SANAM MAHER - on Chronicling a Slain Woman’s Tale

  • 04 Aug - 10 Aug, 2018
  • Attiya Abbass
  • Interview

The first time Sanam heard about Qandeel Baloch was in the newsroom, when a couple of her male colleagues were talking about her viral “How I’m looking?” video. They were snickering over some of her photographs on Facebook and this compelled Sanam to look up the woman in question; a woman she didn’t know, she’d one day author a book about. At that time, the 32-year-old journalist found a story developing in her. “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,” Sanam tells me. “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,” she concludes.

The piece was never written. It was lost somewhere between deadlines and switching jobs, but the idea latched itself to Sanam for the longest time and days after the death of Qandeel, the idea morphed into a determination to pen down a book.

It was July 15, 2016 when the news broke.

“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 writing a book on her life, took root,” says Sanam, talking about the instances which went into making her write the book.

In a conversation with MAG, Sanam Maher, shares the meticulous bits of her journey, authoring a book on the late social media celebrity titled, The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch and how it invited a seismic shift to her life. 

Please begin with telling us something about yourself.

I’ve been working in the media since 2007. In 2015, I started freelancing for international media groups. 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 of Qandeel’s murder broke.

What were some of the challenges you faced while writing the book? Was there a moment, at some point when you contemplated abandoning the book and the idea behind it?

I didn’t think about abandoning it, as difficult as the work was with such a wide scope and a very tight deadline. I had, my wonderful editor, Simar Puneet, who helped me re-focus and figure out how to keep moving forward.

Initially, I struggled with the second-hand information I got through the interviews I conducted about Qandeel. And there was the added problem of this information being repetitive – 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. 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. Qandeel was a chameleon, she presented different parts 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 there’s no way to extract the ‘real’ story or ‘the truth’ of her life story.

Your labour for the book is evident in exhaustive research. Tell us about the efforts you had to put in, to do justice to Qandeel’s story?

I did my own research, and I didn’t rely on coverage of Qandeel or her murder to help me understand her life.

I ultimately ended up being close to 100 interviews, with her family, friends and colleagues, as well as anyone who may have even briefly interacted with her. I met with those she lived with in the village, spent time with her friends and family members, those who loved and missed her as well as those who were very glad to be rid of her. For the first leg of my research, I was largely in Multan, Dera Ghazi Khan, Shah Sadar Din, Lahore and Islamabad, tracking her movement from the village to the women’s shelter where she sought refuge when she left her husband to Islamabad where she worked as a model and singer.

Do you believe that the book invited a seismic shift to your life after its release?

Absolutely. The book has been picked up by Bloomsbury and will be out in the UK next year – that’s something I never expected, on a personal or professional level. I never expected to hear from as many readers as I did practically every day since it was released in May. The book has travelled to so many places – there’s even a lovely trend that developed among my readers where they would send me pictures of the book in different cities around the world and in Pakistan – and there’s a level of engagement that I never expected.

Is there anyone who inspired you to become a writer? An author you grew up reading?

So many! For this book, however, I read a lot of true crime that inspired me, above all Richard Lloyd Parry’s The People who Eat Darkness and Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heave.

What is the most frequent you get from the readers of the book?

I never know what to say when people thank me for writing the book – that’s a comment I get a lot and it’s wonderful to hear.

Is there a Pakistani writer whose work you admire?

I just read an advance copy of Fatima Bhutto’s next book, The Runaways, and I raced through it because it’s a fantastic, timely, beautifully told story about some of the most terrifying issues we face today. •