Saturday May 28 wasn’t much fun. My flight had been cancelled on a sunny day and the thought of driving back to Lahore was not amusing. I was all packed and waiting for the car when the phone rang. It was Syed Saleem Shahzad.
I wanted to kick myself in the shin for forgetting to email him the numbers of a publishing house in Lahore that Saleem wanted to contact for an Urdu translation of his book on al Qaeda. I began our conversation with an apology when he cut me mid-sentence: “No issues, Ejaz bhai. I know you are busy. How are you?” he asked.
When I told him I was headed back to Lahore after a conference, he wasn’t pleased and made his displeasure known in the only way he knew: Respectfully and disarmingly. “So, next I am in Lahore, perhaps I shouldn’t inform you.” We chatted for a while about his book and then he asked me for Khaled Ahmed’s number which I said I’d text him. I still have his text with the prompt “thank you” reply in my phone. My heart aches.
All of us know about his reporting skills and his intrepidness. But what endeared him to me was his absolute humility, a trait generally rare and rarer still in our profession where the TV has turned 20-somethings into cat’s whiskers for reasons that are as deep and lasting as lines in the sand.
But Saleem was another generation. Bylines were hard to come by, unlike today, the basics of the craft were still practised and seniors were respected. His knowledge of the areas he covered was extensive and intensive. It was begot of travels in the field and cultivating deep sources over a long time. But never did his knowledge boil over or make him haughty. In fact, unless pressed, he never spoke and even then, too shyly.
In 2007, when I hosted a programme for Dawn News, then an English-language channel, I called Saleem and said I wanted him on the panel. He was very reluctant to be on camera. But I managed to browbeat him into it and to my knowledge it was one of his first TV appearances. Later, he began making more regular TV appearances and I sometimes joked with him about his initial camera-shyness.
He would often call me to share something and was my first stop for corroborating information. One thing that I noticed early on was that when he spoke about something that he hadn’t checked with multiple sources, he would always say, “Ejaz bhai, I am not sure about this but this is circulating.” He knew his trade and was cautious. Yet, as I told him a few times, he did go out on a limb and wrote things that didn’t pan out the way he said they would. But I also knew that he played at the deep end in very murky waters and not even the best can always get it right.
We were together in London two months ago for a conference at the War Studies Department of King’s College. On the second day of the conference, we walked from Strand, taking the inner streets to Covent Garden and then to Trafalgar Square. At the Square, the shy Saleem suddenly said to me, “Ejaz bhai, aik tasweer ho jai.” I said, sure. He stood there and I took a picture. When I showed him the photo on my camera, he wanted another one with a close-up. The day the news of his murder was flashed on TV channels, I opened his picture on my laptop and there he was, smiling at the camera. That’s how I want to remember him.
We spent that evening together with some other friends and had dinner later. After dinner, I was to accompany a friend to the Embankment Station and leave for Oxford the next day. He was tired. So I embraced him and said I will now meet him in Pakistan. That was my last meeting with him and while back in Pakistan we spoke on the phone, I could not meet him. How I wish I had seen him in Islamabad. How I wish I wasn’t writing this. How I wish I could review his book, as he wanted me to, and get a call from him. Rest in peace, dear friend.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 3rd, 2011.