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Thursday May 30 2019

In memoriam: Idrees Bakhtiar

Senior journalist Idrees Bakhtiar passed away in Karachi on Wednesday, May 29, 2019 at the age of 74 after suffering a cardiac arrest.—File photo

There are so many memories that I do not know where to begin.

I should begin by saying today I lost a mentor and friend; a family lost a loving, loyal, generous, humble son, husband, father, and grandfather. Pakistan lost an incredible journalist, one with the qualities that the profession so badly needs today.

I had known Idrees sahib as my father's friend but we got to know each other when I joined the Herald in 1993 as a rookie reporter. Idrees sahib was the Chief Reporter and also a correspondent for the BBC and for The Telegraph in Calcutta. I still remember the day. Idrees sahib walked in late afternoon and warmly welcomed me to the team: "Elections are coming, let's get to work". Herald is a Pakistani monthly magazine where my assignment was to compare the manifestos of the political parties during elections.

For some five years, he, I, and later Azhar Abbas, spent countless days and nights in that room. It was always lively with empty cups of tea, overflowing ashtrays, the click-clack of keyboards and an endless stream of visitors.

When I began writing, Idrees sahib told me to get the American journalism training out of my system. This is Pakistan, he would say. None of this he-said she-said nonsense. We are here to tell our readers what is wrong. We are no one's friend. And we have a lot wrong.

And indeed, we had few friends. Idrees sahib wrote and trained us to write the most critical stories, the sharpest analyses and investigative reports that enraged everyone.

That 1993-97 period was not the best of times to be a fearless journalist or to upset so many. But Idrees sahib never stopped or flinched.

We didn't do arm-chair journalism. We walked the streets. On his Vespa or in my car, we went to mortuaries for a daily body count in the government's anti-terrorism operations. We rode in armored personnel carriers to neighborhoods where militants and the army fought pitched battles daily. We were held at gunpoint or shot at several times. Once, we were forced to run in a hail of bullets only to be cornered by militants who wanted to kill him. At gunpoint, they told me to run and leave him with them. I didn't. They only let us go when we begged and pleaded that we were there at the invitation of their leader to his press conference. When we escaped that, fighting between rivals broke out at the press conference.

Hasan, we are surely going to die today, he said cursing our luck and our hosts as we ran out of that room. We received threats from militants and warnings from the government. We had few friends.

And Idrees sahib stood up for us. When journalists were threatened, beaten up, jailed or killed, Idrees sahib set aside petty factionalism and stood for his peers.

In our personal and political views, we were chalk and cheese. He was the only conservative in a team of liberals and lefties. We argued, we fought. But we had deep respect too. Live and let live. That is what Idrees sahib taught me. Live and let live.

Idrees sahib was also incredibly humble and never forgot his roots. He was so proud when he bought his first house. He was so proud when he could afford a car after riding a Vespa all his working life. He loved his wife dearly, a love that never faded with time. He was proud of his children, especially his daughters. And he was an adorable grandfather.

He was courteous, even to people who upset him. And he had a naughty sense of humor. Much of it is not for print.

We remained in regular contact after I left Pakistan 21 years ago. I was privileged to have him pay attention to my career over the last two decades. He didn't have to. But he cared and he cared genuinely.

Visiting Idrees sahib's home for a brunch of fried eggs, homemade parathas, and achar was a regular on my visits to Karachi. He looked forward to it as much as I did because it was a good excuse for him to break his diet and steal a smoke or three. And crack jokes not fit for print.

In January this year, I received a one-liner from him: "Need work".

At 74, he wanted to remain an active journalist and asked me to help get freelance work. I asked around but none was available. He said thank you for trying. I felt I let him down.

And on 24 March, the last message: a photo of a rose with a note: "Good morning."

A good man left us today. May he rest in peace.

Idrees Bakhtiar

24-2-1945 to 29-5-2019

Hasan Jafri is Managing Director of a Singapore-based political risk firm, a columnist, and former international journalist.