Safdar Qureshi: A journalist and a gentleman
By: Iftikhar Ali
Safdar Ali Qureshi, who passed away in Islamabad on Thursday, was an outstanding journalist, an effective union leader, a gifted speaker and an able administrator-all rolled into one.
A professional to the core, he was one of the stars of Associated Press of Pakistan’s team of highly competent and dedicated journalists whose work in the 50’s, 60’s and upto mid-70’s was acclaimed nationally and even acknowledged internationally.
Indeed, in that period most copy flowing on APP’s rickety teletype machines could be compared to the service of any news agency in the world.
In 1964, Safdar Qureshi shot to international fame when he landed a world exclusive: an interview with Chinese Premier Zhou en-Lai while on a trip to Beijing. The six-hour interview – covering key global topics, especially east-west relations and, of course, Sino-Pakistan ties – hit the headlines around the world.
The reason: it was the first interview Premier Zhou gave to a foreign journalist in 19 years! In the years after their liberation, the Chinese were busy consolidating their country as the US-led Western alliance pursued a containment policy. As such Zhou’s comments on and assessment of the international situation were of great interest and value to the world. During the marathon session with Zhou, Safdar finished eight notebooks while taking notes and his story was typed over 26 pages.
There was no way he could get his long copy across to Pakistan by telegram from Beijing– there were no computers, telex services or fax machines in those days. So he rushed back to Karachi with his notes. I was then News Editor at APP’s Central Desk in the dilapidated Badri Building on I. I. Chundrigar Road. That day, I came to the office for duty at 1 PM and was surprised to see a excited but very tired-looking Safdar – he wasn’t expected back so soon – typing away, with cups of tea in front of him and an ashtray full of cigarettes butts.
Without exchanging any greetings, he handed me a stack of papers and asked to start editing his copy. (Subsequently, I came to know that he had been typing since 8am) .‘This is something very important’, he told me, with his eyes focused on the typewriter. As I began reading the story, I realised its importance and finished my work in about an hour, deployed two fast operators to cut the tape for teletypes, and fired off an alert to the agency subscribers.
I congratulated him on the scoop, put his by-line on the story and the teletypes began churning it out. As the word spread, foreign correspondents based in Pakistan rushed to APP offices to file their dispatches. The next day, foreign journalists based in India, Singapore and Hong Kong flew into Karachi and interviewed Safdar – how he was able to get Zhou to give him an interview, the atmosphere in room where it as conducted, the colour of the dress the Premier was wearing, anything! Safdar’s own interview was also splashed around the world.
Safdar Qureshi had the looks of a movie star – tall, handsome, always impeccably dressed. A man with fine tastes, he was a collector of figurines and pieces of art. He commanded respect not just because of his competence, his imposing personality was also a factor. A decent person, he was a generous man and hospitable virtually to a fault.
A voracious reader and a keen sportsman, he was also fond of good food. As a journalist, he could easily fit into any role– reporting, editing and even sports coverage. He had a large circles of friends, including prominent and sportsmen, but one person he most admired most was Sartaj Aziz.
On a campaign trail in 1970, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto spotted Safdar and H.K. Burki in a crowd over 100,000 at Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh, he said, ‘I’m delighted to see my friends – Safdar and Burki here– they’re respected journalists’.
I first met Safdar Qureshi in 1960 in Peshawar, where I was based, when he was accompanying Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser on a trip to Pakistan. In those days, APP always deployed specialist correspondents to cover heads of State/government. We became friends – one of our shared interest was cricket. Our friendship grew over the years until he was elevated to post of General Manager, APP. One of his first actions was to assign me the job he was holding before taking up the top post in the agency– Diplomatic Correspondent.
That position opened up lot of opportunities for me and was the reason for my posting as Special Correspondent at the United Nations in 1971. A few years later, he was appointed to launch the IINA in Jeddah. Again, he appointed me as IINA correspondent in NY, an additional job for me. One winter night in 1968, I received a call in the middle of the night from Safdar– he sounded in great discomfort and asked me to call a doctor.
I did that and then jumped into my Mini Morris and drove to Rawalpindi’s Mrs. Davies hotel, where he had a room. He was sweating and looked in great pain. I gave him water and was trying to make him comfortable when Dr. Pervez Akhtar arrived. The doctor took me aside and told me that Safdar was having a heart attack and that I should call specialist Dr. Ayub Mirza. While Dr. Pervez treated him, I tried in vain to get in touch with Mirza by phone. Finally, I drove to his house, banged at his door and brought him to the hotel. After Safdar became a little better, he was shifted to a hospital where he fully recovered.
A pioneer of modern journalism in Pakistan, Safdar’s death leaves a big vacuum in the profession. People of his integrity and character are fast disappearing in the current highly commercialised environment.
His friends and admirers mourn him. May his soul rest in peace!
The writer is APP correspondent in New York and a retired UN official.
Source: The Nation