I know Syed Talha Ahsan as a friend and in his capacity as a writer and commentator on Islamic issues, current affairs and the plight of those facing injustice. I found him to be a sincere, caring and rational person. He was one who consistently provided a voice for those less fortunate or those facing oppression.
To speak to, he is a gentle man, soft spoken and someone very careful and thoughtful in his words. In many ways quiet but clearly a man of deep reflection.
Someone concerned with current and community affairs that would highlight and encourage others to support those facing difficulties.
In terms of his Islamic writings and views I found him to be balanced and studious in his approach to issues and discussions. He was someone who would speak out and attempt to calmly correct the misunderstandings of the impetuous, over zealous or the hot-headed. He actively sought to remove extremism from within the Muslim community. I believe him and his talent for writing to have been an asset to Muslims trying to reclaim ground from extremists.
I was utterly astounded that he has been portrayed in such a negative light by US authorities seeking to extradite him and had the implications of the charges for Talha’s future not been so serious, I would have heartedly laughed at how erroneously and inappropriately levelled they had been at such a gentle and caring man.
Talha is a beautiful and talented individual and is truly a sad loss to a community sorely in need of guidance and leaders. He is missed and never forgotten, and I can only pray that the injustice that has befallen him come to a speedy end and that he be returned to his family and friends.
I first met Talha in 1999 when we were undergraduates reading Arabic at SOAS. We spent a year in Damascus together where he was my neighbour and honorary flatmate. I learnt two things that year, far from the madding crowds of London’s streets and its approximation of fresh air, it was this: first, “home” is not a place but only our proximity to our loved ones; second, Talha was more than just a bearded young man. He was the unrestrained laughter, and the easy silence, one can only share with very close friends.
I remember the many evenings and nights we spent in conversations ranging from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (yes, we saw much of ourselves in the Iqbals) to Al-Qaeda (no, we saw nothing of ourselves in Bin Laden). I remember our visit to the north of Syria during Ramadan that year, to Apamea and Crac des Chevaliers, the little kids who looked at us with astonishment for they had never seen brown faces before. I remember the bags of washing he would bring to my flat because mine came with a washing machine and his did not. I remember the afternoon we sat by the window of my kitchen and he pointed to the mountain and said, “I want to see what this city looks like from up there”, and up there we went. And I remember – but how can I forget? – the money he lent me, without a second thought, after my wallet was stolen in Beirut. I remember because the scent of these memories still hangs in my hair, and the sound of his laughter still fills my ears.
More than a decade later and what I miss most about my friend – above his disarming intelligence and his sweet eccentricities – is his childlike heart. Nobody who met him – our teachers, our classmates, the concierge of my apartment block, the café owners who sated our thirst for mint tea on many an ocassion and the many friends we made in Damascus that year – ever had a bad word to say against him. They all loved him who knew him: for his intelligence, his humour, his gentleness and his integrity.
In his poem, Lines for Akkas – boon companion, he said: “If he was a bint I would marry him.” If I were a bint, I would have said yes.
Playwright & Director
I have yet to meet Talha but I have been acquainted with him for many years. I knew Talha as Syed after he introduced himself in a phone call as a volunteer for a human rights group. He knew that I did my best to help the men detained under the Terrorism Act 2001 and Syed stepped forward to offer his support. These detainees had just won their release from indefinite detention in the High Court and had been placed under strict control orders and were in desperate need of human contact. In the few months between their release and their re arrest by the Immigration authorities, Syed called them often to assure them that people did care and they were not alone. I knew by then that Syed was an exceptional man who was fearless in his obligation to support fellow Muslims in times of need.
When HHUGS put out an appeal with the distressing news of Talha Ahsan, a young Muslim who had been arrested and threatened with extradition to America, I wrote him a letter. I will never forget my shock when he replied that we were already acquainted and he was Syed Talha Ahsan. So surprising was this news, that my North African friends thought I was mistaken. But sadly it was true – our dear friend Talha was now in Belmarsh High Security Prison.
Over the years of his detention we have written back and forward although there were times when Talha went quiet and months passed without his interesting and amusing letters. I knew that he had lost his will to write but in recent times Talha is back again. So similar are his days, I could understand if Talha had little to write about yet he always finds interesting things to discuss. Talha is an academic who undoubtedly benefits from intellectual debate but, with me, he is happy to respond to the commonplace issues that surround my day and he shares amusing anecdotes of his own. Talha has used his lengthy time in prison in such a positive manner; facing each day with fortitude and taking benefit from the small mercies he finds there.
I tend to wonder if Talha’s circumstances would be different if he was not such a unique and thoroughly decent young man who sought to help those less fortunate than himself. I find it unbearable that Talha could end up in an American Supermax prison but remain hopeful that he will get justice in the UK, return home and with time recover from his horrendous ordeal.
SACC (Scotland Against Criminalising Communities)
I find it incomprehensible that Talha should be in prison and facing extradition to the US. As a citizen of the UK Talha should have the protection of our government and if there are any charges to be faced they should be faced here where there is some chance of justice for a Muslim – not that I believe for one second that Talha would do anything illegal for he is an honest, decent and upright young man as all who know him will testify.