The People’s Storyteller – Zehra Nawab

Zehra Nawab recently won the Agahi Award for “Journalist of the Year” in Culture and Tourism for her exceptional in-depth piece on truck art. This interview with her gives insight into her life, her writing, and how important trust and acceptance is to evolve as a people.

I still get thrown off when people call me a journalist. I didn’t start out that way.

I was fortunate to be working at Herald as a graphic designer. Our team would have conversations about the day’s interesting stories. One day we were talking about the subculture of motorbikes, and my editor, Muhammad Badar Alam, said to me, “Why don’t you do a piece on this?”

That’s when it began. For the next two months I was investigating the environment of motorbike boy gangs in depth for my first story.

I’ve been drawing and writing my whole life. Communication design, which I studied at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, is an amalgamation of both skills. Now in my job I tell stories via writing and art, and I think I have distinct styles for both. As an artist I use bright colors, lines, shapes to tell a story. When I write long-form magazine articles, I tell stories about real events through words, through language. The medium changes but the eye of the artist doesn’t. There’s so much I want to see and tell.

Stories are born in interesting ways. There’s a back and forth between the team. People are complex, the story must reflect that. Nothing is as simple as it seems. The truck art piece resonated with people. Everyone sees these trucks but nobody thinks about where the art comes from, what it’s inspired by, what’s the history.

Herald is a great place to work. The editor helped me understand how to open up. How to develop that keen eye for detail. What was he wearing? What was her body language? How did the room look? These details make readers feel emotion. Hopefully this leads to them thinking about the piece, and becoming more socially aware.

I remember people wanted to give money after my story about leprosy. After my truck art piece someone read that one of the major roads was in bad shape, and he wanted to know how to pay to fix it. People can have heartwarming responses. Or they can choose to ignore.

I’ve faced challenges. One major one was learning to trust myself to hold my own. Especially in environments vastly different from mine. While researching the motorbike story, I was going to rallies. I was present at the drug scene. There is a degree of cultural conditioning one has to fight. I was engaging with everyone but also standing aside, adjusting my dupatta. One boy offered his ride because we had to go to a place too far to walk to, and I immediately felt strange. I steeled myself against my fears, and hopped on anyway. I learned this lesson – you have to trust people and you have to trust yourself. You need time to develop bonds before even asking interview questions. The truck art story required befriending and eating with truck drivers, mechanics, security people. One must make conscious effort. I’ve learned to embrace all different kinds of people this city and country has.

Good people are everywhere! And they want to talk to you. Sometimes difficult things happen but you have to be smart. It starts with you. Sit with them, talk, don’t create a “you versus me” dynamic. That’s how you get accepted into a subculture.

Being accepted takes time but it is possible. I was worried the motorbike boys wouldn’t accept me into their subculture because I was so different from them. Then they gave me something I cherish to this day. The thing there is nobody uses their real names. They have titles to fit their personas. One day one of the boys said to the others: “chalo iss kay lye bhi title choose karo.”

They came up with “Choti Patakhi.” I was so incredibly moved by that. It was a big sign of trust.

It was difficult to witness the suffering of the leprosy patients. One isn’t used to seeing the physical symptoms people with leprosy have. And they’re used to people acting revolted, stepping back from them. It’s why their community exists – their loved ones have abandoned them, so they live as a family.

I held their hands. I praised their clothes. We ate together. I was so honoured to be welcomed into their lives, and fascinated by how little their religious and ethnic differences mattered. There was a mosque, a church, an imambargah.

That’s really where I draw my strength from – the fact that these are stories worth telling. Issues worth talking about. I also am inspired by the work of writers before me. So many talented people are writing, I feel overwhelmed and humbled I was chosen for this Agahi award.

It’s very encouraging. I hope I get a chance to write more and tell more stories. If I had to give a message I would say never close yourself off in a fixed box. Always experiment. Try new things. Don’t be scared of failing. Whether it is medicine, art, acting. Do it. Don’t be afraid.

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