15 Minutes with Abdul Sattar, the Man Who Serves the Karachi Press
“The day you sit idle, you are inviting illness and despondency upon yourself. I don’t want to be dependent on anybody. I have too much self-respect.”
“I would be paid thirty rupees a month by Mr. Nanji and then sixty rupees at the KPC,” Sattar says. “For that time, it was a decent salary that enabled me to send money back home as well.” He laments that the cost of living in Karachi today is simply prohibitive for the working class as wages have not kept pace. “Money had a different value back then,” he says wistfully. “Now, your take-home salary is not enough to take you home.”
While Sattar’s official duties include waiting tables, serving meals to members, and maintaining the common areas, his job description captures only a sliver of the space and importance he occupies within the KPC ecosystem. Conversing with Sattar is an education in history, politics, and societal shifts as he has witnessed the country’s turbulent socio-political trajectory through the happenings at the oldest and largest press club in Pakistan.
The KPC was established in December 1958, a decade after the creation of Pakistan, by a group of liberal journalists in a Victorian two-story building in the Civil Lines neighborhood of Karachi, in close proximity to many state and military institutions. The establishment of the KPC coincided with the country’s first military coup; General Ayub Khan came into power and suppressed press freedom through draconian press laws, direct control of news agencies, and quotas on newsprint.
Pakistan’s multiple trysts with dictatorial regimes over the decades prompted the KPC to assume the role of a safe haven for dissenting voices that called for restoration of democratic rule, civil liberties, and press freedom. As a result, the KPC evolved from an institution where journalists mingled and shared stories, into a site of countless protests against state repression and human rights abuses.
Sattar has been a vital spectator to the drama the KPC has confronted over the years. Journalists have been flogged and tear-gassed outside the club, the building has been vandalized, and the KPC website was hacked in 2011 as part of an alleged cyberwar between India and Pakistan. Sattar recounts these events with a sense of sobriety and resignation. He acknowledges that, despite being a target itself, the club has remained steadfast in providing a refuge for those that needed it most in difficult times.
“For many journalists, KPC was their second home,” Sattar recalls. “Some of them would often sleep here at night here because it was unsafe for them to step outside or they couldn’t afford to go home because of economic hardship.”
When Sattar’s employer Mr. Nanji migrated to Canada with his family in 1970, Sattar stayed behind and began working at the KPC full-time. Soon after, he got his first taste of the resistance that is now synonymous with the KPC. Journalists went on a ten-day hunger strike for implementation of the Wage Board Award, which would fix minimum wage rates for newspaper employees and improve working conditions.
“By now, I have seen countless hunger strikes outside the KPC. Often, it is more of a performance than anything else,” says Sattar. “Sometimes these people sneak inside and eat a plate of daal chawal. Still, it is admirable that they find the moral courage to protest. It is their right to raise their voice against injustice of any kind.”
Sattar also recalls a time when journalists at Roznama Masawat, the now-defunct Urdu daily, lost their jobs when the newspaper was shut down under the military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq. When they dined at the KPC, they could not afford to pay for their meals.
“I would still serve them food, knowing well they wouldn’t be able to pay the bill,” Sattar says. “I may not have had any authority, but I empathized with their situation. Sometimes other journalists would offer to pay on their behalf. At other times, I would just let it go and ask them to settle the bill when they had more cash.”
The combined scent of cigarettes and caramelized onions wafts from the kitchen through the KPC courtyard, mingling with the fumes from the large trucks hosting the protestors on the other side of the wall. Sattar reclines into his chair and laments the shifting politics at the KPC.
“When I started working here, there were only sixty members. Now there are over four thousand members—mostly men, but also a few women,” he says. “Even though the numbers were limited in the early days, the journalists were kind people with progressive values. Their heart was in the right place.”
He pauses before remarking: “Look, I am not a literate man, but I know a little about political ideology. This club used to be a hub for leftist writers, poets, and activists. They cared about challenging the status quo. Most of them had modest earnings because journalism doesn’t pay well in this country, but they had a lot of integrity. Now it seems to me that journalists are just mouthpieces for political parties. It is worth questioning who pays them to say what they do.”
The zealous voices from outside start to permeate our conversation. The anti-government slogans being chanted make me wonder how Sattar views the recent change in leadership. Does he think they will fulfill their promise of enacting policies that will benefit the economically marginalized? He responds hesitantly: “When you have been alive for as long as I have, you realize sooner rather than later that they are all crooks. I guess you could say that I am indifferent to who is in power. Their policies don’t trickle down to us.”
Sattar notes that many senior journalists who used to frequent the KPC in the 1970s and ’80s have either migrated to the US or Canada, passed away, or retired. However, the KPC was a meeting point not just for prominent journalists and activists, but also iconic political personalities.
The founding chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and former prime minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, initiated his campaign against military dictator General Ayub Khan from the KPC. His daughter, Benazir Bhutto, frequented the KPC in the mid-80s after she returned from exile. Here, she galvanized political support against General Zia-ul-Haq, who had executed her father and seized power in a military coup in 1977. In 1988, Bhutto became the first female prime minister of Pakistan and that of any Muslim-majority nation.
The mention of Bhutto activates Sattar’s memories of her visits to the KPC. “Mohtarma Benazir used to visit KPC when she was an opposition leader,” he says, using the Urdu term for ‘madam.’ “She was not much of a tea drinker as most people here are. She would call out for me and insist I make her a cup of coffee. She liked phitti hui coffee,” Sattar notes, referring to the Pakistani version of a latte, prepared by vigorously whipping instant coffee with water and sugar until it changes color, then adding boiling water and milk.
He goes on to add, “This was before she had been elected as prime minister, but she was still a force to be reckoned with. She was usually surrounded by her advisors, so we didn’t talk much. But the fact that she knew me by name and summoned me each time was a matter of pride.”
As he continues to talk about Bhutto, Sattar appears thoughtful and gazes towards the ground before remarking: “A resilient and brave woman like her will never be born again in Pakistan. She received death threats, yet she came back to this country because she cared about its people. I was so saddened by her assassination; you have no idea.” Bhutto was fatally shot at a PPP rally in 2007; al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the assassination, though a UN report cited a security lapse and her supporters alleged the involvement of local jihadists and rival parties.
After we sit in silence for a few moments, Sattar gets up and announces he is going to prepare his famous coffee. I make a futile attempt to decline the offer and in retrospect am glad I didn’t succeed. Sattar returns within minutes with a cup of coffee and a dozen scratchy napkins. The coffee is nothing like the overpriced lattes I am accustomed to in London: It is frothy and creamy with a sweet aftertaste.
Without any prompts, Sattar eases back into conversation and recounts that in the 1980s, he had the opportunity to switch gears and work at the state-owned utility company KESC, now privatized and known as Karachi Electric, as a line repairman. He considered leaving the KPC, but couldn’t bring himself to act on it.
“Working at KPC is not just a means of employment for me,” Sattar says. “This place gives me a sense of purpose and belonging. The journalists who founded the KPC invested in our well-being and trusted us. That was more important to me than earning a few more hundred rupees. Money comes and goes but dignity is so important.”
Sattar has fathered eight children—four sons and four daughters—all of whom live and work in Karachi. Future generations are considered a social safety net for the elderly in Pakistan, but Sattar continues to work despite passing the standard retirement age of sixty. He leaves me with a lingering parting thought. “The day you sit idle, you are inviting illness and despondency upon yourself,” he says. “My sons are earning well and want to support me, but I don’t want to be dependent on anybody. I have too much self-respect.”
As I step out of KPC and walk along the exposed brick walls with painted murals of rights activists, I’m confronted by the angry mob of protestors who have exponentially multiplied by now. My mind, however, is still preoccupied with the conversation. Sattar’s vivid testimony of public intellectual life in Karachi weaves images of an era that faded long before I was born in this city. Yet, beyond his words, I marvel at his ability to touch the lives of those who he had little in common with, through his humility, compassion, and loyalty.
Rida Bilgrami is a freelance writer based in London. Her recent work has appeared in VICE ,Eater and Atlas Obscura and focuses on the intersection of food, politics and identity. She can be reached on Twitter @ridahb