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Adieu, ZIM: A Unique Sufi Of Our Time

Without an unfettered press, without liberty of speech, all of the outward forms and structures of free institutions are a sham, a pretense—the sheerest mockery. If the press is not free; if speech is not independent and untrammeled; if the mind is shackled or made impotent through fear, it makes no difference under what form of government you live, you are a subject and not a citizen —William E. Borah

Sadly, in the early hours of December 2, 2019 we lost Zafar Iqbal Mirza, outstanding journalist, popularly known as ZIM. He was my teacher and mentor when I joined weekly Viewpoint in July 1979 after studying journalism at the Punjab University.

ZIM was undoubtedly an extraordinary professional and human being par excellence—ardent believer of liberty of speech, true fighter for an unfettered press, human equality and dignity and democracy. I am neither competent, nor have appropriate words to evaluate his contributions in the field of journalism. But all leading journalists unanimously hold that ZIM was exceptional and matchless and will remain so in the history of journalism.

When I joined Viewpoint with limited experience in journalism, having only worked as an intern during my time in Journalism Department [now renamed Department of Mass Communication] of the Punjab University, Lahore, for a few months in PTV and Masawat, there were giant personalities working full time under the editorship of veteran journalist Mazhar Ali Khan, namely, Ibn Abdur Rehman (I.A Rehman), Amin Mughal, Alys Faiz, Nizam Din Sahib in reference section and Ahmad Aziz Zia in administration—he used to help in editing and proofreading whenever there was an emergency and/or when we were running against deadlines. I was indeed fortunate to have had the chance to learn from such luminaries in formative period of my professional career. It was a great honour and pleasure to work with them—all kind and great teachers—and gain skills, experience and knowledge in journalism that in those days was considered a noble profession and not a business as today, devoid of established journalistic standards, norms and ethics.

My experience of working with towering personalities that included Tahir Mirza of BBC fame for a short time in Viewpoint was a rare opportunity and golden era of life. During my stay at Viewpoint [1979-84], the regular contributors included such illustrious names as Syed Sibt-e-Hassan, Safdar Mir, Abdullah Malik, Prof. Khawaja Masud, Aziz Siddiqui, Hussain Naqi, Shafqat Tanveer Mirza, Malik Mohammad Jaffer, Khalid Ahmad, Ayaz Amir, Khalid Hassan and Dr. Arif Azad—just to mention a few. There were many occasional contributors as well having established repute in their areas of expertise.

I learnt immensely from their writings and witnessed how ably and skillfully ZIM used to do marvellous sub-editing job of their contributions on which they never raised any objection, rather praised him for improving their work. The same was true for I.A. Rehman, a man with multiple talents—my mentor and teacher. Amin Mughal and Alys Faiz were so proficient in writing that few could match their stature. They also taught me the art of journalism with great affection and dedication. I am grateful to all of them.

Amongst regular visitors of Viewpoint during my days were great journalist Nisar Osmani [next door neighbour of our office and bureau chief of Dawn], F.E. Chaudhry [respectably called Chacha Chaudhry], Dr.  Mubashir Hasan, Habib Jalib, Ahmad Bashir, Akhlaq Ahmed Dehlvi and  Husain Naqi, who joined full time after I left on 18th October 1984 to join Civil Services of Pakistan.

The team after me also included illustrious names like Khawar Mumtaz, Cassandra Balchin, Maria Del Novo and Zafaryab and may be some other I do not know as after leaving I used to visit rarely the office of Viewpoint due to official preoccupations and postings outside Lahore. At Viewpoint, I also had the rare honour of meeting great revolutionary, Dada Amir Haider, and many populist leaders such as Ghous Bux Bizenjo, C.R Aslam and Abid Hassan Minto.

ZIM remained associated with Viewpoint as employee or contributor from its birth in August 1975 to unfortunate closure in April 1992. All these years, Viewpoint with galaxy of intellectual-cum-highly-competent-innovative journalists was an academy and centre of resistance to undemocratic forces and religious bigots.

According to ZIM, “the magazine [Viewpoint] was born in poverty and died in greater poverty”. He always adored his association with Viewpoint and Mazhar Ali Khan. Money was never his consideration—it was his unshakeable faith in higher values of journalism and firm commitment for a cause for the oppressed that he loved working for a magazine that became torchbearer of truth and resistance against the forces of oppression and obscurantism.

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Between 1979 and 1982, ZIM was also associated with The Muslim—served as its Editor as well. He also served as assistant editor of Dawn [1983 till 2000] before becoming resident editor of Lahore in June 2000. Earlier, he served as a correspondent for The Pakistan Observer in 1970-71, worked as a scriptwriter for Radio Pakistan and for PTV apart from writing for The Frontier Post, Peshawar.

I became the blue-eyed boy of Mazhar Ali Khan and all others collogues when all of them were arrested by dictator General Muhammad Ziaul Haq in the wake of hijacking of plane on March 2, 1981. In those moments of crisis, I, with the help of ZIM [in those days he was working part-time with Viewpoint and was bureau chief of The Muslim having a small office in Faletti’s Hotel Lahore], in endeavoured successfully preparing and printing the Viewpoint in time without any interruption and no compromise on quality—keeping the legacy and hallmarks of Mazhar Ali Khan alive.

It was ZIM who helped me as lone fighter at 4-Lawrence Road, office of Viewpoint, after the arrest of all senior, to keep the torch of enlightenment rekindled and ensure the readers that nobody, not even the ruthless dictator like Zia, can gag the voice of freedom and resilience.

He rendered extraordinary efforts to make it possible that in the absence of stalwarts—Mazhar Ali Khan, I.A Rehman and Amin Mughal—the weekly remained as vocal as before taking despot, Zia ul Haq, and his cronies to task.

The tyrant and autocrat, Zia, was resisted by all of us courageously. It inspired millions and their faith in democracy got rekindled. Even in the worst days of censorship [we were to take each page to men in uniform, with readers wondering why so many empty spaces appeared on each page], ZIM and colleagues in jail knew the art of writing “between the lines”—it was Mazhar Sahib’s forte who used this title for his regular feature other than writing editorials most of the time—to raise a voice against the military rule and show solidarity with those suffering the worst oppression as political adversaries of General Zia and his cronies, defenders and allies.

When Mazhar Sahib and others were in jail and yet not started sending write-ups clandestinely, ZIM wrote commanding and authoritative editorials and columns under the title—Between the Lines. He demonstrated extraordinary skills and acumen—as well as depth of knowledge. He was a jewel, simply marvelous. His handwriting was so beautiful that there never was the need of typing, enabling Mr. Karmat [early employee of Pakistan Times] at linotype to compose the directly from his hand-written papers.

ZIM’s command over English was highly commendable—he was eloquent and stylish, not pedantic, simple sentences and phrases with ability to impress the common readers and intellectuals alike. He had a rare talent of writing—almost rare these days. Besides English, he was well-versed in Urdu and Punjabi. He was an ardent reader, a great writer and above all a great human being—a Sufi with a unique style that cannot be explained in words.

He was least pushed about worldly gains, not even bothered to be recognised as an outstanding journalist worthy of state award that he undoubtedly deserved. Besides working daily with him in office, I enjoyed his company in the later hours as well. Those were blessed moments. He was a great company, amazing conversationalist, open hearten, simple soul, polite, compassionate and emphatic. I have lots of memories to share—the evenings we spent together and with many friends, notable among them was Ayaz Amir, whenever he was in Lahore.

ZIM is no more with us physically, but will remain alive in the hearts of all those who ever met him or read his great columns etc. In this write-up, I just want to highlight an aspect of his personality that remains untold—most of the writers after his death are only praising him as master of the pen, an intellectual and journalist quintessential.

Very few people know about his love for literature and humanity at large. He was keen reader of all leading sufi poets of Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan including Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz, Hafiz and Saadi Sherazi and many others. In fact, He also had insatiable quest to know about history of Lahore. His columns on Lahore as Lahori testify to it. His journalistic career of 42 years is simply a story of inspiration and devotion.

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ZIM, indeed, was a brilliant thinker with an extraordinary creative mind—he was unique from all journalists of his time. Not only are his contributions to journalism, literature and profession unmatched and everlasting but his loving personality will forever remain a source of inspiration for many. History will remember him as a highly dignified man, who never compromised on principles.

Ardent defender of love, peace and justice, through his strong writings he waged a relentless struggle throughout his life to side with the downtrodden and to present their case.  Equal opportunities for all, freedom of thought, work and love were his passions in life. His greatness lay in his commitment and practice of those ideals. He, unlike many others, was not a cliché-monger. He once said to me: “Dear Ikram, I loathe those who pay lip service to moral values but act otherwise”. Hypocrisy was totally unacceptable to him.

His knowledge of cricket was immense. I learnt a lot from him and cannot pay back except to write these few lines to tell Pakistanis what a great person ZIM was. In him, we have lost not only a great and committed journalist but a son of the soil who was always concerned with the future of his countrymen—especially the less privileged and victims of oppression and injustice.

Beneficiaries of his benevolence and love were all and sundry—no discrimination whatsoever: relatives, friends, co-workers and even strangers. He was a rare gem in the Land of Pure where majority of the people have their own axe to grind.

In his life and work, there are many things worthy to be cherished and praised. Few can match his class in contribution to journalism through his writings that can be compiled in many volumes. He was enthusiastically committed to see Pakistan a truly democratic and egalitarian State. For this cause, he played his due role through writings and standing up against all the dictators—military and civilian alike. He was a zealous optimist who was fond of revolutionary poets, especially Faiz Ahmad Faiz. One day, he cited with passion the following lines of Faiz Sahib when we were at his Model Town’s B Block residence enjoying a gathering of young revolutionary students who came to express solidarity after the arrest of the entire staff of Viewpoint, except ZIM and me:

Qafas hai bas meiñ tumhaare, tumhaare bas meiñ nahiñ

Chaman meiñ aatish-e gul ke nikhaar ka mausam

Bala se hum ne na dekha to aur dekhenge

Furogh-e gulshan-o saut-e hazaar ka mausam

The prison may be yours, yet you do not control

The season of the flowering of the bright rose

What if we don’t see but the ones following us will

Witness blossoming gardens, enjoy ditties of the nightingale

 

For us, who were very close to ZIM, he was a legend, though he wanted to remain gumnaam [fameless]—not shy as many say but consciously avoiding the limelight. Cheap popularity, vulgar ostentation of wealth and unrestrained power were loathsome for ZIM.  He was lucky to secure enviable recognition during his life time in a society notorious for not acknowledging the work of authentic people and where hypocrisy and sycophancy are praised and promoted. Recognition of his rare talent and popularity abroad, especially among leading journalists of India, and elsewhere made ZIM more humble. For what he received as fame and appreciation, any ordinary immortal would certainly turn to be arrogant, but he showed not even an iota of it. He was so humane and unassuming that even a novice in the field of journalism would not feel uneasy in his company. This was where his real greatness lay.

ZIM will continue to live in the hearts of many but no one will be able to fill the void left by his departure. For me he was not only a mentor and friend but a fatherly-figure as well, whose existence was like a protective shield.

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