Working with Ayesha Haroon, my mentor
By: Umar Cheema
ISLAMABAD: I woke up last Sunday morning with the noise of thundering clouds. The red light of my cell phone was blinking. Inside it was a text message from Absar Alam waiting for me: “Ayesha Haroon is no more.” The news of her death played havoc with me. She was my ‘Madam’ as we would call her.
Those who didn’t know ‘Madam’ will miss her. Those who had the privilege to meet and work with her are mourning the untimely demise of this great journalist and charismatic editor who mentored a generation of young journalists. She left this world at 46 wrestling with cancer for four long years. Writing about a deceased colleague has never been an easy task. In the case of Madam, it is really painful.
I’m honoured to have worked under her watch from 2001 to 2005. She was then editor of The Nation, Islamabad, when I joined the paper as a cub reporter. It is a blessing for a budding journalist to grow under the wings of a professional boss who treats his/her juniors with dignity and care. I have been lucky on this count throughout but this date backs to the early days when Ayesha was my editor and Absar Alam chief reporter. The time spent with them has been a treasured memory of the past.
How to characterise Madam: was she a great professional or a great human being? I have been facing this question from people around given the fact that balancing between the two is very difficult. My answer: she was a great boss with a maternal attitude towards us.
As an editor, Madam won recognition in a man’s world as journalism is generally considered a ‘masculine’ profession. She was clear-headed in her thoughts and writings; uncompromising and forthright. Madam would simultaneously care about the people her reporters write for and those being written about in order to be fair with both sides.
In times of crisis, Madam would stand with her staff but only on legitimate grounds. I remember her bold stance when Prime Minister Zafrullah Khan Jamali sent a ‘press advice’ restraining the paper from publishing my stories on the front page. The reason being my critical (not incorrect) reports about Jamali’s uneasy relations with the PML-Q leadership. The day the ‘advice’ was sent through the Principal Information Officer, my story was being published on the back-page. It was however displayed on the front-page after the receipt of this ‘advice’. Earlier, she was told by the Jamali government to fire me from the job. She refused.
I was not her only blue-eyed boy. Madam would support every staff member provided they did their duty diligently and with dignity. The work-shy staffers had to face the heat of her questions during bi-weekly meetings. She would never lose her temper even during the height of exchanges on work-related issues. Being a cool-headed lady, her response was always measured, calculated and respectful. During meetings with reporters, she was full of story ideas. We often wondered how she came up with fresh ideas all the time about every beat.
Other than being an editor, Madam’s writing skills was matched by none. Her writing, like herself, was beautiful, elegant, sharp and spot on. A reading of the articles authored by her would testify how concise and clear-sighted she would write without losing focus.
Madam also had a gifted talent of editing. I would consider it an honour knowing she was editing my story.
She would treat a story with extraordinary care beautifying it without altering its content and then placing a punchy headline on it. Even during the course of writing this piece, I often wondered if she could have edited it.
But Madam is gone. Had she been alive to do it, she would have done it differently this time changing it altogether since it is all about her person. She didn’t like to be showered with praise, no matter if it was true.
As a person, Madam was kind, sweet, and unassuming. Other than taking stock of our work, she was careful about our needs. Reporters under her worked in a family atmosphere. She would bring us chocolates when she went abroad. She would bring us bakery items and food when she came from home to office. During the holy month of Ramzan, the journalists living with families would go home at Iftar time. Single people like myself, Rauf Arif, Lamia Zia and Waseem Abbasi would remain seated.
As Madam would step in, she would give us cash from her own pocket to go for iftar at the places of our choice, no matter how expensive they were. While she assumed a motherly role, Absar (who we would call ‘Sir’) had a paternalistic attitude.
Sir would take the cub reporters to five-star hotels for dinner. The purpose, he would tell us, is to broaden our exposure so that we were not swayed by any rich person if they tried to buy our favor by granting such offers. Both would also tell us not to hesitate to ask if we need money at any time. By doing so, they wanted to keep us away from being corrupted by moneyed persons.
I had a couple of meetings with Madam during her illness when she was in New York. During our meeting in April 2011 at her apartment, she was quite sick and being taken care of by her doting mother who remained at her bedside during the last four years. Her sickness notwithstanding, Madam looked fresh and had a smile on her face. During my next visit in November 2011, Madam had almost recovered and walked out of her apartment to meet me first at a hotel and then at a coffee shop. This was one of the happiest moments in my life to see her recovering rapidly, not knowing the disease would recur in 2012.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t have imagined she would leave us and so soon. Her departure is a great loss. She was a legend.
My dear Madam! I am so proud to have known and worked with you. You inspired my thoughts. I owe you a lot. We all owe you a lot. I wanted to see you happy and healthy. May you live in eternal peace where a scourge like cancer could hurt you no more. Ameen!