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Blazing a Trail From Kashmir

An elderly Jewish man with a prosperous belly and a trim, young Muslim man walk into a New York delicatessen … and 55 years later the Muslim man writes a trailblazing autobiography.

He’s in his early 20s, slim and strong, when he leaves his native home in the Vale of Kashmir, a disputed land in the Himalayan foothills between India and Pakistan. He dodges an impending war. He has no formal passport, just an official residency permit which expired many years ago.

Yet, he takes a chance and, amazingly, boards the last flight from Delhi to Lahore before war breaks out …it’s an electrifying moment among many, some heartbreaking, some joyful, others human, all too human.

Those moments lead one to believe that the young man was destined for the future of his adopted home, America, where his grit and pluck, his trysts with good luck, his innate belief in common sense all combined to feed his fire within before the fire could feed on him.

Read, how many years ago the elderly Jewish man saw the hunger in the eyes of the young Muslim man and sent him on a Mission Impossible to Washington D.C.

Muslim man made the impossible possible, earning the trust of his Jewish mentor, Nathan, who, soon after, handed over the captaincy of his quintessentially Yankee company— Ethan Allen (named after a hero of the American Revolution) — that he had founded during the Great Depression to the young Muslim man named Farooq— which in Islamic tradition means “The Redeemer” or “the one who distinguishes between right and wrong.”

Read how Farooq brought his only previous role as captain (of his college cricket team in his native Kashmir) to bear upon his new captaincy of Ethan Allen in Danbury, Connecticut, its headquarters.

Read how Farooq successfully engineered a management buyout from a conglomerate, organized an IPO (ETH) and over a period of several years, reinvented Ethan Allen time and again to appeal first to GenY, then to Gen X and now to the Millennials. Hint: He promised less and delivered more — and he did it every quarter for the last 45 years and counting.

Farooq Kathwari has become over the past 45 years a contemporary American name, at par with traditional names like Flynn, Ferris, and Freddie, perhaps because, a successful immigrant-entrepreneur, he blazed a trail for new odd sounding names to enter the American business Hall of Fame: Ajay Banga, Nikesh Arora, Satya Nadella, Pichai Sundararajan and let’s give a shout out for a girl’s name as well, Indra Nooyi – all captains of leading American companies with billions and trillions in revenue, all blazing new trails.

Read how after the tragic death of his son in Afghanistan, Farooq plunged not into despondency but into diplomacy, advocating peace, and why three recent American Presidents consulted with him about compelling global issues, including the Kashmir dispute, a nuclear flashpoint between an increasingly belligerent India and Pakistan.

Full disclosure: Farooq Kathwari is my older brother who over the years enjoyed telling his stories around the dinner table. Yet, reading those stories now, I was surprised they still evoked strong emotions in me. I once offered Farooq my help because I thought he needed it to write creatively: milk the moments, eschew the ego, dig deeper for more than gold. “You’re too close emotionally,” he said. Perhaps, but I still think with his kid brother’s help Farooq’s gripping story perhaps could have been shortlisted for an award in its category, and Farooq’s usual good luck perhaps would have prevailed. Never mind. He already has a long list of awards.

When, not if, you have the fortitude to nurture the fire within, America, like no other nation on earth, will show you opportunities, even if you’re a Muslim wo/man, particularly in this era of manufactured Islamophobia — and especially because you had the good fortune to meet Nathan Ancell, a zayde who taught you how to acquire a taste for matjes herring on an everything toasted bagel, smeared with homemade mustard, raw onion rings on top, made only, and this is critical, at a traditional delicatessen on the Lower East Side where the first blessed Jewish émigrés made tenements their new homes.

Enough already. Read. Be informed. A trailblazer be.

Rafiq Kathwari is the first Kashmiri-American recipient of the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award.

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