The art of writing an Urdu column

Published: May 18, 2012
The writer is an Islamabad-based freelance communications consultant. She tweets @tazeen and blogs at

The writer is an Islamabad-based freelance communications consultant. She tweets @tazeen and blogs at

I write a weekly column for this newspaper, an English language daily and at times it becomes difficult to comment on things with a perspective that is fresh, relevant and not dated — week after week. Not only that, but one is also required to be coherent and appear sane most of the time (there are some exceptions to the rule, though).

I envy op-ed writers of Urdu newspapers; most of them are not encumbered with the notions of relevance and coherence. If one reads Urdu op-ed pieces for a week, it becomes clear that the art of writing an op-ed in Urdu is quite straightforward. It mostly starts with a story of a brave king of the days long gone and how he took care of his people, somehow linking it to governance issues of fighting a multi-pronged war, the energy crisis or overpopulation. More often than not, the king will not have a name but when there is a name, that particular incident is not found to be a part of history. At times, I have even looked into Dastan-e-Amir Hamza for references but the stories were so fantastical that I could not find them in the centuries-old tales of Amir Hamza.

Introspection is alien to Urdu columnists; Pakistan is never to be blamed for its ills. It is always foreign powers who are trying to sabotage the fort of Islam. Foreign country bashing is not limited to, but is generally aimed at, the US and India — depending on the topic of conversation. And the really creative writers do not just blame India for all slights and transgressions — imagined and real — but they invent a fictional European character they have met in trips abroad and make him say that India is a horrible place where everyone is evil and that Pakistan is the ultimate Shangri-La. After all, the hidden racist within us would agree more with a learned white man than a Pakistani, even if that Pakistan happens to be an esteemed columnist travelling to these foreign lands.

Some Urdu columnists also like to reproduce the fan mail they get, usually from cities like Layyah and Narowal. English op-ed writers cannot do that because they generally do not get fan mail from Layyah. What they do get — and this generalisation is solely based on the mail I and two of my columnist friends receive — is hate mail for being (a) liberal fascists, (b) English medium elite or, best of all, (c) agents of the foreign variety.

At times, I envy Urdu columnists. I like the idea of starting a piece with a fairy tale but it is not that simple. For starters, I like to be historically correct and my editor, who is cyber-savvy, even asks me to provide hyperlinks for the internet editions of any topics mentioned in my piece in order to provide context and to substantiate my argument. This puts any fantasies I may harbour about introducing fictional characters in my pieces to sleep. For Urdu columnists, however, if fantastical historical characters and fan mail from Layyah are not viable choices, they are left with the option of blaming it all on the unholy trinity of India, Isreal and the US. This is how one masters the art of becoming an Urdu columnist.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2012.


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Reader Comments (48)

  • boosy
    May 18, 2012 - 11:42PM

    urdu callumn nigars are creative at least. not bland like this piece,


  • Prof. Sarmad
    May 18, 2012 - 11:50PM

    The things you said are true, yet the truly represent thought of 180 million people. and not 200 K elite.


  • faraz
    May 19, 2012 - 12:03AM

    Urdu columnists have the least idea about economics, foreign affairs, diplomacy or political science. Their world view is entirely derived from the history of medieval Islamic caliphs. Many columns revolve around some personal experience or conversation with someone. A famous columnist (who thinks his pearls of wisdom are worthy of repetition in start and end of column) forms his opinion upon the guidance of a saint whom he terms dervaish!


  • May 19, 2012 - 12:10AM

    Typical, “urdu speaking people don’t know any thing, they are uneducated, illiterate and have no sense of writing articles. Only english papers have editiors, urdu ones don’t have any. We are the best because we speak english”.

    I wasn’t expecting this garbage from a seasoned writer. I am surprised that even Express tribune has published this. Strange really strange.


  • Ali Tanoli
    May 19, 2012 - 12:11AM

    So true maam but i have seen a big diff between these language papers Urdu papers allways
    colenmnist will write old glory days of sultans and kings who were called khalifah even though
    they Dictators like present saudis or pak Army Dic and English papers mention all the recent
    and most anti pak but true picture of country…..


  • Mirza
    May 19, 2012 - 12:21AM

    Well one can write anything and everything good about kings however, that would not be the truth. The most famous king for Jews and Muslims has been Solomon. He had 700 wives and 300 in harem. Here is what is said about him in Muslim holy books:

    These facts are more clearly described in Jews and Christian holy books.


  • Irfan
    May 19, 2012 - 12:22AM

    I read Urdu columns all the time & English as well. You should have mentioned every single one of the columnist is a bullhorn of a political personality or a party. I might be over critical when I say that there isn’t a whe lot of info, but one does learn the names of all the politicians. Plus very helpful for nare bazi. Mere 10 rupe wapas kardo. Give me a break.


  • Jibraan
    May 19, 2012 - 12:24AM

    this is generalization – and a rather biased one at that. A number of Urdu writers and journalists write brilliant articles and Op-Eds – ignoring them is pretty much like insulting them.
    one can also argue how, instead of being a paper for the masses, the english dailies have become something for the elite – and a counter-argument can still be presented that not all English papers are like that. I guess the same analogy applies


  • Lusty Nationalist Boy
    May 19, 2012 - 12:27AM

    Why blame only Urdu column writers for absence of relevance or coherence? That’s as commonly found in the columns of those who write in other languages, say, English. I guess all propagandists use the same techniques.


  • AL
    May 19, 2012 - 12:32AM

    I agree that Urdu columnist generally have similar pattern of writing. Perhaps the reason is they all belong to the same era of 60’s or 70’s. Whereas the later generations, apparently, doesn’t like the idea of writing in Urdu papers, mostly because they’re not good enough to read Urdu, let alone writing.

    Why not, columnist like you, write for Urdu papers? – like for instance in Express Urdu Edition?
    As they say, “It takes two to cuddle”


  • Faizan ali Warracih
    May 19, 2012 - 12:34AM

    Come on! .The point you raise is irrelevant , what bout all the black sheep’s in English writers .They are more worst traitors than any other.Urdu writers are biased to some ideology and so as English writers sticks to their broad-mined thought .Both are like-minded .!


  • Umair
    May 19, 2012 - 12:57AM

    Generalization of such proportions is unfair and shows that either the author either does not understand Urdu, or has not had the privilege of reading good Urdu columnists.


  • Logic Europe
    May 19, 2012 - 1:06AM

    nice wor they do of de educating and mis educating the masses
    no surprise the whole nation of Pakistan has become narrow minded bigoted and extremist
    what you write is of no consequence as may be less than one percent population reads English papers
    All,urdunpapers should be banned in the interest of the country and the whole world


  • Shock Horror
    May 19, 2012 - 1:33AM

    Very interesting. Similar comments can be made about the columns written in vernacular languages in many Asian countries!


  • Muqarrib
    May 19, 2012 - 2:33AM

    After reading your article I would say it’s a breeze to write an English article. Is there any opening for an article writer job at Tribune?


  • May 19, 2012 - 2:41AM

    After reading your column I came to know that it was easy to write an Op-Ed for English newspaper as well.


  • pmbm
    May 19, 2012 - 3:09AM

    Urdu writers know nothing? that is how white folks think about the ‘colored’.


  • StraightShooter
    May 19, 2012 - 3:22AM

    Just because you cannot write a fresh, insightful article every week does not mean you start picking on the Urdu columnists. This attempt is nothing but preposterous and based on gross generalizations and stereotyping. It doesn’t even fit a blog!


  • Farhan
    May 19, 2012 - 5:23AM

    This is double talk. Vernacular press which serves the common masses always use such methodology, may it be Pakistan, India or USA (please read the Op-Eds of newspapers in Bible Belt). Common reader is not bothered about complex legal arguments, economic theories or geo-political manoeuvres. They are only pushed by simple governance issues. They have a simple black and white lens to see the events around them and do not use various shades of gray which are typical of educated people. Newspapers sell what is sell-able. If you envy them, start writing there.


  • Ahmed
    May 19, 2012 - 9:20AM

    Urdu columnists are doing far superior work, compared to the English columnists, addressing the common people living not only in Layyah and Narowal but also in Turbat, Skardu and FATA.


  • observer
    May 19, 2012 - 9:29AM

    @Prof Sarmad

    The things you said are true, yet the truly represent thought of 180 million people. and not 200 K elite.

    By ‘Thoughts’ perhaps you meant- Prejudices/Misapprehensions/Ignorance etc etc.


  • May 19, 2012 - 10:11AM

    @Farhan: You again said, all educated only speak and write english, while urdu speaking people are uneducated.

    in your words ” They have a simple black and white lens to see the events around them and do not use various shades of gray which are typical of educated people”

    What should we do with this mentality.


  • A Peshawary
    May 19, 2012 - 10:15AM

    @Prof. Sarmad:

    Porfessor Saheb,

    This articles is exactly about the notation” yet the truly represent thought of 180 million people”, I feel this is what she is trying to say. How much of 180 Million is below the age of five who are not going to school and what is the percentage of people in 180 Million unalbe to read even Urdu. It is the dilemma of our politicians, anchors, writers etcs that they have devopled the phrases on the abstract thinking and not on reality and it is prime example.

    So the question is how you assess the “Representaion of thought” of the people in actual and realistic numbers to have pragmatic analysis and writing.

    A Peshawary


  • A Peshawary
    May 19, 2012 - 10:26AM

    Madam, why dont’ you initiate “fresh, relevant and upto date” writing in Urdu. It will enlarge your readers and may be rating as well. It provided opportunity to Urdu readership to read something positive with objectivity.

    A Peshawary


  • Muhammad
    May 19, 2012 - 10:51AM

    SO what you in affect you are saying is Sindhis dont write all?, Baluchis have no point of view, Pashtoon are no where to be found and offcourse the Punjabis are not worth metioning.

    Only because you(english columnist) have the technology to hyperlink in bulk does not make the opinions of others any less, irational or void of cross reference.

    And you might want to re-read the history of Bangladesh a.k.a ‘East Pakistan’ and why fuss started there in the first place.


  • ashar
    May 19, 2012 - 11:40AM

    Wikipeadia is not a reliable source of knowledge


  • ashar
    May 19, 2012 - 11:49AM

    My dear Muhammad, it is nothing but a complex. And it shows clear signs of colonial legacy we still cherish and believes to be the only source of progress for us. Whatever written in English and whatever do the english speaking people is on the other hand sacred for this kind of people.

    However, if a rational and unbiased analysis is carried out then we will find a treasure of knowledge and writing in other languages as well and so it has its affects on newspaper columns. I think our learned writer has not read Amar Jalil, nazir Laghari, haroon rashid, Jamiluddin Aali and so many of the like.


  • May 19, 2012 - 12:26PM

    Agreed with Ashar and Muhammad 100%.

    The writer is far far far away from the reality. She is stuck with the mentality that only english speaking people are literate and can think.


  • umair
    May 19, 2012 - 12:33PM

    from cities like Layyah and Narowal

    what is that supposed to mean!!


  • malik
    May 19, 2012 - 1:37PM

    she has needlessly demonised and fruitlessly tired to belittle Urdu columnists. many readers are bilingual and can testify that the faults pointed out by her are found in urdu as well as english columns…………so it is her fancied n misplaced overgeneralisation


  • faisal
    May 19, 2012 - 3:03PM

    yes its true for a few coloumnist but other are quite good as well………i dont want to mention one coloumnist name who is also a anchor …….his work is full of such references…….most of them are fake………but we cannot say english papers are free of such freaks


  • elementary
    May 19, 2012 - 3:41PM

    Tazeen you have been reading the wrong columnists!!


  • Ali
    May 19, 2012 - 4:27PM

    I agree while english columnists and bloggers tend to gravitate towards the West, the Urdu ones try to hold on to the Eastern values and tales. However there are far too many exceptions, and it would have been nice if there had been some examples. They couldn’t have been too difficult to find if some effort had gone in researching for this article.


  • Sharjeel
    May 19, 2012 - 4:52PM

    if one thinks urdu columnists have no idea about whats going on in all spheres of life start reading someone credible…!!Recommend

  • May 19, 2012 - 5:04PM

    They know how to write good columns, even if that means historically incorrect data being provided. Most of the English columns written in Pakistan and India, which I read, are bland, repetitive and quite useless. The fact that we have only a handful of brilliant, original columnists like Cowasjee (now sadly retired), Irfan Hussain, Hoodbhoy and Sami Shah makes it even more irritating why others can’t write better. On the other hand, most of the Urdu columnists and feature writers are excellent in style and originality.


  • Haroon
    May 19, 2012 - 5:26PM

    It is highly ignorant of you to paint every urdu columnist with the same brush. Try reading Hassan Nisar’s columns and write an equally thought-provoking column next time.Recommend

  • T
    May 19, 2012 - 5:51PM

    There is a massive difference between the target audience and the pricing of both English and Urdu newspapers. Therefore, there is a marked difference between the quality. Secondly, Pakistan has produced greatest of writers in Urdu; Ibn-e-Insha was one of the best satirist in the whole of Subcontinent. If you search for it, ude find more accomplished writers of Urdu language then English in our history. As a writer you should be more concerned about a drastic decline in the quality of work that is being produced in our language. Perhaps you can make amends and start writing in Urdu but I think you never even bothered cuz its easier to just sit back and criticize.

  • Abhi
    May 19, 2012 - 6:13PM

    why blame urdu press, I can easily point out some english newspaper doing the same.
    Also I agree with many here, if you feel this way you should start writing for Urdu news paper.


  • Umer
    May 19, 2012 - 6:31PM


    I agree while english columnists and
    bloggers tend to gravitate towards the
    West, the Urdu ones try to hold on to
    the Eastern values and tales.

    Is hailing Mumtaz Qadri as hero an eastern value? Try looking hard at east and you’ll be shocked. These are more like Layya and Mianwali values as author has pointed out. I completely understand your view that writing about human rights should be construed as gravitating towards west as obviously Iran and Pakistan are not in the business of providing human rights.


  • Umer
    May 19, 2012 - 6:34PM

    @Ameer Hamza:

    They know how to write good columns,
    even if that means historically
    incorrect data being provided. Most of
    the English columns written in
    Pakistan and India, which I read, are
    bland, repetitive and quite useless.

    Right. You would rather read interesting lies than bland truths.

    No wonder Urdu columnists are so successful; they pander to idiots and funny thing is their idiot readers so love to be treated as idiots.


  • Naeem Siddiqui
    May 19, 2012 - 6:58PM

    @Tazeen Javed

    You are generalizing and being simplton here!!?? I know lots of Urdu columnists who write rational, thought provoking and Introspecting op-ed.


  • bspp
    May 19, 2012 - 10:44PM

    Prof. Sarmad…the nomenclature of 180 million population contains Sindhis, Balochs,Punjabis and Pathans (Bangalis have to be avoided due to their will)..
    Do the said entities have any rights to read and share something in own mediums? Your definition of ‘elite’ confines to English press…However, for most of the masses of this federation, Urdu press is nothing short of a luxury..!


  • s shah
    May 20, 2012 - 12:20AM

    agree with your article! well written and worth reading. thanks.


  • Anonymous
    May 20, 2012 - 5:11PM

    Dear author,
    I think what u said is correct for 99% of Urdu columnist. Believe me they are very popular. One particular author who does that on TV also is disgusting.

    1. You r the best country and chosen by God
    2. There was no history of this land before 47
    3. If any it was all related to ibne qasim and all invaders
    4. People have only one language in this country that is Urdu. Other languages are non Muslim languages.
    5. Pakistan came into existence after one million died in 1947 but no one died before that. Was that consequence of Pakistan creation or that resulted in Pakistan creation?
    6. Army has inherent right to rule.
    7. We have to foist flag on red fort in Delhi !!!
    8. Hindus are inferiors
    9. Other people in country who are not Urdu or punjabi elite are inferior. Their vote never counts or should not be respected.
    10. My brother took CSS and and unfortunately he wrote essay on Pakistan and democracy. I told him that” you will fail”. He failed in essay. Reason that u have to write and think iin that box. If you have different narrative, you are traitor.
    11. I am sorry to say but I yet have to meet person from central Punjab who thinks other way round.Recommend

  • Samiullah
    May 21, 2012 - 11:28AM


    Any issue can be criticized in a soft and indirect tone. However sweeping statements should be avoided. Our education system has divided this nation in opposite blocks who don’t even like to tolerate one another; criticizing one another is quite natural.


  • Hashmi
    May 21, 2012 - 5:03PM

    you speak for the liberal fascists(no offence intended, only categorising), not for the masses.

    Urdu pieces may not be coherent with some other faults making them not up to the mark with international press. But English writers have their vices and ills as well.. mainly being light years away from being the voice of the masses, or diagnosing or atleast identifying their problems… English writers pattern their thought and outrage on the pattern or western thought, which cannot be related to masses of Pakistan..


  • Deb
    May 22, 2012 - 10:58PM


    That’s a mighty post, tells me why urdu columnists are so popular with the 180 millions.


  • Ali
    May 30, 2012 - 3:55AM

    Madam, In my humble opinion please go through archives of all major english newspapers and analyse the opinion pages.A good journalist/op-ed writer must present both sides of the picture.This is not about english vs urdu or masses vs elite,this is about topics,research ,direction,foresight and depth.I am afraid you got it wrong this time.


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