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Wednesday February 01, 2023

Imran Aslam: in memoriam

December 04, 2022

Every time you go away from Pakistan, there is this opportunity to take pause and leave the sorrows of your country behind. This was present to both of our daughters when we, my wife and I, were retrieved for a European tour of nearly three weeks. The idea was to cheer us up and get our nuclear family together one more time in these twilight days of their parents.

A grand plan, in fact, was hatched by our elder daughter Sheherbano who lives in southern California and her husband when they suddenly realized that they had not taken their parents to the magical realms of Andalusia, the south of Spain. This was where we spent a memorable week, with the base camp set in our younger daughter’s home in northern Italy.

And just when we were feeling energized by our happy travels and getting ready to fly back to Pakistan, there was this news that left me in a state of shock and disbelief. Early on Friday morning, four hours behind Pakistan in time, our daughter Aliya woke me up to break the news that Imran Aslam had passed away.

It took some time for me to begin to sort out my feelings – and memories – about an exceptional human being with whom I had shared a very crucial period in my career and life. Imran Aslam, to be sure, was a man of many talents and there are bound to be so many exclusive appraisals of the contributions he made to journalism and performing arts and, in a broad context, the cultivation of civilized values.

However, as I said, I wish to largely invoke the truly revolutionary experience of launching a national English newspaper thirty long years ago. Yes, it is this newspaper – The News – that I am talking about, and I find it a bit strange that I am writing about Imran Aslam in a newspaper that we both had worked together in conceiving, designing and launching – a newspaper that marked, at that time, a remarkable technological advance in Pakistan’s journalism.

The first issue of The News was published, from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad simultaneously, on February 11, 1991. But the days that are etched in my memory are the ones when we were putting together a dream team of mostly bright, young journalists. Imran Aslam, as the news editor, was the chief architect of that operation. He always had a way of inspiring young people and exploring their true potential.

As the editor of the Karachi edition, I had selected Fareshteh, who was then a sports reporter, as the first person to be taken on board. I had asked her: “Fareshteh, are you lucky?”. This was my way of jokingly praying for an auspicious beginning. I believe Fareshteh was also lucky because she and Imran Aslam found each other in the offices of The News. Now it is a tough task for us to condole with her.

In the weeks before the actual launch of The News there was a buzz around about the grandeur of our offices, with every workstation equipped with an Apple desktop, state-of-the-art at that time. They had not seen anything like it. This was a tribute to Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman’s vision – something that later bloomed in the launching of Geo television, of which Imran Aslam was president.

Among the distinguished visitors to the offices of The News was Benazir Bhutto, whom Imran Aslam and I had known from before. I have many photographs of that day, reflecting the excitement her presence had generated. Altaf Hussain, before he ran away from Pakistan, arrived rather surreptitiously late one night and I was called from home to receive him. There were so many more I would not name.

I honestly believe that a proper study is required of how the dream team that launched The News was built. One measure of it would be to list the top media professionals who are respected for their credibility and professionalism and see how many of them had begun their career with The News. I am not naming names because there are so many, and I may not remember all of them.

This is a somewhat personal remembrance of a person who excelled in different fields. I am also not attempting a biographical sketch. There is bound to be an extensive coverage of the death of a media practitioner who stood out for his intellectual and humane qualities. The media scene has changed, is changing, but we do not find any Imran Aslams rising out of this assorted gang of loudmouths. The few who are worthy of some respect do not reach that level of erudition and maturity.

I have an abiding interest in books and am pleased to report that Imran Aslam was an avid reader and would quickly pick up any new and important arrivals in mainly the non-fiction category. I was usually surprised to find him so well-informed.

I have many stories of how both of us came under extreme pressure in the early months of this newspaper’s publication. There were times when we were followed by suspicious people, activists of a political group, when we returned home late at night. My car was snatched at gunpoint.

But we were also proud of some stories we did in defiance of the ‘establishment’ and civilian rulers. We would fondly recall those times in our infrequent meetings. I also had some encounters with Imran Aslam in the early years of Geo when I was able to host some programmes. One that I thought was unfairly sacrificed on the altar of commercialism was ‘Geo Kitab’.

On Friday morning when Aliya brought the news, we sat down and remembered Imran Aslam. She had worked for Geo in important positions, having made a splash by producing ‘George ka Pakistan’ and then doing the reality show from London titled ‘Aliya ney Pakistan chor diya?’.

We both agreed that when people like Imran Aslam go, they leave no replacements.

The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail.com

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