Shaista Zaid and the black days of the past

Published: July 24, 2012

English newscaster Shaista Zaid retires after 43 years of service to the state broadcaster PTV, but did you know that for many years she was also the voice of the English speaking clock, and that to this day, you can hear her on PTCL announcing,

“Your telephone subscription does not support calling this number. Please dial 17 for more assistance?”

Her voice for me was the official English-speaking voice of Pakistan when I was growing up, during the years of Zia and state control over information; seeing her finally retire brings back memories of those difficult times. I can’t help but think of all the state-authored lies stories that passed her lips over those dark years. Was she anything more than an official mouthpiece for a dictator?

In the late 1970s, when I returned to Pakistan, I could only speak English, although I understood Urdu, poorly. There was only one television channel: The state-owned Pakistan Television Network.

It ran on an abbreviated schedule: no programming until about three in the afternoon. Then the station would warm up with about an hour of Quran lessons and recitation. After 4:00pm, we were rewarded with one English cartoon: Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, Mickey Mouse. Back to the Urdu language programming: Dull serials, staid talk shows, a little music with say, children singing folk-songs in traditional dress.

At 7:00pm, the news in English. This is when Shaista Zaid would make her appearance, resplendent in her shalwar kameezes with a dupatta perched carefully over her bouffant, large expressive eyes, high cheekbones and full lips made up to camera-ready perfection. Her dulcet tones would fill the room and I’d hear snippets about what was happening in the world (carefully censored) and in Pakistan (written by the Ministry of Information, filled with state propaganda, and completely one-sided).

I was too little to know any better. I waited impatiently for seven-thirty, when the one English language television show would be aired: Little House on the Prairie, The Rockford Files, The Six Million Dollar Man, shows deemed harmless enough for Pakistani audiences, although every kiss was carefully edited out (they weren’t that picky about skimpy clothing).

And General Zia. Oh, the footage of General Zia, saluting, reviewing parades, meeting foreign dignitaries, shaking hands with wounded soldiers. His disabled daughter, dressed in a military uniform of her own, never far from his side on stage, saluting her father like any good soldier. He filled the screen, he filled the country. He was larger than life, a figure somewhere halfway between Big Brother and a religious icon.

After a while, anytime I heard Shaista Zaid’s voice, I saw the general in my mind. In fact, her voice became an instant soporific for me, and like Pavlov’s dogs, I’d tune out on cue the minute I heard her speaking. Later, I’d realise how similar her voice and diction was to Benazir Bhutto (Zia’s arch-rival and nemsis, ironically) – a highly educated, upper-class Pakistani accent that spoke of drawing rooms and servants, luxury cars and illicit whiskey.

So much was announced by Shaista Zaid, as someone said on Twitter yesterday. The sighting of Eid moons, updates on Kashmir and the war in Afghanistan.

In those days, two words were never mentioned on television: ‘Bhutto’ and ‘India’. The news, sanitised, propagandised, carefully cut and edited to create a narrative of Pakistan as the greatest country in the Muslim world, if not the entire universe – supporting heroic Mujahideen, fighting unnameable enemies, forging and maintaining blood-brother friendships with China and Turkey. Women carefully embroidered out of this narrative, relegated to roles of homemaker, teacher, mother, wife, daughter – smiling, silent sidekicks to their menfolk, who were superior to them in every way.

It’s true that Shaista Zaid continued to broadcast the news for decades after the end of Zia’s reign. But for me, she’ll always be associated with those strange, surreal days, the “black” days as the MRD named them. Picking up my telephone and dialing the wrong number sends me back thirty years, turns me into a child again, when I was young and innocent and Pakistan was the center of the world and General Zia was the Master of the Universe.

Read more by Bina here or follow her on Twitter @BinaShah


Bina Shah

Author of A Season For Martyrs. She tweets @BinaShah (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Dubai City Tour

    she is a one can take her place,…they are the trend maker and true legends who leave leave our traditions….i salute her..may her soul rest in peaceRecommend

  • Dubai City Tour

    great peopleRecommend

  • Hardliner

    Actually NO! She wasn’t a symbol of Zia reign………. rather, the ICONIC figure of English language in Pakistan……….. Zia, Bhutto, Sharifs etc etc had nothing to do with her or her work…… she only did her job! just the way u r doing these days :-)Recommend

  • Bina Shah

    @Dubai City Tour: Dude, she’s not dead, just retired. Recommend

  • Hardliner

    @Dubai City Tour:

    For GOD’s sake man!!! Alhamdo Lillah, she’s alive!! she retired!! atleast do some research… :-ORecommend

  • psychedelic

    She did a job for which she was paid for – reading the news – and if her voice still evokes memories of the Zia regime for you, well, what can she or anyone else do about it?? That’s just like saying that watching Alamgir now reminds you of Junejo OR reruns of Knight Rider gives you nightmares about Gen Akhtar Abdul Rahman. Hardly see the point behind this post.. Recommend

  • PostMan

    Dubai City Tour: ….i salute her..may her soul rest in peace
    Bina Shah: Dude, she’s not dead, just retired.
    Dubai City Tour: Oh ok. Tell her to follow the link and enjoy great deals in Dubai!Recommend

  • A

    Why such a depressing article on such a vibrant personality. For me Shaista Zaid was the only link of an educated Pakistani women when on television in those times the only women potrayed were the typical housewives. and politics has nothing to do with what she has given us i.e. pure inspiration! I think you shouldnt hav written the blog with her retirement in contextRecommend

  • Shakil

    she hasnt died i guess :SRecommend

  • Kana Raja

    First, the same charge that you bring up against her of having luxuries, servants and illicit whiskey very squarely applies to you – so much for hypocrisy and a heightened sense of self-righteousness. Secondly, we understand that you were not bred in Pakistan and don’t really know much about Urdu and that the one thing you could understand on PTV was English news and English serials – takes away all the more from you the right to judge someone like Shaista Zaid.Recommend

  • derpton

    I can’t do much about associating this legend with Zia – That’s your opinion.. however, what I can make sure is that I associate you with Musharaf…

    How’s that for writing an article to jump on the #random-legend-retiring bandwagon… oh wait it will take you only 43 more years to get reach that status :)Recommend

  • S-N-M

    I somehow don’t really understand the writer’s obsession with Zia regime, in this post or elsewhere. New casters, old or new, in our country always recite a pre-set, drafted news stories. As a kid growing up in the 90’s for me Shaista Zaid is a beacon for confidence, eloquence and grace which very much lacks in today’s wide crop of news casters and anchors, a true legend in her own right and the icon of PTV’s golden era.Recommend

  • breezycity

    It’s just as well that you didn’t understand Urdu then because the real voice of Zia ul Haq was Azhar Lodhi. His was the cringe inducing, spine chilling voice that reveled in announcing the dictator’s orders . Shaista Zaid was doing her job, Azhar Lodhi on the other hand was really his master’s voice!Recommend

  • Aslam khan

    she reminds me the boring days of PTVRecommend

  • asad

    bina adi, you touched a nerve.
    nothing is ever black and white especially more so when it involves working for the state. there is no denying the fact that we all must have erred at some point in life but being the mouthpiece for a black regime is a far cry from pleading professional innocence. knowingly representing the junta on the state television that too in the international language reaching to the int’l audience is not something condoning. iam sure she is a virtuous lady but being affiliated with a undemocratic draconian set up in any capacity is condemnable. its a pity esp tht she seemed like a sweet ladyRecommend

  • DailyPakistan

    I remember her. I was a kid and she helped me learn english. :)Recommend

  • Usman

    Watching the youtube episode of her farewell brought back the same dark memories for me. The North Korea’ish days of the Zia era.Recommend

  • Hina Shaukat

    I always looked up to Shaista Zaid.. In 1990s, she started doing the 5 o’clock news in English and I used to love hearing her talk.. Half of the news she gave, I didn’t even understand. One time she was interviewed on TV and she had her husband there too and she was speaking in Urdu.. She sounded so funny although she spoke quite fluently but she just didn’t seem like herself.. Enjoyed reading this article about her..Recommend

  • Ayesha Pervez

    I remember this lady!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I was very young when she would be coming on TV all day :D Nice lady, God bless her.Recommend

  • Bina Shah

    I’m not casting any aspersions on Ms. Zaid – if you think that then you have misunderstood the point of this piece. It is instead a short memoir, a common genre in creative non-fiction. Ms. Zaid’s retirement is the taking-off point for my memories of growing up under Zia’s rule. She obviously represents different things to different people and this is what she represented to me.Recommend

  • nadeem

    what´s the point. it was her job. its not her fault to be a newscaster in that era. I don´t understand your point that she reminds you of Zia´s era. There r many many names associated with that era. A newscaster is doing her job, thats it.Recommend

  • Mwaqar

    I also watched her when growing up in Pakistan,she was indeed a great English speaking newscaster,the impression,I am getting from this article,it sounds like learned writer is forcing to convince readers like she was mouthpiece of dictator,cruel,ugly zia’a regime,which cant be true,she was just an employee of a state ran TV during those days,we all know zia’s regime was fake and cruel and that’s why only his fake teeth are buried in his grave cause his body was burnt to ashes during his plane crash.
    Anyway,we all gonna remember Shaista Zaid for her outstanding job for PTV,I wish her a very happy and healthy future.Recommend

  • Mohammad Kamran

    @psychedelic: You have made a strong strong point and I support it completely. Don’t know why every writer these days tries to bring in political matters into simple classic topics under discussion. If you start with Zia, people are gonna start here about Bhutto, Junejo, Benazir, Nawaz Sharif, Zardari etc, so please let the writing stay a tribute to the legend named Shaista Zaid and nothing more.Recommend

  • http://Brisbane,Australia Riaz Khan

    She reminded me of bad days of Zia ul Haq! It was high time that she took retirement.Recommend

  • Yasir Mehmood

    What wrong Zia did to you mam unless someone in your family was from PPP? . Zia’s time was more peaceful than present times how it was dark ages for you. PTV during those days was one of the best things ever happened to this country and yet it seemed dull and boring to you.Recommend

  • Mohammad Kamran

    @Yasir Mehmood: Awesome Yasir keep it up. If something reminds you of Zia, your writing is sure reminding me of the “eitedaal pasandi” of Musharraf. I hope you can understand urdu very well now if not in 70s.Recommend

  • Asghar Khan

    strong text Shaista Zaid – what a personality! I grew up watching and listening to her on PTV and she was an inspiration that I learnt English language. I always used to sit before TV set and listen to her carefully, so that I could pronounce the words as she used to. I later on fell in love with Phonetics and our Professor used to tell us to listen to Shaista Zaid if we wanted to learn how a certain word should be pronounced. Amazing era and amazing people – what else could we say for such a great and talented and God-gifted lady? Salute to you madam! May you live long, ameen!Recommend

  • Hardliner

    B.T.W Bina, whats with ur obsession for Zia? Wasn’t he a trillion times better than Musharraf?Recommend

  • Ali

    @Dubai City Tour:
    she is not dead, only retired.Recommend

  • Sabih Zafar Ullah

    Saeen tau Saeen, Saeen ka article bhi SaeenRecommend

  • saadiddin

    she was just a news caster but one thing is to be noticed that her mannerism was authoritative as was the policy of the govt she used to hammer news to our skulls. her retirement is symbolic :demise of robotic newsRecommend

  • Tch tch

    What a ridiculous piece… A grave insult of one of the Best English News broadcaster the country has produced… Just compare her the short lived Dawn and ET news broadcasters.
    She started reading the News in 69 so thats the Entire ZAB reign as well.. When she had to report on crushing the Baluchistan insurgency, FSF goons breaking peoples legs and the Hyderabad Tribunal…. But couldnt help your self with the Zia is evil shtick. How about the Mush regime or the current disastor is it really better then Zia’s time? If yes do tell how.
    Really Shaisita Zaid brought flashbacks of Zia to your mind????dunno miss but that sounds like PTSD,
    Its about time we stop using Zia as a scapegoat of our collective ills.25 years is more then enough to move on…Recommend

  • J Khan

    @Dubai City Tour:
    Errrrr memo to self: Never take a tour of Dubai with this comical fella. May the queen of grace live long. Recommend


    Bina Shah…….great ….really.

    ….took me back in 70’s…… that dictator Zia &” his chamchaas, all the time running around him
    and the ones who missed charm of his company appeared from behind to shake his hands
    with both their hands and bending to show their fear of him….was on PTV at 7 pm.Recommend

  • Obnoxious

    She deserve a standing ovation, I was not expecting such kind of writing from a person like you, she performed her duty in such time of junction in which no one especially a female were ready to perform her/his duties in a conservative society by applauding her work you are just targeting her in non-serious way. I am just disappointed we need an explanation in this regardRecommend

  • A

    @Hina Shaukat:
    yeah i remember that interview too in which she was asked whether she cooks and she replied that she makes “parathas” for her kids and i was sooo surprise as it was hard for me to imagine sucha graceful lady making parathas- i know it sounds kiddish! but she was a woman of intellect and pure decency and she still is.Recommend

  • A

    @Bina Shah:
    then i guess you misinterpreted what she presented! Recommend

  • Waleed Rehman

    Black days of Pakistan, really? Then now-a-days u would be feeling like heaven here. Atleast in those days we use to hear some good things about our country not like now a days when we have 80+ channels and we only hear negative things happening around here. 95 % content of news channel is hate/negative based, yes there is negativity and hatred here but some good things are also happening. and our news channels dont bother about national image. everything is commercial here, im not saying that they should not earn profits but atleast take some ‘corporate responsibility

    And pleasure don’t associate Shaista Zaid with any state owned policy, she was just a news caster not some ‘baboo’ in information ministry. Recommend

  • bystander

    Shaista Zaid’s career spanned 43 years – 1969 to 2012. Zia’s 11 years constituted barely 26% of her entire career. 74% of the time was spent when others were ruling Pakistan. Hence to associate her with General Zia is unfair, to say the least. You grew up in Zia’s time and hence associate Shaista Zaid with that era but in all fairness this isn’t Shaista’s fault. When she started her career, Ayub Khan was ruling, then came Bhutto, then Zia, Junejo and later the “awami governments”. She continued her job with the same spirit and commitment. To call her mouthpiece of the dictatorial era is most unfortunate. Should we assume that the newsreaders across the globe are mouthpieces of their respective governments? She was an employee of Pakistan Television Centre where she did her job, got paid for it and thats about it. Many would perhaps agree that Shaista Zaid is the standard of English News reading in Pakistan! I have yet to see any newsreader come close to her in any respect. Recommend

  • Azeem Asim Mughal

    Yeah, I remember her voice from my childhood. But I heard her mostly in Sharif’s Govt. Now I am wondering if those days were any brighter than those of Zia’z reign. Alas, I can’t recollect any memories which depict any freedom of the state owned PTV even in those less darker days. It was same, sharif going out and embracing flood effected people, even sometimes mending their broken walls with mud. PTV was still owned by the govt. and is still the same. It seems that time hasn’t changed for the viewers of PTV except for a change in the dressing which doesn’t include dopattas anymore.Recommend

  • Sane

    I agree what you say. Newsreader do not read as per their wish and will. They read what is given..She remained in job of news reading like many other govt and private job doers irrespective who was ruling that time.

    Ms. Shaista Zaid a great lady. Hats off….Respect to the LadyRecommend

  • littlegiant

    Many of us taught or attended govt schools or colleges in Zia’s time and many others worked for various govt and semi govt departments so does it make us all criminals somehow? What I remember from Zia’s time, aside from the horible 9pm news which as a child always skipped and hated, was a golden time in Pakistani art/drama/sports. I remember all the streets deserted at 8:00PM to watch the great dramas such as 50-50, ALIF NOON, Unkahi, TENHAYAAN, DHOOP KINAARE, WARIS etc. I also remember the great Moin Akhtar hosting wonderful stage shows along with, at times, Anwar Maqsood. I remember the nation rooting for our great Hockey team and I remember the live or recorded cricket broadcasts including the 87 world cup. I remember as a child mesmorized by the music of Sohail Rana and having laughs with Uncle Sargam. I remember our screens with the young and adorable Nazia and Zohaib Hassan swinging on TV to the pop songs. I remember the beautiful islamabad and the innoscent mischiefs in the evening at Jinnah Super. There’s a lot I remember from the 80’s, the decade that, despite living abroad for years, keeps attracting me back to my homeland. Recommend

  • shafique

    very nice said Bina and Shiasta Zaid Gr8 news anchor…Recommend

  • SM

    Somehow this article sounded as if Shaista Zaid has passed or something. She is an asset to Pakistan nonetheless. Recommend

  • Muhammed

    These comments cracked me really badRecommend

  • Ali Syed

    All she did was read from a teleprompter (and sometimes just from sheets of paper).

    Calling her a “legend” (of what?) is not only ridiculous it also laughs in the face of hundreds and thousands of real journalists in Pakistan who do outstanding work.Recommend

  • ThroneOfThorns

    What I find most interesting, is that there is a TV in the author’s kitchen.Recommend

  • Faboulous

    You commentators are hilarious….some think she has passed on… (Allah na karre)…some are upset with Bina for associating SZ with her childhood days under the late “Paenja”….and others refuse to acknowledge the fact that she did make a cultural contribution, despite being apolitical, to a country where speaking correct English dictates where you will get in life. Get a life, folks. Shaista Zaid ‘s secret was her longevity, and a job very well done with beauty and grace. Just don’t be mean in not acknowledging that she indirectly taught many of us urdu-mediums how to speak correct English and with it get somewhere in life.Recommend

  • Farhat

    Extremely irresponsible post … And very negative and immature thoughts! Won’t even waste my time proving that..Recommend

  • Reuben Banke

    the slogans are there but no one is there to imply in own life.Recommend