Ayesha Haroon, the lively, gutsy former editor of The News Lahore, fought a brave fight for over four years with bone-marrow cancer, succumbing to it on Saturday night in New York. She was just 46. News of her demise has been met with grief and shock by her many friends and colleagues as well as those who only knew her through her clear-headed, courageous columns.
She leaves behind her husband Dr. Faisal Bari, Professor of Economics at LUMS and Senior Advisor to the Open Society Institute, Pakistan, two brothers, Hassan Mustafa Haroon and Syed Usman Haroon, and widowed mother.
Ayesha started work as a journalist as an intern with the features section of The Frontier Post, Lahore, in 1989 while still at Kinnaird College for Women where she got her MA in English Literature (1989). She already had a B.A. in Economics and English Literature from Kinnaird College (1986).
I remember the sparkle in her eyes when talking about her favourite teacher Ira Hasan (wife of The News columnist Masood Hasan). She would speak rapidly, words tripping over themselves trying to keep pace with her thoughts, that smile ever ready to break out.
As Features Editor at The Frontier Post, I found her a welcome addition to our staff. She was hard working and committed and soon proved herself as a passionate writer who quickly picked up the editing skills that made her stand out. She was a lively presence, with her big smile, ready laugh and eagerness to take on any task she was given. She showed great initiative and thoroughness in her work.
She went on to get a second M.A. in International Journalism, at City University, UK (1991), also doing a three-week placement with the BBC’s Eastern Topical Unit. She did economic and political stories for Reuters (1993-1994), and was also for sometime magazine editor at The Frontier Post. She worked with The Nation for many years, as a Special Correspondent, as Resident Editor in Islamabad, and with Waqt TV (1993-2007).
In 2007, she joined The News, Lahore, as editor just months before the elections of 2008. She was the Lahore paper’s second woman editor, following a tough act after the highly competent Kamila Hyat.
Ayesha was only 42 when the cancer was diagnosed barely a year later. Initially treated at Shaukat Khanum Hospital Lahore, she went for further treatment to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Friends and well-wishers were relieved as she seemed to be on her way to recovery. While still under treatment, she began writing a regular column in The News in November 2011.
She wrote clearly and courageously, always with a sense of compassion and humanity, about many issues, ranging from media freedom to human rights and political developments.
In a column of May 23, 2012, ‘While the state looks the other way...’, she wrote boldly about a cleric in Sultanpura, Lahore, who was gunning for an old Ahmedi place of worship, insisting it should not have a dome.
“Why should it not have a dome? Why should the police confiscate pieces of tiles with names of Allah and Quranic words from the place of worship?” she asked, going on to detail other injustices.
Her last column, titled ‘Medical fiefdoms’, dated March 7, 2012, honestly and clear-sightedly gives an overview of her battle with the illness that would take her life. ‘Since the diagnosis of a bone-marrow disorder, we had been living in a state of anxiety for almost a year. I use the word “we” for my illness and treatment, because when a serious illness or injury strikes, the entire family goes through it with the patient. In many cases, they suffer more than the patient herself.’
This was typical Ayesha, recognising and empathising with the suffering of others, even as she herself was suffering. She wrote without a trace of self-pity about the life-changing experience of learning, while under treatment in the USA, that health is a basic right:
‘Running after doctors, trying to find the right doctor, trying to find the right course of action, trying to find money to afford the best treatment available, trying to find a bed in the hospital, trying to arrange for blood, trying to get “genuine” medicines, and then the sheer helplessness of watching your loved one in discomfort and pain. This desperate story is played out around almost every bed in every hospital in Pakistan.’
In New York, she took to photography. Her literature background and poetic nature is evident in the photographs and descriptions of flowers, trees and magical moments captured in her Facebook albums.
‘Amongst the city’s endlessly moving buses and cars and people and dogs and vendors and dry cleaners and tourists, flowers connect yesterday with today and tomorrow...’ reads the description of one album, titled ‘Amongst the cars and cement’, last updated in May 2012.
It was in June 2012 that the disease recurred, and she asked The News to remove her name from the masthead and look for a replacement. Her funeral will take place at the mosque near her home, 78, Haroon Street, Babar Block, New Garden Town, Lahore (Near Barkat Market) on Thursday after Zohr prayers.
I remember Ayesha’s deep anguish and grief when her beloved father Syed Haroon Shah died unexpectedly, over 20 years ago. She will now be buried next to him in the family quad at Miani Sahib graveyard on Thursday. May she rest in peace.