Sanam Maher follows the life of Qandeel Baloch in her book The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch. Now the Karachi-based journalist's first book on the life of one of Pakistan’s most controversial internet celebrities is already creating a stir.
Q: How did you end up writing this book?
Sanam Maher: In July 2016, I wrote a piece for Al Jazeera about my mother’s battle with drug addiction in Pakistan. It went viral and I was approached by three publishing houses who asked if I was interested in writing a book — any book — for them. I’d always been interested in writing about women’s online experiences.
When news of Qandeel Baloch’s murder broke, I knew nothing about her beyond the news and the videos she put out — scraps of information. After her death, details emerged about her life and what stuck with me was that here’s this woman who has managed to fool us all by building this persona we love to engage with, but none of us really know much about her.
Q: Baloch’s last days and death were covered endlessly on various media — there was a lot of noise. How did you sift through all of that?
Sanam: That was definitely tricky. You’re trying to tell a story where everyone feels they already know the story and they’ve pigeonholed this woman: she’s the “girl who defied her family and went on to live her life”, “she’s a feminist”, or “Oh, these Pakistani women who will do anything for fame and we’re becoming too liberal.” But I was very lucky that I had a whole year to work on this.
Because what we knew initially about Baloch or her family was so coloured by the media frenzy around it, I spent the first three months researching and absorbing everything. Then I went to Multan where Baloch was murdered.
There was so much interest around Baloch that people knew what to say to get media attention. That also became part of the book — that she had become a commodity even in her death. You had fixers, reporters [foreign and local]... a whole cottage industry catering to this story.
Initially the problem I had was that, by that time, her parents and the people in her life had been talked to so many times that they were also kind of following a script of what they thought I wanted to hear. Since I didn’t have an immediate deadline, I wasn’t in a hurry and the more time I spent with Baloch’s parents, the more I got to see different parts of their life and learn about her story.
Q: You’ve covered a lot of characters that weren’t previously highlighted in stories related to Baloch.
Sanam: I did around 125-150 interviews for this book. Baloch’s story follows such a strong narrative, and I wondered, what if the perspective were to shift slightly? When it comes to stories from Pakistan, it’s very easy to focus on what the spotlight is on. But what if you look around the spotlight? What would that tell us about what we’re staring at?
Q: We come from a very different world than Baloch; you realise that when you get to her village.
Sanam: We don’t engage with different communities. I think the moment it really struck me was when I got to Dera Ghazi Khan and saw women covered with burqas.
While I was looking at them, a man said, “Where I come from we don’t give women shoes.” I asked what he meant. He said, “Well, where are you going to look if you’re not wearing shoes? You’re going to look down.” That threw me; whether or not women can even leave their house is a world that’s... another country from what we’re used to. That’s when I really understood my privilege.
In Dera Ghazi Khan, I was in a room full of male journalists, trying to talk to them. One was very prickly; he didn’t want to talk to me. I was asking whether there were any women journalists there and he said, “Do you think the way you’ve just come here, that our women can do that?”
He was very angry. These men are not used to women asking them questions about their area, honour killings, anything. You have to be very patient. And you can’t show on your face [your reaction to the shocking things they say]. I get really infuriated when people say things such as “Why did she have to take her clothes off and take a selfie?” “Why can’t she use her life to do something good?” “Why can’t she just go and get an education?” This book is trying to give context — that this is the world people such as Baloch inhabit.
Q: Arshad Khan, of the Chaiwalla fame, is also covered in the book. Why?
Sanam: Because I was wondering: what happens if you go viral in a place such as Pakistan? This beam is on you, and you get treated a certain way, but then we get bored very easily. Mec [the man looking over Baloch’s shoulder in her famous ‘How am looking?’ video] talked about this as well: people wanted to see her doing more of these funny sorts of stunts — crazy things that could keep their attention.
The Ban music video was Baloch upping the ante, because otherwise she was just another girl who was struggling to make money, whose family didn’t support her and she had to support them.
What happens when you’re dealing with a nation with such ADD? They want to be constantly entertained, so how do you keep upping the game? What happens if you can’t? What would’ve happened if Baloch hadn’t kept our attention? That’s how the Chaiwalla came in. I met him when he was struggling with this attention. He was just a pretty face; then he was on television shows, wearing sherwanis, getting styled at Nabila’s.
This kid was taken and exposed to a completely different world. What happens when something like this ends? With the Chaiwalla, he’s neither here, where his family, friends and his old life are, nor there, where all the attention and fame and the viral stuff was.
Q: You’re also being harassed because of this book?
Sanam: Yeah, every day. Just during the ride here, in 15 minutes I got seven messages on Instagram, mostly from men, but also from a couple of women as well, saying that clearly I have no morals for covering this kind of stuff, asking why do I need to write a book about Baloch because hasn’t she done Pakistan enough damage?
Originally published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 27th, 2018.