Journalist and Author Sanam Maher’s latest read that is based on the life of Late social media sensation, Qandeel Baloch is quite a hit among readers and is creating waves not only in Pakistan but across the globe.
With all the news reports, tv shows and documentaries, many of us feel that we already know Qandeel’s story but trust me you have to read this book to get the real picture. She wrote about who Qandeel was and it wasn’t easy for her, she met Qandeel’s family and visited places like Dera Ghazi Khan, Multan, Lahore. She got criticized as well but she didn’t stop and now her book is labeled as “Incredible work” and got recognition internationally. I wanted to interview her and she was so kind that she didn’t refuse, which shows how humble she is despite all the fame. I really love her approach to work. Now without any further delay, read what she says.
Q-1) First of all big big congratulations on the success of your first ever book & secondly I want you to tell the readers that what made you write this book?
In July 2016, a piece I’d written for Al Jazeera went viral, and I was approached by a few publishing houses who were interested in my work and wanted to discuss a possible book. We threw a couple of ideas back and forth, and then just a couple of days later, news broke of Qandeel’s murder.
The first time I heard about Qandeel was in the newsroom, when a couple of guys who worked at the desk with me were talking about her viral “How I’m looking?” video. They were snickering over some of her photographs on Facebook, and I looked her up. The little that I did see led me to want to do a story – I thought the piece would look at how young women are using platforms like Facebook and Instagram to push the envelope on how they can dress, speak or present themselves in Pakistan. I’ve long maintained a fascination with what we as Pakistanis do on social media and I thought Qandeel would be a great person to focus on for a piece exploring this. The piece was never written. It was lost somewhere between deadlines and switching jobs, but the idea stayed with me, and I told myself I’d have time to do it later, to meet her later and to find others like her.
I remember staring at the television the day news of Qandeel’s murder broke, and feeling stunned. I didn’t want to let go of her story once again, and immediately, the idea of this woman who had managed to fool all of us – her audience and the media – and who had created this persona that we had bought into wholesale took root. I admired her gumption and the courage it must have taken to create the persona that she did.
Then, in the hours and days after, it was terrible to see the reactions online from many Pakistanis who were very happy that she had been “punished” for behaving the way that she did. I saw acquaintances in my own social media feeds having arguments about whether what had happened was right or wrong, whether Qandeel “deserved” what had been done to her. “Offline”, many of the men and women I knew were condemning Qandeel’s death but then, in the next breath, following their statements with “… but if you think about it…”
It was a moment when I was seeing friends and family members draw a line and very firmly position themselves on either side, and I think the last time I’d seen something like that happen – a moment that calls for definition or clarity on the question of how we see ourselves as Pakistanis and what we hope for or believe we deserve – was when Salmaan Taseer was shot and killed in 2011. The reactions to Qandeel’s murder have revealed two very different answers to the question of what it means to be Pakistani, and more crucially, what it means to be a woman living in Pakistan today. And this definition is not static, but ever evolving, depending on who you’re talking to. I wanted to tell a story not just about Qandeel, but about that moment and that definition. I knew that this book wasn’t just about Qandeel, but about the kind of place that enabled her to become who she did, and the place that ultimately found that it could not tolerate her.
Q-2) Qandeel was laughed at when she was alive, but now things are pretty much in her favor, mostly because of the drama “Baaghi” based on her life. Were you inspired by that drama & then started writing or this idea of writing on her life came before that?
No, I worked on this independently of the TV show.
Q-3) What were the challenges that you faced while working on this book?
Something that I struggled with initially was that while of course everything I was learning about Qandeel in the interviews I did was secondhand information, there was the added problem of this information having been repeated so many times – particularly when it came to the principal “characters” in her life, such as her manager Mec or her parents – as they had been interviewed so many times, and continued to be, for news stories or documentaries on Qandeel. Qandeel passed away in July, and I started meeting these people two months later. By then,they almost seemed to follow a script each time for what they wanted to say. Their information was now coloured by feelings of grief or guilt or wanting to come across a certain way in media coverage, or understanding that certain things they said would help them stay in the limelight and keep the media interested in the story.
Initially, I felt handicapped by this, by being unable to check any information with Qandeel. But then I realised that even if I had met Qandeel or had the chance to interview her, it probably would not have helped my understanding of her very much. Qandeel was a chameleon, and she presented differentparts of herself to different people. She knew how to deal with the media and reporters, and I would have only been able to see a sliver of her self if she had spoken with me. At the end of the day, every appearance, video, interview, tweet or Facebook post was her in character, and theres no way to extract the ‘real’ story or ‘the truth’ of her life story. That was whatever she wanted it to be and it suited her purposes.
Q-4) How do you deal with criticism?
It depends, both on the nature of the critique and the kind of day I’m having. The people who mindlessly message me hateful things, I ignore. For those who review my work or message me with feedback or critique: there are some days when I’m able to take it on board and understand what they’re saying and incorporate the feedback into future work, and then there are days when I’m struggling with writer’s block or I don’t feel like reading a review and I’ll shelve it for another day. I’m very lucky that the reviews so far have been positive. The things that catch me off guard are the unkind messages that people will sometimes send on my social media platforms.
Q-5) This book is more like a story rather than a biography & Arshad Khan, of the chai wala fame, is also covered in the book. Why?
The book doesn’t just focus on Qandeel. It tells her story, but also uses each part of her life in order to open up into a story about Pakistan at this particular moment. For instance, when looking at Qandeel’s fame as a viral star, I began to think about how my generation of Pakistanis has been connected to the world like never before – what are we doing online? What does it mean to go viral in Pakistan? How are we building communities online in order to speak in ways that we may not be able to “offline”? What happens when we behave in a way onlinethat seems to break the rules of how we are supposed to behave, particularly as women, “in the real world”? In exploring these ideas, I met with Arshad Khan aka the Chaiwallah, as well as the men and women who are trying to patrol our activities online and monitor and censor us, and others who are determined to keep us safer and more vocal online – particularly in the case of women and marginalized or minority communities. That meant meeting everyone from trolls and hacktivists to Nighat Dad, the creator of Pakistan’s first cyber harassment hotline.
Q-6) What is the one thing that you love about this book? If youhave to choose just one thing?
I love that it gave me the opportunity to learn so much so fast. The learning curve on this was steep, and drove me crazy, but that’s an experience that I’ll always be grateful for. This was my first crime story, first intense investigative piece, first project with such a wide scope… as I said, a very steep learning curve, and a really tight deadline to get it all done.
Q-7) I’m sure you’ve gone through difficulties while writing but can you please share the most difficult part about writing this book?
I think initially a hurdle that I found very difficult to get past was the question of what the work would mean and what I wanted to do. This was a story that was being covered by every reporter I knew, there were journalists from all over the world focusing on the story, there were film and TV projects and documentaries planned on it – what did I have to add to this conversation about Qandeel? The medium I had – a book – was also tricky. Would people want to read more about Qandeel, beyond an article or a longform piece? After the TV show, the documentaries, the stories, would people still be interested in picking up a non-fiction work on her? That was something I worried about up until the day the book came out.
Q-8) What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Read! I cannot emphasise this enough. I’m always surprised by people who message me on social media asking for advice on being a writer, and when I say this, they often say they find it hard to focus on books or newspapers or find it difficult to maintain the habit of reading. Read as much as you can, as widely as you can.
Q-9) Describe yourself in 3 words?
Q-10) And last but not the least, we all want to know what are you planning to do next? Another book or what?
I hope there’s another book in the future – for now, I just have ideas for this and its really great to be in the early stages of planning without the anxiety of a deadline or publishers or editors involved. I’m back to work and freelancing, so you should see more regular stories from me soon.
Thankyou so much Sanam for taking out time for my blog and for answering every question in detail.
I would totally recommend this book, read it and do let me know what are your thoughts on it💜
Thank you for reading. xoxo