A diverged family converges at Harvard Law

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 in juridical science (S.J.D.); Zaman arrived in August to begin a year of study for a Master of Laws (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 shook hands and said hello at a Graduate Program reception. “If we hadn’t been wearing nametags, what happened next might never have happened,” says Zaman. Sattar’s large, expressive eyes are glittering, but she wants Zaman to tell the story, because she tells it better.

“My surname is Zaman, and it’s a very unusual surname for a white-appearing Australian to have,” explains Zaman. “So when they saw my nametag, 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.’ We both laughed, and I said, ‘Maybe. It’s a strange story.’”

courtesy of Farida Said

Ahsan Zaman, great- grandfather of Erum Khalid Sattar and Rebecca Zaman. He was given the title Nawab Ahsan Yar Jung Bahadur by the Nizam of Hyderabad.

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.

When she got to this point, Zaman remembers, “Erum’s expression was just very strange. And she said, ‘Do you know your grandfather’s name?”’

“Yes, his name is Waheed Zaman. He has a brother named Viqar Zaman.”

“And Viqar is married to Rosy.”

“Yes! I met Rosy in Singapore a few years ago. How do you know her?”

“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, and a classmate took a treasured photo of the two cousins at that very moment, holding their nametags up and smiling. Looking back, they remember hearing similar family stories, and meeting Great-Uncle Viqar, but they never knew about each other.

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 father and his Pakistani family; eventually, he married a British woman and moved to Australia.

courtesy of Farida Said

1939 Egypt: The first stop of the family’s grand tour of Europe which had to be abandoned because the Second World War broke out. Seated on camels are Sattar and Zaman’s great-grandfather Nawab Ahsan Yar Jung, great-grandmother Afsar Jahn Begum and their eldest daughter, Sattar’s grandmother, Noorjahan Ashraf Said. On horseback are the cousins’ great-aunt and great-uncle, Neyyar Ehsan Rashid and Viqar Zaman, and Waheed Zaman, Rebecca Zaman’s grandfather.

When they emigrated, Zaman’s parents traveled overland, visiting India and Pakistan; her father recalls playing with a group of children, Sattar’s cousins possibly among them. And Sattar recently met Zaman’s grandfather, who has reconnected, later in life, with his sons and his family in Pakistan.

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. (“As a child, I heard stories that my great-grandmother was a princess,” Zaman laughs, “but I said, ‘Oh, yeah, sure.’”) Sattar is quick to describe her family’s deep respect for culture and learning, their book-lined rooms, and a revered uncle’s insistence 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 both women, the story of how they met, as joyful and crazy as it is, 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. “For us, there’s this lovely family relationship that we now have, and that we’ll build upon. But we’re also looking at each other as unique, interesting, individual adults who happen to be related,” says Sattar.

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.

—Audrey Kunycky