Friday, November 6, 2009

Published on Nov 1, 2009


From one room

to another…

By Omar R Quraishi

The last time I moved offices -- rather organisations -- it took all of three months, and a bit more. My boss -- one of Pakistan's best writers and journalists but now sadly not among us, Tahir Mirza, editor of Dawn -- insisted that I serve out the three-month notice period, despite the fact that I had been at the paper for almost 11 years. I had given him my resignation well before the three-month period was to begin and he kept it with him till the last day (of the three-month notice period, that is) in the hope -- so he said -- that I would change my mind. And that I didn't, despite many former colleagues initially convinced that I would change my mind, given that I had been with that paper for so many years and had presumably become accustomed to its distinctive working atmosphere.

In fact, even after I left, and came to this paper, initially my former boss thought that in a few weeks -- or maximum months -- I would be back. But that wasn't to be and it is now three years, five months and a little over two weeks that another move is imminent. In fact, by the time this appears, I will have moved on -- not sure whether it's a 'greener' pasture, but certainly it will be a different pasture.

However, back to the first move which took place after around 11 years of working in the same newspaper. I started off as a sub-editor, which is beginner's post really, and was shuffled in various sections. From doing nothing for a couple of months initially -- I think the editor hired me and then forgot about me and since I reported directly to him, I couldn't really do much -- I was eventually shuffled to various sections, from the city room, briefly to the international desk in the newsroom, a couple of weeks in the-then Dawn Sunday Magazine (of which the current magazine is but a weak shadow), to even the dreaded supplements section. A word about this section, which should be seen as punishment by any journalist, normally any professional journalist or in fact anybody even starting off in journalism should run like the plague from this section. Of course that cannot be helped at times because as a professional journalist one must follow his or her editor's directions without question. However, the reason one should run from the supplements section like the plague is because the work that is done in it can hardly be deemed proper journalism.

One is making pages to please corporate sponsors, companies whose adverts are in fact funding the publication of the supplement -- and in many instances the marketing staff physically are present to insert/remove/edit and so on whatever material they wish to include or exclude from a particular supplement. The material does not really exercise one's intellectual or mental faculties and is not particularly creative by any stretch of the imagination.

So the two weeks that I spent in the supplements section of Dawn way back in late 1993 were punishment enough and I went to the then editor -- the grand old man of journalism in Pakistan, Ahmed Ali Khan -- begging for a transfer. Thankfully he listened to me and put me with the person who did the letters section -- an amiable man by the name of Safdar Barlas, who is no more in this world (he died in 2005 and began working in journalism in 1954, a full 17 years before I was born!).

A move was made -- for a second time -- to academia, to pursue a doctorate at the University of Chicago, in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations. However, since my heart was still in journalism and since I wanted to make a career out of it, and given that a PhD in America could take well above five years, the best option was do the master's coursework, which takes a year, and head back.

Luckily, Ahmed Ali Khan was always reluctant to agree to my departure and informed my father (while I was still at Chicago) that were I to return a place would be there for me. And that I did and re-joined Dawn -- this was in 1996 -- the very next day. I was made a reporter and asked to cover some very interesting and substantial beats. This went on for around two and a half years and then I was transferred to Lahore, where a two-and-a-half-year stint followed. While there, one also dabbled in teaching journalism to master's students at Kinnaird College (several columns could be written on that alone but for another time, if at all).

Then back to Karachi and suddenly there was a new editor -- and he elevated me from reporter to assistant-editor and transferred me to editorial writing. The next six years were spent in the same room that Safdar Barlas used to sit in.

And by the time May 15, 2006 came, I began my switch to The News, to edit its editorial pages and letters sections. All I had in that room was a small framed print. Nothing more, nothing less. That is all that I had added to that room in six years -- and yes, a few books, which there was hardly any time to read though. And when someone asked me why wasn't it decorated anymore than that, or why there wasn't even a rug or a couch, the only answer that I could come up with was that I always thought my time in that room was transient and that sooner or later I would have to leave it.

Six years in that room and now three and a half in this room at The News -- from this room I take with me a small TCS box filled with books that I never had the time to read, and a picture bequeathed to me by former The News and Dawn colleague Kamal Siddiqi of the editorial pages team of the latter paper. Out of the seven people in that picture (including myself), five are no longer with Dawn, and one of them is no longer in this world.

The writer was Editorial Pages Editor of The News from May 15, 2006 to Oct 31, 2009. Email: and


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