Oxford University Press Pakistan’s Managing Director, Ms. Ameena Saiyid, has nearly single-handedly turned the country’s publishing and literary scenes on their head. Ghausia Rashid Salam writes about Ms. Saiyid’s journey and why being a woman in a man’s world has made all the difference.
By Ghausia Rashid Salam
The publishing industry in Pakistan isn’t known for being risqué or taking chances, and though the country hosts a number of cultural events, including Pakistan Fashion Week, they typically require much planning, otherwise they are doomed to fail, as was the planned film festival in 2009 that never happened. So when the Oxford University Press Pakistan (OUPP) successfully established the country’s very first literature festival, it just went to prove how culturally diverse the country is. And it was only fitting that its founder and OUPP’s Managing Director was a woman, considering Pakistan mostly makes international news for Violence Against Women (VAW) or tribal militancy.
Like most professional women working in a “man’s world”, Ameena Saiyid is no ordinary woman. Under her leadership, the publishing house has flourished. OUPP has established a name for itself not just through publishing, but also through various educational and literary programs.
Ms. Saiyid describes her initial experiences in a commemorative book published on OUPP’s 60th anniversary. She began her career at OUPP as General Manager a week before the death of Pakistan’s longest military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq which would, in ordinary circumstances, be difficult enough, but Ameena also had to contend with major opposition from colleagues and employees who felt a woman could simply never be qualified for a position of authority. It was unfortunate enough to join the publishing industry in Pakistan during a politically eventful era and to be confronted with a very old-fashioned mentality, which may’ve been out of place pre-Zia, was an unexpected hurdle. It had to have taken dogged persistence in the face of gender discriminatory opposition, receiving advice on how her home would not be blessed as a working mother, and knowing bets were being placed on how long she’d last, by people who may now be choking on their words – thirty-three years later, she’s still here.
As I sit across from Ms. Saiyid’s graceful eloquence, I struggle to suppress the urge to let out an embarrassing squeak of excitement. She speaks quietly, but with the confidence of someone who knows exactly who they are. My first question is something I’ve been wondering ever since I found out about the OUPP Museum and Archives: what purpose does it serve?
The museum, Ameena explains, was launched on November 6, 2012 on the OUPP’s 60th anniversary “to recognize our work in 60 years. It is a good way to celebrate.” And there is much to celebrate, apparent from the museum’s artifacts and the stories waiting to be discovered in OUPP’s history. OUPP, like the publishing industry at large, has always been a revolving door for talented individuals, some of whom are no longer in this world, and most people who aren’t industry insiders have no knowledge of the triumphs, blunders, and achievements of one of the oldest publishing houses in Pakistan. “In a way, we wanted to preserve our heritage, the work that we’ve done; to collect all the memories of those who have worked with OUPP,” she said, speaking of OUPP’s pioneers.
But beyond serving as a repository for the publishing house’s history the museum provides a historical record of publishing throughout the world as well which, given all that’s happened in the industry globally, and the antiquity of writing and communication in general, would be hard to condense. OUPP has done it all in one exhibit. Still, some aspects slipped through the cracks, the most important of which is censorship, especially considering Pakistan’s political struggles and otherwise volatility, though perhaps it was exactly that characteristic that led to the omittance of censorship. The key motivation behind each exhibit seems to be making content and history accessible. “The best way to learn,” Ms. Saiyid explains, “is through case study.” Using OUPP as an example, the museum takes visitors on a trip down history, beginning from the discovery of paper, to initial forms of communication and eventually the evolution of publishing.
“People confuse editing with publishing,” Ms. Saiyid says with a pained smile. “Publishing involves commissioning people to write, to research the market about what people want to read.” There’s also the process of proofreading and the illustration of books. But, Ms. Saiyid cautions, it isn’t until the book is marketed that the real work begins, when the book has to publicized and hyped so people want to read it.
It was this that inspired Ms. Saiyid to create the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF), the seeds for which were planted when she attended India’s Jaipur Literary Festival. In 2010, Ms. Saiyid’s dream of a large-scale platform for “creating hype about books and writing” was realized in an event that attracted 5,000 people to the Carlton Hotel in Karachi. The years that followed saw the crowds swell and in an attempt to accommodate the overwhelming interest, 2013’s festival was expanded to three days instead of two and came with a change in venue to what Ms. Saiyid hoped would be the more accessible Beach Luxury Hotel in the heart of the cosmopolitan city.
Though KLF and the museum deal principally with traditional paper-bound publishing, OUPP has not been left behind in today’s digital age of e-books perpetuated by Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad. Ms. Saiyid revealed that OUPP has started marketing children’s DVDs with interactive activities and games based on learning and reading. The future looks bright when Ms. Saiyid promises collaborating with Converge to digitize books now out of print, which would result in Oxford University Press being the first publisher in Pakistan to make e-books locally available.
Of course, the obvious question that leaps to mind when talk turns to books, reading and more importantly a literature festival emblematic of these seemingly hidden activities in today’s youth steeped as they may be in online social media, is what place does it really hold? After all, it is far more difficult today than it was 20 years ago to inculcate reading habits in children. There are just too many cartoons and video games competing with a child’s imagination to take them away from the beauty of reading and intellectual pursuits. But Ms. Saiyid seems to have an answer to everything when she points to the Children’s Literature Festivals (CLF) OUPP has been holding for the last two years. The first was held in Lahore in November 2011, where 20,000 children attended defying OUPP’s modest expectations. Quetta’s CLF in 2012 brought with it its own concerns that for the first time had nothing to do with reading habits. “We were very concerned about security because of the political situation there,” Ms. Saiyid remembers. So security was tight, which meant that this CLF was “invite-only and people could only attend with their children. We sent out invitations especially to schools”, and while Ms. Saiyid admits to feeling guilty for the extensive measures, considering that it was a one-day children’s festival only, the measures were necessary. “We took along a clown and puppet theatre,” Ms. Saiyid recalls fondly. “The children had never seen a clown, and kept running after him, they were mad with excitement.” Over 7,000 children attended, which Ms. Saiyid considers an achievement considering the strict protocols. Another CLF was held in Peshawar in November 2012.
Ms. Saiyid’s dedication to the lost art of reading doesn’t end there and OUPP hopes to reach children through its “Dosti Kitabon Se” program which it collaborated on with musician and TV personality, Khaled Anam. The reading program encourages children to “befriend” a book which brings Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” to mind. Future plans include launching a mobile library for underprivileged children, an initiative that OUPP Museum curator Varda Nisar will mobilize and implement. Ms. Saiyid remains optimistic and still as doggedly persistent as ever.
Ghausia Rashid Salam is Assistant to the Editor-in-Chief and is The Missing Slate’s secret weapon. She resides on the internet where she can be found tweeting, blogging, sharing photos of cats and food, and every now and then, expressing serious opinions on various subjects.