Karachi’s Chairman: Saving her a seat

The Express Tribune: December 27, 2013

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On the 27th of December, 2007, Riaz Ahmed was at his workplace, Manzoor Sons, a catering, decoration and tent manufacturing business, when he received a call from his wife. “I was very busy as we were juggling seven or eight functions that day,” he says. “When I answered the call, my mind was preoccupied and all I heard my wife say was “Zaalimon ne BB ko maar diya”.”

As his workers scrambled for updates on the functions, Ahmed thought of a room one floor above his office, where a caramel coloured wooden chair was placed in a dark corner, the curved S-shape of it’s legs peeking out from under an olive green tarpaulin. This is the chair that Benazir Bhutto sat on when she visited the National Refinery in 1995, during her second stint as prime minister. “It had rained the night before,” recalls Ahmed, “and it was still damp when Benazir arrived at the refinery in her helicopter.” Not wishing for the prime minister to tread on the muddy ground, Ahmed and two of his employees stood by the helicopter with a tightly rolled red carpet, unfurling it before Benazir as she walked from the helipad to the building. A photograph of the day sits under the glass surface of Ahmed’s desk at his office on Burns Road. “She came back to do something for Pakistan this time,” he says, looking at the image. “She didn’t realize how much love we would give her.” Ahmed says he was unable to process the news of Bhutto’s assassination until he reached home at 4 a.m. on the night of the 27th.

The weighty sheesham chair with a cranberry red velvet seat is now upholstered in a royal blue fabric and it was last used at a function for the former chief minister’s nephew three years ago. “He told me he had seen a blue fabric he liked at the PM house in Islamabad and so we had to change the fabric,” Ahmed says. This ‘sadarti kursi’ or presidential chair was made in Chiniot and has been used at a few weddings and some government functions but, Ahmed says, those who request it don’t know who sat on this chair nor do they care. “That time is long gone,” he says. The chair can be rented for Rs. 600.

Ahmed, who refers to Benazir as ‘Bibi jee’, feels a connection with the Bhutto family. “I’ll show you a chair that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto used,” he says, describing the lions’ faces carved into the chairs arms. “You’ll feel like the sher will jump out at you,” he promises, uncovering a sheesham high-backed chair with a red velvet seat, gulkari work or carvings of gold flowers curled around a crest of two swords and the crescent and star, their brilliance faded over the years. Sitting on the chair, your hands rest on the manes of two lions. The chair was first used by Queen Elizabeth in 1961 during a visit to Pakistan. “We also provided this chair for a function for Zia ul Haq, but we needed to create a special footstool as…” Ahmed breaks off, lowering his tone, “woh kadd mein chotay thay, you know (he was short in height).” Crafted in Multan, the chair cost roughly Rs 3000 to produce during the 1940s. It’s creamy velvet upholstery pockmarked with small holes, nibbled away by moths, it can now be rented for Rs 1000.

Since Zia ul Haq used the chair, it has been used once during a theatre production at Karachi’s Arts Council. “I also met Nusrat Bhutto when Sanam Bhutto was married,” Ahmed says, introduced to Mrs Bhutto by the manager of the Shezan Hotel on Victoria Road. “We visited 70 Clifton to meet Mrs Bhutto,” says Maqbool Hasan, who inherited the business from his father, “and press people followed us back to the shop to ask us what the Bhuttos were up to and why we went to their house.” Ahmed adds, “The day after Sanam’s wedding, Mrs Bhutto called me and said she’d gone to Larkana and so I shouldn’t worry that she’d skipped out on paying me.” The concern over payment is legitimate – Maqbool Hasan explains that “kaun le ga payment inn siyasi logon se, woh baad mein nazar hi nahin aatay.”

Much has changed in Ahmed’s line of work since he first met Benazir. The business, established nearly 150 years ago in India, moved to Karachi in 1949 and employed 50 workers; as the market for catering to weddings changed, with a focus on modern decoration and in-house services at hotels and marriage halls, Ahmed says the business only has 10 employees today. Primarily a tent-manufacturing firm, providing tents to Pakistan’s army since the country’s inception (in India, the business catered to maharajas requiring tents for events or camping trips), Manzoor Sons focuses now on weddings and events such as birthday parties or convocations, as they face stiff competition from cheaper businesses in China and Spain. The last tents they provided to the Pakistan government were sent to Awaran this year.

As he covers the chair in its tarp, Ahmed says he has not catered to the younger generation of Bhutto-Zardaris. “Hum ne abhi tak toh nahin kiya,” he says. “Bilawal kahaan hota hai Pakistan mein?”

Link to article in the Tribune

More photos via Instagram

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Author: Sanam Maher

Karachi-based journalist and author My work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Caravan Magazine, Buzzfeed, Scroll, Women in the World, British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound, Boat magazine, The Express Tribune, Herald, Daily Times, The Friday Times and Newsweek Pakistan. My first book, The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch is out in South Asia now, and the UK in 2019. You can find me on Twitter @SanamMKhi Or follow me on Instagram @topbastard

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