Abdul Ahad Baloch: My Mentor, My Friend
I vividly remember learning three words from him back in 1993 as a grade five student: “journalism”, “sahafat” (the Urdu word for journalism) and “siyasat” [politics]. Master Abdul Ahad, my primary school teacher, who firstly taught me these key words which subsequently become an integral part of my life, was shot dead on November 15, 2012, in my hometown of Panjgur in Balochistan.
Ahad was the first man (or probably among the first ones) from Panjgur to complete a Master’s Degree from the Department of Journalism at the University of Balochistan. Panjgur is a small border town but it does not stop surprising us with the people it produces who envision an out-of-the-box worldview. But it still surprised me how a young man from Panjgur’s little town of Gramkan had the vision, back in 1980s, to study journalism. Most people of his generation, as the cliche goes, wanted to study engineering and medical. Wait a second: Let’s not underestimate the town of Gramkan.
There are two facts you should know about Gramkan: A good one and a bad one.
Let’s start with the bad one first: Most young boys over there waste their free time sitting in front of local shops. There are grocery shops on both sides of the narrow broken road that connects Panjgur with Quetta and Karachi. In front of these shops, there are numerous chairs available for local teenagers, strangers, travelers to sit in front of these shops.
Besides squandering their time over here and gossiping, the teenagers also keep count of the buses that arrive from Karachi and Quetta or depart to Quetta. These days, I am told, the boys spend more time sharing ring towns on their cell phones and teasing each other with fake Facebook IDs pretending to be girls.
Inside these shops, many boys smoke the first cigarettes of their lives. A “bad” or a “brave” friend, depending how you view it, normally offers the first cigarette freely.
Spending many hours sitting in front of these shops may sound like a dumb lifestyle, doesn’t it? It does but it is indeed an integral part of the local culture and lifestyle. Everything about sitting in front of these small shops is not bad, though. The shop-sittings are a helpful way to discuss social issues, meet new people, make friendships and learn about the latest events (such as the news about a neighbor’s death, wedding, fight, trouble etc.).
When the sun sits, the shop-sitters drag a Baloch mat made of date tree leaves called a thagird, sit down, play cards but make sure they have an eye on the road. They uselessly but pleasurably keep track of the cars, the buses and the people that keep passing on the narrow road. The shop-sitters drink Syya Cha (black tea), gossip, discuss politics, (some of them) go to the local mosque for Isha prayer, eat fries in front of the shops. This continues until midnight.
There is a good side of Gramkan too: It has produced some of the most incredible people who were born in small, poor families but made outstanding achievements in their lives. For instance, a guy from Gramkan, Faqir Mohammad Baloch, became, Balochistan’s Chief Secretary. Kachkol Ali, also born in Gramkan, became a minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the Balochistan Assembly. There are two other men from Gramkan whom I so deeply admire. Zahir Hussain Baloch, the founder of The Oasis Academy. He taught me, and tens of thousands of other young Baloch kids, how to read and write English.
Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Khalid Gramkani was another gem this little town produced. Khalid carried with him the name “Gramkani” in several countries of the world, including East Timor, where he worked with the United Nations as a Peacekeeper. He said no matter where in the world he went, he did not want to forget his original roots as a man from the little town of “Gramkan”. In the United States, Mr. Gramkani, “got professional education from USA that includes AS in computer Technology in 1988, A.S in digital Electronics in 1988 and E.S.L in Linguistics in 1986.” He was an extremely smart man, said everyone who met him even once. A few years ago, Mr. Gramkani, while on police duty in Balochistan, was killed in a battle with criminals in Loralai area. He wrote and shared with me an impressive volume of his East Timor memoirs.
Now, let’s get back to my teacher, Abdul Ahad.
As a journalism student at the University of Balochistan, Ahad was a class fellow of illustrated Baloch columnist Manzoor Baloch (who now teaches Bravhi language at the University of Balochistan).
Government Model High School is the oldest and the biggest public school in Panjgur. It was just three-minute walking distance to my home. When I went to this school, just like my father, it was divided in two buildings. In what now is known as the Helper’s Public (yet private) School on Airport Road accommodated the students from class one to five. When students passed class five, they would go to the much larger Model School building. It was every child’s dream to go to class six because over there they had a much larger playground , a science room (sort of a science laboratory—although only the students at grade nine and ten could use that science room). What made class six very charming was also the fact that students would start for the first time to learn English. At class six, we also learned to read Arabic but I hated that subject and the teacher. In fact, nobody in our class wanted to learn Arabic and it seemed like an imposed language on all of us. It was such waste of the students’ time and resources.
Abdul Ahad was not a regular teacher at our school which meant he did not teach subjects like Urdu, Social Studies etc. He was a lab assistant at the widely admired science room. Sometimes (oh, in fact most of the time), our teachers deliberately skipped the classes. They’d sit down in the “staff room”and sip tea. Such occasions often provided Abdul Ahad an opportunity to walk into our classrooms.
When I was in grade five, he started coming to our class. He deeply impressed me with his beyond-the-text-books knowledge. He taught things out of the textbooks, shared real life knowledge and stories with us. He used to teach us about politics, history, political leaders, revolutions and other countries of the world. As he continued teaching, the recess bell rang within 40 minutes. We were so mesmerized in his talks that all students would request him to finish those fascinating stories from history and also agreed to remain inside the classroom during the recess. Sometimes, he entertained our requests but, other times, he would promise to complete the rest of the story in a future class. He knew how to instill curiosity among his students. Until his next class, we’d repeatedly reach out to him in coming days, “Waja (the Balochi word to address a teacher), please come to our class,” we’d beg, “Waja, please complete the story you told us in the last class.” He’d promise to come back whenever he found a “free slot” (depending on the other teachers’ laziness to skip their classes).
As a ten-year boy, I was profoundly impressed with Abdul Ahad’s knowledge. I wondered how he knew so many fascinating stories of wars, revolutions, political movements, inventions, literature etc. I also wondered why our other teachers did not know as much as Ahad.
One day, I finally asked him.
“Waja, what have you studied? You seem to know everything!”
“Journalism,” he said and then immediately thought that I was too young to understand the English word and added, “Sahafat“.
I did not understand the meaning of both of the words. I had never heard them before. But I so clearly remember the moment when I heard the word “journalism” for the first time in my life. My takeaway on that particular day was that anyone who studies journalism would be very knowledgeable (of course, my assumption turned incorrect as I grew up). Thus, I decided to study journalism in the future.
Ahad also introduced me with the world of books, newspapers and magazines and described their significance. He was an avid reader. In a backward town like Panjgur where basic amenities of life were unavailable, Ahad maintained one of the finest personal libraries in the town. Among so many good features, his library had a unique distinction: He had every copy of the Akhbar-e-Jehan (world’s most widely read Urdu weekly published from Karachi) since 1985. At his personal library, he had kept all old copies of Akbar-e-Jahan in a chronological order.
On at least two occasions I endeavored to contest his claim of having “every copy” of Akhbar-e-Jehan. Each time, he proved his claim right. One day, I told him that I needed Jehan’s the first issue of 1995 because I wanted to see the coverage of poet Parveen Shakir’s death on December 26, 1994. The next day, he provided me the exact copy. Later on, I asked him to provide me the August 1988 copy of the weekly which covered General Zia-ul-Haq’a air crash. He brought me the exact copy again.
“How do you keep your record?” I asked, “What do you do if you miss one edition?”
“If I ever miss a copy, I call my friends in Quetta or Karachi to buy and send me that particular issue,” he said.
In 1999, when I, at the age of 16, became a stringer in Panjgur for the Quetta-based Urdu language newspaper, Kohistan, Ahad offered me to visit his home library to take as many journalism books as possible—all free of cost.
He gave me a dozen books written by prominent Pakistani journalism instructors and journalists like Dr. Mehdi Hassan, Miskeen Hijazi,Mirza Yousaf, Zamir Niazi and others. These included Urdu books on reporting, editing, editorial writing, column writing, media history and advertising.
I was a first-year pre-medical student at that time when I avidly read those journalism books instead of paying attention on my medical textbooks.
One day, in the Chemistry class, my teacher, late Sir Ibrahim, asked a question which I could not correctly answer.
“If you don’t know this, how are you going to become a doctor,” he wondered.
“Sir, I don’t plan to become a doctor,” I said plainly, “I want to become a journalist.”
After the class, a lot of my fellows walked to me and asked what “that thing” was that I wanted to become and “how do people become one”.
I thanked Ahad, my teacher, for encouraging and assisting me so much with setting my future goals at a time when many of my peers even did not a clue of journalism.
When I was at college, Ahad began to have some problems with his feet. I am still not sure what had actually happened to him but he became totally handicapped for several months. He could not walk. He stopped coming to the Model School. Once he recovered and became able to walk with the help of a walking stick, he resumed coming to the school with a new motivation. For the first time, he opened the library at the Model Schoool. The library had always existed there but was never open or available to the students. The librarian, Master Hussain Sabir, was also from Gramkan. Ahad had become the new librarian. He was friendly, humble, easily-approachable and often persuasive toward the students to force them to spend time in the library and check out books.
I was no longer a Model School student but I still went to the School library and Ahad generously lent me books from the library. I would regularly return those books and spend several hours discussing journalism and politics. Off and on, I would ask him why he did not become a journalist after finishing his Master’s in journalism. He’d acknowledge that not becoming a journalist was one of his biggest regrets. To him, Panjgur was too small a town to work as a journalist. He always suggested that if I wanted to become a “real journalist” then I should get out of my small town and go to a ‘big city’ to search for stories.
After my continuous persuasion, Ahad agreed to get back to journalism. Hence, he began to report from Panjgur for the little-known Quetta-based Universal News Agency (U.N.A.). We worked very closely on a lot of local news stories. The most exciting time was the initial days of General Musharraf’s emergency and subsequent local government elections. Nonetheless, he quit reporting after a while because U.N.A. was not a very efficient agency and his stories were neither released on time nor were they published in major newspapers. He began to pay more attention to teaching and spent more time on social welfare work and promotion of sports in the district.
In 2009, when Daily Times launched its Urdu publication, Daily Aaj Kal, for which I also had to work as the Quetta Bureau chief, I called up Ahad again and requested him to get back to journalism. He did not make any excuses this time and immediately agreed to report for us. Along with late Mohammad Khan Sasoli of Khuzdar Press Club, Ahad was one of my regular and active stringers.
Sometimes, he would wake me up during crazy hours on the phone saying “we have just heard an explosion in Panjgur”. I’d say, “but the paper has already gone in press and it is too late.” He’d innocently reply, “well, but I just wanted to make sure I do my job on time.” I deeply appreciated his professional commitment. He broke more major stories than what we could possibly publish on time. I regret some of his ‘great stories’ could not be published on time simply because they reached us too late and he’d cite power disruption, or poor telephone/ fax facility as the main reasons for his failure to file timely stories.
In 2010, I worked as the Project Manager of a series of media workshops that the Balochistan Institute for Development (BIFD) organized with the collaboration of the National Endowment for Democracy. We organized five three-day long workshops in which journalists from across Balochistan were provided an opportunity to learn the use of social media and blogs to cover issues of human rights and democracy in rural areas. We selected Ahad for the fifth workshop to represent the district of Panjgur [the photo attached with the story is from the same workshop which shows Ahad receiving his certificate of participation from former Balochistan law minister Ms. Rubina Irfan and also former president of the Balochistan Union of Journalists (BUJ), Abdul Khaliq Rind].
In the last session of the workshop, which was also my last meeting with Ahad (as I flew to the United States a few days later), he requested that he should be allowed to make a brief speech before the audience. We happily agreed. To my surprise, he just wanted to make a short speech about me which meant a lot to me.
“I am proud to see one of my students mange this workshop,” he said, “but today I feel my student has become my teacher because he has taught me how to use new techniques in journalism.” The audience clapped. I was humbled, slightly flattered too. I think he was too generous in his praise and I could never become the teacher of such an amazing mentor.
Ahad was an unknown role model for many of his students. He was not very high-profile because we have still not developed a culture of proudly owning and honoring our teachers as our heroes and inspirations. Ahad was a true change-maker. He always saw a brighter side of life. He was an optimist who believed social evils could definitely be defeated by promoting a culture of reading and writing. He was kind of a man who would sit alone inside a library for many hours only to make sure that nobody got an excuse to close down the library. Trust me, Balochistan needs many more such ‘informers’.