Syed Abbas Athar, who was born on 5 May 1940, was a man of humble beginnings. After completing his Grade 7, he appeared in the matriculation examination as a private candidate. He was 16 when he graduated from
Syed Abbas Athar
Syed Abbas Athar, who was born on 5 May 1940, was a man of humble beginnings. After completing his Grade 7, he appeared in the matriculation examination as a private candidate. He was 16 when he graduated from Government College, Jhang. Abbas Athar got married at the age of 17. Soon after the marriage he moved to Karachi, where he started his career as sub-editor from Daily Anjam.
When he returned to Lahore from Karachi in the 1960s, he joined Imroze, then run by the National Press Trust. From there he moved to Daily Azad. By 1971, he had joined the Daily Musawaat, the Pakistan People’s Party newspaper. He was news editor of the paper till the end of Bhutto era. The hawkers loved his headlines which resonated with a new readership.
By the late 1970s, he was back at Daily Azad, brought back to life by Tehreek-i-Istiqlal’s Asghar Khan. Between 1977 and 1979, Abbas Athar, who also used to own a press, published a book ‘If I am Assassinated’ written by Z. A. Bhutto. After he continued to speak against martial law, he was arrested and was kept at the Lahore Fort. He was later shifted to Camp Jail.
Syed Abbas athar is best remembered for a headline he gave as the news editor of Daily Azad, “Idhar Hum, Udhar Tum”, a line that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is said to have said to Sheikh Mujeebur Rehman during their last meeting in Dhaka. This is now remembered as one of Pakistani journalism’s most powerful headlines.
He was known for his poetic flair and play with words that resulted in the kind of headlines that got noticed. When Pakistan National Alliance joined hands with General Ziaul Haq, Tehreek-e-Istiqlal’s Asghar Khan left the alliance and Syed Abbas Athar who was then with Daily Awaz gave the headline; Shaheen ka jahan aur, Kargis ka jahan aur.
When he returned to Lahore from Karachi in the 1960s, he joined Imroze, then run by the National Press Trust. From there he moved to Daily Azad. By 1971, he had joined the Daily Musawaat, the Pakistan People’s Party newspaper. He was news editor of the paper till the end of Bhutto era. As Musawaat’s news editor he succeeded where his great predecessor Shafqat Tanvir Mirza –scholarly, rational and circumspect – had struggled. The hawkers loved his headlines which resonated with a new ‘readership’. By the late 1970s, he was back at Daily Azad, brought back to life by Tehreek-i-Istiqlal’s Asghar Khan.
When he was released, Abbas Athar left the country. First he went to Dubai and then moved to America, where he worked at different places, from chai khanas (tea house) to bars to make a living. Athar returned to Pakistan in the late 1980s.
In 1988, he started a paper, Sadaqat, with Munnu Bhai as editor. Munnu Bhai said that the paper brought together several like-minded journalists to address progressive issues. Journalists like I.A. Rehman and Hussain Naqi were contributors. He considered himself a center-leftist and always looked to use that in his analyses. By 1990, Athar left Sadaqat after a falling out with the owner, Munnu Bhai. Afterwards, he worked at the Khabrain Group and Nawai Waqt before joining Daily Pakistan. After a few years at Daily Pakistan, he once again joined Nawai Waqt before joining Daily Express.
His decision to work at Nawai Waqt, a paper known for its anti-socialist stance was a surprise for many but more astounding perhaps was his success at the newspaper. Majid Nizami, the paper’s editor-in-chief, said of Abbas Athar, he made a place for himself through his professional skills. Whatever his personal beliefs, he followed Nawai Waqt’s policy and never tried to impose his ideology on the paper. He admitted himself that it was Nawai Waqt which established him as a columnist.
Syed Abbas Athar’s journalism was of a different class. Even after he had established himself as a columnist, he never wanted to be limited to writing columns. He remained associated with the newsroom. His biggest success was, the way he changed the newspaper industry. During a time when newspapers had failed commercially, he was able to drive the business. He changed this industry by bringing creativity into news-making. He brought in a new style of journalism that accentuated the language and improved the craft. In a country where a lot of people go hungry, he would say of himself, my genius is political relevance.
A less known aspect of his life was his poetry. Syed Abbas Athar did not publish a lot of his work. ‘Din Chargay, Darya Charhay’ was the only collection he published. He used to say that journalism had gotten in the way of his ‘real’ vocation; poetry. Among his most memorable poems were written on the death of ZA Bhutto. He also wrote Bhutto ki beti aye thi, one of the PPP’s 2013 campaign songs.
Poet Zafar Iqbal wrote, ‘Jin logon ki shairee sahafat nay nigal lee, un main Abbas Athar ka naam faramosh nahi kia ja sakta’ (Among those people whose poetry was usurped by journalism, Abbas Athar’s name can never be forgotten).
Syed Athar Abbas would also be remembered as a loyal friend. He was a person who would go out of his way to help friends, who also took care of his workers. Once, when Asghar Khan was discussing Daily Azad’s affairs with Abbas Athar, he complimented an associate editor for his editorials and then added, but I have heard that he sometimes drinks. Athar’s reply was, the editorials are good, right? To which Asghar Khan said yes. That’s all that matters, Athar is said to have told Asghar Khan.
Syed Abbas Athar joined Daily Express as group editor in June 2006. Despite his illness, he remained committed to his work till the very end. He had been conferred with Hilal-i-Shujaat in 2011 in recognition of his services to journalism.
Shah Ji, as he was fondly known in journalistic circles was diagnosed with lung cancer and was sent to England for treatment. He had been in and out of the hospital after he developed pneumonia. He died on 6 May 2013 at the Combined Military Hospital in Lahore. He was 74. He was laid to rest on after his funeral prayers were offered at Abbas Athar Park, Tajpura.
Syed Athar Abbas left behind a wife and five children. His father was a government servant who shifted to Lahore from Sargodha. The family took up residence in Tajpura, where Abbas was born and lived till his death.