‘Meeting House’: Ameena Saiyid, OBE

‘Meeting House’: Ameena Saiyid, OBE

Publishing Consultant And PublisHer Board Member Emma House Interviews Bookwomen Around The World.

Ameena Saiyid, OBE, Knight of Arts and Letters (France), Star of Distinction (Pakistan), is the founder and director of the Adab (Literature) Festival, and publisher and Managing Director of Lightstone Publishers, Pakistan, which she officially launched this month.

She was president of the Overseas Investors’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and secretary general of the Jinnah Society, and is on the boards of Habib University Foundation, Institute of Business Management (IoBM), Institute of Art and Culture (Lahore), and Sindh Madrassatul Islam University. She is a member of the federal education minister’s Search Committee for the selection of scholars on Pakistan Chairs abroad, a member of the foreign ministry’s committee of Arts and Culture, and a board member of Kashf Foundation.

In the UK, Saiyid is a trustee of the Vicky Noon Education Foundation, which gives scholarships to Pakistani students to study at Oxford and Cambridge universities, and a director of Pakistan Literature Festival. She was MD of Oxford University Press, Pakistan for 30 years. She is the first woman in Pakistan to become the head of a multinational company.

What attracted you to publishing and how did you start out?

I was conscious of the challenges in the educational system in Pakistan, comprising low standard state schools and a growing number of private schools that became popular because of the failure of the state schools. However, I was dismayed to see foreign books being used in private schools set in contexts with which Pakistani children were unfamiliar. I felt strongly that, in Pakistan, where half the population was below the age of 15 and needed quality, relevant and affordable schooling, the support from publishers was missing. I felt I could make a small contribution in this area.

My first job in publishing was with OUP, but I left in 1986 to set up my own publishing company, Saiyid Books, with the aim of publishing textbooks for schools. Since I did not have the means then to invest in publishing, I decided to sustain my business by importing school textbooks and general books. This worked out well, and my business began to make a profit by 1988. However, it would have taken a long time to grow organically into a proper publishing house. In the meantime, the head of OUP Pakistan left, and a team from OUP UK arrived in Karachi to headhunt. They contacted me and, after a discussion, offered me the position of sales director. I refused, and said the only position I would accept would be that of country head. There was silence, and the meeting concluded. I thought that was that, and cheerfully went back to my business. A few days later, I was called again and offered the position of country head.

I discussed the offer with my family, who thought I was out of my mind to leave a successful business of which I was the proprietor for a salaried job. However, for someone who had joined an organisation at entry level, to become its chief executive was exciting. Also, during the interviews, I had spoken about my aspiration to publish and was offered the resources to do so significantly.

The OUP management of that time were true to their word and allowed me to make investments in publishing. With great excitement, I went about setting up a full publishing structure by recruiting editors and designers, and began commissioning authors. It was difficult to get experienced editors, book illustrators and designers, so I arranged for their training both in Pakistan and abroad by sending them on various publishing courses. Soon we were up and running and captured the burgeoning school market with our textbooks – locally originated, reasonably priced, but benchmarked against the highest international standard.

You were the first woman to lead a multinational company in Pakistan. What does this achievement mean to you?

It means a lot to me, as it enabled me to open the way for other women and give them the confidence to walk the same path. In those days, it was unheard of for a woman to be the CEO of a multinational or even a local company. When women began knocking on the doors of boardrooms, I felt that I helped push the door ajar for them. Being elected the first woman president of the Overseas Chamber of Commerce and Industry (OICCI) in its 150-year history, a body of all the heads of multinationals in Pakistan, created greater ripples, and many in the chamber were aghast, though many supported me.

What challenges have you overcome in your career?

The challenges were many and they came from all sides, including internally in OUP. I must commend my managers in OUP Oxford in those days who trusted and supported me through thick and thin, and this played a major part in my work and the success of the Pakistan branch of OUP, which grew by leaps and bounds in turnover and profits but also in prestige, profile and respect.

The market was a different matter. I was doing field work in my earlier days and would visit booksellers, libraries and government offices in addition to schools. Booksellers, especially in Peshawar, a conservative town, would refuse to talk to me and insist I send a man with catalogues and books. They were terrified about their reputations if they were seen talking to a woman. Eventually they gave in and finally even invited me to sit and gave me tea and orders. I’ll never forget the expression of an official in a government office in Lahore when I walked into his office. He looked as if he had seen a ghost. He got up and ran out of the room and left me standing there bewildered. On his way out, he said: “Send a man if you want any work done.”

I think I overcame these setbacks by persisting and not giving in to prejudice. I like to think that perhaps people got educated in the process, and realised I was not going away so they might as well make the best of it.

You are also the first woman to be appointed vice-president, then president, of the Overseas Investors’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry; what does this role entail?

I was elected vice-president, then president from 2009 to 2011. The Overseas Investors’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry (OICCI) is a prestigious and high-profile chamber of almost 200 captains of international businesses in Pakistan. Being elected was not easy, but I worked hard and tenaciously for it for years. I faced many taunts from some people, such as: “How will you find the time to fulfil your responsibilities when you have to manage your home and children?” Some asked: “What will you do if your husband gets transferred from Karachi?” I remember someone telling me: “You can’t give me orders.” Again, my strategy was to dig in my heels, ignore the unpleasant part of the experience and serve out my term as best as I could. I had to work twice as hard and spend time on chores which others were paid to do, but I found that easier than getting reluctant people to do them.

Tell me more about your new publishing venture, Lightstone Publishers.

I feel as if I have returned to my home and roots after 30 years. Having left my own fledgling publishing company, Saiyid Books, to join OUP, I am absolutely delighted to be in charge of my own business again: it is liberating, and as if I never left Saiyid Books. I have a small but great team who are agile and dynamic. I’m thrilled at the response from the market, which is keeping us busy. We publish mainly school textbooks in all core subjects but also non-fiction general books and fiction.

I’m particularly pleased about being able to publish fiction, as Pakistani authors have achieved international fame in this genre. We have our head office in Karachi and a small office in Lahore, and are busy promoting our list across Pakistan. Of course, we suffered a setback on account of Covid-19, but managed to sustain ourselves and are now glad that things are beginning to improve with the opening of schools after six months. We are delighted about being an indigenous and efficient publisher with links to international publishers whose books we adapt for Pakistan. I feel that I am opening pathways for women entrepreneurs in publishing and find it so rewarding.

Tell us about the Adab Literature Festival.

I went to the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2009 and it opened my eyes to the power of the written word and how authors were treated like rock stars in India. I returned to Pakistan determined to provide such opportunities to our public and authors. I mentioned this to a Pakistani literary critic and writer, Asif Farrukhi, who immediately joined me in the quest to launch a literary festival. We approached the British Council in Karachi, and they rose to the occasion and provided tremendous moral and material support for our literature festival. It was launched in 2010 and was an instant success, with an audience of 5,000 and around 35 Pakistani and international authors. After that, there was no stopping us.

We staged festivals year after year, launched another in Islamabad, and staged one in London in collaboration with the Southbank Centre in 2017. My aim throughout was to provide a model which could be replicated across Pakistan by others so that it became a movement to promote reading and writing. Now there are dozens of such festivals being held across Pakistan.

When I left OUP in 2018, Asif Farrukhi – my friend and literary partner for almost a quarter of a century – and I continued with our favourite occupation and launched the Adab Festival in 2019 and then organised another in 2020, fortunately just before Covid. However, tragedy struck, and Asif Farrukhi passed away suddenly in June 2020. I felt bereft and have still not come to terms with it.

What are the proudest moments of your career?

I think the proudest moments were every time I received a book on which I had been working from the printers. There were thousands of such moments, but I relish them all. If you ask for a single proudest moment, it was on 20 October 2020, when I had the official launch of Lightstone Publishers.

Who and what inspires you?

I was inspired by many people, such as Ravi Dyal and Santosh Mukherjee of OUP India. They were competent, decent people who taught me the ropes of publishing. I was inspired by their quiet dignity and humility although both were intellectual giants. I learnt a lot from Sockalingham of OUP Malaysia, who again was so knowledgeable about running a publishing business but was a great teacher and generous with his time and knowledge. My managers Roger Boning, Peter Mothersole and Charles Lewis were all inspirational people – fair, competent, and gracious. So I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity of working with so many people who inspired and encouraged me to learn, grow and achieve and gave me the confidence to hang in there. I owe whatever little I have achieved to them.

Being a female leader in Pakistan is hugely inspirational, what advice would you give to aspiring female publishing leaders in Pakistan?

I would urge female publishing leaders to be strong and not get intimidated. In order to survive, they must have confidence in themselves and insist on being accepted on their terms. Above all, they must never get discouraged. I hope they will not be inhibited by traditions, demand their rights, and never accept the lack of empowerment of women as their lot.

What opportunities are there for women in publishing in Pakistan? What are your hopes and aspirations for women in publishing?

I feel the opportunities for women in publishing in Pakistan are many and it is really a low-hanging fruit which they must grab with both hands. Publishing as a whole is not very developed in Pakistan, while the number of writers is rising. However, strong marketing efforts are needed to get people to buy books.

Women’s perceptions, priorities, and expectations today are different from what they were earlier. Women are now questioning structures and attitudes both within their homes and outside, and are challenging their marginalisation and ghettoisation. This applies to women in publishing as well.

I have great hopes for women in publishing, because I see that they are bold and hard working. I remember a time when women felt they should have less challenging jobs in order to have time left over for other interests. I find now that they are taking work very seriously and look for demanding roles in order to learn, prove themselves and rise in their profession.

A hope and aspiration I have for women in publishing is for them not to be inhibited by frankness and honesty in literary works and feel that they have to remain within the bounds of perceived morality and virtue. They should publish books which recount the human experience boldly and honestly – otherwise it will not qualify as literature.

This article was originally prepared for BookBrunch.co.uk and is reproduced here with kind permission.

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