Her simple appearance and unassuming manner give little hint of the powerhouse that is Ameena Saiyid. It is only when she begins speaking of her remarkable career, spanning several decades, that the stories of determination, courage and sheer hard work begin to emerge.
She is best known as the Country Head of Oxford University Press in Pakistan, a position she held for 30 years and saw the company grow from a fledgling selling house into a respected and influential publishing concern. Unfortunately, her successful tenure at OUP ended on a bitter note.
But even as she bid goodbye to her lifetime’s work, Ameena plunged into a new venture. “I have never been one to give up. People launch start-ups in their twenties. I have done so in my seventies,” she says, referring to Lightstone Publishers, her latest initiative.
She continues to travel all over the country, visiting schools, hunting out suppliers and scouting new authors. Just back from Kasur, and after a full day at her new office, Ameena still exuded a quiet energy.
She spent her early childhood in the US and later in Karachi, where she grew up. Her father was in the foreign service and her mother a home-maker, but with a remarkable entrepreneurial spirit. “She used to buy properties and build houses,” recalls Ameena. “In fact, my brother says that over the years, she brought in more income than my father, who was a senior civil servant.”
The entrepreneur also had a literary flair. “My mother was a poet and would write verse to mark every occasion. I even recall her writing verses on a napkin in a restaurant. She was a very independent and determined lady. In fact, whenever I wanted to do something but there was risk attached, she would say ‘kood paro’ (plunge in). “
Ameena’s father was also an avid reader. Literary discussion and debate on current issues was encouraged at home and, the second youngest of seven siblings, Ameena thrived in this intellectually challenging atmosphere. Her elder sister was the respected journalist, Naushaba Burney.
Schooling at the Karachi Grammar School was followed by a stint at St Joseph’s College. And then came marriage and a move to Lahore, where she began teaching at the Lahore American School. “On a visit to Karachi, I interviewed for a job at the Oxford University Press. And I joined them in 1979.”
“It was a very tiny organisation then and budgets were tight. I had to promote OUP books in institutions all over Punjab and the Frontier,” recalls Ameena. “The budget only allowed for public transport.” “I remember loading heavy bags of books and catalogues onto a rickshaw and going to schools. I would take one bag and leave the other in the rickshaw. Then rush back thinking, what if he drives off with the books.” She made presentations from Islamabad and Lahore to Jhelum and Peshawar. “But one felt safe in those days. I would take an overnight train from Lahore to Peshawar and stay in some small hotel. I can’t imagine asking a young woman to do that today.”
Still, being a woman in a sales job was challenging. Especially in places like Peshawar. “The book-sellers didn’t know how to deal with me, an unveiled woman. They felt their reputations were at stake. They wouldn’t even ask me to sit down. In fact, the first few times they told me to send a man to speak with them. But gradually, over time, they accepted me and the same book-sellers would offer me tea.”
Even in Lahore, being a woman was not always easy. “One had to deal with attitudes and comments. And it always revolved around character, either mine or their own. However, it got easier because I persisted. So I tell girls today, you must continue on your path, but take others along with you. It is okay to adapt and change oneself a little bit because in doing so you can change mindsets and make a difference.”
Then there was, of course, the challenge of family life. Ameena’s eldest daughter was born soon after she started working. “There was no maternity leave in those days. All I got was three weeks of annual leave. I would travel to Jhelum in the day and rush home at night to nurse her. It was tough but I enjoyed my work and was very passionate and driven. In fact, I still am. And of course, I had the support of my husband.”
After working for OUP for six years, Ameena moved back to Karachi where she decided to set up her own publishing house. “I had some money saved up and I used that to travel to the UK to do a six-week course on publishing and book-selling. I returned and decided to start importing books to generate income. My banker at the then Grindlays Bank was very helpful and he walked me through the entire process of getting licenses and LCs etc.”
Her mother gave her a room in her house to set up office and Saiyid Books was born — a one-person operation but with big goals. “I would drop and pick my children from school and in-between manage the entire business. I have had my car towed several times, once I even chased the tow truck,” laughs Ameena. “I would go to the airport to collect books, get them cleared, bring them home, get orders, type invoices… It was hard but I learnt all the ropes from start to finish.”
Gradually, things picked up. “I started getting good orders from libraries and other places. I realised I was actually making a profit so I hired a few more people.”
After about two years of running her own business, Ameena was approached by OUP once again. “They took me to a Japanese restaurant in Karachi and over dinner offered me the post of head of sales and marketing. But buoyed by the success of my own business, I had the confidence to say that I wanted to be MD for Pakistan. I remember there was a pause. And then they said, ‘Thank you.’”
To Ameena’s surprise, some time later OUP contacted her again and offered her the post she wanted. “It was quite a dilemma. My sister Naushaba said, ‘Munni you are mad.’ But OUP assured me that I would have all the resources I wanted to start publishing books rather than just importing them, which is what I really wanted to do. So I accepted.”
“And they were true to their word. They gave me their support and I went to town. I hired editors, designers, illustrators, had them trained. Very quickly we came up to speed. And we started publishing.”
In accepting the offer, Ameena became the first woman in Pakistan to head a multinational company. But she is quick to point out that it was a very small operation then. “Our office was located in a house on Shahrae Faisal and we had a staff of 16.” When Ameena left the organisation, it was employing 600 people and occupied its own impressive custom-built premises.
Ameena took the reins of the publishing company in 1988, the peak of the General Zia era, when censorship was strong and conservatism pervasive. “I remember I wanted to publish Stanley Wolpert’s Jinnah of Pakistan but it had some controversial material in it. I just couldn’t get permission for it. Then General Zia died in a plane crash and Benazir Bhutto came to power. And suddenly there was no problem getting approval. We pushed ahead with the book. Emboldened, I wanted to have it translated into Urdu as well. That also went ahead without any backlash.”
But the book that really established OUP’s reputation as a serious publishing house was Hasan Zaheer’s Separation of East Pakistan. “It was seminal work. And it generated a fresh debate on the East Pakistan episode. People like General Niazi contacted me and wanted their versions printed. Then others contacted me. We published half-a-dozen books on the subject.”
But sparking debate on controversial topics has its dangers. “I have had to go into hiding. I have had fatwas issued against me and warrants of arrest,” recalls Ameena. “I have had to travel in a bullet-proof car with guards behind. At one point I would roam around with a ticket to the UK in my bag in case I had to leave the country quickly.”
Meanwhile OUP was growing and schoolbooks had become one of their most lucrative revenue chains. But at the same time, pirated copies began to flood the market. “I got legal advice and had raids conducted on bookshops and seized the pirated copies. In one year, 150 raids were conducted in Pakistan. But in Karachi a certain political party told me to back off or my body would be found.”
More death threats were in store for Ameena. “After we published Ayesha Siddiqua’s Military Inc. I had to leave the country for a while. But that book actually sold well. The threats and all the publicity generated so much interest.”
Besides her work in publishing, Ameena’s most valuable contribution is, perhaps, the Karachi Literary Festival (KLF). “I was very disturbed by the status of writers in our country. They were financially insecure and were given little recognition or reward. In contrast, when I attended the Jaipur Festival, I saw that authors were treated like celebrities.” Ameena was determined to change this situation. “I approached my old friend and academic Asif Aslam Farukhi with the idea and he said, “Let’s do it.” Again OUP allowed me to use their resources and the British Council also helped a lot.”
The first Karachi Literature Festival was held at the Carlton Hotel and was an instant success. Some 5000 people attended it. “I remember telling William Dalrymple this and he said the first Jaipur Festival had 40 attendees, that too probably Japanese tourists. So we were very encouraged.”
The KLF has now become a regular event on the Karachi cultural calendar and is thronged by people of all ages and from all walks of life. The last festival drew in a crowd of some 200,000 and it has spawned various spin-offs in Lahore, Multan, Hyderabad etc.
But changes were brewing at the organisation that had encouraged and supported Ameena all these years. “A new management came in and a new matrix structure was established. People were no longer reporting to me and my authority was greatly diluted, my judgement questioned. Things started to go wrong since I was losing control.”
“I wanted to resign under the new management but they would not let me, saying if I did I would not receive my dues. Thirty years worth of dues is a lot, so I stayed. But I really felt like bonded labour.” Matters came to a head when Ameena was held responsible for a professional irregularity at work by a team no longer reporting to her.
Ameena finally left in 2018, without the dues owed to her. “I filed a case against OUP in England under the Employment Tribunal. The case is still on record. But it was declared out of jurisdiction in England.” People whom she had worked with in the old management, rallied around her and she managed to get some of the amount owed. Many other authors and academics also threw their weight behind Ameena in this difficult time.
Ameena had parted ways with OUP but still wanted to continue with the Literature Festival re-named the Pakistan Literature Festival. But the company sued Ameena and Asif Farrukhi for using the same name for what they saw as OUP’s festival. “Fortunately, we were supported by Khalid Mehmood at Getz Pharma who got us a lawyer. He told us to simply change the name and so it became the Adab Festival.”
Two Adab Festivals were successfully held before the Corona pandemic set in. But a bigger blow was in the offing. Asif Aslam Farukhi died of a sudden heart attack this year. “He used to say we were partners in crime. Now that I have lost that partner, I can’t think of continuing the festival without him.”
During the course of her career Ameena has racked up an Order of the British Empire conferred on her by the Queen. She was also awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government for the Karachi Literature Festival. But the award she values most is the Sitara-e-Imtiaz received for “courage in publishing.”
Today, Ameena Saiyid is as hands-on and determined as ever; forever, on to the next project. “I am very excited to be soon publishing a novel, something I couldn’t do with OUP. It is that excitement of cultivating an author, seeing the book take shape and then being read that remains as thrilling.”