My article on a journalist, activist, humanist, friend, eternal optimist and conflicted human being who left us forever recently. Illustrations by Feica. Scroll.in published a slightly abbreviated version titled ‘Journalist, optimistic rebel who stood up to General Zia’s excesses’, breaking the text up with sub-heads that I’ve used in the full text below. Their intro: “Haider Rizvi was a Pakistani journalist and activist who passed away in Lahore on October 29. His three-decade-long journalistic career began in Pakistan. He moved to the US in the mid-1990s and covered the United Nations, before returning to Pakistan in 2013 and taking up a job as a lecturer. He was 52.”
Haider, jigar, are you at peace now?
The ironies of life had their fun with Haider Rizvi and he laughed right back at them. They included this most gentle and secular of humanists being beaten up in Lahore as a college student in the 1980s, Gen. Zia’s Pakistan, by ‘Islamic’ activists for his fiercely progressive politics, and then in 2001, in post 9/11 New York for being Pakistani and Muslim, identities that he shrugged off.
The last beating contained the further irony that Haider had been reporting on the post-9/11 hate crimes taking place. Now, he became the story, as Somini Sengupta reported in New York Times.
“Are you from Pakistan? Are you Muslim?” asked the men accosting him.
Anyone with a modicum of self-preservation would have given a short, if false answer and got out of their way. Not Haider, not in the state he usually was in the early hours.
His explanation about being an atheist from the Indus Valley and his love for all peoples meant nothing to them. They beat him black and blue, knocked out a front tooth and left him unconscious. He woke up at New York Methodist Hospital.
“He was so angry about his tooth, but more devastated that his ‘brown brothers’ (his assailants were Hispanic) did not see the parallels between white America’s treatment of Latinos and their treatment of him that night. Even in the midst of pain and crisis, he was always a brother to all people and had such incredible insight to the human condition,” recalls Helen Linda, his librarian friend from Vermont who lived nearby.
Haider could have milked the ‘Muslim beaten up… ‘ card but when the editor of an Indian publication asked him to write a personal essay about being a Muslim in America, he replied asking if she’d like a piece on “what it’s like to be an atheist living in the United States”.
Some time after that attack Haider shaved off his trademark beard. But the incident did nothing to reduce his cheerful self-destructiveness. He did soften some of his stances over the years, for instance accepting the human need for prayer but praying to ‘Mother Nature’ was as far as he could go.
Bred on politics
Haider’s political consciousness was formed as a student during the pro-democracy, anti-martial law struggle of the early 1980s. As another journalist Saqlain Imam, now with the BBC notes, “For him that struggle never ended.”
Lahore-based activist and writer Farrukh Sohail Goindi recalls Haider at age 14 in an organisation they were both members of, the Children’s Peoples Party in Sargodha. Back then Haider had written a poem on Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the elected prime minister that the Zia regime hanged in 1979 on trumped up murder charges. He recited the poem to Goindi in his booming voice just three days before he died last week.
I remember a procession to welcome Benazir Bhutto to Lahore in the late 1980s or early 1990s that Haider and I went to together, amidst crowds of people. The heady, electric atmosphere, full of music and slogans, laughter and excitement, spelled hope, almost like a pilgrimage, homage to the promise of freedom and democracy, after 11 long years of military rule.
Like many others, I was “jigar” for Haider — his favourite term of endearment– meaning, “comrade” (the Urdu/Punjabi word literally means ‘liver’, associated with courage).
For Turkish journalist Özlem Şahin Şakar, bureau chief of Anadolu Agency who shared an office space with Haider at the UN between 2006-2011, he was “like a brother”. He also called her “comrade” and “jigar” — in Turkish, ciğer, same meaning.
Haider himself was a “jigar” — passionate and courageous, someone who “always believed in the youth, always optimistic about life and the future despite all the difficulties,” as Şakar says.
The difficulties included often not having money to pay the rent and literally being homeless. Friends did help him out and had him stay at their homes but his self-destructiveness would push them to the limit. In this he reminded many of his close friend, the late journalist Zafaryab Ahmed. Both were brilliant, humanist, pluralist, secular, unfettered minds and souls who rose above religious, nationalist and ethnic prejudices stereotypes. Maybe their recklessness stemmed from being unable to handle the injustices of society, compounded by brutalities and repression imposed by decades of military rule.
Perhaps the fatal brain hemorrhage that took Herald Editor Razia Bhatti from us and the heart attack that claimed journalist and co-director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Aziz Siddiqui, were also a result of such stresses imposed by a stifling, militarised, hyper-religious order. They were progressive, secular Pakistanis too, but without that wild streak.
Those who share these values and continue to fight oppression do get, as our friend the radio journalist Murtaza Solangi says, “broken from inside”.
Haider dismissed friends’ suggestions to get help. He was too intelligent not to know that alcoholism is a curable illness and that there are ways to deal with depression, frustration, pain, sadness, anger and hurt without harming yourself. He also knew that his excessive behavior pushed people away, but he never held it against them.
Haider, the journalist
None of this takes away from his brilliance as a journalist, a career he began in the mid-1980s. Starting out, Haider worked for short stints at The Nation (he resigned rather than leave the journalists’ union as the editor demanded), Lahore; The Muslim, Islamabad; The Frontier Post, Peshawar; and Dawn, Karachi.
In 1993, he began freelancing for InterPress Service (IPS), the Rome-based wire service that I also wrote for. He continued writing for IPS after moving to New York shortly afterwards with activist Sameena Nazir who he was then married to. In NY, he was based at the United Nations headquarters, reporting for IPS till 2012, not limiting himself to Pakistan or South Asia.
“Haider’s writings faithfully reflected the causes he fought for. He passionately advocated the rights of African-Americans, Hispanic minorities and native Americans in the US and indigenous people in Latin America; highlighted student protests in the US; advocated the Palestinian’s right to statehood; battled for the eradication of hunger and poverty in the developing world; joined the global campaign for nuclear disarmament; and covered the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests (which for him, also meant ‘Un-Occupy Palestine’),” writes Thalif Deen, U.N. Bureau Chief for IPS.
His reports can also be heard on Free Speech Radio News, where he reported from 2002 until 2009, and at the website of the Daily Times in Pakistan.
“I love my work more than anything else,” he wrote in an email of June 2013 from New York, shortly before returning to Pakistan for good.
Unwelcome in Pakistan
After losing his office space at the UN – where he would sleep overnight when he didn’t have money for rent — he flew to Nepal at the end of 2011, to do some reporting. He wanted to write about climate change, glacier melt in the Himalayas and its impact on the economic and social conditions of the working people of Nepal and Pakistan. “Nepal is suffering from severe lack of electricity and water due to mismanagement of natural resources. For more than 10 hours a day there is no electricity, so there is no way to way communicate with the outside world via phone or computers…”
In Kathmandu on his American passport, he also planned to get a visa for Pakistan for his first visit after two decades. However, Pakistan’s behind-the-scenes bureaucratic-security establishment wall, sources told us, blocked the visa. Haider had no papers to prove his Pakistani origins, having lost his Pakistani passport and identity card years ago in New York. Many influential journalists and political leaders tried to help, but all efforts were stymied because, sources said, the intelligence agencies had “files” on him.
More ironies. The Pakistani ‘establishment’ was suspicious of his borderless politics and Indian connections – though he was as critical of India’s abuse of human rights as of Pakistan’s. And a Nepali editor told him, “no job for a Pakistani. Sorry. If you were an Indian, we would give you a job”.
Running out of money, he was in dire straits in Nepal for three months. His maverick behaviour couldn’t have helped. Eventually friends in New York paid for his air ticket back to New York.
He wrote a long email to me while heading back to the USA in January 2012.
“What the hell? I admit my mistake. I had gone way ahead in demonstrating my commitment to internationalism (please check my reporting on Bolivia and United Nations, Siberia, Easter Island),” he wrote.
“I didn’t report on global issues with any kind of intention to win an award. It was for others to determine what the heck I was doing at the UN as an international journalist. In 2009, out of thousands of colleagues around the world, your jigar received the Project Censored Award for reporting on Indigenous Peoples Rights and Climate Change negotiations” (the IPS website says he won this award twice).
Nepal was painfully so near and yet so far from Pakistan. “It was an extremely emotional moment for me when the plane from kathmandu was flying above our sindh last Tuesday. i wanted to jump out of the plane to see my PAF school in Korangi air base and the Press Club in Karachi where I had so many joyful evenings with friends and colleagues,” he wrote.
Back in the USA, he eventually obtained a visa for Pakistan. After an initial visit, he decided to go back and work there. He messaged me wondering how he “would be able to deal with this complex society after 21 years of absence”.
He taught at the Mass Communication department at Karakoram International University in Gilgit for a semester. Loved living there, loved teaching and his students. In March 2015, he messaged that he had joined Punjab University as a lecturer teaching two courses, Academic Writing and Thesis Writing.
He was beside himself when Sabeen was shot dead in Karachi. In tears, he messaged that he had gone to the Lahore Press Club but couldn’t find people there to commiserate with. “i really don’t know why there is so much apathy. i am angry and in grief,” he wrote.
“We need to be more organised,” I replied, urging him to stay strong and connect with people who knew Sabeen. “Cry, rage. But let it move to a positive direction, never let her killers win.”
“She has won,” he replied. “You will win.”
Barely a month later, at the end of April, he landed in hospital after the counter-weight of a traffic barrier broke his right leg. This was at the Lahore Railway Station at around midnight, as the barrier opened to allow a vehicle through. A four-hour surgery ended with a contraption that Haider hated, heavy metal rings clamped into the flesh.
For some months, Haider had been staying at the house of journalist Shafqatullah. Now, another journalist, Imran Bajwa, took Haider to stay in one of his offices, reasoning that there would always be someone around in the day, while a caretaker who lived on the premises would tend to him at night. A glass partition in one of the rooms marked Haider’s sleeping space from the living area.
“I have never seen friends look after other friends the way that Imran Bajwa and Shafqatullah and others did with Haider,” says young broadcast journalist Ajmal Jami.
More ironies. It was the caretaker who found Haider early that morning. The glass partition was found shattered, perhaps hit by Haider’s walking stick as he got up in the middle of the night. A 2-inch cut on an artery in Haider’s heel had bled excessively.
When the plaster cast was removed on September 23, Haider had shared a photo of himself triumphantly holding it aloft like a trophy, displaying the drawings on it by Feica, the veteran political cartoonist. I had forgotten that they were old friends until Haider sent me an earlier photograph of the two of them together after Feica had drawn on the cast with black permanent marker.
The final irony
On October 28, five months after the accident, Haider walked without support for the first time. He walked to a nearby park on his own, bought a dozen red roses to thank Imran Bajwa for looking after him, called friends to come over and celebrate his return to health.
And then: the final irony – another accident that ended his life that night — just as things were just starting to go right for him. Haider’s love for poetry, painting, and photography were flowering and maturing. He was teaching and he loved it. He had found a soul mate who also cared for him. He was so happy to finally able to walk on his own.
“He was so full of life and so looking forward to being healthy and going about on his own,” says journalist and documentary filmmaker Khalid Hussain, with whom Haider had spent an evening in Islamabad just two weeks earlier.
An egalitarian, beautiful soul full of love for all life, humans, animals, plants, that was Haider.
“A whirling dervish,” Saqlain Imam termed him in a moving note after Haider died. “If God ever decided to send him to heaven for his love to humanity, he would refuse it because most of this poverty-stricken humanity would be in hell for their petty crimes to fill their stomachs.”
In their last conversation on messenger Saqlain told him “I’ve never met anyone truer than you and more resilient than you!”
“Don’t tell anyone. They become jealous. Keep it in your heart,” replied Haider.
Now I can imagine him chiding his friends for grieving at his departure, including those who avoided him or had distanced themselves but never stopped caring for him, as he knew.
“I love you all, it’s going to be ok, my brothers and sisters, comrades, we will win,” I can hear him say in his booming voice with his wide smile, arms outstretched in that characteristic ‘gimme-a-hug’ pose.
Are you at peace now, jigar?
Haider Rizvi, Oct 3, 1963- Oct 29, 2015. Friends in New York are organising a Memorial Event for him on November 29, 4-6 pm in Brooklyn. Those interested in attending please RSVP to Partha Banerjee, activist and long-time friend of Haider’s who wrote this touching tribute to his Pakistani brother. A slightly edited version was published in Aman ki Asha.