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Ali Zaidi: The Editor from India Who Found a Home in Kenya

Volume 16, Issue 3  | 
Published 03/03/2020
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By Rasna Warah 

Usually it is writers who have a fan following, but in the case of Ali Zaidi, it was writers who were fans of the much-loved editor, as I discovered when I attended the many garden parties which he held in his home in Loresho, one of the greener suburbs of Nairobi. There, people like Binyavanga Wainaina (who passed away three months before Ali died and whose death had really shaken Ali), Yvonne Owuor, Parselelo Kantai, Judy Kibinge, Muthoni Wanyeki, Tom Maliti, the late Susan Linee, Zarina Patel, Zahid Rajan, Dana Seidenberg, among many, many others, would gather, often in small circles around a fire or under a tree. Occasionally, international celebrities like John Githongo and the British author Michela Wrong would make an appearance.

Ali would mingle with this motley crowd of journalists, writers, scholars, activists, and filmmakers while his partner Irene cooked a pilau for the gatherings that seemed to get bigger with each invitation. It is these parties that spawned a generation of writers and journalists who got their tutelage under Ali either when they worked under him at The Executive or at The East African, or both. As the Ugandan writer David Kaiza wrote, ‘By convening and hosting a circle of writers who would have an impact on the arts and culture on the continent, Ali Zaidi was also outdoing his predecessors. As with all editors of note, you wrote primarily for Ali Zaidi, and only secondarily for the paper.’

Kenyan journalist Kwamchetsi Makokha aptly described Ali’s contribution to journalism and literature in Kenya.  In an obituary published in the Kenya Journalism Review, he wrote: ‘For the 21 years Ali worked for TheEastAfrican, first as senior editor, then as consultant editor, he policed its depth, style and aesthetics with a caustic tongue, delivering tough love to writers with big titles and fragile egos. He coached, nurtured, cajoled and threatened a colourful cast of copy editors, writers, cartoonists, illustrators and photographers whose collective effort would meet the exacting journalism standards that have maintained TheEastAfrican’s reputation as a respected weekly regional newspaper.’

He could also be extremely hurtful to the writers he nurtured. One never knew how Ali might demolish you or your article with his acidic tongue. And just when you thought he was going to reject your piece, he would publish it. I once asked him why he did that. Why did he feel the need to demoralise writers? His response? ‘I am a writers’ groupie. I admire writers, but I also need to show them who is boss and put them in their place.’ 

Ali was best known for his cryptic and humourous headlines. ‘His headlines were racy and saucy but also true, such as “KQ Ready for Virgin Entry” to describe Kenya Airways cockiness when Virgin Atlantic announced the start of flights to Nairobi; or “No Sex without Movement” to compress the threat of a bedroom strike by Ugandan women if men did not support President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement,’ remembers Makokha.

But it was the parties that many remember, not just for the flowing alcohol and the food, but for the conversations, which often turned into debates or heated arguments. Ali brought people together who would go on to form lifelong professional or personal relationships – some ending not so well. He had a knack for knowing who ‘his tribe’ was, and which tribe members might get along with another. And he loved bringing them together, not just for their sake, but for his as well.  Kaiza describes one such party in an article he wrote for The Elephant shortly after Ali died in September 2019.  ‘He was addicted to people. I could see that. He could not get through an evening without the company of at least half a dozen people. People were his element. He was happiest in large groups,’ he wrote.

Others were drawn to Ali for his political beliefs, like the anthropologist/writer Paul Goldsmith (aka Usama), who shared Ali’s Marxist leanings. Goldsmith had come to Kenya from America in the 1970s when Kenya was still a hopeful country. He met Ali, who was also an immigrant, and who like him, had stayed on in the country throughout the eras of Moi, Kibaki and UhuRuto. 

While Kenya hurtled from one political crisis to another, Ali and Usama stayed on in their adopted country, perhaps in the belief that Kenya offered something their home countries could not: a place that was cosmopolitan and tolerant enough to accept their brand of politics – even as that brand became increasingly unfashionable in a post-colonial Kenya hung up on all things Western.  ‘Perhaps we were lucky. Ali and I parachuted in [to Kenya] when it was easier to form relationships and friendships based on our shared interests and common humanity. We arrived as outsiders and Kenya became the selectionary mindf**k that forced us to co-evolve,’ he wrote. 

‘Ali’s Marxism,’ wrote Goldsmith, ‘was not about quasi-religious abstractions. It resurfaced in the decategorised approach Ali personified through his highly interactive lifestyle. Everyone counted. He shared and communicated without pretention, and he was a positive influence on the ever-widening circle of those who came into contact with him.’ 

Ali led a complicated yet simple life. He had left his son Azar from a previous marriage in India when he came to Kenya, and chose to create another family in Kenya with Irene, a sculptor he met in Kitale when he was an expatriate teacher there. They had four children: Franco, Emma, Hussein and Tara. 

Ali did not aspire for things that Kenyans of a certain class aspire for. I don’t think he ever learned to drive (Franco was designated this role), and apart from a small shamba outside Nairobi he owned no property.  He didn’t believe in material things. Wealth for him was his family, friends, colleagues and admirers. 

When his relationship with Irene ended after nearly three decades, he was crushed. ‘It broke me,’ he confessed to me a few months before his death when he had developed various medical complications. 

At his wake, which was held at Shamura’s, his favourite joint in Parklands, I discovered that he came from a highly accomplished Indian family of writers and academics. But he had shunned that life. Perhaps Kenya offered him the opportunity to be whatever he wanted to be without having to conform to societal pressures and expectations, which can be quite intense in class-conscious India. Ali was definitely not a conformist. 

Kaiza says he would like to think Ali found a home in East Africa. ‘He seemed happy. He often said: “In Africa, people accept you as long as they sense that you are genuine.”’