The unmatched Rahimullah Yusufzai

September 19, 2021

Few will ever have the nuanced objectivity of Rahimulaah Yususfzai’s writing

The unmatched Rahimullah Yusufzai

The season of obituaries that’s upon us is unending. Of these, some are particularly hard to read and write, especially when one has to remember the best amongst us taken away too soon; unexpectedly; unfairly. But that’s how life is.

In the 150 or so obituaries that Rahimullah Yusufzai wrote in his journalistic life, he would stick to facts as was his wont. As I sit recalling my two and a half decades’ association with Rahimullah sahib, the memories appear in no particular order. Would he approve of an obituary that relied on memories and digressed into opinion? Probably not.

In my younger years at this paper, where he was a regular contributor, what struck me most was the almost perfect copy of the article he sent us. All facts came checked; there was analysis where required, and the narrative was impeccable. Our intuitive editor Asha’ar Rehman used to say that here was a journalist who had read his edited copies, implying that this was how one improved over the years. It was interesting to hear Rahimullah sahib give exactly this piece of advice to young reporters and journalists at the Razia Bhatti Memorial lecture in April this year, “Read your news after subbing”.

Rahimullah Yusufzai decided rather early that journalism was what he wanted to do. As a proofreader at The Sun in Karachi, his famous interview with Robert Fisk states, he became addicted to the smell of the printed copies. There was no looking back, as they say.

In his various stints in Lahore, at The Muslim in Islamabad, and then closer to home in Peshawar, he stuck to his chosen profession and excelled at it. He had the foresight to see the advantage that geography offered him and his strengths in relation to that. He already knew several languages could easily pick some more. During the Afghan resistance against Soviet forces, he could slip into Afghanistan, travel across the country, meet and manage interviews with the government as well as the mujahideen leaders and come back and report well in time.

Like any good reporter [read: war-correspondent], he was a risk-taker. In some ways, he was quite unique, and no other journalist could come close to what he could accomplish. His expertise stretched from the settled and tribal districts in the NWFP to Balochistan to Afghanistan and beyond. His recall was outstanding. After significant interviews with some of the world’s most wanted men, he himself became one of the world’s most sought-after journalists. He ended an article for the Guardian soon after 9/11, Face to Face with Osama, with the prescient words, “But an American attack would be an enormous provocation to the Afghan people, motivating many of those who would not normally support the leadership. Afghanistan is waiting for war”.

A soft-spoken, almost shy reporter-turned-editor, he spoke in a monotone, not unlike his writings. It was as if he had internalised the value of neutrality to an extent that even a loud argument would compromise it.

Reporters everywhere tend to be extrovert, overconfident, over-articulate, invested more in telling their stories than writing them. Not Rahimullah sahib. A soft-spoken, almost shy reporter-turned-editor, he spoke in a monotone, not unlike his writings. It was as if he had internalised the value of neutrality to an extent that even a loud argument would compromise it.

I sometimes felt that he was a little too detached from the subject for his own good. He could be more readable if he let some of his empathy enter the story. But he had chosen his path deliberately. It was not that he was not excited about his work. We spoke on the phone frequently and he seldom refused to write. A byline was a privilege he would not easily let go. One could see how he became more worked up when we assigned him to write on subjects that did not fall in his usual beat. He had grown to dislike the subject of terrorism that for the last two decades essentially defined the Af-Pak context.

Journalism, like many other professions, favours on-the-job training, the ustadi-shagirdi. Yet, one never got to know about who Rahimullah had learnt from everything that needed to be learnt. One could say perhaps that he was a self-taught journalist who became an institution - an inspiration to follow. Soon, Peshawar became the strongest bureau of The News where, as resident editor, he silently mentored many.

He knew all his correspondents and was aware of their strengths. On the rare occasions that we commissioned him whole Special Reports on the province, he would dig out names for us. A correspondent each for the Shia and Sunni parts of Parachinar could file their reports in Urdu after a suicide attack; translating those fell to us.

Having heard him over the phone alone or on radio or television, one could be forgiven for thinking that there was an old man speaking. In the last two decades or so, he had had to travel a lot, both within the country and abroad. But old men do travel, right? Often he would send us articles from airport lounges or hotels, in between conferences. Lately, whenever he was late for a deadline, he got into the habit of saying, “But I have already written 500 words”, and we joked that he probably did have 500 words on every subject in his laptop.

I did get a chance to meet Rahimullah sahib around ten-twelve years ago when he came to Lahore for a lecture — as he often did — and our article was on his laptop. There was only one way to retrieve it. I could go to his guest house, which happened to be close to where I live, and copy the article on a floppy disc (yes, we were still using them). As I was waiting in the lounge, out came a tall, handsome man, dressed in blue jeans and a crisp shirt, not quite the oldie we had all imagined him to be. He must be in his mid-fifties then. Later, he did come to our office in Lahore once or twice, looking dashing in his suit and happy to answer unending questions from the colleagues.

Some people have suggested that he did not present the Pashtun case adequately or take on governments or the military establishment as strongly as he could have. But he belonged to a different - you could say old - school of journalism. He understood his context and the risks, was willing to cultivate as many sources as he could and let the facts speak for as long as possible. Having edited his work for a long time, I can safely say that he managed to uphold the principles of impartiality and objectivity as well as his integrity. For him, it meant journalism for the sake of journalism.

There will not be another Rahimullah Yusufzai.

The writer is the director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and a former editor of TNS

The unmatched Rahimullah Yusufzai