Published in Jan-Feb 2022
The last time I saw Saquib Hanif, in late summer 2020, he was in fine form. We met in his office at Pakistan Petroleum, our encounter beginning with his hurling a volley of jocular abuse at me for opting for green tea instead of milky chai with biscuits, and mocking my efforts to cling to youth by adopting healthier habits. It was a Saturday, and oblivious to corporate norms, he was there in knee-length shorts and comfortable sandals – at home away from home, behind a desk littered with papers and piled with books.
We hadn’t met in some years. I was spending more time abroad and had reached out to get his thoughts on an arts and culture podcast I was planning to pitch. Cue another volley of abuse, against the medium, the internet, smartphones and IT more generally. As he put it, “What the (expletive) happened to books, yaar?”
Then we got to talking, his profanities quickly replaced by references to poetry, paintings, palimpsests and Pakistan’s least known architectural treasures. This was Saquib in his essence: a potty mouth juxtaposed against one of the greatest artistic sensibilities I have encountered.
I got to know Saquib while we were working at the Herald almost two decades ago. He supported my transition from newbie to features editor and I saw him rise up the ranks, from Senior Assistant Editor to Editor. I had joined The Dawn Media Group after graduating from university in the US, although I maintain that my real education began with conversations with Saquib.
He was somewhat of an outlier at the Herald, a Renaissance Man with an art history degree from Cornell University, rather than a die-hard reporter at a magazine that prided itself for its hard-hitting investigative journalism. Yet, the skills he embodied would bring value anywhere: a passion for the subject at hand, a vision for how best to articulate an idea and an insistence on nothing less than perfection.
One of my first assignments for the Herald was a 200-word blurb on an Abida Parveen concert for the tail-end of the features section. When Saquib realised that my knowledge of her work did not extend beyond the familiarity all of us who grew up watching PTV in the late eighties had, he spent over a week ensuring that I was suitably informed to be a respectful audience member for the great singer. He arrived at work loaded with books and CDs I was expected to consume before attending the concert and provided a crash course on Sufism and the kalaam, and how to distinguish between ghazals, kafis and thumris. Concerned I was not sufficiently prepared, he attended the concert with me, providing detailed explanations and colourful anecdotes at the end of each number.
This was not just an assignment, it was an enlightenment. I recall my first draft running over 1,000 words and wondering how I would ever whittle down all I had learned and appreciated – thanks to Saquib’s tutelage – into a short, back-of-magazine puff piece.
I was not the only one to benefit from his enthusiasm for all things interesting, complex and, above all, beautiful. Photographers such as Arif Mahmood and Izdeyar Setna, then starting out, would receive photoshoot assignments littered with references taken from indigenous arts and international art movements, high and low culture – the breadth of his knowledge of different mediums, genres and expressive forms, creating space for others to unleash their creativity.
But it was not all lofty and literary. Saquib was a meticulous editor, spending many late nights armed with a sharpened pencil, poring over copy, fact-checking, adjusting comma placements and then fact-checking again. It was this eye for detail and respect for the deadline that earned him widespread kudos; the delivery of each issue of the magazine marked by the scattering of ashes around an ashtray on his desk, piled high with crushed cigarette butts.
This combination of professional discipline with a passion for the arts probably explains his success at Pakistan Petroleum, where he made a professional home after we both moved on from the Herald. Moving from PR to corporate communications to corporate services, Saquib found a way to bring his unique perspective – and some soul – to his latter career. Unlikely to ever be content sending out bland, poorly designed corporate calendars, he teamed up with the historian and travel writer Salman Rashid (a regular Herald contributor during Saquib’s tenure) to deliver a treasure trove of volumes documenting Pakistan’s artistic and architectural, pre- and post-colonial heritage, its natural wonders and its folklore. And we should feel indebted to Saquib for the work he has done to enable and curate high-quality documentation of the best our country offers, whether in a journalistic or corporate context.
And so it was that our last encounter ended with a million ideas on how to turn his book projects into radio pieces, his enviable art collection into a secret museum and his love of Madam Noor Jehan’s music into a critique of Pakistani politics. Sadly, due to his shocking and untimely passing on January 28, 2022, these ideas will not come to pass.
This regret pales in comparison to my sorrow that Saquib will not see his son, Hamza, grow and thrive. For above all, and for the entire time I have known him, he was first and foremost a family man, a devoted husband to Nadia, a school friend turned life partner, and a gushing father. Between our talk of paintings and mountain passes, he made sure to bring me up to date with Hamza’s successes, and his pain at having to be separated from his son, then studying abroad. This reminded me how Saquib would drop everything at the Herald to take a call from home, never ashamed to have silly conversations with his son, then a young boy, while stern, beat reporters looked on. He asked me how I was enjoying motherhood, and how my young son was getting on. And in one of the few moments when our conversation settled from inspiring and profane into earnestness, he said, about parenthood, “Isn’t it the (expletive) best, yaar?”
Huma Yusuf is a political and integrity risk analyst and former Features Editor, the Herald.