Social Good

By Ayesha Hoda

Published in Spider Magazine – Dawn (June 2013)

The impact created by non-profit organisations using effective social media campaigns.

While many corporate brands in Pakistan have now realised the power of social media, very few nonprofits here are harnessing its power effectively to build a case for their cause.

Through blogs, micro blogs and social networks, a non-profit can create public awareness of its cause and mission, raise funds or promote fundraisers, reach new supporters and volunteers, and get people to take some action, all for free.

There are a few non-government organisations in Pakistan that have strengthened their digital presence in the last couple of years, mainly via their websites, Facebook pages and Twitter handles.

One such NGO is Bytes for All (B4A), Pakistan, a human rights organisation focused on information and communication technologies (ICTs). Some of its most prominent projects include the Take Back The Tech Campaign, Access is My Right and PakVotes.

Though its website – www.bytesforall.pk – is promptly updated as activities take place, Bytes for All considers social media the central hub of engagement. Its Coordinator Advocacy and Outreach, Furhan Hussain highlights, “That’s where the concentration of our primary audience is [with nearly 30,000 fans on Facebook]. We make it a point to keep engaging with people through tweets and status updates, share links of all activity happening at our front as well as all relevant press coverage.”

Furhan says that people have so much information coming their way these days that their attention spans have decreased drastically, and very few want to read complicated reports and tedious blog posts. That is why B4A has heavily shifted towards visualisation of information in small, palatable bits, using posters, infographics, photographs and videos.

Another NGO with a large following on social media is The Citizens Foundation (TCF), which builds schools for less privileged children in Pakistan. Its main Facebook page currently has more than 41,000 fans. There are several other pages created and run by supporters in different parts of the world. Interestingly, TCF gained a name on Twitter not through its official handle but as a result of active promotion by Tuba Mehmood (@Tuba_TCF), who was the former Assistant Manager for Volunteers and Alumni at TCF in Lahore.

Tuba started using Twitter in 2011, in search of volunteers in Lahore for TCF’s mentoring program. What worked for her was personally promoting the cause and replying to all queries politely but enthusiastically, followed by face-to-face meetings. People were drawn because someone spoke to them on a personal level rather than just giving updates via an official handle.

“I think interacting with people is extremely important if you’re selling your idea or product,” Tuba says. “I got a tremendous response and I’ve got many dedicated volunteers via Twitter. It helped with donations as well.”

Tuba currently has around 3000 followers on Twitter and is better known by her handle.

Similarly, Nuzhat Saadia Siddiqi (@guldaar), Press and Media Coordinator, WWF-Pakistan (World Wide Fund for Nature, Pakistan), started using social media in 2010 to promote her organisation’s work. Nuzhat’s was inspired by WWF International and Greenpeace International, two organisations that have leveraged social media tremendously to reach out to a global audience.

“A large number of young adults from Pakistan are now online and I believe that reaching out to them about conservation, sustainability and environment issues is a critical supplement to their traditional education,” Nuzhat shares. “No one really thinks about involving them [18-34 year olds] in the process of positive change through volunteer and environmental activities.”

Over the last three years, WWF-Pakistan social media campaigns have received an overwhelming response not just from Pakistanis but also from people in other countries, who were pleasantly surprised to see such work being done in Pakistan, a country usually associated with sectarian violence and terrorism. Due to its increasing importance for marketing of WWF-Pakistan projects, the social media function was recently outsourced to an agency.

Sharing her experiences of cause marketing online, Nuzhat says, “I believe the best way to engage with an audience via social media is to keep the tone personal, be pro-active, and share only what you really truly believe in. Several brands and organisations outsource their social media from the get-go and not all social media experts currently working in the field treat your organisation as their own, but rather as a brand. A brand is impersonal, a cause is personal. For me, it has been about believing in the cause and spreading my joy and trust in it. This has been the main reason that without spending even a single dime, we went from having 12 to 50,000 supporters on Facebook.”

Gradually, more non-profit pages seem to be springing up in Pakistan but only those with a well-designed strategy and persistent updates have an impact. For instance, HOPE (Health Oriented Preventive Education) Pakistan – an NGO that runs schools, vocational training centres, works in healthcare for vulnerable communities and provides emergency relief and rehabilitation – has recently become active on social media.

Tahiya Tul Husna, Social Media Specialist at HOPE, says their strategy is: Awareness > Influence > Action > Impact. HOPE encourages its employees to use their personal social media accounts to cross-promote social campaigns online and become online ambassadors.

“HOPE Pakistan cannot operate as a faceless organisation,” Tahiya says. “Every donor and volunteer has to be engaged and people are more ‘invested’ in the lives of the real people that they follow on Twitter than an actual brand, even if it belongs to a respected NGO.”

Important lessons are to be learnt from these and a few such other success stories of non-profits. First and foremost is that since social media is a free and powerful marketing tool, Pakistani non-profits, with their limited marketing budgets, should definitely use it (after analyzing any risks involved). Other things to keep in mind when developing a strategy are:

  • Universal appeal – Promote the cause as a whole, not only your organisation
  • Emotional impact – storytelling, photos and videos work more than lengthy updates or blog posts
  • A social exchange – build relationships online rather than simply disseminating messages
  • The human element – get some staff members on board who can become ambassadors for your cause online
  • Get them involved – tell people what steps they can take to make a difference (it can be as simple as requesting a retweet).

‘Our hotels are ethnic on the outside and contemporary on the inside’

 

Byram Avari in his office at Beach Luxury Hotel, Karachi

Published in Slogan (September 2010)

Byram D Avari, Chairman, Avari Group of Companies, provides insights into his dynamic hospitality business in this exclusive interview with Ayesha Hoda.

Please share with us the success story of Avari Group.

My father started the Avari Group of Companies in 1944 with 100,000 rupees only. He made a profit of 100,000 in the first year and decided to stay in this industry. He built Beach Luxury which became the first hotel to be opened in the country after Partition.

My father also eventually bought a hotel in an open auction in Lahore which he made into Park Luxury and then into Avari, which is there today. And then we built the Avari Towers in Karachi. We also expanded and managed two hotels in Dubai, and one in Toronto (which was closed down).

Now we also have a boutique hotel in Islamabad, Avari Xpress, which was opened recently.

What is the positioning of your hotels and how are they different from other prominent hotels in Pakistan?

We have positioned Beach Luxury as a three-star hotel. Avari Towers and Avari Lahore are absolutely five-star in terms of international standards and six-star in terms of Pakistani standards. There is no other hotel that can match these two properties here. Our business proves that we are the best.

In Dubai, we have positioned our hotels to be four-star. They are five star properties but we don’t want to have a conflict with the sheikhs who own all the five-star hotels. Xpress is also five-star property.

Considering the size of Pakistan’s population, especially its urban centres, we do not have enough hotels in the country. Why is it so?

Actually I think there are enough hotels in the country to meet the present needs. What is required now is more three-star hotels like Xpress with five-star comfort. We are going to develop such hotels in Sialkot, Multan, Rahimyar Khan, Faisalabad, Larkana, Hyderabad and Sukkur.

Do hotels always have to be expensive? Can’t we offer more affordable hotels?

No. I gave you the example of Xpress – it has five-star quality but low construction costs so low cost. We only charge between Rs 5,000-6,000.

We cut on our construction costs by not having bath tubs, swimming pools or banquet halls. There is just one restaurant and split air conditioning units are used.

How have you tackled the challenges posed by the economic recession?

We became lean and mean four months before the nuclear blast because I had the feeling that something was going wrong. We could face the economic downturn because we were already prepared. For instance, we had amalgamated positions like that of cashier and the front desk. We outsource our gardening, transport, laundry, security, etc., that is, a number of our facilities. With outsourcing you don’t have to pay the overheads which you would otherwise. Plus we economize in other ways, like insisting on Economy class for a four-hour trip. And my sons and I also travel Economy because a leader leads the pack.

What about the security concerns in Pakistan with reference to the hospitality and tourism business?

We have had to make a lot of security efforts and invest in this area, but security is never enough. There is only so much you can do.

Security hasn’t affected occupancy so much but it has affected profitability because there is a lot of cost involved in implementing such huge security measures.

What are the current trends and critical success factors in the hotel management and hospitality industry?

Our hotels are ethnic on the outside and contemporary on the inside. We closed the hotel in Karachi for three years and renovated it fully. It is like any hotel in Dubai, Singapore or Hong Kong. We have got wooden floors, glass bathrooms, free Wi-Fi (even in the swimming pool) and all the luxuries you can think of. These facilities make our hotels exceptional.

We are also building a hotel in Islamabad which will be the first six-star hotel in Pakistan. Every room is a sitting room and bedroom put together (a suite), of the topmost quality. We plan to open it by December next year.

What is the future of the hospitality business in Pakistan?

Tremendous. You see, we think of tourists only as people visiting the country for leisure purposes, which is not very frequent these days. But we need to think of developing architectural, medical, educational and other kinds of tourism. That will give a boost to the hospitality business.

How is the Dubai market different from Pakistan?

Dubai is an international market. It was a seller’s market earlier; you couldn’t get rooms. But because of the economic recession, it has become a buyer’s market. Dubai played host to the world but it doesn’t do so any more. So it has become more about killing competition.

At one time, Pakistan was much more competitive but now Dubai is really a killer.

What are your future plans for your hotel chains?

We plan to start a big development in Lahore; we will be putting up three towers once the Islamabad hotel is ready. We have got the plans ready but will only start implementing them once the six-star in Islamabad is three quarters of the way.

Abroad, we don’t have the resources to build or buy but we have the ability to manage. My only requirements are: I will not use any name apart from Avari; my parents’ photographs have to be there; and the Pakistan flag has to be there. We are a family-owned company and proud to be Pakistanis.

What qualities and education should a young man or woman have to follow a career in the hospitality business?

Everyone’s impression of a hotel is synonymous with fun and glamour. But after two months of working in the business, people realise there is no glamour and they leave. People need to be aware that this business involves extreme hard work. It is nothing like a nine to five job. You have to give a minimum of twelve hours. Then you have to smile and be genuine and interested in looking after people.

To follow a career in hospitality at the executive level, you need to have international exposure. You need to have education in the hotel business and became a man or woman of the world.

You bagged quite a few gold medals in Enterprise class yachting in the Asian Games? Do you still follow the sport?

Yes I do. My son is in England and goes for one week every month to yacht racing because he is representing Pakistan in the Asian Games in China in October. He is sailing the Olympic class.

My elder son does ocean racing. He goes in big yachts. He did one leg two years ago of the round-the-world race for three months. Last year, he made a trip to the Philippines and Hong Kong. Now he is going on a round-the-island race in England.

My grandson, who is just 16, wins one trophy every month at the yacht club while racing against us. So the whole family is involved.

Does yachting have a future in Pakistan?

Of course it has a future. The present Rear Admiral Sayyid Khawar Ali, Commander Karachi (COMKAR) is doing a great job. He is President of the Pakistan Yachting Federation. He is taking great interest in the sport and trying to develop it at all levels. He should be commended for what he is trying to do.

You were active in politics at one time? Why did you leave it?

From1982, starting from General Zia ul Haq’s Majlis-e-Shura, I have been in politics. I retired in 1994 because I decided it is politics of vindictiveness. It’s no place for a sane person to be in. But I am still the elected Chairman of the Parsi community since 1989. I have been there for 21 years and I am on a number of trusts. I do a lot of community work which gives me more strength and satisfaction.

How would you describe Pakistan’s current political scenario?

Very fragile. The trouble about Pakistan’s political scenario is that there is no tolerance. Nobody wants to work together for the good of the country.

However, right now, our economic problems are very severe which can lead to more political problems. Due to unemployment, people have moved to sub-poverty levels and this has created a law and order situation. Only if the government generates more jobs can the situation improve.

‘NAPA is the only institute in Pakistan which treats music and theatrical arts as knowledge domains’

Published in Slogan (September 2010)

Rahat Kazmi shares interesting anecdotes from his life as an actor, director and teacher, in conversation with Ayesha Hoda.

 

Rahat Kazmi at his home in Karachi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a certain excitement that comes from a one-on-one conversation with any actor, especially one who stands out in his field. There is also a strange sense of familiarity; a feeling that you have known this person through the various compelling characters that he has portrayed on screen. You feel nostalgic when you meet him even if it is for the first time.
One of the best and most popular actors of Pakistani television, Rahat Kazmi at first seems not entirely different from his enigmatic screen persona. He, however, instantly makes you feel at ease and begins the conversation effortlessly, even while saying, “I don’t have much to say”.
The way he answers my questions reminds me how many times he must have given interviews. Yet he seems to enjoy the experience or it may just be that he likes to speak, being a gifted speaker and debater since his school days.
Rahat was considered a maverick in his family. His father had a successful income tax law practice and was a prominent Shia leader. But Rahat had different interests – Marxism, poetry, drama, music, etc. And he was an all-rounder.
When he entered college in 1961, he was pushed on to the stage by one Mr Nasrullah Malik, whom he describes as “a delightful eccentric” and the one who taught him “how not to believe in things”. With Mr Malik’s support, Rahat graduated from college not only with a distinction in academics but also as the best actor and debater.
On his father’s insistence, he pursued a law degree at the Punjab University law college and, as usual, did well. He fondly mentions his friends there, including Aitzaz Ahsan and late Asif Sajjad Jan.
Later, he went to Government College, Lahore and continued educating himself in various disciplines, including Political Science, English Literature and International Relations. He laughingly admits that he never wanted to leave college.
Rahat also appeared for the Civil Service exams. He went to the Information Services Academy and served in the Ministry of Information for more than three years. Then he resigned.
“In those days nobody thought of resigning from Civil Service,” he recalls. “I was one of the few. The job gave no scope for creativity or any sense of achievement. The only good thing about the experience was that as a bureaucrat I got a chance to spend one and a half months in East Pakistan. I travelled across the country and fell in love with it. Unfortunately, only a year later it became Bangladesh.”
It was a difficult decision leaving the job as Rahat had to return all the money invested in his training. However, they eventually agreed and allowed him to leave.
Simultaneously with his tenure as a bureaucrat, Rahat also had the chance to act in his first major drama serial, “Qurbatain Aur Faaslay”. Some of his college friends were working in television and remembered him from college plays. So they approached him for a role in the play which had been adapted from a novel by Ivan Turgenev called “Fathers and Sons”. Rahat thinks that for an actor the first play or drama is always the dearest to his heart as it is the first time he is doing it. In his first serial, Rahat tried to copy Che Guevara, the famous Argentinean revolutionary.
Those were the days when there were not many recording facilities. The drama had to be recorded in big chunks and went on air the same week. Two episodes had already been aired and the team had still not found the lead girl. Rahat then saw Saira one day, who used to read the English news. He inquired whether she would be suitable for the part. Eventually, Aslam Azhar (Chairman, Pakistan Television), who knew Saira Kazmi’s father, persuaded him to let her take the role.
That is how Rahat met Saira: “The beginning of our romance was with an argument,” he relates. “We were going to the TV station. Somebody had commented that the camera work was very conventional and she agreed. I said it suited the material; it was neither conventional nor unconventional. So we started arguing and it has continued till date. For the last thirty years, we have had fights on many technical issues.”
The drama serial was a blockbuster and quite typically, people and newspapers started saying they should get married. At first the couple was cynical and ignored it as idle gossip. But eventually they did get married.
“It was a Shia-Sunni marriage, so there was a lot of hue and cry over it. But we had really nice friends like Badar Khalil who helped us get together.”
Rahat’s second serial “Parchaiyan” was recorded in Karachi and was such a huge success that when the actor visited India in 1979, he found film institutes there using it as class material to teach students how to direct and produce plays.
Despite these successes, Rahat realised that there was no money in the business and decided to go for the big screen. In three years, he did 11 films but with the collapse of the film industry, he and other actors like Nadeem Baig and Shabnam decided to move from Lahore to Karachi.
So life had to start again. Saira was employed in television. She moved towards direction and won many awards for her work. Rahat also did a lot of work for television but with the low incomes offered in those days, he pursued a teaching career as well. Rahat’s academic qualifications and exemplary linguistic skills enabled him to teach A level and university students, in subjects ranging from literature to politics to international relations. He also worked as the Regional Director for Beaconhouse School System for seven years. Currently, he teaches English Literature at l ‘ecole in Karachi.
When the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) was established in 2005, Rahat joined it as head of the Theatre Arts department. He also heads the NAPA Repertory Theatre Company, founded about three years back. This company has been producing six theatre plays each year and is currently working on its fifteenth production – Khel Jaari Hai – a comedy play directed by Rahat.
Speaking on the recent increase in such theatrical productions, Rahat says, “We have certainly rejuvenated theatre in Pakistan. The Arts Council is now booked for two years with performances by various theatre groups. But we have an advantage over others as we are funded by the government and can experiment more plus we have a bunch of well-trained actors – NAPA graduates.
“One institution cannot do everything but NAPA is the only institute in Pakistan which treats music and theatrical arts as knowledge domains; as disciplines to be taught and learnt. Previously there was no such place. The National College of Arts has just introduced a degree programme in theatre.”
When asked if people here will actually consider going for an entire degree in theatre arts, given the low income potential in Pakistan, Rahat is of the view that such passionate people are always there and they will go for it. Those who only want to make money will do morning or cooking shows. He says theatre has a limited audience the world over as it requires a very high level of education for people to appreciate various art forms. That is why here one sees the same faces everywhere, whether it is an art exhibition, a theatre play or a film screening.
Rahat, being a voracious reader, is also disappointed by the fading reading culture the world over. He is sad that students and even teachers rely on notes written twenty years ago, reveals distaste for tuition centres and says it is unfortunate that good education has become so expensive in Pakistan. “Education and arts should always be subsidised,” he says.
Moving on to a discussion on TV actors, Rahat says that they have become millionaires with big cars and big houses, which is a good thing. “Why can’t artists make more money,” he asks.
I ask him why he is no longer a part of the television industry to which he responds, “I am too old to work now. And I think it has all become too commercial, which is really not my cup of tea. It is all about selling shows and how much percentage who will get. Even news is often sponsored.”
When I ask him if he thinks Pakistani serials are inspired by Indian soaps, he defends the industry, “Everyone borrows from everyone else. See, there are only a few formats in the world: (i) cooking shows (ii) general shows (iii) talk shows (iv) soaps and (v) news. What else can you do on television?
“Of course dramas in the 70s were better as they were funded by the state. You will do better work and experiment more when there is no commercial restraint, like BBC is still the best channel. Now on private channels, there are so many commercial breaks with anchors rudely interrupting guests to go for a break. But channels need to decide on their tone: serious or not serious? One second we hear the heart-wrenching news of flood victims and the next second a silly jingle tries to sell biscuits to us. If things are commercialised to such an extent, then you lose credibility and the ability to create quality content.”
Rahat also feels that adapting novels for television serials is very challenging but should be done more often to maintain standards: “Novelists take years to complete their books so their ideas have matured while a usual TV script may only take three months or even less. If you look back, you will see that some of the best work on Pakistani television has been an adaptation of great novels.”
Hope the bigwigs of Pakistani television industry are listening. One can only wonder if the younger crop of TV artists will follow in Rahat’s footsteps and become household names like him.

‘Our media outlets are completely focused on foreign music’ – Strings

Image © Strings

Published in Slogan (August 2010)

In a lively discussion with Ayesha Hoda, lead vocalist of Strings, Faisal Kapadia comments on his band’s popularity, on endorsing brands and on the factors threatening the survival of music artists.

How did your music career begin?

The same way as that of other bands usually begins. Bilal and I were in Government Commerce College, Karachi and of course we both were inclined towards music. Bilal had a background because of his father, Anwar Maqsood, one of the most popular names in Pakistan’s entertainment industry. So he was raised in an environment that encouraged him to get into music. I became inclined towards music as I was part of Sohail Rana’s programme Sarey Dost Hamarey.’

In college of course we just wanted to have a good time so we used to play music together. But rather than wasting time here and there, we decided it was good to make our own songs and do some concerts and shows. Of course we never thought we would make it our profession but yes today it is our full time profession.

Which national and international awards has Strings won so far?

God has been really kind and we have worked really hard. The band was formed in late 1980’s and we won our first ever award around 1991 or 1992. At that time there weren’t many awards. I remember there was one ceremony – Wahid Murad Awards – held every year and we received the best musician award.

One of the most prestigious awards we have received was at MTV Asia Awards in Bangkok. We were nominated from India as the best band. And of course we have been honoured at the Lux Style Awards, by MTV Pakistan etc. We have received numerous other awards, which is really good because they motivate us to work harder.

What factors have made Strings popular not only in Pakistan but across the world?

Number one is hard work. Luck is number 2. Then, of course, since we sing in Urdu our main base/ territory is always Pakistan but releasing an album from India takes you to other countries like Bangladesh, Nepal; places where Indian / Pakistani music is loved. The Indian industry is huge and its reach is much wider.

Then, when you go international, you go towards different projects. For instance, we were approached by Columbia TriStar Films to do a song for Spiderman 2. And then we also became brand ambassadors for UNICEF, for HIV Aids.

I personally believe that if you focus on something – when you are not trying to actually become someone great – and just working hard, you are eventually recognised because of your work.

What are your views on Coke Studio and what it means for music enthusiasts plus musicians/singers in Pakistan?

Coke Studio is a brilliant concept. I still remember when Rohail Hyatt was starting this project: we met him and he shared the whole idea with us. He launched Coke Studio with Strings, Ali Azmat, Rahat Fateh Ali, Ali Zafar etc. and we all did not know what exactly was going to happen as it was a brand new concept.  Audiences were not sure either. But when we actually recorded, it was a totally new and wonderful experience. We started off by collaborating with Ustad Hussain Bakhsh and it was fabulous working with him.

When the second season came, people had an idea of what exactly it is. Even performers had an idea of what could be done there. A whole new line of singers was included, such as Atif Aslam, Zeb and Haniya etc. and people really, really liked it. I think the best part of the show is live music with perfect sound matched with perfect conditions and musicians. Generally, whenever you see performers on TV, it is a recorded programme and people don’t want to spend money on production quality. Coke Studio is different and Rohail has done a great job. Now the third season is being aired and I think the show will go on for a long time.

Etihad Airways recently signed Strings as its brand ambassador. In what ways do the two connect or complement one another?

Actually, it’s been a long journey. Strings has been the brand ambassador for brands like Pepsi, Warid, Mobilink and Motorola. These brands and their approach focused on Pakistan’s market, even if they were international brands.

With Etihad, it’s slightly different. It is of course an international brand but they do not work internally in Pakistan, meaning that they do not fly domestically, from Islamabad to Karachi, etc. They fly from Pakistan to other countries. So their approach is different. They want to use Strings and their own brand name to promote Pakistani music and culture outside the country, particularly amongst Pakistani communities living abroad. So this time we have to play a very different role than the one we had earlier. We had more work to do in Pakistan. This time we have to do more work outside Pakistan.

What kind of initiatives are being planned to promote music and culture?

We are planning a series of concerts in different countries, mainly in Europe and America. We should be starting from March and before that, we are planning to do some activities after Ramadan also. But it’s still in the planning process because this is the first time we do not have an example – of an airline signing up a music band – which can guide us and tell us exactly what we are supposed to. So we have to brainstorm and come up with new and innovative ideas.

Are there any other exciting projects or albums in the pipeline?

We just did a concert in Houston one in Chicago. Other than that an industry project which has come up is the latest single that we did ‘Khudi kuch karma padey ga’ with Atif Aslam. The video has been directed by Jami and we are excited about this. Of course we have done a lot of collaborations earlier but this is the first time Strings and Atif are working together.

How do you see the music industry in Pakistan shaping up? What challenges is it facing?

Unfortunately, right now, the music industry is going through a very bad phase. Reasons can be many. First of all, the current conditions of our country are such that people are really going through a very hard time. And, at this point, nobody’s bothered about entertainment or music, to be very honest. The layman is bothered about stuff like electricity, gas and petrol prices etc.

Another killing factor is that our media outlets are completely focused on foreign music, that is, Indian and English music. So they are no more trying to promote Pakistani music and they are not even giving much space to Pakistani music, which is really sad because at the end of the day, it’s all about working for Pakistan, in Pakistan. Nowadays if you listen to radio, until and unless it is a paid spot, a paid song or a company like Coke is involved, you don’t listen to any Pakistanis songs which are independent. That is one thing which is rapidly killing the industry.

Have you used your music to forward any cause?

The song I just mentioned, ‘Khudi kuch karma padey ga’, with Atif this is basically about today’s situation and conditions in Pakistan. Apart from that, we are working for UNICEF for a cause so we do a lot of other stuff besides singing. For instance, we go to schools and sing with kids over there. We also dedicated a song and paid tribute to all Pakistani legends called ‘Titliyan.’

‘Pakistani media will never be on the right track’ – Ardeshir Cowasjee


Published in Slogan (May 2010)

Renowned columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee shares his wisdom, experiences and humour, in an exclusive interview with Ayesha Hoda.

Ardeshir Cowasjee at his home in Karachi - Image © Slogan

Surrounded by nature – calm and collected (as always) – Ardeshir Cowasjee welcomed me to his beautiful and artistic home in Karachi. Relaxed but observant, he effortlessly engaged me in a light conversation, with often surprising and frank responses to my questions.

From shipping to writing – how did the evolution come about?

If one works for shipping, one can write as well, can’t they?

How did you start?

Well, in Bhutto’s time nobody would print what I wrote. In Zia’s time, if I remember correctly, the first article I wrote was a reproduction of a letter I had written to an ombudsman, complaining about Zia ul Haq.

I had written that I was very sad of living under a president who is always apparently under shock and grief. If a bus falls down a river, we see the headline “Zia Shocked”. If a child dies, “Zia is grieved”. If there is a riot, Zia is shocked. If Zia’s wife breaks her leg, he is grieved. That is what he used to say to the people: Zia shocked, Zia grieved, Zia shocked, Zia grieved. And then we had a headline which said, “Zia shocked and grieved!”

How long can you tolerate a person when he is sometimes in a state of shock and some times in a state of grief? He better take some action!

And the poor ombudsman, a good friend of mine, said you are not serious. I said I have a number of complaints which I’ve sent to you. So if you like, do something about it. He asked me to tell the press to stop writing, ‘Zia Shocked, Zia Grieved’ or let him live in peace. So that was my first article.

Corruption, nepotism and incompetence of various governments have been the focus of your columns. Any particular reason for this?

If you want to write about the government, what else can you write? How good they are at thumping the table… ours is the only assembly in the world which does this.

The other day while I was flipping through channels, I saw Zardari and company entertaining all the ambassadors. Zardari was making a speech. You should have seen the ambassadors’ faces. They were half asleep.

Why do you write so much on environmental issues?

I don’t want to die! We have the highest mountains in the world. All the glaciers will soon be melting. Do you think anyone is concerned? They write about water disputes. It seems as if all the taps are in the hands of the Indians. They have only two; we have seven taps. Does anybody tell that?

I am going to suggest the military should have environment protection plans as well. Because like it or not, a time will come when we will have military ruling us again, one way or another. It seems to be the only disciplined party. They have good training.

You also write on animal rights. Are you a vegetarian?

No. Thank God no. I don’t eat dogs but I am not a vegetarian.

How do you decide on the subject of your column every week?

There are fifteen things to write about. And around 30 people call me or email me on what I should write. So there are plenty of issues.

Is a week enough to write on a subject and have you ever experienced the writer’s block?

I write once a week. It is an exercise of the brain. I have to churn out about a 1,000 words. That is enough for exercising my brain.

How do you conduct your research?

I read the papers everyday.

A lot of people complain that you quote long passages from other sources in your columns which minimises your own writing. Do you agree?

Sometimes I do. If I have to reproduce something which is 1,000 words long, what can I do? And I want the whole passage to be read. If I were to reproduce what Bhutto wrote in a note, I have to.

You know, if I started listening to what some people say, I wouldn’t be able to write. First of all, how do you gauge the intelligence of the people who say this?

Do you run into problems when you write against people? Do you get threats? Are you afraid?

What do I say? Somebody has to tell them, whether they listen or not. Do they not know what they are?

Plus, this is a nation of bullies. Every second man is a bully. Everyday on the front page you can read news stories of target killings. So everyone is under threat.

Have you ever run into any serious problems with the land mafia?

The land mafia keep on telling the courts that I am a blackmailer. The courts don’t listen to them. Why should I blackmail them? They think they can break all the laws. I took a stay order on the Glass Tower and it worked actually. Sometimes it works.

How do you feel when feedback on your columns is negative or contains a different viewpoint? Does it influence your future pieces?

Some people give constructive feedback. I say thank you. Some people are rude. I say thank you.

Most constructive criticism I get is from Indians abroad, in Canada and America. By name I can tell if someone is from Madras or from North India. And when I am intrigued by a man, I ask him where he is and what he is doing. And most of the time he is abroad and likes to read and write on different issues. Our charyias don’t write.

What is that one element that has made your columns so popular?

Who says they are popular? Well, people find them interesting to read, whether they do anything or not. I write for Dawn but sometimes the Urdu papers translate my work and more often than not, they republish without asking.

Have your ever been offered a ministership, ambassadorship or other high position? How did you respond?

Yes, I have been many things. It was fun. I was Minister of Tourism in Bhutto’s time. Everybody wanted to sack me the day I was appointed. Then Zia appointed me as the Advisor on Ports & Shipping. He wanted to sack me in 48 hours.

I was also Chairman of Port Qasim twice. When Bhutto wanted to sack me from tourism, this was the other job he could offer me.

Who are your favourite authors and columnists?

Amongst who? I read a lot on the internet as one has to keep abreast of international news and views.

Have you ever thought of writing a book?

Who will buy it? Everyone will ask for free copies.

Have you ever thought of compiling your columns?

They are all current and timely. These issues may not be relevant in the future.

Is Pakistani media on the right track?

Pakistani media will never be on the right track.

You have always criticised the people who have ruled Pakistan, whether civilians or military men. What do you think of the present lot?

Nuisance. Zardari is an accidental president or imposed; but he is there.

Have we lost Jinnah’s Pakistan forever?

Oh yes, yes. A long time back. They censored his speech of 11th August, 1947. They don’t want people to read what he said.

Please tell us about The Cowasjee Foundation and its activities.

We do charity work mostly for hospitals and schools that need it. It’s a small family foundation. We never accept money from other people.

How would you rate the following in terms of governance, on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being the best, 10 the worst):

         Khawaja Nazimuddin

         Hussain Shaheed Suharwardy

         Iskandar Mirza

         Ayub Khan

         Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

         Zia ul Haq

         Benazir Bhutto

         Nawaz Sharif

         Pervez Musharraf

         Asif Zardari

The cleverest amongst this lot was Hussain Shaheed Suharwardy. On 10 would be Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Amongst our politicians, he has done the maximum harm.

Musharraf did well for the first three years.

Under which government do you think Pakistan progressed a little?

Ayub Khan. They all started well, be it Ayub Khan or Musharraf.

How do you see the future of Pakistan?

Dismal! It’s a dying country. That’s what I feel. In my lifetime, the state won’t disintegrate. But the way we are going, there will be no Pakistan on the map of the earth, in the years to come.

‘…where life will take you’

Published in Slogan (April 2010)

In conversation with Ayesha Hoda, S.M. Shahid revisits his childhood, recalls his days at Oscar Advertising and reveals how glorious old age can be.

Seventy five year-old S.M. Shahid sits casually in what seems to be his favourite room in his simple and cosy home in Karachi – with shelves lined with wonderful books, some memorable photographs, CDs of classical music and a few cups of tea.

Though humble about his achievements and contributions, the man takes great pride in speaking of them and of the struggles of his early life – immediately drawing one into his world and his life story.

“I was born in 1934 in Bihar – a time when India was in great turmoil,” he says, vividly describing the situation at the time and the tragedies resulting from a massive earthquake, WWII, Hindu-Muslim riots and partition.

In the midst of all this, personal tragedy struck as ten-year old Shahid’s father passed away. Being the eldest amongst the sons, responsibility fell on his shoulders but he was ready to face life and was supported by his paternal uncle. It was the latter’s decision due to which the family migrated in September 1947 to Chittagong, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and then to Karachi, West Pakistan in 1951.

During these years, Shahid attended railway school and studied up to intermediate, after which he had to drop out due to financial constraints. This comes as a surprise looking at the depth of knowledge this man possesses but he cheerfully points out that he is self-taught – giving one all the more reason to be impressed.

Shahid initially earned his living by giving tuitions to kids and working on low-profile jobs. He has no regrets though – the result of being brought up in a family that believed in simple living and leading a dignified life defined by strong work ethics and sincerity.

In 1959, he began writing short stories, which were published both in English and Urdu publications. But despite his excellent writing skills, he could not get a job as a journalist since he was not a “graduate.”

The other option was a career in advertising as it did not require technical knowledge or very high qualifications. Competition was not very intense in the ad world of those times and his younger brother Mazhar Hussain had already gained experience in the field while working for Orient Advertising in Dhaka. So they got together to establish their own agency – Oscar Advertising.

Whoever hails from that particular era of Pakistani advertising remembers Oscar as a very creative agency. It remained a small agency throughout its existence but handled a number of big and important clients like the Export Promotion Bureau, State Life, First Women’s Bank, etc.

Eventually, Shahid’s best friend and mentor, Irfan Haleem, also became a partner, and together they produced a number of great campaigns. Their lives were once again affected by the political unrest in 1971, when Mazhar left for Libya and only two partners remained to run the agency.

However, they still did extremely well. “Irfan was not only my partner but my dearest friend,” Shahid reminisces. “He was a philosopher and guide. I learnt a lot from him. Like me, he was also a college dropout from Aligarh. But he had a lot of knowledge about English and Urdu literature, music, etc. We had shared interests and we truly enriched each other’s lives. Our partnership lasted for more than two decades.”

In 1987, Irfan said he could no longer take the pressure of work due to failing health. He passed away in September 1994. In October that year, Shahid decided to retire from advertising, handing over charge to his younger daughter and son-in-law.

“Young blood made the agency very successful,” says Shahid. “But around 1999, it suffered some setbacks due to changes in government. Plus, bribery was rampant but we never engaged in such unethical practices. Then my son-in-law took on some partners who turned out to be dishonest and incompetent – they brought bad business. For instance, the agency released a campaign worth 50 lakh rupees but the client never paid.

“As a result we defaulted in 2000 with All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS). All efforts on my part to recover the money were fruitless. I went to APNS and the newspapers and told them what had happened. They were quite understanding but as a rule, APNS had to suspend the agency and we lost a number of big clients because of that.”

S.M. Shahid had been a good paymaster and thus had a very good reputation in the media. In an unprecedented move, all newspapers – with the exception of one – wrote off all the money that Oscar Advertising owed them. Only one newspaper took action but that too half-heartedly.

Shahid once again got involved in the affairs of the agency but could not revive it or retrieve the lost money. So Oscar had to be shut down. “It still exists on paper,” he says, not in a sentimental way, but as a man who has learnt to cope with the highs and lows of life with a smile.

His next revelation is quite startling, “My old age is the best time of my life even though I lost all my money when the agency closed down.”

One rarely hears that.

“I believe you make half of your life yourself and half of it is determined by destiny. I firmly believe in destiny. You never know what is going to happen next; where life will take you. I could never imagine the amount of respect I earned even after my retirement.”

Then he sheds light on the other, more interesting aspects of his life.

The only thing that Shahid formally learnt in life was classical music. From 1972 – 1992, he was taught by Ustad Wilayat Ali Khan. But he was not interested in going on air on TV or radio and projecting himself as a singer. Instead, he shared his passion for music only at home or at social gatherings with friends.

He is also fond of photography and likes to explore different subjects, wildlife in particular. He documented Karachi’s old buildings in 1983 and ran a column in Daily Star for eight months, called ‘Vanishing Karachi’, in association with Ghazi Salahuddin.

After retirement in 1994, Shahid ceased to be an advertising man and dedicated his time to his other interests and hobbies. As a freelance writer, he shared his knowledge on classical music and other subjects.

Shahid also had experience in book publishing as he had published some very artistic books for Export Promotion Bureau. His first book on music – Classical Music of the Subcontinent – was sponsored by Dr. Shahid Hak, the Managing Director of PARCO, in 1999. That was the turning point in Shahid’s life as he found a way to impart his knowledge to the next generation.

With the success of the book, Dr. Shahid Hak agreed to sponsor a number of other titles that included Madam Noor Jehan, Mehdi Hasan, the greatest folk singer of Pakistan – Tufail Niazi, and one of the finest composers of songs, Kamal Das Gupta. In just seven years, S.M. Shahid published 38 magnificent books. He terms this as a very small contribution.

After Dr. Shahid Hak’s demise, S.M. Shahid did not pursue any other sponsors although he has a number of unpublished manuscripts.

“When Shahid passed away, I gave up. After a certain time I tend to give up. Like I had said goodbye to advertising. In the same way, I never went to anybody for sponsorship. I did not search for another Shahid Hak. I thought I would never find somebody as supportive as him. I will publish more books if a sponsor comes along.”

Shahid is now content with writing columns. His satirical and humorous pieces – under ‘Two’s Company’ – appear in Dawn magazine every Sunday, sometimes prompting fierce feedback from across the globe.

“My childhood was bad. Young days were full of struggle (which is a good thing). But my old age is glorious! I live in a joint family system – with my younger daughter, son-in-law and their three children – which is a great blessing.”

His three grandchildren – two boys and a girl – have inherited his aesthetic sense and interests in writing, music and visual arts. He spends a lot of time with his grandson Hasan, who is a special child and shares Shahid’s interest in classical music. Like his grandfather, the 13-year old has gained a lot of knowledge of classical music and BBC Urdu Service has made a documentary film on him.

Gladly absorbed in his world of literature, music and family, Shahid says that he would be a total misfit in advertising today.

“Everything has changed in advertising. It is a totally different ball game now. Plagiarism has become very common. They used to copy earlier as well but they had some original ideas… now a lot of things are simply ‘copy paste’. We copy India in everything. We mix Urdu and English and can speak neither language very well. The entire culture has changed.

“People have much more exposure these days, especially because of the internet. Our knowledge was limited. But the new generation is going so fast that it is missing a lot of things on the way. People don’t have the time to stop, observe and appreciate the good things in life.”

‘I have always been a dreamer’ – Sidra Iqbal

Published in Slogan (Jan 2009)

Crossroads with Sidra Iqbal

She loved to communicate even before she learned to speak. It was quite inevitable that she would excel at public speaking one day.

Sidra Iqbal has used her natural ability wisely and made use of every good opportunity that life has offered. As a public speaker, youth trainer, brand consultant, PR practitioner and media anchorperson, she is an inspiring example for the young generation.

Exuding tons of confidence and a charismatic spark, with a dream of becoming someone whose opinion mattered, Sidra Iqbal instinctively took to debating and public speaking while she was still in school. She rose to prominence in college (DHA, Karachi) when she became the youngest finalist of the Prime Minister’s Shield – a competition put together by the Higher Education Commission in which over 132 universities participate from across the country.

Luckily, DHA College was also invited to participate in the English Speaking Union’s competition that year (1999). Sidra was first selected from Karachi and then from Pakistan to represent the country abroad. She became the first Pakistani to win the prestigious English Speaking Union’s International Public Speaking Championship in London. Emerging as a winner from amongst 58 participants from 28 countries, she was honoured with a visit to the Royal family at the Buckingham Palace and awarded the winner’s certificate by HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.

Sidra participated in many other such competitions later and had the privilege of visiting several countries for this purpose, such as Japan, Australia, United States and Cyprus. Youth forums, conventions and training programmes happened concurrently with the progress she made in her academic life – completing her BBA and MBA from the College of Business Management, Karachi.

Sidra also got a training opportunity at the British Council, Karachi in 2000. She designed and executed the summer public speaking workshops called Speech Craft. In 2003, she was asked to use the same concept and launch TCS Hyde Park Juniors. This was a popular training programme and championship series in which over 200 young participants enrolled to receive training in public
speaking and personal grooming.

After graduation, Sidra’s first job was with City School Network as the marketing head. She then took a brief sabbatical and wrote for a journal published by Boston University. For one of her pieces on advertising, she interviewed Taher A. Khan, Founder and Chairman of Interflow Group. He was launching TV1 at that time and asked Sidra to join.

“I started off as a marketing person there but even before the channel was launched, I also became the producer of a show and finally, when the personality of the show had to be selected, I ended up hosting it,” says Sidra.

After that, Sidra also worked as the Content Head at ARY. In summer 2006, she was awarded a full scholarship to attend the International Relations Summer Programme at the Oxford University, UK.

“Interest in International Relations developed at a young age,” says Sidra. “For example, when my friends were discussing which college they wanted to go to or when I participated in international competitions. In 1999 and 2000, everyone was talking about the Millennium Development Goals; about what was happening in the country and how we can have a more equal place in the world.

“Moreover, as a debater and public speaker you need and want to generally know about what is happening around in the world; hence the course in IR.”

On her return, she pursued anchoring, hosting shows like Corporate Coffee on PTV News. This show is still running.

“When we designed the programme, we thought we would reach out to the corporate world only but a major chunk of our viewership comes from management students all over the country.”

Some of the other notable shows she has been a part of include Baaton Baaton Mein (ARY Digital), KIVA Circle of Wisdom (TV1) and Red Talk with Sidra Iqbal (Radio1 FM 91).

While hosting and producing shows, Sidra was once again approached by Taher A. Khan; this time to work at Ogilvy & Mather, Pakistan. From November 2007 to October 2008, she served there as Vice President, Public Relations. This is when Sidra also got a chance to train and work at the Ogilvy Hong Kong and Singapore offices.

Now Sidra works freelance as a consultant and a media anchorperson. She has recently returned from an official visit to the US. She had been invited for the 16-part drama series, ‘Khuda Zameen Sey Gaya Nahin.’

“We were invited by the Ambassador of Pakistan to the US, Mr. Hussain Haqqani. He put together a media show at the Embassy of Pakistan inviting the most prestigious media representatives from CNN, BBC, PBS and others.

“This media show was related to the launch of ‘Khuda Zameen Sey Gaya Nahin,’ in the US on PTV Global with subtitles. The story is based on operation Rah-e-Nijaat and how the people of Pakistan are fighting against extremism.

“We received an incredible response in Washington. People there were moved by the stories, the music and the characters.”

Sidra has started hosting a new show called ‘Crossroads with Sidra Iqbal’, on PTV News. It covers socio-political subjects. In the show, Sidra addresses the civil society about anything major that is happening. She aims to bring viewers at a juncture where they have to determine the way forward.

Speaking in general about her achievements so far, Sidra says, “I have always been a dreamer. Television, communication in general and corporate communications are subjects of passion for me. My philosophy in life is to keep growing and keep learning.

“I wasn’t always sure about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. But God has always been kind and given me so many opportunities. I try my best to take advantage of them. It doesn’t matter whether the opportunity is small or big.

“The work I do has to be exclusive. I give it my heart and soul because my name is attached. I firmly believe that whatever I have achieved is all because of my mother’s appreciation. Without her support, I wouldn’t have been even one percent of what I am today.”

– By Ayesha Hoda