December Issue 2013
Flashbacks From the Past
On a Sunday afternoon in October, I enter a building that appears too dismal to be called the National Museum of Pakistan. On display here are 4,500 pictures of the Bhutto family, on a rolling exhibit. I walk past the pictures to a table where the only man in the building at that time sits, to inquire about the photographer and ask if I could speak to him in person. The man quickly dashes off to summon Agha Feroz, the former official photographer of the Bhutto family.
In a couple of minutes, a frail but excited man with a receding hairline, dressed in a paan-stained shirt, emerges from behind the wall of pictures and introduces himself as Agha Feroz. Aside from the DSLR strapped around his shoulder, I find no other signs that he once photographed and followed every move of one of South Asia’s most influential political dynasty. Feroz cannot contain his enthusiasm upon seeing me. He is full of stories and he wants the world to hear them.
For the next two hours, Feroz takes me on a trip down memory lane, as we walk through the halls of the National Museum. Its walls are plastered with pictures from top to bottom and some are even laid out on the floor. One of the first set of photographs he shows me is of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto from his youth all the way to the defining and final moments of his tumultuous political journey. He recalls the charisma of the former prime minister after seeing a picture of him with then US president, Richard Nixon. “Just look at how calm and composed ZAB appears compared to how agitated Nixon looks,” he remarks with a chuckle. When asked to choose his favorite shot, he points to the one of ZAB surrounded by his four children — Murtaza, Sanam, Shahnawaz and Benazir. “The children look like flowers,” he says. On the wall that leads up to the stairs are pictures of him accompanying ZAB in helicopter rides, on state visits and at public rallies. And in the centre, is a picture of himself standing in front of a small, makeshift building constructed of hollow blocks on the outskirts of Karachi, that sheltered his pictures from the “forces,” who, he claims, Zia-ul-Haq had sent out to destroy his work.
The second floor features a photograph of him with BBC’s Mark Tully, a meeting with whom inspired Feroz to become the Bhutto family’s official photographer: “I was a 12-year-old orphan at the time of the ’71 war. When we returned to Pakistan, Tully interviewed me and I was fascinated by the fact that he could speak Urdu. He told me he could speak 17 languages and regaled me with stories about his journalistic career. That stayed in my mind and I told my mother that I wanted to learn languages. I learnt seven languages including Persian and Balochi, and joined the PPP. I began as a translator and later became a photographer and travelled the world with the party.” He shares that he was well-compensated and looked after when he worked as the Bhutto family photographer.
Feroz has been a witness to the Bhutto family’s days of glory and misery for over 40 years. And he recalls his worst Bhutto moment. It was the time when Murtaza Bhutto was being tried in a court in Karachi. He was being transported from jail to the court by prison officials around the same time that his sister, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s convoy was passing through. He describes the stark contrast between the two Bhuttos in those few strange moments in history that he cannot seem to get out of his head: Benazir was being showered with rose petals as she passed by her brother Murtaza, in handcuffs, who was lined up on the streets along with other prisoners. Feroz still carries the deep emotions he felt in that instant: “I couldn’t stand to watch that moment. The sister a sitting prime minister, and the brother, a prisoner… History has tested the princes and princesses of the Bhutto family in many ways.”
When questioned about the third generation of Bhuttos and their father, the former president, Asif Ali Zardari, Feroz says, “He (Zardari) is like the doctor of politics because he knows how to fix various problems. He is following the politics of ZAB, but he needs to interact with the public first-hand. The younger generation in the PPP is still finding its feet in the world of politics and I wish the best for them.”
Before the tour ends, Feroz pulls me to a corner in the museum, where he has kept almost half his collection in sacks piled one on top of the other. Some of the pictures are even torn or rain-soaked. I cannot believe what I am seeing. One would assume that with his impressive body of work, Feroz would feature alongside the likes of former presidential photographers Cecil Stoughton for the Kennedys, Pete Souza for the Obamas and Yochi Okamoto for the Johnsons, who are celebrated and whose photographs are displayed with the dignity they deserve. His disappointment is obvious, as he informs me that he cannot maintain his collection anymore, and that he has already exhausted his funds and spent a good amount from his own pocket to put up the exhibit. Prior to the elections, the current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, offered to pay him 600,000 rupees for the entire collection and promised to display his work properly in Larkana. Feroz refused, suspecting that it was intended merely as a political gimmick for the upcoming elections. Deeply loyal to the Bhuttos, Feroz clings on to the hope that, some day, someone will realise the significance of his work.As I end my tour of the exhibit, I cannot help but ask myself, whether these rotting pictures are somehow symbolic of PPP’s political decline? Worse, is it an indicator of our society’s indifferent attitude towards preserving its culture and history? And what if PPP has been reduced to a relic of the past? Wouldn’t we want to save these pictures, regardless of how we view the Bhuttos and their politics, for the sake of posterity? It is inexcusable that the current Bhutto generation cannot, with all their wealth, at least arrange for some of these photographs to be displayed in a permanent exhibit. More so now, when Bilawal Bhutto is leading the campaign to save Mohenjodaro. Before we part ways, Feroz says that he does not seek any monetary compensation or accolades: “All I want in return is a pat on the back and that people, especially leaders of the PPP, come to see m collection.”