Dialogue: Nuzaira Azam
The media person talks to Slogan’s Farah Iqbal in this exclusive interview.
How would you describe yourself as a professional?
Journalism is my passion. My father is responsible for developing my interest in journalism. One day, when I was 8 years old, living in Baghdad, my father who had returned from an engineering conference in Syria, was talking to my mother about it; he said that he had met some top journalists there. That stuck in my mind and I asked my father that how does one become a top journalist? You can say that the seed of journalism was sowed in my mind at that moment.
Mr. Sajjad Haider, the then ambassador of Pakistan to Iraq and his wife were friends of my parents and we used to visit their house a lot. Mrs. Haider had a Library comprising books in Urdu. Even though we used to study in a French convent school, I always wanted to read in Urdu and so I started to spend a lot of time in their library. This is where I discovered all the works of great poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz for the first time. Years after we returned to Pakistan, one day I asked my father that if he had not been an engineer, what would he have been. My father promptly replied that he would have been a journalist. That left a great impression on me and I thought becoming a journalist was a huge thing.
By the time I did my bachelors, we were living in Haripur as my father was posted there to set up a transmitter factory for the government. My father suggested I should get a Masters degree and I said fine but I would like to do my Masters from Peshawar University but my father wanted me to go to Karachi University. He said that he would take me to Peshawar University and
that I should decide where to study after that visit. So we went there and visited one of the classrooms. To my disgust, there was a curtain in the middle of the classroom separating the girls from the boys and there were holes in the curtain made by cigarettes. So I ended up going to Karachi University. The atmosphere of education at the Karachi University was totally different. It was very open, students freely interacted with each other and they had discussion sessions on various topics. When I first met Professor Zakaria Sajid, the Chairman of the Journalism department at KU at the time, my father told him that I wrote short stories and poetry, Sajid sahib smiled and said this was a disqualification for journalism but I challenged him by saying that both were a form of writing and were related. So he told me that I had to give an entrance test, which I did and passed it with flying colours. That’s how the interest in journalism grew in me and it eventually became a mission.
While I started to make a name for myself in journalism, my parents moved to USA and took me with them. There I joined the Pakistan Embassy and worked with the then Ambassador Abida Hussain and later with Maliha Lodhi.
After I got married in 1995, I did a course in journalism from the National Journalism Center. I also taught Urdu at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and at various other schools. Later, I got an eight-month scholarship in Languages i.e. English language, at the Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. While I was still there I was offered a job which I took after I finished my course. It was a seven year contract, which ended recently and so now I have come to Pakistan for a long vacation.
How has your analytical approach helped Pakistani media since you are based in Washington DC?
I used to write for magazines, both Urdu and English, which were published in the United States. This included an online magazine on local US politics. For this, I conducted interviews of various leaders from the Democratic and Republican parties. Their insights helped news organizations and reporters back home, especially the way I put them across.
Have you achieved the goals you had set up for yourself?
Not yet. I feel that journalism is an ongoing process, like continuously flowing water. I have never craved for a higher position in journalism. I prefer to be among the public, to meet and write about them. Whether it is the Pakistani public or the American public, it does not matter.
Have you succeeded in popularizing Urdu or other Pakistani languages in the US?
I have worked a lot with the institutes of foreign languages on Urdu and Punjabi. As I am also fluent in Punjabi, sometime ago, one of the American centres for foreign languages arranged a Punjabi standardization course and they invited me to discuss the course and give them suggestions. There is some work being done on languages like Punjabi, Balochi and also Sindhi but it is being done by Americans mostly. A friend of mine has developed a dictionary of Punjabi phrases. The Pakistani community are more interested in poetry, so a lot of ‘ Mushairas’ are held in New York. I don’t know whether you can consider this as popularizing Urdu or has it become the language for entertainment?
What has been your role in acting as a bridge between South Asian and American cultures?
I have been involved with various associations that acted as a platform through which we held various lecture sessions. The Karachi University Alumni Association in the US has really been acting as a bridge between KU and US colleges. We arrange various discussions and lectures on culture and other topics at these colleges. We also invite chancellors or vice chancellors from Pakistan to speak at these forums.
You have been directly exposed to Pakistani media in earlier years. Do you find a difference now?
My career in journalism started from PTV, Quetta station. I used to do a program on current affairs. But my passion was to be in the print media, I preferred writing for the newspapers than appearing on TV. A lot has changed since I was here nearly two and a half decades ago. The world has progressed tremendously and there has been major political and social change. There has also been so much destruction through war and otherwise. So, obliviously, all this has affected journalism here as well and it has changed accordingly.
Journalism today has become very aggressive, especially in the electronic media in Pakistan but there is a lack of ‘nationalism’ which is an important factor. Whereas all the American channels only show what is in the interest of the country, they would never show their country in a negative light as they believe in nationalism. However in Pakistan it’s another story. If one channel is keeping the interest of the country in mind while airing a news or discussion program, the other makes it a point of putting it down, even if it hurts the country in the process. They do not do any research; they just take the news from the international channels or New York Times, etc. and air it as their own.
What more could the TV news channels in Pakistan do to build better credibility?
I think there is no code of ethics among the TV news channels in Pakistan. If there is, then all the channels do not follow it. For example, they take a news story, blow it out of proportion and repeat it insistently, over and over again to create sensationalism and without taking the responsibility for the consequences that occur and hurt society as a result. It seems like both the government and society has shrugged their responsibility and nobody cares about what is happening to the country. It’s like a herd of wild animals that has been set loose, destroying everything in its way - that’s what our society has become. To top it off, the media, especially electronic media, further flares up the situation.
There seems to be a lack of seriousness and responsibility among the politicians and the media. However, in the print media there still seems to be some credibility. Freedom comes with responsibility but over here all they care about is freedom. Nobody wants to own up to the responsibility that comes with it.
What sort of professional development are you looking forward to as a next step?
On my return to the US I will be starting a company, which I have already registered under the name ‘Global Beat,’ where we would be providing training in journalism and media. I want to do something worthwhile that would also benefit Pakistan. In particular, I would like to provide the opportunities and the platform to students of journalism or upcoming journalists in Pakistan to help them grow professionally.
Nuzaira Azam, an alumni of Karachi University, started her career in Pakistan with PTV, Quetta, hosting a current affairs program and later as a journalist working for various Urdu newspapers, including Nawa-i-Waqt. She covered the political beat. She moved to the United States in the 1990s, where she worked for the United States government as a media analyst and consultant on South Asian and Pakistani media. She also continued with her journalistic career as a freelancer for various US-based print and on-line magazines. She has received the Ahmad Adaya Urdu International Award for her Urdu novel, Khawab Badosh (Dream Carriers).