NO matter how far you happen to be from home, you are never too far, not at least in terms of reminders and stories from and of your beloved land.
And I am not talking about smartphones, news websites and social media that bring you the latest developments from home, whether it is politics, legal battles, bomb blasts or the havoc that rain can bring to the country’s largest metropolis in a matter of seconds.
I am talking about people. On a week’s break in Andalucía, we have already been to the mountain town of Cazorla in Jaen province, with its imposing fort and its ramparts standing guard over the town and with neat rows of olive trees running up and down mountains till the eye can see.
The monastery on one of the highest peaks is so far above the ground that you can barely make out its whitewashed shape; it is in Casoria that the over 650 kilometres river Guadalquivir begins its journey rather modestly as some mountain streams run down into the valley below.
An old friend visiting Spain recalled his family’s long association with this paper.
We also drove to the town of Linares and found the church where our daughters’ late grandfather was baptised more than 90 years ago. Funnily enough, the son of an anarchist and himself a committed Republican and an atheist, this was as close to religion our beloved Manolo may ever have come till his passing some six years back.
My own memories of him, since I first met him in 1993 in Madrid when I asked him for his daughter’s hand, were of a rebel and non-conformist to the core who had utter contempt for any form of exploitation — most abhorrent to him was the one in the name of faith.
He was a firm believer in human dignity and equality and a man who had to live through the nightmare of Franco’s dictatorship while being identified as the son of an anarchist, many of whose family members were communists (and incarcerated).
Our next stop was Cordova (Cordoba) and the inevitable tour of the Mezquita (mosque) dating back to the year 784. It became a cathedral after the expulsion of the Moors in the 1200s. Its columned prayer hall and Byzantine-period tiles present an amazing sight to this day.
The stay in a hotel converted from a huge mansion in the old town was an absolute delight as it had one of the most splendid, magical patios (even by Cordova standards, where proud home-owners leave their main doors open for all to marvel at their patios and the narrow lanes have one flower-bedecked balcony after another, vying with each other for the title of ‘most beautiful’ every step of the way.)
Having arrived in Seville (Sevilla to the locals), a quick check-in and depositing the car at the hotel car park, we were off for lunch near the La Giralda, one of the three minarets of its kind in the world with the other two predictably in Morocco belonging to the Almohad dynasty period.
Built in 1184-96, sadly the La Giralda remained a mosque minaret for a short period and a little over 50 years later was taken over by the Christians after the Reconquista. One of the references says that it was so venerated by the Moors that they wanted to destroy it rather than have it fall into Christian hands, but were dissuaded by Alfonso X who threatened to put all of them to the sword if any harm came to La Giralda. This was in 1248. In the next century, the tower survived an earthquake while suffering some damage and was converted to a cathedral in the early 1400s.
It was this last Thursday in the shadow of the La Giralda that we met an old family friend who went to school with my elder brother in the 1960s. Jamil Zubairi, who I grew up calling Jamil Bhai, considering him as close as my own brothers, is an international banker currently based in Dubai.
As we sat down to lunch off the square where La Giralda is, Jamil Bhai started telling my daughters about his father Hamid Zubairi, who was a senior journalist. He said during the Pakistan Movement he worked for a communist paper in Delhi while his wife was a school principal.
This was when Dawn was a weekly paper. Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah said something of importance to his followers and constituents but the press chose to ignore the statement. Hence, the need was felt to convert Dawn into a daily.
Jamil Bhai told us Liaquat Ali Khan called his father and invited him to join the Dawn team in Delhi. His father wanted to stay on but the violence of Partition (the vehicle which used to take him to the office and back was burned along with the driver in it) drove them to Karachi, where Hamid uncle joined Dawn on arrival and continued working till his retirement.
He told my daughters his whole family was pleased no end when I was named editor, Dawn, as their own association with the newspaper dated back to its initial days and they were so proud of how the paper became an independent voice in Pakistan, which was so badly needed.
As we finished lunch and the Zubairis hurried off to their hotel to collect their luggage and catch their train to Madrid from where they were headed back, I sat down in the square and asked myself whether speaking truth to power then invited such criticism and the wrath of different state institutions as it does today.
I have serious doubts that things were any better once, following the Quaid’s passing, all sorts of political shenanigans began, culminating in outright military rule in 1958 and then the promulgation of repressive press laws.
Maintaining freedom of expression has and will remain an uphill battle for the foreseeable future.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, July 1st, 2017