DUBAI, August 30, 2007 — Barkha Dutt is to Indians what Christiane Amanpour is to Americans: A heavy hitter fearlessly filing her reports from troubled regions of the world for viewers in South Asia and the Middle East. There doesn’t seem to be a conflict zone too hot for this 36-year-old managing editor for NDTV, one of the best 24-hour English-language news channels in India. Dutt produces and reports on the region’s major events as well as hosts popular talk shows.
She became a household name in India in 1999 following her daring reporting from the frontlines during the Kargil War. Dutt’s reporting from Gujarat during the communal riots in 2002 was the must-see news segments during those dark days. In 2004, Farhan Akhtar directed the film “Lakshya” about her life casting Preity Zinta as the intrepid Ms. Dutt.
Dutt did not emerge suddenly out of anonymity. Before she became a big name in the world of television, she did remarkably well on the academic front. Her bio speaks for herself: She earned her bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Delhi’s prestigious St. Stephen’s College and then went on to garner two master’s degrees, one in Mass Communications from Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, and another in Journalism from Columbia University in New York.
“I stumbled into journalism accidentally,” she said with a bright smile in an interview conducted during the shoot in Dubai for the 60th Independence Anniversary Special produced jointly by Geo Television of Pakistan and NDTV. In real life, Dutt betrays the larger than life image that she has acquired on the airwaves. She is quite unassuming on the sidelines and barely commands a second look. Once on the sets, however, Dutt is a bundle of energy, the queen of all she surveys.
“My job is to get all shades of opinion in the story,” she says. “That surely makes me unpopular. But then if you are hated by all sides, it means you are a great reporter.” Indeed she is. Following are excerpts from the interview:
Q: You must be relishing life in the limelight?
A: People always think that everybody enjoys the limelight. That is not true. It is actually very awkward. A journalist is used to being on the other side of the camera. When the film Lakshya was being made, Javed Akhtar discussed the story with me before he actually scripted it. Preity Zinta would call me now and then and would ask: ‘Can I wear this? Can I wear that?’ And I told her: ‘Look, war was happening at that time and I really don’t remember what I wore.’ At one level all this adulation is good because it gives you the strength to carry on. But at the same time, I feel scared because I am under the scrutiny of viewers at all times.
Q: So it is actually very tough but people think TV journalism is very glamorous.
A: Nothing irritates me more than the glamorization of television. When I joined television, it was not about how you looked, or what makeup you wore; it was not about what clothes you adorned. It was about going out into the field and reporting old-style, good journalism. All these TV anchors and news readers that you watch now are extremely beautiful, they are models and air-hostesses. “Lekin dimaag kahan hain unka?” Where are their brains? Everybody thinks television is a very easy business. But if you want to be a cracking good reporter, you have to be prepared for hard work. You have to slog for 16 hours a day. When we went to cover Kargil and tsunami, we would go without food for four days at a time. We would survive on water and dry biscuits. Today’s generation doesn’t understand that. They look at it from a distance and they think TV is glamour. Yes, for some people it is glamorous. I know the psyche of viewers. They may say ‘Yes, that girl is beautiful’ but they will not respect her until she has done some real reporting.
Q: These 24-hour news channels have resulted in a lot of sensationalism. Do you think competition has led to compromises in the standards of journalism?
A: We in India are debating this very fiercely. The government wants to regulate and control the television media. While I strongly feel that governments and politicians have no business in the media space, I also feel that we have to acknowledge that we have created a certain amount of tabloidization of the news process. I am in favor of a self-created code of conduct that we all follow. Just as there is an ombudsman for newspapers, we in the television news industry should also set up a panel of eminent citizens to regulate our conduct.
Q: One view is that television channels are more into providing entertainment than news.
A: I think television has done very good things in South Asia. It has made journalism much more active. Television created campaigns for justice. It brought the Jessica Lal murder case into the limelight. The whole court case was reopened because of the media campaign. But yes, in our Hindi TV channels in India we find that superstition, rituals, blind faith — all nonsense — is being dished out in the name of news. Those channels are entertainment channels instead of news channels. They have no right to call themselves news channels. The time has come for us to scrutinize ourselves just as we scrutinize other institutions. We have to maintain some standards. I believe that despite the sensationalism, our viewers are intelligent and that good journalism will survive.
Q: In newspapers you have a group of people through whom news travels. Are there similar checks in TV to check sensationalism and avoid inaccurate reporting?
A: The same mechanism exists in television. We should, however, admit that TV is a new industry in India. It is only 13 years old; in Pakistan it is even younger. We have to learn things that are good about the print medium. Newspapers have a foolproof system through which news travels. There are checks and balances. In 24-hour television what happens is that because news is being broadcast in real time, mistakes are made. We do hire people from print to come in as our news editors and drive the news from the desk as it happens in newspapers.
Q: In the old days a journalist was expected to be a clinical observer of events rather than becoming a part of the news itself. That is not the case with television.
A: I think those days are gone when a reporter was just a clinical observer. He was never one. Say whatever you want to say, there is no such thing as objective journalism. I agree there should be no biases in journalism but a reporter cannot exist in a vacuum. He is part of society and he will tend to reflect what he sees or hears around him. I don’t believe that news has to be dry and boring. If there is an element of emotionalism, what is the harm? Yes, those emotions should be genuine. Not acting. However, it is the job of an editor to see that all points of view are incorporated in the story. Take the case of Kashmir, for example. There are those in Kashmir who believe that the Indian Army is all wrong and that the separatists are right. There are those who believe the separatists are all wrong and the army is all right. My job is to ensure that all shades of opinion are incorporated in the story. And when you do that, you become very unpopular. The army will then say, ‘Oh you always take their side.’ And the separatists will say, ‘You always take the army’s side.’ But my take is: If you are hated by all sides, it means you are a great reporter.
Q: You talk about balancing a story. What if there is no other side to a story as, for example, in Gujarat?
A: In that case I would say it is my duty to give Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi or the BJP the chance to respond. I agree with you that there are certain stories that don’t have another side. I would, however, trust very few journalists to make that assessment.
Q: How do you see Middle Eastern issues from the Indian point of view?
A: Our perception of the conflict in the Middle East is still very much shaped by how the United States sees it. When we were growing up, we were told not to call it the Middle East but West Asia. Now everybody calls it the Middle East. We have internalized their language as well. People in India don’t understand the issues here. There is a high level of ignorance about the Middle East conflict. There is ignorance about the Israel-Palestine question. People have all kinds of perceptions about the Middle East: That there is no freedom. That it is the land of terrorists. There is a lot of ignorance.
Q: There is a charge that the TV industry is too urban-centric.
A: It is just that you tend to react more to stories that are in your immediate vicinity. It is a fault and we should not be urban-centric. We are captivated by shining India or whatever you call it. Yes, we have to and we must go out of our metros and our studios and into villages to find out what is happening.
Q: What is your take on the current Indian government?
A: I think this government, given the fact that it is in its last two years now, has actually done quite well for itself. Primarily because the opposition has fared so badly for itself. There are certain achievements that this government has made. Manmohan Singh cares a lot about the dialogue with Pakistan. He has personally pushed it.
Q: And what about the Indo-US nuclear deal?
A: As a technical document I don’t really understand it. But I do trust the government of the day not to betray India’s interest.
Q: As a woman managing editor of a premier TV channel, how challenging is your job?
A: Even if I were a man, I would have faced similar challenges. The challenge of running a 24-hour news channel where every second counts is enormous. I keep telling newspaperwallahs (journalists) that you bring out just one product and we have 24 bulletins and we face the same kind of tension with every bulletin. The challenge is how not to make my news bulletin fall into inaccuracy.
Q: Where do you get your inspiration from?
A: My mother (Prabha Behl) was a journalist. (She was the chief reporter of Hindustan Times in the mid-1960s.) She was one of only three journalists in India who covered the 1965 war with Pakistan. She broke the ice for people like us. (Prabha died when Barkha was only 13). I became a journalist by accident. I wanted to be a lawyer or a documentary filmmaker. I went and did an MA in Mass Communications and then went to NDTV to apply for a job where I told (NDTV chief) Prannoy Roy I wanted to be a producer. He said, ‘Try news first.’ That was it.
Q: Indians always blame Pakistan for being a theocratic state. But in fact religious parties never came to power in Pakistan at the center whereas in India the BJP did come to power on the plank of Hindutva? Do you see any dichotomy there?
A: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is not the equivalent of the Jamaat-e-Islami. I think the Shiv Sena is the equivalent of the Jamaat-e-Islami. The BJP has Atal Behari Vajpayee who everybody thinks is a moderate leader. You can say that Narendra Modi is the counterpart of Jamaat-e-Islami.
Q: But then Modi and Vajpayee belong to the same party, don’t they?
A: Yes. It is a problem and the BJP will have to resolve this dilemma for itself. There are many people who are willing to accept the BJP as a mainstream party as long as it takes positions against such leaders as Modi.
Q: The Muslims of India have always aligned themselves with the secular parties. They never supported religious parties. But it is the media that gave space to the black sheep of the community.
A: I feel very upset about how much scrutiny is put on the Muslims of India. But the one thing I do feel is that when people such as Modi do whatever they do, 90 percent of the people who speak against them are Hindus. I sometimes wish that moderate Muslims would raise their voices against these fatwa-giving, self-appointed maulvis. I wish moderate Muslims would reject them more publicly. I know they reject them but sometimes a public statement becomes more important. About the media projecting the black sheep of the community, yes we are at fault too. For example, I don’t allow Bajrang Dal or the Shahi Imam to come on my shows. The Indian media sometimes looks for cliches because it likes conflict. The media is also to blame. I accept that.
Q: Where do you see India in the next 60 years?
A: We are at a crossroads. Right now we are in a self-congratulatory mood. We should not be in such a mood. There are vast areas that have not caught up with the wealth and well-being of India. If we are able to bridge this gap, then we will be on the global stage in the next 60 years. But if we are not able to bridge this rich-poor, urban-rural gap, we will fall by the wayside.
Chinmaya Gharekhan, India's Special Envoy to the Middle East, Speaks to Siraj Wahab of Arab News
JEDDAH, September 10, 2007 — Chinmaya Gharekhan is a veteran Indian diplomat. What adds to his prestige is his recent appointment by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh as the special envoy to the Middle East. He has been the longest serving Indian permanent representative to the United Nations (from 1986 to 1992). An undersecretary-general for nearly seven years afterward, he was the secretary-general’s special representative in the Security Council for four years. From 1997 till the end of 1999, Gharekhan was UN special representative in the occupied Palestinian territories with headquarters in Gaza City. He is currently touring the Middle East to express India’s support for the Middle East peace process. While in Saudi Arabia, he spoke on a range of issues. Following are excerpts from the exclusive interview conducted on Sept. 9, 2007, at the Jeddah Conference Palace:
Q: This is the first time that India has named a special envoy for this region, right?
A: Yes, this is the first time that India has named a special envoy to West Asia or what you call the Middle East. It is indicative of the interest and concern that we have for the region and its people. The idea behind appointing a special envoy is to share with the people and the governments of this region the problems that we all face and to express our solidarity with its people and governments.
Q: Is there something special at this point that brings you here?
A: The love and affection for the people of Saudi Arabia. I will be conveying my prime minister’s message to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal. And I am sure he will have some good advice for me. Basically we want to reiterate our strong commitment for the cause of Palestine. And since we support the inalienable rights of the Palestinians, we want to explore what India can do, if anything at all, in pushing forward the Middle East peace process.
Q: India is seen as close to both the Palestinians and the Israelis. That puts you in a good position to play the role of a mediator.
A: Both parties, the Palestinians as well as the Israelis, certainly feel very happy that we have good relations with them. I have made it very clear to the Israelis that our growing relationship with them is not at the expense of our commitment to the Palestinian cause. They have no difficulty with that.
Q: But there is certainly an element of uneasiness here in the Arab world about India’s growing defense ties with Israel. Have you noticed that during your current visit to the region?
A: Nobody has mentioned this to me. Nor did I notice it. Yes, we have this relationship (with Israel). And I am not being defensive about it. It is our sovereign right and duty to do whatever is necessary to protect and further our national interests. The governments and leaders that I spoke to in the region have not expressed any reservations about India’s having this kind of relationship with Israel. There may be some sections of public opinion that are not very happy and I am quite sure that some countries are doing their best to spread disinformation about India’s relationship with Israel. I am sure the people of this country, as well as other Arab countries, will and do appreciate that governments have to do everything necessary for the protection and promotion of their independence and national interests.
Q: As a seasoned diplomat are you comfortable with this U-turn in India’s foreign policy? India has all along followed the time-tested Nehruvian policy of nonalignment. And suddenly we see Delhi growing too close to the United States.
A: A country’s foreign policy cannot be based on sentiments or emotions. Foreign policy is a hardheaded, calculated game. Some people in India have not got used to this sudden shift. As professionals, however, we ought not to have any permanent attachments. If we think having good and close relations with the United States is in our interest, we will do that. And we are doing that.
Q: This surely must have led to a lot of disappointment among Third World countries who have always looked to India to take an independent line?
A: Not at all. In fact, every nonaligned country, every Third World country, all the Arab countries, everyone has the same desire — to get close to the United States. If anything, there might be a sense of jealousy as to how India could manage successfully to overcome the burdens of the past and establish a closer relationship with the United States.
Q: You have been associated with the United Nations for quite a long time. And your book, “Horseshoe Table,” is said to be a lively read on the organization. And so you are the right person to answer this question: Is the UN relevant?
A: I am convinced that it is relevant. Certainly its credibility, its influence and its prestige have suffered enormously in the last four or five years because of what has happened in Iraq. But if there were no United Nations, the whole world would not at this moment be coming together to decide how to create a new United Nations. Certainly the United Nations needs reforms, needs changes. One of the most important reforms that it has to carry out is to make it more representative, especially the Security Council. You can’t have a Security Council with the same 15 members for 40 years. Its membership hasn’t changed but the world has changed. And so has the balance of power.
Q: What are India’s chances of becoming a UN Security Council member?
A: Insha Allah. With Saudi Arabia’s support and in the course of time it will happen. I am convinced that this will happen but I don’t know when.
Q: You talked about UN losing prestige in Iraq. What is the way out in Iraq?
A: The best way out of Iraq is for the Iraqi people to sit together and to promote national reconciliation. They should take charge of their affairs, free of any foreign interference and certainly free of any foreign occupation. The US has to leave at some point. People in America themselves want their troops to leave Iraq. How to work out the modalities? That is certainly the question. And one that does not have an easy answer.
Q: You were very close to the late Yasser Arafat. Any reflections?
A: Had it not been for Arafat, the Palestinian cause would never have been at the center of things today. The fact that everybody, including the president of the United States, recognizes that Palestine is the core issue is all thanks to Arafat. I am impressed by President Mahmoud Abbas as well. I know him and have dealt with him over the years and I met him last week in Ramallah. He is a self-assured leader, a very confident leader. He certainly knows how to proceed. And so more strength to him.
Q: What about the Hamas leadership?
A: We have no dealings with Hamas. We are only supporting the Palestinian Authority led by President Abbas. We are, however, saddened by the infighting among the Palestinians. This is a serious setback. Palestinians should realize that their strength lies in unity. They should support Abu Mazen and his leadership and persuade Hamas to give up its ideology of violence.
Q: You think we are close to the creation of an independent Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel?
A: You can’t afford to be a pessimist. One has to keep hope alive, most of all, the Palestinian people do. If they give up hope, then there is nothing left for them except maybe more violence. And we have seen violence does not get anywhere. But as of now, everyone tells me — and I cannot go against the considered Arab assessment — that there is a window of opportunity. There is a set of circumstances in today’s world that gives us some reason to expect something good.
Q: How do you see developments in Pakistan?
A: India strongly wants a stable, peaceful and prosperous Pakistan and that the country should be at peace with itself so that it can be at peace with its neighbors.
Q: But Kashmir still remains the key issue...
A: Kashmir is an issue that has to be resolved. Even the Shimla Agreement of 1972 says that. We are, however, very happy that Pakistan has now finally realized and come to the conclusion that Kashmir can only be resolved through bilateral negotiations. In other words, direct talks between India and Pakistan, without the mediation or interference of any third party. That is a healthy development and we welcome that. We have been having talks with Pakistan. My prime minister and the Pakistani president have met a couple of times. Then there are special people on both sides who are talking on this issue. A lot of progress has been made as far as Kashmir is concerned. But of course there is always the problem of cross-border terrorism. Pakistan continues to support that. Funding and financing of cross-border terrorism is going on even as we speak.
Q: Do you still think the Pakistani establishment is behind these incursions?
A: Do you have any doubts about it?
Q: What about India’s relationship with Iran?
A: We have excellent relations with Iran. No problem there.
Q: But then India voted against Iran in IAEA...
A: We voted the way we voted in IAEA because that is the way we thought we should vote. We know that Iran is a party to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) and as a signatory to it, Iran must fulfill its obligations and commitments. And we expect Iran to fulfill its international obligations.
Q: Are you going ahead with the gas pipeline with Iran?
A: India needs energy from all sources. Nuclear energy is one alternative that we are going to tap further as a result of our civilian nuclear agreement with the US. We need oil, we need gas. We are making progress on the pipeline issue.
|Waleed Al-Humaidi Talks About His African Experience in This Interview With Siraj Wahab|
JEDDAH, September 27, 2007 — Waleed Saleh Al-Humaidi describes himself as “a much-married person with kids.” A manager of SAB Express/TNT in Jeddah, you might think the 44-year-old Saudi from Unaizah leads a rather docile life, but if you turn the clock back a bit, you will find him in the isolated hinterlands of Tanzania making some very special deliveries.
Al-Humaidi was the first Arab to take part in the School Feeding Volunteer Program arranged by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in partnership with TNT. The son of a Saudi diplomat once stationed in Beirut, Al-Humaidi saw firsthand the horrors of the Lebanese Civil War and its consequences for the people. “Those were tough times,” he recalled. “I would drive around Beirut and see destruction everywhere. I was around 20 at that time and it was very scary.”
Those images haunted Al-Humaidi as Lebanon became a memory. “I left for the United States for a degree in Industrial Engineering Technology from Southern Tech University in Atlanta, Georgia,” he said. “After completing the degree, I came back to Jeddah and had a couple of jobs before joining Sheikh Salah Hamdan Al-Balawi’s SAB Express. SAB Express sponsors TNT Express in Saudi Arabia, and they have an employee program that allows you to do volunteer work. I applied because it was something I had always wanted to do.”
Al-Humaidi said the selection after application was difficult and long, but almost a year later, he was on his way to Rome to prepare for a mission to Tanzania. Nothing could have really prepared him for what he was about to experience. The East African nation’s infrastructure literally ended at the city limits of Dar es Salaam and Dodoma.
“There are no paved roads at all. The country is all desert, so cars get stuck,” he said. “Going from one place to another is a big hassle. Most of the people in Dar es Salaam are living in better conditions, but the rest of the country has huge problems.”
Getting the help to where it was needed meant a lot of driving over frequently rough terrain. “We generally traveled by car,” he said. “We would have a tent, a mosquito net and basic first-aid kits — and plenty of water in case we got stuck, and that was it. Because the roads are very rough we had three spare tires — one down, one in the trunk and one up. The first thing we would do was to set up a modern kitchen in the schools. Sometimes it was not possible to get back to base in time. Under UN rules, after sunset we had to stay wherever we were for security reasons — you might get mugged, or you might get kidnapped.”
Danger didn’t, however, stop them from delivering the much-needed aid. “We traveled around 11,000 km during our four-month stay and went all the way up to the border with Rwanda. We went to a Rwandan camp, and they were in great need,” he said. “Because of the war, Tanzania had opened its border. We saw malnourished babies, and most of them were HIV positive. They had no water and no food.”
Making the deliveries tested Al-Humaidi’s physical endurance. “We would drive for hours on end to get to the remotest villages in Tanzania and come back before sunset to the United Nations camp,” he said. “I had to be hospitalized once. I just fell down, and I almost lost consciousness because of the dust, heat and exhaustion.”
All across Tanzania, illness and poverty were commonplace. “It is indescribable. It has to be seen to be believed. It is too bad — extreme poverty — it is very, very harsh,” he said. “Those situations make you even more determined to help them. Once I was out of the hospital, I was back in business helping the poor villagers.”
For Al-Humaidi, it was a time of living dangerously. “HIV is rampant there; so is malaria,” he said. “I knew that I was putting myself in a lot of danger, but then that is the difference between those who take risks and those who shy away from them. It was challenging indeed. Once I was in the field in Africa, I wanted to give my all. The thing is if I was not giving my all then I was not doing justice to the mission. Yes, it was very scary out there, but I was so eager and enthusiastic that sometimes I overdid it.”
Al-Humaidi says that if more people in the developed world knew the truth, civilized men would not allow this to continue. “They don’t know about HIV; they don’t know about people in their 40s with five to six infected children,” he said. “There are no hospitals. I think World Food Program is doing a great job there, and the UN is doing a great job as well. They are at least trying to provide two meals a day to those poor souls.”
Two meals a day can easily be the difference between life and death. “The families there send their children to school for a very simple reason. It means the family is relieved of providing two meals,” he said. “The children are provided with two meals every day during school hours. At 10.30 in the morning they get porridge and then again at 1.30 p.m. So by sending their children to school the family is relieved of providing two meals a day. All they have to worry about is the meal at night. But there is no meal at night, so the kids wait until the next morning when they can eat at 10.30 again. The level of poverty there is unbelievable, and what amazes me is that most of the people in Dar Es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital, themselves were shocked at what was going on in their own country.”
In those remote regions, the signs of civilization disappear, and people are left to live however they can — alone and isolated. “They have no radios, no television, nothing,” Al-Humaidi said. “When the sun sets, that is it. People just sit around a fire and sleep. They have not heard of the outside world. They have no idea about Saudi Arabia.”
Many of the other volunteers had no idea about Saudi Arabia, either. “Most of the people from other countries thought I would be wearing my thobe while doing my work,” Al-Humaidi said. “Tanzanians speak Swahili, which has some similarities with Arabic. It wasn’t hard communicating with them, but before we went there we went through a 10-day crash course in Swahili.”
His adventure also meant challenges for his family. “My wife supports me 100 percent. She also wished that she was there, as well, helping people in charity work,” Al-Humaidi said. “When in Tanzania, sometimes I couldn’t get in touch with her for weeks, and I would remain out of touch — no communication — nothing. That was tough on her, but before going to the next destination, I would tell her I was going to such-and-such village. I would tell her I might not be able to contact her, so she was in a sense prepared.”
Now spending time at his comfortable Jeddah office, he is still in the delivery business, but he is still up for making some special deliveries on behalf of humanity. “Of course, I would like to help people there,” he said. “And I want to support the work of WFP. It is organizing programs to assess needs in Tanzania. It evaluates the needs of the people there. It finds out how many teachers are required, how many chairs — the food situation. I want to help the WFP in the future and I want others to join me.”
Al-Humaidi hopes more people will get involved. “It is only a question of education,” he said. “There is not enough media coverage. People just get some idea because of television — maybe through CNN — but, by and large, people are not aware of what is going on there.”
Although Al-Humaidi’s time on the front lines is over, he is comforted to know that some of his countrymen remain in Tanzania, making special deliveries of aid for Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah.
“The Kingdom is doing a great job by contributing heavily to the WFP programs, by sending direct aid to the people in need,” Al-Humaidi said. “When I was doing voluntary work in Tanzania, I met Saudis there who were representing King Abdullah and distributing aid. They were sincere about it. They flew from Dar Es Salaam to Dodoma; they went with the donations to the villages, which welcomed them. They themselves delivered the food. We were there; people from the government and the United Nations were there, as well. That aid from Saudi Arabia was like a lifeline for them.”
Jawad Jafry Talks to Siraj Wahab During His Recent Visit to Jeddah
JEDDAH, September 29, 2007 — Beyond the glitz of the North American media work are the documentary filmmakers who tackle issues beyond the realm of the sound bite. Canadian filmmaker Jawad Jafry is one of those whose focus ranges from battling the ignorance behind Islamophobia to looking at the plight of recent immigrants to the New World and the obstacles they face.
A producer, director, writer, editor and narrator, he has produced programming for television, educational and corporate media markets throughout the West. Jafry also is the creator of Islamic video cartoon series “Adam’s World,” which has been distributed widely. He says the explosion of satellite broadcasting has created a market for him.
“There are a number of TV channels offering different types of programs,” Jafry told Arab News during a recent visit to Jeddah on his way to perform Umrah. “So you have news channels; you have entertainment channels; you have documentary channels; there is lot of media space available, but the market is also fragmented. So what is happening is that there are specialized documentaries for different channels. They look for content from independent producers like me.”
Forty-two-year-old Jafry’s first documentary, “The Wonders of Islamic Science,” detailed the Qur’an’s inspiration that led to remarkable achievements by Muslims in astronomy, medicine, mathematics, geography, botany, zoology and many other fields, which in turn powered the Renaissance of Europe. He followed that with another fact-based film “Hijab: An Act of Faith.”
“Hijab is one of the most misunderstood symbols of Islam,” Jafry said.
“My documentary tries to explain Islam’s concept of modesty and why Muslim women cover. A number of articulate and committed Muslim women with varied backgrounds share their experiences and insights about their choice to wear hijab. The film also tackles many stereotypes relating to hijab and highlights the duty of Muslim men to observe modesty. ‘An Act of Faith’ was an important video for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”
When Jafry turned his attention to the plight of many immigrants, the result was “Night Shift.” “The paradox of foreign-trained doctors, engineers, PhDs and other professionals driving taxis and doing other low-level jobs has been so common in Toronto that it’s almost a cliché,” Jafry said. “Night Shift” is a 30-minute documentary that examines the plight of underemployed foreign-trained professionals in Toronto.
It took a certain degree of courage to participate in the film, as proud men and women found themselves in sometimes-pathetic circumstances. “What we basically did was follow somebody around for five months,” Jafry said. “He is Malik Khan. Armed with a master’s degree in chemistry and four years of experience in his native Pakistan. Khan arrived in Toronto in 2003 with high hopes, but the only job he could find was working the overnight shift as a security guard at a downtown condo. He shared a tiny apartment with three other men and made weekly calls to his new wife, Fareeha, back in Pakistan.
“Khan was somebody who was qualified — somebody who has the qualifications that should be market-worthy — and he was working as a security guard at night because he couldn’t find any other job.”
Khan’s story is not a rarity. Jafry says while they were doing research for the documentary they heard of a brain surgeon from Iran who was driving a cab. “We tried to convince him to feature in the documentary, but he would not,” he said. “This is quite a common problem. It is a generational problem. People come here and basically get stuck in a wrong job, and then they sacrifice themselves for the next generation to succeed.”
Jafry, a longtime Toronto resident who holds a radio and television arts degree from Ryerson University, is the son of media personality S.G.P. Jafry. He says he is in a good place that could be a better place. “Maybe it is too much to ask, but I’d really like to see the day when our community identifies areas where we are under-represented, makes it easy for our youth to enter those fields, and, when they graduate, has them work within the community,” he said. “I think we would all be so much better off if that happened.”
The city of Toronto gives him another unique opportunity to make a film of which he has long dreamed. “I have been working on a project for several years off and on trying to find the right candidates for a documentary on the victims of torture,” Jafry said. “A friend of mine told me once that Toronto was the first city in North America in which a center for victims of torture was actually founded. So among all the people in Canada there are some who have been victims of state-sponsored torture. They have been through horrendous situations. I want to reflect their trials and tribulations.”
Quite a shift for the creator of a children’s cartoon series, but Jafry realizes the important difference that his storytelling can make in helping to shape young minds.
“I once interviewed a woman for our ‘Hijab’ documentary who said that her mother used to read her bedtime stories about the Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him),” Jafry said. “She said she always grew up wanting to be like them. That blew me away. It continues to amaze me how children can learn so much from the stories and characters they grow up with.”