Nonfiction: Integrity above all

Zubeida Mustafa book cover

My book review of Zubeida Mustafa’s memoirs, published in Dawn, Books & Authors, 4 February, 2018

My Dawn Years: Exploring Social Issues
By Zubeida Mustafa
Paramount, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9696374046; 240pp.

When a pioneering journalist pens her memoirs, you pay attention. Especially when she is Zubeida Mustafa of Pakistan, a long-time feminist and champion of social causes who, from her editorial perch at the daily Dawn, witnessed momentous transitions in the country’s media and political landscapes for over three decades. Beyond being a witness to change, she has also, as she realises with a thrill, “been a part of it, at times driving it and at times being driven by it.”

The narrative in this slim hardcover, My Dawn Years: Exploring Social Issues, is quintessential Zubeida Mustafa: direct, understated, deep, nuanced, thorough — and meticulously indexed. Black and white photos, though somewhat grainy, are well captioned, providing a pictorial reference to many of the events and people mentioned in the book.

The strong thread of honesty and integrity running throughout is unsurprising. These are values which the writer cherishes highly. “It is integrity that needs to be safeguarded,” she observes at the end of the chapter ‘Travels and People’, commenting on two greats from India she met: journalist Khushwant Singh and writer Qurratulain Hyder. “That is what matters in the end.”

Mustafa’s unique insights and wisdom pepper her memoir as she explores myriad issues ranging from socio-economic and political changes to changes in the profession she accidentally found herself part of.

Zubeida-HasinaMoin-pic AsifHamdani-WhiteStar

Zubeida Mustafa with playwright Hasina Moin. File photo: Asif Hamdani, White Star

What I enjoyed most are the many first-hand accounts and anecdotes, underpinned often by her dry sense of humour. There are countless such nuggets throughout the book relating to years of dictatorship, the women’s movement, the writer’s own attempts to empower her housekeeper — and the candid realisation years later that empowering an individual isn’t sustainable without involving the community — and so much more that make the book a must-read for anyone interested in Pakistan’s history, journalism, politics and issues related to gender and education.

A lovely memory is that of S.M. Mulgaokar, the erudite editor of The Indian Express who was on the One World editorial committee with Mustafa and who, on being roused from “Nodland”, would extricate himself deftly from the discussion with a brisk “No comments.”

Incidents relating to suppression of the media resonate sadly with current times, but what happened then seems almost gentle compared to what we are witnessing now. Mustafa’s editorial on the death sentence of South Korea’s Kim Dae Jung in 1980 “was twice pulled out by a functionary of the Press Information Department as his fertile imagination found too close a parallel between Kim and Bhutto”, both sentenced by a military regime for ‘political crimes’. Yet “another officer — or was it the same person —” passed the same editorial a week later. “Such were the vagaries of censorship which depended on the whims of one person.”

Another example: “An item with the headline ‘MLA shot dead’ had to be removed because an MLA in Pakistan stood for Martial Law Administrator and that might give people ideas. It couldn’t be argued with the censors that the news item was about a Member Legislative Assembly in Bihar, India.”

The good old days, when there was only one source of censorship.

She was in her room a few doors down from the editor’s office when the infamous incident of May 1989 took place: some young men “believed to have some connection” with the MQM barged into the editor’s office and bolted the door from the inside. Terrified, she could hear shouts and screams. On hearing of the drama, proprietor Hameed Haroon rushed down and entered the editor’s room from another door. His large build and “booming voice that can silence any bully” cowed the young men. They “stalked out, threatening to set the building on fire.” This was her first encounter with the threat of physical violence.

What triggered the attack? Twenty-eight years on, scouring the paper of that day, Mustafa could find nothing except a news item about one student group (linked to the PPP) accusing the other (linked to the MQM) of escalating tension after the murder of one of its members. “This was a typical case of my digging up a mountain to find a molehill!”

The narrative, organised thematically rather than chronologically, spans Mustafa’s professional life. Over 30 of those years were at Dawn, from July 1975 to January 2009. She thought about leaving Dawn only once, when former colleagues such as Ghazi Salahuddin, who had joined the new English-language paper started by the Jang Group, tried to lure her away. However, the approach of the manager negotiating her proposed salary — his lack of “the genteel touch” — helped her decide to stay on at Dawn. For Mustafa, old-world values such as “gentlemanliness” always trumped money and opportunity.

Her appreciation of her employers and editors at Dawn and loyalty towards them come across strongly, but Mustafa is not one to blindly overlook flaws and shortcomings. She writes candidly of the irritants and problems she encountered, but never in a complaining way; always with a sense of perspective and a touch of humour.

How she went about teaching herself about the issues she wanted to focus on — such as health and education — that impacted real people, how she struggled to get them into the paper’s main pages overcoming various kinds of resistance, her stance on women’s issues and Pakistan’s relations with India, how she set about reorganising Dawn’s library, and particularly how she got the editor, Ahmed Ali Khan, to agree to having air conditioning installed, all makes for fascinating, and at times amusing, reading.

Mustafa’s narrative stresses the importance of the institution of the editor and keeping the editorial separate from the proprietor and the commercial side of the paper. Working with integrity and dedication, remaining persistent and making your case for what you believe in, compromising and swallowing frustrations and keeping the doors of communication and dialogue open are lessons a discerning reader will learn from her experiences. She illustrates the benefits of the tightrope act in several instances. One example quotes the Dawn editorial when the Zia regime executed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, when proprietor Mahmoud Haroon was part of the military establishment. What Dawn’s critics decry as an overly cautious approach, she concludes is in the long run essential not just to the paper’s reputation, but is also part of a strategy that entails being able to survive without being shut down or rendering people jobless, and living to fight another day.

Not a bad blueprint in general.

The cover of the book features a portrait of Mustafa; her cropped hair now all white, looking out with a forthright gaze from which you would not be able to tell that she’s losing her eyesight — a process she chronicles poignantly and honestly in the book. The waistcoat gives a professional touch. These are things Mustafa won’t say about herself directly, but in case you don’t get it through the written word, the photo also speaks of who she is: an educated woman with the confidence, courage and — as she acknowledges — class privilege to counter social norms in her own understated way, whether it’s wearing her hair short and dispensing with the dupatta or fighting for the rights of the vulnerable.

One doesn’t have to know Mustafa to appreciate that writing about herself didn’t come easily. She is part of a generation where journalists assiduously kept themselves out of the story. She alludes to this difficulty while describing how this book came about, and the people who pulled, pushed and prodded her to write about her journey.

The memoirs chronicle how she began her journey and negotiated her various roles at Dawn, initially as the only woman on the team in July 1975, when then editor Ahmed Ali Khan invited her to join the paper. She started as a leader writer and also produced two pages for the new Dawn Overseas Weekly catering to the growing number of expatriate Pakistanis. Later, she headed the now-defunct One World supplement whose journalistic significance she brings to the fore: an unprecedented collaboration by 15 international publications, focusing on shared global concerns. Something such as this would be most relevant today, given the linked challenges of globalisation, hyper-nationalisms and an increasingly interconnected, yet divided world.

Full disclosure: a personal aspect for me is that Mustafa is someone I have known and looked up to since 1982 when she was a senior colleague at Dawn, and I a lowly intern at the evening paper The Star down the hall. In those days, we didn’t go much for ‘Madams’ or ‘Apas’. The foreword is by Zohra Yusuf, my then editor at the The Star (also always Zohra to me despite her seniority), who urged Mustafa to write this inimitable book.

The reviewer is a journalist and filmmaker from Karachi, editor of Aman Ki Asha, and professor of journalism, most recently at Princeton University and Emerson College, Boston.


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