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Fields of vision

A son pays tribute to an intellectual and eclectic man whose early ambition to build Pakistan’s first nuclear bomb led him to earn a PhD in nuclear engineering—only to shun nuclear weapons and instead introduce the internet and private satellite systems to his country.

Altamash Kamal in 2006
Altamash Kamal in 2006, taken by his son.Maazin Kamal

One of the most vivid memories of my childhood is sitting in front of a television screen, watching snowy static, while Baba shuffled in and out of my field of vision. He would poke some buttons on a black box and then make his way up to the roof. The box controlled the satellite dish, and he’d built them both. Eventually, a CNN news story or Michael Jackson would crystallize, as if by magic. This success was savored momentarily—until he zipped about again, poking in new numbers to track the next elusive satellite. 

My father, Altamash Kamal, SM ’80, ScD ’82, was a nuclear engineer, technology entrepreneur, and photographer who once thought he’d build his country’s first nuclear bomb. Bringing information and entertainment via private satellite dishes may sound like plain vanilla stuff, but this was new and groundbreaking in 1980s Pakistan. 

After completing his studies at MIT and returning to Karachi in the early 1980s, he believed that a viable nuclear energy program, with appropriate safeguards, was a necessity for Pakistan. He had also decided that he would not take part in developing nuclear weapons. With moral and financial support from my grandmother and my mother, he acquired his first IBM computer and taught himself programming. To everyone’s amusement, his first program optimized the nutritional content of chicken feed. 

Bored with the options on Pakistan Television, he designed, built, and programmed his own satellite dish and receiver system. The US consul general in Karachi found out about this and inquired whether it was possible to pick up the 1987 World Series. This was an interesting challenge: three English-language satellites drifted in a complex pattern, so a tracking system needed to lock the dish onto its moving target to ensure a reliable and steady signal. Baba built a parabolic dish 20 feet in diameter, and the accompanying tracking system, three days before the World Series began. The official was ecstatic, and the tracking system formed the basis for Wavetech, a computer software and export company that introduced private satellite dishes to Pakistan.

With family in Karachi, 1994.
By the Charles River near Tang Hall at MIT, 1979.
Wearing his MIT polo, with his pipe and camera, Thatta, Interior Sindh, Pakistan, 2006.
With family at his son Sameer’s wedding, 2016.
with Wavetech Dish, June 1994.

After expanding Wavetech and then selling his share in the mid-1990s, Baba became curious about a new technology called the internet. He got to experience it firsthand in 1995 during a visit to Austria, where—at the foot of the Alps—he logged on, skipped dinner, and stayed online until 3 a.m. He called my mother in Karachi and told her: “I have discovered what I was born for.” He believed that the internet was, at its most fundamental, about empowerment. 

This belief sparked his next company, Xibercom, one of the first internet-­focused companies in Pakistan, which provided web development and software services. Early clients included Citibank and the Dawn Group of Newspapers. Xibercom launched the weekly Dawn Wire Service—a free, email-based news service—and later the website. He founded Spider, “Pakistan’s Internet Magazine,” where as executive editor he advocated, with some success, for liberal internet and telecommunication policies free from government meddling and censorship. He believed that the internet must be open and accessible to prepare Pakistan for the coming information age and used Spider to introduce and explain this technology to the public.  

Building on Xibercom’s success, he next launched, an e-commerce website targeted at expatriate Pakistanis. Desistore started with Pakistani books and music, two things he had missed most during his own years outside the country. By the early 2000s, it was up and running, and it soon expanded into other products, such as cricket kits, wedding accessories, and the lota (a teapot-shaped portable bidet, described by an overenthusiastic staffer as having “optimum accuracy”). 

He gradually wrapped up the software development work with Xibercom and rediscovered photography, a passion he had developed in his early teens. Among his favorite works were candid portraits taken in interior Sindh and a haunting series on addiction, which echoed his own lifelong struggles. 

He participated in several group exhibitions and then held his own show, “Mien,” in 2008 at the Canvas Gallery in Karachi. He proudly told his family and friends that it was his first solo exhibition, anticipating more. But it was to be his last—the following year, a stroke caused him to lose movement on the left side of his body. 

His personal and professional lives had remained deeply intertwined for most of his life. Many of Baba’s companies started—and, in some cases, ended—at our house. The children were always involved. Baba always had a dedicated study at home for his late-night research, fueled by copious amounts of instant black coffee and his pipe. 

But there were some notable contradictions between those lives. When it came to work, he was meticulous about time. His colleague shared an incident in which he walked out of a meeting requested by an IT minister because the minister was five minutes late. But the father we knew at home routinely overslept, was often late to sports and school events, and frequently risked missing his flights (on more than one occasion because of a last-minute haircut). 

He valued authenticity in the company he kept. His diverse groups of friends included businessmen, artists, journalists, academics, and others. A few all-weather friends continued to visit regularly even after his left side became paralyzed, and through the subsequent strokes and hospitalizations over the years. 

Into the last decade-plus of his life, when he required a wheelchair, he was full of wisdom, wit, and good cheer. He read extensively, requesting all visitors to bring him books and magazines (and, if they could be smuggled past the nurse on duty, cigarettes). He would eagerly await the arrival of The Economist on Sunday, and he followed both the stock market and the (mis)fortunes of the Pakistan cricket team. 

He would often reminisce fondly about his years at MIT. My own experience as a graduate student shared similarities with his. Like him, I had to contend with exam questions the professors themselves didn’t know the answers to. I made long treks in the snow to and from Tang Hall, spent many late nights on campus fueled by caffeine and tobacco, and enjoyed an occasional quiet weekend afternoon at Café Algiers in Harvard Square. 

On occasion, Baba would revisit the intricate details of his doctoral research on the efficiency of nuclear reactors—much of which was incomprehensible to me until he explained it with razor-sharp clarity.

The last year of Baba’s life was the toughest. Another stroke took away his ability to speak and write. He remained connected to the world through his iPad, poking around and exploring the different corners of the now-ubiquitous internet, the technology he once introduced and explained to Pakistan.

He sent me messages from that iPad almost every day—a free-flowing continuum of garbled letters and numbers. They were as incomprehensible to me as the HTML code he used to write a results tracking tool for the 1997 Pakistani general election. 

Maybe, in the fullness of time, he will find a way to explain these final messages to me too.

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