Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Advertising’s Upright and Charismatic Intellectual

Published in Jan-Feb 2022

Remembering Syed Ahmed Ali (1935-2022)
Photo: Syed Ahmed Ali (seated) with his son Junaid
Photo: Syed Ahmed Ali (seated) with his son Junaid

Syed Ahmed Ali was born on July 21, 1935, in Sultanpur, Lucknow, in undivided India. He died on February 4, 2022 in Karachi, Pakistan. In between these two dates, 86.5 years of a very full life.

I’ve known him for over 53 of those years, almost 20 of which we worked together in the same offices. And my mind is blank about what to write. Or perhaps too full.

Let me instead give a few glimpses of what some others thought or felt or said about him.

Firstly, Wajid Shamsul Hasan: Journalist, Editor of Daily News, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, friend. When he read the interview of Mr Ahmed Ali in The Dawn Media Group’s magazine Aurora, he wrote on the web: “What a pleasure to read about Syed Ahmed Ali Sahib – a legend in advertising whom I had the pleasure of knowing for many years. The epitome of culture that Lucknow was known for, he made advertising an altogether suave art with the sky as the limit. Please convey to him my best wishes and respects. It was, indeed, a pleasure knowing him.”

From an altogether different perspective, his younger son, now in the USA, Junaid (who had also, like his brother Adil, worked with his father in Fourays for some years) says: “I know one thing for sure: every time in my life I had a major decision to make, I went to him for advice and he was always there. First, I was supposed to be there in July 2021, then in November and then December. Cancelled it three times for one reason or another. I hated to disappoint him so many times so I decided to surprise him in January 2022. I can’t thank Allah enough for giving me the opportunity to spend the last two weeks of his life with him. I was always very proud of him. He was my idol. I loved his literary personality. He definitely was my hero.”

A colleague of his from J. Walter Thompson, then Fourays, days, Masood Mirza, who continued to keep in touch subsequently and arrived at Mr Ahmed Ali’s house the morning he had died, sobbing like a child (which spoke more eloquently than any words), wrote later at my request: “I have no words to express my feelings on the passing away of my dearest friend, elder brother, and mentor, Ahmed Ali Sahib. It will be very difficult to overcome this tragic trauma. Nobody can replace him: most stylish, active, social and, above all, such a well-read person. For me, it will be impossible to have such a classy man in my life. His love and care will always be in my heart. May Allah bless his soul with the highest place in Jannah. Ameen.”

Many of Mr Ahmed Ali’s friends had started out as his clients in advertising, but as time passed, the commercial connection not only became secondary, it almost passed out of both their minds. Such a one was Ahson Jaffri (universally known as Chaman) of that once famous bookshop in Saddar called Pak American Commercial Inc., as well as of Say Publications. He, in obvious grief, shared this message with a few common friends: “Today is a very sad day for me. My dear and close family friend, Ahmed Ali, passed away in the early hours of Thursday in Karachi. Ahmed was my ‘guru’ in many ways, and I have learned a lot from being his friend. He was an upright and honest man. He was straightforward to the point of being blunt to a certain extent, but not a hypocrite. He said out loud what he thought was right. He was my hunting partner, and during the hunting season there wouldn’t be a weekend when we didn’t go out on a duck or partridge shoot. The memories of those days and evenings are still fresh in my mind. He enjoyed life and, being a brilliant conversationalist, had lots of friends. May his soul rest in peace.”

Having an even longer (by two years) association with Mr Ahmed Ali than mine was that of Kazim Raza Zaidi, who remained with him until Fourays finally closed its doors. He writes: “Syed Ahmed Ali Sahib was a very kind, caring human being. May he attain a high station in heaven. I was with him from 1966 until the closure of Fourays, and remained in touch even beyond, to the end. His attitude towards his staff was always friendly, and he specially made me feel like a member of his household. This atmosphere in the office made one enjoy working with him. He was a person possessing many high qualities, and this final parting has brought the realisation that one has lost a good human being.”

His wife of over two decades, Sabira, with great difficulty and great courage, writes: “How difficult it is to say something briefly, and that too about someone you have spent 24 hours a day with... for 21 years and seven months... like trying to fit a river in a cup! How can I not mention his charisma, his elegance and intellectual personality? He had a special and strong belief in and relationship with Allah, to the extent of always referring to Him as ‘mera yaar’ (my friend/pal). Every night, before falling asleep, he mentally took himself to the Kaaba and circumambulated it seven times. He would say “If I don’t complete those seven circles, sleep does not come.” But on that early morning of February 4, when he fell asleep, Allah did not let him return but kept him with Himself... Ahmed, I miss our daily five a.m. tea together... I still make two cups... and drink your cup, the sweetened one, after my sugarless one, so that the sweet taste will linger in my mouth for a long time... I am certain that you are going to be very happy with your ‘yaar’, InshaAllah (God willing). His favourite verse in his favourite book, the Quran, was: “Allah is sufficient as a Friend, and Allah is sufficient as a Helper.”

If one has to pick the most important aspect of him as an adman, then that of him was his integrity. There are agencies who, in order to secure clients, offer kickbacks from the 15% which is the agency’s share from the media. Mr Ahmed Ali never did, even if it meant fewer clients. Nor did he ever demand a fraction of a percentage more from any newspaper or magazine, though we knew that certain publications did offer this in order to be included in the media list of a campaign. These lists were made strictly on the basis of what was best for the client. The only discount ever taken was the one offered officially by the APNS (the All Pakistan Newspapers Society) of 50% to advertisements of books, to promote literacy and education. And the benefit of this was passed in toto to the client – even when the client was ignorant that such a discount existed.

Another aspect – probably unique to Fourays – was of resigning some accounts. This was done to maintain personal good relations rather than sacrifice these to possibly unpleasant professional differences.

The atmosphere in Fourays was always relaxed and friendly (unless there was some sudden urgent work – which was fairly frequent! – change ‘relaxed’ to ‘frantic’). And we were only too ready to find an excuse to celebrate something – anything! – by getting samosas or jalebis for the whole office, from partners to peons; or once in a while, in the long Friday lunch break, nihari or kababs for all to sit and eat (messily!) together.

Even after our professional parting we always kept in touch, Ahmed and I, and much of the rest of the team. A helping hand was always present, whether for the making of an ad or working out a teaser of a word in Dawn’s target word game.

Whether we lost or won, it was an interesting game. Three of the original four directors of Fourays, having gone to meet their maker in the ‘dressing room’, are now ‘out’. I’m the only one left. And – as Chishti Mujahid would say – I’m sitting ‘padded up’!

Go ahead life: Bring on your googlies!

Khaula Yasmin Qureshi is a (mainly former) advertising professional, freelance editor, proofreader, speech writer and Special Assistant to Hamdard Pakistan’s President.