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October 30, 2001
Talk about it E-mail story Print

For Anxious Expatriates, a Link to Pakistan
  Times Headlines

It's a Wednesday morning in Akhtar Faruqui's cramped Irvine office, where the next seven days of work stretch out before him like so many miles of dirt road.

Faruqui edits the weekly PakistanLink newspaper. Here on the first day of his news cycle he has 56 pages to fill but enough e-mailed essays and news articles cobbled from other publications to take up twice that space.

"I worked seven days last week," says Faruqui, 58, PakistanLink's one-man newsroom and a former editor for Dawn, Pakistan's largest English-language daily. "It becomes an exhausting exercise, but it's worthwhile." Little known outside the United States' small but growing Pakistani community, PakistanLink has matured over the past decade from one immigrant family's passion into a key platform for debate among Pakistani Americans. The paper claims a weekly circulation of more than 25,000, making it the largest of a half-dozen English-language newspapers catering to the estimated 149,000 Pakistanis living in the U.S.

But in these days of war, and fear, it is a newspaper in transition, struggling under Faruqui's yearlong tutelage to evolve from a paper that tracks the minutiae of the expatriate community to one that moderates sometimes divisive debates on everything from politics to religious expression.

Faruqui and PakistanLink just might have found their stride in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing military campaign--with Pakistan's help--against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which shares a 1,500-mile border with Pakistan.

For Pakistani Americans, the events have been doubly troubling. In their new homes, they shared in the national horror of the attacks on the East Coast.

And now they share their native land's fears and tribulations as U.S.-led attacks against Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network threaten to pit not only Christians against Muslims, but Muslims against each other.

It is Faruqui's task to try to make sense of it all, directing a choir whose voices of anger, fear and conciliation sing out from PakistanLink's pages. At the same time, he acts as a collator, taking articles from other publications and boiling them down into a digest of current events for Pakistani Americans.

"The responsibility is to be true to the profession, and to be true to the people," says Faruqui, a slight and intense man dressed this day in black slacks and sweater over a dark-checked shirt.

PakistanLink is a thick, distinctive-looking paper, with both the U.S. and Pakistani flags printed on the front page. The stories are packed tightly together with color photographs played small, giving the pages a cramped but urgent look.

The tone has picked up an added sense of urgency, and depth. The week before the Sept. 11 attacks, Faruqui published a commentary called "Come September," enumerating the deaths and wars that, throughout its history, have made September Pakistan's cruelest month.

The next week, as the collapsed twin towers continued to smolder, Faruqui published the essay "America Under Attack," containing a quote from an Anne Bront poem that echoes through the ages: "Oh, I am very weary,/Though tears no longer flow;/My eyes are tired of weeping,/My heart is sick of woe."


Most of the paper's material is less literary, and tied more to the rhythms of average lives.

There's a sports section with cricket updates. Ads promise help with immigration issues and cheap travel deals to Pakistan. Restaurants trumpet their menus and the classified ad section includes personals from families seeking mates for their adult-age children. One reads: "Suitable match required for beautiful educated citizen daughter. Short marriage annulled. Urdu speaking professionals below 37 preferred."

Like all papers, PakistanLink has its supporters and its detractors even as it has built a loyal following among readers.

"It's a good paper," says Tasneem Khan, a Los Angeles insurance broker and native of the troubled Kashmir province over which Pakistan and India have fought for more than 50 years. "In this crisis time, it really brings the community together."

Sreenath Sreenivasan, a journalism professor at New York's Columbia University and co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Assn., places PakistanLink in the long tradition of ethnic newspapers helping immigrant communities make the transition from one society to another.

"Unlike other Asian communities that have been here for generations, such as the Japanese and Chinese and Koreans, South Asians have been here for such a short period of time--particularly Pakistanis," Sreenivasan says, tracing the start of Pakistani immigration to the 1980s. "So they are much more interested in what's happening at home than other Asian communities."

Part of that interest has been satisfied by the paper's sister publication, UrduLink, written in Pakistan's native language. Initially published as a section within PakistanLink, the papers separated two months ago and UrduLink is now distributed separately.

But separation is relative. Faruqui and UrduLink editor Shakil Yousufi sit only a few feet apart in the five-desk office within a high-tech incubator owned by entrepreneur Safi Qureshey, 50, of Santa Ana, who bought a controlling stake in PakistanLink two years ago.


Ironically, PakistanLink began because of war. Founding editor Faiz Rehman launched the paper in February 1991 to draw attention to what he saw as Pakistan's overlooked role in the U.S.-led ouster of Iraqi troops from Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War.

Rehman and his family sold most of the paper for $400,000 two years ago to Qureshey, a founding partner of the former computer firm AST Research. Rehman, his father--a noted Urdu poet--and two brothers stayed on to run the editorial side of things. They quit last year, though, in a bitter dispute with Qureshey over editorial autonomy.

That dispute has moved into Orange County Superior Court, where Qureshey obtained a restraining order earlier this year barring the Rehmans from opening a competing newspaper. A settlement conference in the case is set for next month.When Rehman quit the editorship, Faruqui, whom Rehman had hired as his assistant, moved up one chair. Rehman says he likes the direction in which Faruqui has taken the paper, eschewing lighter entertainment coverage in favor of in-depth analyses and opinion pieces of current events.

"I think they're doing an OK job," he said.

Still, since the terrorist attacks, Faruqui has found himself treading water to stay above the flood of fast-changing news.

He also has struggled to maintain relevance for the weekly paper in an environment where news changes hourly, and the details are available almost immediately on Internet sites and in the various broadcast media, with analysis trailing by a day in daily newspapers.

So the paper focuses on something most other outlets don't deliver: opinion pieces and essays by Pakistanis both here and in Pakistan.

While some observers laud the articles as measuring the pulse of the community, others dismiss them as irrelevant voices.

"They're the opinions of people who don't have much knowledge," says Asim Mughal, an editor with Pakistan News Service, which operates the Web site http://www.paknews.com. "I mean, I can talk about birds, but I don't have any expertise on that. They need to find people who can write in-depth articles, who have taken the time to do research."

Faruqui says he would like to firm up the paper's coverage, including hiring staff to do more original reporting, but for now the costs pose too formidable a hurdle.

"My effort has been to bring PakistanLink to the standards of mainstream papers, and this has been a very tall order," says Faruqui. "I want it to reflect the opinions and aspirations of Pakistani Americans and South Asians who are part of mainstream America--the broad-minded, open, educated and enlightened Muslim Americans."

For all the devastation wrought in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, these are times that challenge journalists to do their best, often career-defining, work. It's an absurd dance in which tragedy leads and journalists follow, seeking simultaneously to witness, explain and play an ancillary role in events that shape nations and leaders.

Faruqui, who immigrated to the U.S. with his wife and three adult children three years ago, has been in the dance for decades. With the music now playing in his homeland, Faruqui finds himself on the opposite side of the world.

With a diplomat's skill, Faruqui sidesteps questions about whether he'd rather be closer to the story, and closer to home, as Pakistan faces a critical juncture in its 54-year development as a nation.

"I think I'm doing a good service here," Faruqui says. "I think if I can give a good accounting for myself, I will be doing a good service to the country, and to the [Pakistani American] community."

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