A few days back I attended a seminar on Islamic Banking. Well for the uninitiated, let me clear doubts right away. It's got nothing to do with funding terrorism. Islamic banking is all about following the Sharia' laws, which of course finds its roots in Islam and the Quran. The seminar was about Islamic banking and how it is better than conventional banking.
Well I digress. I am here to write on first impressions. So Samir (my client servicing director), Trevor (Group Account Director) and I decided to attend this seminar, which was supposed to last 2 hours. Well at 6:00pm, it's not the most exciting way to spend your evening. But hey, I handle HSBC, and therefore I am compelled to attend. Whether I like it or not. Its times of recession and I better show extra interest and enthusiasm towards my work.
So we head out to knowledge village, aptly named because of the number of universities that are bunched together here. Frankly I wasn’t expecting many people to attend. I mean how many people would be interested on a talk about Islamic Banking? I was imagining myself, Samir and Trevor in a room full of empty chairs and the speaker talking to us. And if he turned out to be one of those chirpy, interactive ones, he just might point out at me and ask me questions on what he just spoke.
We near the registration desk and my fears seemed to be true. I take a peek into the seminar room and the bloody room is empty. We were the first ones. I feared we would be the last too. I just resigned myself to my fate, filled my details in the registration form and took my seat in the hall. Sam and Trev, dutifully sat on the 2nd row. Damn.
I took the seat next to Trev.
The time was 5:55pm. I was expecting a few more atleast. But the next 10 minutes completely took me by surprise. There were already around 40 in the room! And a good mix. Indians, Westerners, Arabs, Africans. I thought to myself "Well…."
I saw a person who I thought was the speaker. He was speaking to a guy in a uniform who looked like the technical guy who sets up projectors and laptops before a seminar. And he was selecting white board markers. He was in casual gabardines, linen shirt and looked like one of those cool professors I never had. I looked around the room and took in the profile of people attending. Mostly suits, a few kandooras, a couple of ladies in abaya and a man in a pathan suit, with a big beard, looking like one of those radical mullahs of a madrasa, that you see from time to time on CNN or BBC, yelling at other similar bearded men demanding them to wipe out the infidels.
I thought to myself "Quite a crowd". "I hope I don’t doze off". Would have been quite a crime considering I was on the 2nd row. For the record, there was not a single person who took the first row. So we were literally the first row.
It was 6:15pm. The guy in the khaki gabardines was standing on the dais, pacing slowly. Allowing everyone to settle. Then he walked off solemnly to the back of the room.
A person in a suit walks up to the mike. Clears his throat and delivers the opening speech. "Ladies and Gentlemen. Thank you for your presence today. We have amongst us a great personality today. Mr. Atif Khan. He brings to us his rich experience on banking. His conventional finance experience includes investment banking at Morgan Stanley in New York and London, executing mergers and acquisitions and corporate finance transactions, and Chief Financial Officer of Iprox Limited in London. Atif earned a Bachelor’s summa cum laude from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a Master’s from Harvard University. Before becoming MD of Islamicadvisory.com, he has worked closely with Islamic financial institutions on product development, Atif studied the Shariah sciences for five years in Pakistan, the last years of which were spent one-on-one with some of the world’s leading Islamic finance scholars. Today he will speak about Islamic banking. So without much ado, I present to you, Mr. Atif. Atif the stage is yours. Thank you".
I hear faint footsteps. And lo and behold, who do I see taking the stage!
The young bearded radical mullah! I was shocked.
I suddenly hear a perfect American accent wafting from his direction. I was confused. Here was a man, who had a long flowing beard, he was in a Pathan suit, with a black sleeveless cashmere coat on top of it, wearing sandals. And he has an American accent. Perfect English. He had my complete attention. And how!
After speaking for about 10 minutes he clears his throat. Cracks a joke about how he just delivered a 2 hour speech before this. And that his throat is sore. Asks for a glass of water from a person sitting at the back. And who walks up with a glass of water?
The cool looking professor in gabardines. Ah! How wrong I was.
He went on to deliver one of the better seminars I have attended. He explained in very simple terms what Islamic banking was and what it is based on, its foundations. And his delivery was perfect, his humour; self deprecating, casual. He in fact even cracked a couple of contextual jokes on Muslims and how the world looks at all of them as terrorists! I mean how many of them would do that? Not sure how the muslims in the room took it though. Because I thought I heard a few uncomfortable laughs.
I was quite amazed at the end of it all. He almost convinced me that Islamic banking is better than conventional banking. But like most things in my life, all my brilliant queries and doubts on any topic comes a good 2 days after I have had the discussion / attended a seminar. Anyway, I answered my own queries and decided I will stick to conventional banking.
But coming to the point. First impressions can be deceptive. I had made up my mind about quite a few things that day. My first impression about a topic like Islamic banking that no one would be there to attend it. My first impression about the guy in the gabardines. My first impression of Atif.
I thought of this guy as a radical Islamic mullah of a madrasa, who goaded blood thirsty Jihadis to their deaths. But he turned out to be someone completely different from what I had assumed. Like the saying goes "Don’t judge a book by its cover".
I hope I never fall prey to first impressions again.