Salmaan Taseer: Ghetto prince of gutter poets

From his rock and roll boots to his voracious appetite, there are so many things about Taseer I will never forget.

Sobbia Saleem January 26, 2011
It was a hot April Fool’s day when I first heard the gruff voice of the Governor of Punjab on the phone. Naturally, I thought it was one of my friend’s playing a prank on me. To think that the Governor himself would pick up the phone and call me- what a heresy in a land dictated by status and protocol!

As the conversation continued, my doubts about whether it was really the governor himself grew. When he asked if I was Scottish, I was stunned into silence. My preconceived notions of all government officials being idiots evaporated, and I realised I must be talking to the real thing.

Years of travelling have diluted my Scottish accent and, I was sick of constantly being asked if I was Irish or even American. Not many people could so easily guess where I am from - I was eager to meet this enigma.

Salmaan Taseer hired me with my mane cut in the latest mullet style from the streets of Harajuku and dyed a brilliant red. Utterly unfazed, he was far more interested in my technological and multimedia skills and, thereafter, referred to me as “my techie” although it was never to my face. In the colonial monstrosity that constitutes the Governor House of the Punjab, the governor always treated me like a princess, with utmost regard and respect for my skills and abilities and the deepest care for my well being in a politically cut-throat environment.

There are things about ST I will never forget: the rock and roll boots he had on under his suit when we went to meet the President of Turkey; the way he would concentrate and chomp into his food as though the whole universe had shrunk down to the size of his plate (he would only ever look up occasionally and grunt at me to eat something, while I would pick despondently at the latest unrecognisable concoction prepared by the Governor House chef). I loved that he would order food from outside because, like me, he didn’t seem too fond of what the chef had to offer. I will never forget how his cigar ash would constantly fall on his kameez (shirt) and he would ever-so-absent-mindedly and unsuccessfully whack it away.

I will never forget an incident that occurred when we were driving hundreds of miles to visit the flood victims in the ‘chaks’ and ‘bastis’ (tiny villages) of South Punjab. It was the dead of the monsoon season, and so humid that all of us on his team with touch phones were very quickly left with dead machines. The Governor’s blackberry and iPhone stopped responding too.

Always having great confidence in me, he handed both phones over and said “Do something!” I just laughed and sat at the side of the stage while he told the people of Kot Addu that he had not abandoned them (this was the second time he had visited them) and that he would come again with more cheques and relief items. After his speech was over he sat on a sofa on the middle of the stage and looked over at me, sweating and struggling to cope with the crush of human bodies. He smiled and held up his hand in a gesture to ask me if I was okay, knowing it was an atmosphere I was not used to. I reassured him by gesture that I was fine. But he wasn’t convinced and sent three of his men to get me out of the rush of people and back to my car safely.

I never knew the “governor”... I only ever knew Salmaan Taseer, a man with a vision so broad that he was in the process of launching a global campaign to project a softer image of Pakistan, and a heart so caring that he would keep a check on the most ostensibly insignificant of his employees. That was the key to his success as a businessman, who could simultaneously see the macro and the micro and gave equal attention to both, and his legacy as a humanist and a revolutionary.

Of all the people that knew Salmaan Taseer and have eulogised him, I knew him for the shortest span of time. And my only regret with his passing is that I wish I could have spent more time with him.

However, I find solace in the fact that I had a highly unique role as his teacher, advisor and chronicler. As a student, Salmaan Taseer was a pure joy to teach. At the age of 66, not only was he able to pick up the thrust and parry of the Twitterverse lightning fast, but he would come back a few days later and tell me 10 things I never knew before. He had hardly even touched a computer before, and within days he was RT-ing and DM-ing people all over the place!

His appetite for learning was voracious to say the least, and since neither of us suffered fools gladly, we had a working relationship that was truly in sync. He had an uncanny ability to sniff a rising trend. Not once did I have to explain to him the importance of having a formidable web presence and how eventually his cyber-existence would come to mean more than the little footprints left in the here-today-gone-tomorrow world of traditional electronic media.

In the time I spent working for him, we built a lasting cyber legacy that surpasses that of every single politician or high profile Pakistani. Every official engagement is documented on his official website in the form of photos, videos and words. Every thought and opinion is displayed unabashedly for the world’s perusal on his Twitter. Not a fake bone in his body, we would often laugh at the “cheesiness” of the Tweets of government officials. Salmaan Taseer had no concept of how to toe the party line and even if he did, he wouldn’t have done it.

In collaboration with the legendary beat poet Allen Ginsberg, the original punk rocker Joe Strummer of The Clash sang about “The Ghetto Prince of Gutter Poets” and how he was “bounced out of the room by the bodyguards of greed”. For me, Salmaan Taseer will always be the revolutionary prince who upheld the true socialist and humanist ideals of the PPP decades after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s judicial assassination. While the other original party workers grew into fat and placid businessmen for whom Bhutto’s dream was relegated to a time when the world was full of idealistic fervour, for Taseer the dream was a living reality. While his prodigious intelligence and acumen assured him a business fiefdom like few others, he tired of the “bourgeois life”. It was politics and the public realm that truly quickened his pulse. Street-wise, quick-witted and a genuine aficionado of the arts, the Salmaan Taseer in my mind is the true ghetto prince of gutter poets.

A more detailed version of this post can be read here.
Sobbia Saleem A multimedia journalist who served as media consultant to Governor Salmaan Taseer.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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