Farewell Saleem Asmi

A quiet warrior slips into the night

Saleem Asmi, Nov. 29, 1934 – Oct. 30, 2020

First published in The News on Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020. Reposted here with more photos.

Saleem Asmi: Portrait by Sharjil Baloch, 2014-2015.

By Beena Sarwar

His old friend S. M. Shahid termed Saleem Asmi a ‘Marxist Sufi’ in his compilation of biographical essays, ‘Living Souls: Memories’. Asmi Sahib would typically brush aside the accolades that came his way, not because he didn’t appreciate himself but because he had no false pride, false humility, or a shred of hypocrisy.

I can imagine his chuckle at the couplet by his favourite poet, chosen by family and friends to inscribe on his gravestone: Ye masaail-e-tassawuf, ye tera byan Ghalib / Tujhey hum vali samajhtalay jo na baada khwar hota (The way you talk of philosophy Ghalib, the mystical way you explain it/ You would have been considered a saint yourself, had your drinking been less.

Karachi circa late 1990s: A historic photo of journalistic greats with friends: L-R – S.M. Shahid, Saleem Asmi, Zawwar Hasan, A.B.S. Jafri, Dr Haroon Ahmed, Iqbal Jafri.

His handlebar moustache and ferocious beard (nattily trimmed in later life), long hair curling over the back of his collar, often in casual t-shirts and jeans — when I first met him in the 1990s Asmi Sahib looked more like the rebellious artist he was at heart than a newspaper editor. His concession to conformity was ‘safari suits’ at work.

Saleem Asmi, Dr Abdullah Mangi, Mazhar Saeed, Dr Jafar Naqvi at my parents’ place in Karachi, August 2008, paying tribute to my father who was suffering from cancer (passed away in May 2009)

Unlike my father’s other friends, he was never “uncle” or “chacha” to me. Just Asmi Sahib. I never heard anyone call him by his first names, Syed Fazle Saleem. I had moved from Karachi to Lahore and was starting life as a journalist when Asmi Sahib reappeared in Pakistan after years of self-exile away from Gen. Zia’s military regime.

Our friend Anis Haroon describes how, as she and her husband Dr Haroon Ahmed were leaving artist Bashir Mirza’s place one night, they heard someone coming up the stairs. A stranger.

Saleem Asmi after his return to Pakistan, pictured with artist K. B. Abro, poet Attiya Dawood and their daughter Soonha Abro, early 1990s.

Then ensued a ‘tamasha’ – a spectacle. Haroon and the newcomer greeted each other delightedly and fell into each other’s arms. Anis remembers her consternation – this unknown man with big ‘wadera’ (landlord) moustaches, being greeted by her husband like an old friend.

“This is Asmi, one of our DSF comrades”, said Dr Haroon. Asmi, working in Dubai as editor of Khaleej Times, had returned to Pakistan in 1988. Winds of change were blowing aside the darkness cast by the Zia years. A new dawn was flickering on the horizon – that elusive dawn we never quite attain, as Faiz Ahmed Faiz has eloquently said.  

I.A. Rehman, Dr M. Sarwar, Saleem Asmi, 1990s musical gathering. S.M. Shahid’s hand visible on the harmonium to the left. Photo by Dr Haroon Ahmed

It took Anis some time to warm to this new old friend who looked a bit like a bandit. But under the gruff exterior was a man with immense wit and charm, open-heartedness, love for art and music, and passion for politics and life. The Haroons reconnected him with my father, Dr M. Sarwar, who had led DSF, the Democratic Students Federation in the 1950s.

I.A. Rehman and Saleem Asmi, 1990s. Photo by Dr Haroon Ahmed

Asmi took quiet pride in terming himself as a worker, not a leader – although he was the DSF President at SM College. After my father passed away in 2009, Asmi Sahib was one of the key DSF activists we interviewed for the documentary film, “Aur Niklenge Ushshaq Ke Qafley” – There Will Be More Caravans of Passion, documenting DSF).

It was Asmi who suggested the title, borrowed from Faiz’s immortal ‘Hum Jo Tareek Rahon Mein Maare Gae (we who were killed in the dark lanes).

Asmi Sahib was an integral part of the 2010 documentary on the Democratic Students Federation that I made together with Sharjil Baloch after my father passed away.
Saleem Asmi in the documentary on DSF, 2010.

The right-wing students would generate propaganda against activists of the short-lived but powerful nationwide movement that peaked in 1953-54, labelling them as Communists. “I never cared if anyone called me that”, said Asmi, half-smile lurking behind the serious exterior, characteristic glint in his eyes.

We connected in many ways, over many issues, and through many friends. He was ‘Asmi Nana’ to my daughter. In fact, he had a special relationship with children and young people in general. Never patronising or condescending, a man of few words, characterised by humility and compassion.

A lighthearted moment at Karachi Press Club last year: Asmi Sahib with his longtime driver and righthand man Sher Alam, Zubeida Mustafa, Mukhtar and Rumana Husain, Khursheed Hyder. His attendants were like sons to him, he told friends on his last return from hospital. Photo: Courtesy Rumana Husain.

Asmi dignified his domestic employees with the same respect he gave children and his peers. They reciprocated in the care and devotion with which they looked after him, particularly as he became immobile and confined to a wheelchair. He bore his ailments and personal discomforts stoically, calmly, even serenely. Never a word of complaint.

‘Saleem Asmi –Interviews, Articles, Reviews’, compiled by S.M. Shahid, 2012.

As editor, he never tried to ‘play boss’, attested journalist Muhammad Ali Siddiqui at the 2012 launch of ‘Saleem Asmi –Interviews, Articles, Reviews’, a book lovingly compiled by S.M. Shahid. (What friends do: Compilation of Saleem Asmi’s writings published, The Express Tribune). Valuable read for all journalists and anyone interested in Pakistani politics, art, music and culture (Our mutual friend Dr Naazir Mahmud describes Asmi Sahib’s engagement with these issues in his remembrance: What we learn from Saleem Asmi).

Asmi started his journalistic career as a trainee sub-editor with The Times of Karachi after obtaining a Masters in English literature from Karachi University. In the early 1960s, he was in Lahore working with the Civil Military Gazette, then joined The Pakistan Times. It was in Lahore that he and I. A. Rehman first met.

Rehman, a few years older, had been with PT since 1951. He recalls that Asmi left PT for a brief stint with PIA Public relations, but soon returned to journalism, joining PT’s ‘Pindi office.

Poster by K.B. Abro, 8 March 2020

Soon after Gen. Ziaul Haq’s military coup in 1977, Asmi was among the journalists arrested for defying the military authorities.

When daily The Muslim was launched in Islamabad in 1978, Asmi was among the launch team, as news editor with editor A. T. Chaudhry. Asmi is credited with designing The Muslim’s first layout, an achievement stemming from meticulous research as I.A. Rehman has outlined in his moving tribute, The end of spring (Dawn, Nov 5, 2020).

It was during this time that their friendship deepened. Rehman, working with NAFDEC, the now defunct National Film Development Corporation, and back in Lahore, would frequently fly to the capital. Asmi would pick him up in his little ‘foxy’, the Volkswagen Beetle. “He’d drive me around all day, then drop me back to the airport”, reminisced Rehman Sahib when we spoke recently. (Rehman Sahib had earlier lived in Islamabad with his family for three years between 1975-78. Those days Asmi Sahib would commute on a Vespa scooter, remembers Rehman Sahib’s son Asha’ar, now editor Dawn Lahore).

Last year, Karachi Press Club honoured Saleem Asmi and his services to journalism. Photo: White Star; report in Dawn – Saleem Asmi’s services to journalism applauded, June 2019.

Then, under pressure from the military regime, The Muslim fired about a hundred workers and journalists. The army sent in troops to turn them out. Secretary General Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists Nasir Zaidi, president of the Muslim Union at the time (among the journalists to be flogged in 1978) remembers Asmi being on the streets protesting along with the workers.

Asmi was among the journalists who courted arrest in protest at harsh censorship and closure of papers including the Urdu daily Musawat. A Lahore military court sentenced them to hard labour. Asmi served the sentence in Multan jail along with others, including Nasir Malik.

Nasir Malik, Saleem Asmi. Photo courtesy BBC.

When Malik’s hand started bleeding while weaving ‘baan’, he was tempted to show it to the jailor and get sent to hospital. Asmi shot down the idea with his characteristic forthrightness: “Senior journalists have gone to jail and done hard labour, never sought compromise. What kind of conviction do you have that this injury has scared you?” (جیل میں مشقت کرنے والا سرکش دانشور صحافی، سلیم عاصمی کُوچ کرگیا – BBC News اردو )

After his release a month or so later, Asmi joined the Khaleej Times. Today, “we can still picture him, with reading glasses balanced on his nose, poring over page bromides at midnight before they went to the cameras”, write Neville Parker and Joseph Nellary/Dubai (Colleagues mourn death of veteran Pakistani editor Saleem Asmi, November 2, 2020).

Portrait of Saleem Asmi by Sabir Nazir, a few months ago.

As Editor Dawn, one of Asmi’s most significant and lasting contributions was introducing sections that made it a more complete paper – weekly supplements for culture, art, books. He also took the then unprecedented step of publishing a major news story by a non-staffer – Hamid Mir’s interview of Osama Bin Laden in November 2001 that Mir’s own paper, Ausaf, was reluctant to publish.

Despite pressure from the Musharraf regime, as editor Dawn Asmi went ahead with the interview, as Hamid Mir tweeted:

Tweet by Hamid Mir after Asmi Sahib’s departure.

Asmi’s retirement in 2003 – he was rumoured to have been pushed out because his decisions caused discomfort in high places, something he never spoke about – coincided with the rise of social media. He became an avid iPad user. His thousand Facebook friends include dozens of young journalists and artists whom he nurtured, mentored and guided.

He also used the platform to promote causes close to his heart – human rights, social justice, even sensitive issues like Balochistan and right-wing radicalism. One such post led to his account being briefly suspended in 2015.

He flirted briefly with Twitter but didn’t go beyond a few pithy tweets and some responses, before losing his password and dropping it. But his bio says it all: “Marxist Feminist Animal Lover”.

S.M. Shahid and Saleem Asmi. Photo: Courtesy K. B. Abro.

After leaving Dawn, Asmi became active with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. HRCP founder Asma Jahangir had recruited I.A. Rehman and Aziz Siddiqui as co-directors. He served as the elected co-Chairperson HRCP Sindh and set up the Karachi office.

As I learnt only after his passing, he also began to indulge in his passion for art, mounting found objects like rocks, stones and driftwood. There was even an exhibition at Anis and Dr Haroon’s home. S.M. Shahid compiled the images in a coffee table book.

Coincidentally, Zohra Yusuf, my first editor when I was an intern at The Star in 1982 and later also a co-Chairperson HRCP Sindh, became Asmi Sahib’s neighbour when she and her family moved in next to his ground floor flat in Frere Town near my parent’s place. Ceramic plates and a veritable forest of potted plants on their joint outside wall greeted visitors, a welcoming hub for common friends.

Asmi Sahib’s flat particularly was a hangout for journalists, artists, music and culture lovers. I.A. Rehman always made it a point to spend his evenings there on visits to Karachi. Zohra would join, treasuring the conversation and company. Picturing these icons of journalism and human rights activism together is itself an inspiring thought.

Rest in power Asmi Sahib. Pakistan is poorer without you.

Nov. 15: Updated to add information about Asmi Sahib’s 1970s Vespa scooter and artwork.

(ends)

Journalism and “the lives and aspirations of the peoples of Jammu and Kashmir”

Facebook.com/IshtyaquesCartoons

The largest people-to-people group in the region, the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy has since its formation in the mid-1990s been calling for India and Pakistan to see Kashmir not as a territorial dispute but as a matter of the lives and aspirations of the peoples of Jammu and Kashmir, who must be involved in any dialogue about their future. That seems even further from the table now. Continue reading

My take on Pakistan’s elections: Change, like democracy, is a process, not an event

AamirLiaquat-ImranKhan-Dawn

In March this year, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan welcomed Aamir Liaquat Hussain into his political party. Aamir Liaquat will now represent NA-245 Karachi-I East-IV in the National Assembly. Naya Pakistan?

Below, something I wrote for The Print, published 31 July 2018 under the title Those who vote for Imran Khan or Narendra Modi shouldn’t be dismissed as bigots or sexist. I began writing it last week but was too caught up in my nephew’s wedding festivities to complete it earlier. But the break was helpful in gaining a better perspective. Some of my conversations with other wedding guests who are staunch PTI supporters (and there were many) inform this piece on why Pakistan should learn a lesson from what not to do from USA and India, and why dismissing those who vote for Imran Khan or Narendra Modi (or Trump) as bigots or sexist avoids the real issues – something Ayesha Siddiqa takes up in her excellent piece, in The Wire, Pakistan’s Middle Class Awaits a Miracle. The only point I’d add to her article is that Imran Khan’s support comes not just from the youth but also plenty of middle-aged aunties and uncles who gained political consciousness during the Musharraf ‘benign dictator’ years. My unedited Print piece below with a couple of videos from my Al Jazeera interviews ahead of elections, and a post-election podcast in Himal Southasian

https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/477025080&color=%23ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true

Beena Sarwar

As dust from Pakistan’s general elections settles, this is a good time to look at the bigger picture and take stock of what has happened and what is likely to happen. It is also time to re-assert that democracy is messy business, that it is a process, not an event, and that controlled democracy, while not quite democracy, is better than dictatorship. In short, it’s complicated.

Despite the surface optics, this may well be the best of times for Pakistan. A time of despair, but also uplifting. The country is moving in the right direction politically, but the process is marred by interference from within and outside its borders.

Noteworthy within the larger picture is that Pakistan has recently completed an important cycle in the democratic political process: the peaceful transition of power from one elected government that completed its tenure, to the next — only the second time in the country’s history that this has happened.

The first time was when the government elected in 2008 (the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, PPP) handed over power to the next elected government in 2013 (Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, PML-N). Both governments completed their tenures despite noisy, distracting opposition often seen to have military support.

Now, the PML-N is handing over power to cricket legend Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (“movement for justice”, PTI). Most political parties have rejected the election results but hopefully they will stay in the system. As Benazir Bhutto once said, “Boycott, and then what?”

There are many factors behind the election – or “selection” — results.

Firstly, there is Imran Khan’s charisma coupled with his emotive rhetoric that appeals to many who came to political consciousness during Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s military dictatorship (1999-2008). They include youth as well as adults who initially supported the “liberal” dictator seen as symbolising a change in ideology from his predecessor Gen. Ziaul Haq’s oppressive rule (1977-1988).

Coupled with this is disillusionment with the old political parties – “desperation” as one PTI supporter put it. PTI’s slogan “Tabdeeli” (change) and its anti-corruption rhetoric speaks to the desire for change among such people.

These factors together could well have made PTI to be the election frontrunner in any case. But the process was not allowed to take place on its own. Various other elements pushed the PTI past the finish line further and faster than it may have reached on its own.

These include massive, unprecedented censorship in the run up to the 2018 elections that helped forge a narrative loaded in favour of PTI. Journalists, particularly in the broadcast media, were forced to not only virtually black out PPP and PML-N, but also mention their leadership only in a negative light. Of course, the dominant narrative does not determine how people vote – party loyalists will vote for their party regardless — but it certainly can influence the undecided voter or one who is on the fence.

Additionally, the judiciary was deployed to disqualify candidates belonging to these parties. Further, candidates (especially from PML-N) were threatened, coerced or blackmailed into giving up their party tickets at the eleventh hour and either withdrawing from the race or contesting as independents.

Perhaps the most significant factor behind the electoral results is the lack of electoral transparency and post-polling manipulations. Polling agents in dozens of stations were not allowed to be present for the vote counting. Many also complained of not being provided copies of Form 45, a document containing data about each candidate, names as well as how many votes they received, to be signed by Returning Officers and polling staff after the vote count.

Results for some constituencies came in an unprecedented 72 hours after polling ended, causing further suspicions about this most “rigg-orous” election process as the columnist Nadeem Farooq Paracha sarcastically termed it.

Significantly, all the parties except for PTI have complained of these manipulations and irregularities. Imran Khan has magnanimously promised to look into all electoral complaints. Not a word about the censorship and other pre-poll manipulations.

But whatever the factors behind PTI’s electoral win, Pakistan must ride this wave. There are positives to focus on and strengthen, for example, the clear desire for change among the people – beyond the superficial “tabdeeli” promised by PTI. These aspirations have led to the emergence of some promising electoral candidates, including women and representatives of religious communities other than Muslim. Some have won provincial and national assembly seats against daunting odds. Others, even if like the lawyer Jibran Nasir in Karachi did not win, continue to challenge the dominant narrative, raising important questions about identity, inclusion and pluralism.

It is in fact such real changes taking place on the ground that are so threatening to the establishment and the politico-religious forces. Citizens are no longer satisfied with treading the path they are expected to follow because of where they were born and into which community. A groundswell of growing awareness about basic rights and human dignity is leading more and more individuals to reject the old order and to cross or aspire to cross socio-economic, class, caste and gender barriers.

This is the real “tabdeeli” that is taking place, regardless of Imran Khan’s rhetoric. Changes on the ground will continue to challenge the status quo in ways that only make news when there is violence.

germany-g20-summit_66ff54e0-a521-11e7-84eb-85ab3d3e2a90

Indian PM Modi and US President Trump: elected leaders riding the waves of fear of change, much like Imran Khan. File photo.

As Pakistan braces for the next phase in its polity, there are lessons to be learnt from countries like India and USA where fear of change has led to the emergence of similar ‘strongman’ leadership.

Those who voted for Narendra Modi or Donald Trump are not all bigots, misogynists or racists. Many are just ordinary people desperate for “better days” and to make their country “great again”. This is not too dissimilar from Imran Khan’s supporters seeking “change”.

Change, like democracy, is a process, not an event. And so we continue to march along that road.

(ends)

Targeting of Marvi Sirmed latest in attacks on human rights activists, journalists, in Pakistan

Marvi Sirmed ransack-2018

Journalist couple Marvi and Sirmed Manzoor’s house ransacked: Humiliating violation of privacy besides theft of laptops, cell phone, passport. Online photo

Journalists in Pakistan are under increasing pressure, besides severe, ongoing censorship. The break in to columnist and activist Marvi Sirmed’s house and its ransacking is the latest in the series of intimidation, threats and violence to those who uphold democratic values and are critical of the security establishment.

Continue reading

Relief at Zeenat Shehzadi’s recovery

Zeenat-%22Quaid and daughter of Quaid%22 2014I wrote this piece for The Wire on Oct. 24, after hearing that the young journalist-activist Zeenat Shehzadi who “disappeared” over two years ago, has been recovered. A brief re-cap of what happened and how her case is linked to that of a young Indian man whose case she had been following after his “disappearance” in Pakistan. 

Pakistani Reporter Zeenat Shahzadi, Who Disappeared While Searching for Indian Man, Reappears

The Pakistani journalist-activist – who had gone missing in August 2015 – has paid a heavy price for wanting to uphold humanitarianism and the principles of social justice.

Five days before she was due to testify before Pakistan’s Commission of Enquiry on Enforced Disappearances in August 2015, 24-year-old journalist-activist Zeenat Shahzadi herself became a disappeared person. She remained missing until her parents received word on Friday – October 19, 2017 – that she had been recovered.

Shahzadi’s mother has spoken to her and reported that she was alright. The family would like to be left alone and not pressed for more details.   [Read more…]

My Princeton journalism class “favorited”

From the Princeton student blog

Thrilled and touched to see my class listed among a student’s favorite classes at Princeton, where I was a visiting professor of journalism last fall. Here’s the text: 

Kevin: I can’t stress it enough: Journalism (JRN 457): “Politics, Causes, and Culture in a Changing Media Landscape,” essentially a journalism ethics class, is by far my favorite course that I’ve had at Princeton. Pakistani journalist Beena Sarwar led the course, and brought all of her friends; almost every week we were visited by the who’s who in journalism.  We talked to some pretty incredible people, including journalists who work in television and print, writers for The New York Times and Reuters, and international reporters from Nepal and the Netherlands. Two of the nine visitors were Pulitzer Prize winners. 

The best thing is that journalism classes are seminars with 10-15 students.  With a small class and required biweekly meetings, students always get to know the professor. I’m working for The GroundTruth Project, an international news non-profit, this summer in Washington, D.C., because my professor recommended me for the job!

The class wrote the blog theprincetonglobe.wordpress.com, if you’d like to learn more about what kind of work we did in the course. 

Thank you Kevin, it was a pleasure and honor being your teacher 🙂 

Don’t snuff out the lights

The horrific murder of a journalism student lynched on a university campus in Mardan on April 13 after being accused of ‘blasphemy’, 2017 has revived the urgency of coming together on a joint platform with a minimum common agenda to uphold humanitarian values. Nothing will bring back Mashal Khan, a poet, self-declared humanist and “voice of the voiceless”, but we can at least try to ensure that no other mother loses her Mashal (light) to such barbaric ignorance and orchestrated violence.

We drafted this statement a few months after the massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar, signed by over a hundred activists, teachers, lawyers and other professionals as well as students in March 2015: Pakistanis against terrorism: Minimum common agenda against violence in the name of religion – below. Does it need to be amended or updated?  Continue reading

The importance of representation: “Put us in the news!”

Morse School students use ribbons to express their support for immigrant families.

I wrote this piece after a discussion with fourth and fifth graders at a public school in Cambridge MA; slightly different versions published in the Cambridge Chronicle and The News on Sunday. The students’ desire to be “in the news” reflects what I believe is one of journalism’s key roles – to ensure that the voices of the under-represented get heard. The selfie-culture sweeping the world isn’t just about narcissism. It speaks to the human need to be affirmed and remembered. I was here. See me. Hear me. 

PERSONAL POLITICAL

By Beena Sarwar

“Did you see our ribbons? They are for immigrant families,” says Emma, one of half a dozen 9 and 10-year olds I’m talking to about journalism on a bitterly cold weekend in March.

Continue reading

Lessons for journalists from a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer

Beena Sarwar

Notes from the Nieman Pulitzer 100 event in Cambridge MA, “POWER: Accountability and Abuse,” presented by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Sanders Theatre, Harvard University 

wynton-marsalis-nieman-pulitzer-100
Sep. 9, 2016

Cambridge, MA: The thousand-seater Sanders Theatre filled up fast in anticipation of the Wynton Marsalis concert that was kicking off the Nieman Pulitzer 100 event, a few days before my first journalism class at Princeton University. No photography or videos of the performance were allowed but I figured the rule didn’t apply before they started playing so I sneaked a quick photo. Continue reading

On Dec 16, 2011, remembering Anthony Mascarenhas

Thank you Mark Dummett, for the report in BBC today paying tribute to Anthony Mascarenhas, the brilliant and courageous Pakistani journalist who had to flee abroad in order to be able to tell the truth – Bangladesh war: The article that changed history.

Mascarenhas

“Eight journalists, including Mascarenhas, were given a 10-day tour of the province (East Pakistan). When they returned home, seven of them duly wrote what they were told to,” writes Dummett.

“But one of them refused.”

That was Mascarenhas, who died in 1986 in London.

His wife Yvonne Mascarenhas told Dummett that she remembers him coming back distraught: “I’d never seen my husband looking in such a state. Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: