his subjects of interest, his voracious reading, his preparedness on every occasion, his effortless ability to interact with people of all ages and sensibilities, and his huge popularity with students and staff at UoL. Jaffery is unassuming but startlingly brilliant. He walks with a slight limp, but his stride is self-assured. He types with one finger, but his writing has a distinct clarity, conviction, and meticulousness of an erudite scholar. He talks softly but his words carry substance.

Jaffery is an inspiration—for those with a disability, for the young with a dream, for those who wish to excel, for those who exist to do, in their own way, their best for humanity.

For Gulf News, I asked Syed Ali Zia Jaffery a few questions:

Mehr Tarar: What is your earliest memory of having a physical difficulty in doing what you wanted to do? What was your reaction? How did your parents deal with your condition?

Syed Ali Zia Jaffery: The frosty winds of the Quetta valley were unkind to me, for it was in that very place I contracted meningitis as a four-month-old. I do not have any memory of the time I was not handicapped, one way or the other. I could barely see anything; my right hand and leg were incapacitated. Because I grew up with this set of deformities, I didn’t ever picture my life without it.

That said, I do lament the fact that I couldn’t become an army officer like my grandfather, father, and brother.

Obviously, my parents were petrified when my doctors told them to prepare for the worst. They, however, showed courage and perseverance.

As luck would have it, I was able to dodge many a bullet and navigate through various difficulties. That my brain remained unaffected by that virulent disease is something that I consider Allah’s biggest blessing.

Were you a happy child, a happy teenager? Describe your family’s role in the development of your emotional strength.

I was and am the baby of the family; my siblings, even today, call me their baby brother. Yes, I was a happy, confident, and simple child and teenager. Indeed, my mother and siblings gave me an ideal environment to grow and strengthen.

I would be remiss if I do not mention the indelible impact my late father had on me. He taught it all to me—prioritizing Pakistan, being truthful, and adhering to honesty, come what may. I was trained to be respectful, resolute, principled.

Also, I was absolutely driven by the belief that I must own whatever I do in life. I think that has really helped me become who I am today.

Was school a good place for you?

I did everything that others did. I played cricket better than most children. I gave everything my best because I wanted to be the best, not because I wanted to make up for my deformity.

There were also some not-so-happy moments. In 2006, I went for my school's cricket tournament trials only to be told by my sports teacher, “No, beta, I admire your energy, but you cannot play." I left in a huff because I thought I was good enough to play, but I knew I wasn't even given a chance because of my disability. I felt really bad, but the episode soon dissipated from my memory because my peers always had words of encouragement for me.

When my friends used to play basketball, I only clapped for them.

Yes, I couldn’t and can’t do things like trekking or extreme sports. I’m still not able to drive or ride a motorbike.

Despite people’s advice to take waivers and concessions because of my disability, I didn’t take any extra support during my O and A level exams. I took the exams the way everybody else did. I didn’t ask for extra time, I didn’t ask for special arrangements.

My main story is that I didn’t get perturbed or overwrought by my condition. I continued like any other student and gave my schooling my best.

What is the story of your love for knowledge and education?

I owe my love for knowledge and education to my father. He was unfailingly attentive to me. He trained me how to speak, read, and write. At a very young age, he disciplined me to read books and discuss them with him; he wanted me to compete and give it my best.

My entire family inculcated in me that education would be my biggest asset, as it could take me places. Now I realize that everyone who played a part in helping me get quality education was really sincere to my wellbeing.

My mother was keen on me studying in a prestigious school, so I went to one of the best schools in the country, something that saddled my aging father. But he ensured that I completed my education. Later, my caring siblings helped my dad pay my fee.

My family was and remains invested in my success.

You achieved a great deal at a young age. Academics, love for reading and writing, interaction with students and scholars, and a significant career. Do you ascribe your success to a single motivational factor or multiple ones?

I am a trier who believes in the need for constant improvement. Whatever little that I have achieved is a product of my passion. I firmly believe that one should always strive to show up and win by fair means. One should dream big and try to achieve targets. To have no drive is just not an option for me.

As for those who motivate me to take the plunge, I want to take two names as they inspire me all the time.

My two-person list is topped by the inimitable Dr Rabia Akhtar. A trailblazer all the way, Dr Akhtar has been a revelation for me. I have been mentored, supported, and guided by her. She has been instrumental in shaping me not only as a strategic studies watcher but also as an individual. I, therefore, try to emulate her. I feel really proud to see her go places, and I challenge myself to do the same in future.

The next person on my list is the one and only Imran Khan. There are a few people who are able to attain greatness in diametrically different careers. Khan has inspired a generation and is now an embodiment of hope for us all. If anyone could teach me tenacity, it is Imran Khan. Whenever I feel a tad despondent, I recall him saying “hopelessness is a sin.” I tell myself that all of us should keep trying; giving up would simply not cut it.