Sunday, 18 May 2014

Jan Muhammad Butt: Interview with the Misplaced Malang

This profile was published in the mid 1990's and has been republished with permission from the author.

By Zeenath Jehan

J M Butt today
Before visiting Jan Muhammad I asked my son, who had known him during the 80's, to define him. The unhesitating reply was `Malang'. Later, when I told him about it, he

laughed and said "I am a misplaced Malang (fakir) these days!"

Jan Muhammad was in the middle of a meeting when I arrived at his house. He asked if I would like to sit in on it, as his work was now a major part of his life. Following him to his office I noticed that he had converted part of the house to look like a village `hujra'( the men's sitting room in the villages of the North Western Frontier Province of Pakistan).

The floor of his basement-office had a thick layer of straw, covered with date matting, Jan Muhammad's lap-top seemed incongruous in this hujra-cum-office. All the work took place in Pashtu,( the language spoken by the pathans who inhabit the NWFP of Pakistan) with the team sitting cross-legged on the floor, leaning against `Gao Takias'(large long and round cushions> and sipping green tea.

Listening to them I believed they were speaking about friends. It was only when Jan Muhammad said it was time Fatima had a baby that the truth dawned on me. They were speaking of characters in the popular Pashtu soap opera `Naway Kor, Naway Jwand'(New House, New life) aired by the BBC radio. Calculations followed Jan Muhammad's request, it was found that as Fatima had been married for seven months she could have a baby soon. Their meticulous planning impressed me and gave me an idea of Jan Muhammad's thorough and fastidious working methods.

When I first met Jan Muhammad a couple of years ago, he had struck me as a gentle, shy man. I know now that he is also a very private person. He is reserved without being cold and erudite without being pedantic. But more than anything else, Jan Muhammad is a genuinely good, kind person. A `Momin'(a muslim in the true spirit of the word).

Jan Muhammad was born John Michael Butt in Trinidad. He still considers himself a Trinidadian rather than an Englishman. John's search for the truth may have taken a

different path, his dissatisfaction with the West expressed with less rejection, if his smouldering resentment at having to leave Trinidad at the age of nine had not fuelled them. One of John's ancestors had been imprisoned in St. Helena with Napoleon Bonaparte. The family, exiled because of their close connection with the Emperor, was the first European family to settle in Trinidad. Later they played a major role in its struggle for independence. It gives John perverse pleasure to know that a collateral wing of his family were responsible for booting the British out of Trinidad.

Having inherited some money from his grandfather John left England in 1969, soon after finishing his schooling. The hippie culture that swept the West in the 60's found a willing acolyte in the eighteen-year-old. John's bitterness was reinforced by his disillusionment with the materialism and pointlessness of Western life. John lived like a hippie in the Caves of Matala (Greece) and wrote to his parents that he wasn't coming home.

John is not very forthcoming about his parents' reaction to his decision. Instead he points out that the unruly 60's generation had rejected everything that society stood for, including respect for parents. He says that during his stay in Pakistan he rediscovered many values, including the virtues of respect for and obedience to elders. Jan Muhammad feels a deep sense of satisfaction to know that he made it up to his parents before they died.

John's restless search for the truth led him to study Buddhism and Hinduism while wandering through Morocco, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. During this time he also made a short trip to England to attend a concert of his hero, Bob Dylan. One thing that hasn't changed about Jan Muhammad is that he still attends every concert that he can!

John was politely but firmly asked to leave Kabul when he overstayed his visa, and so he started walking towards Peshawar. On the way he crossed caravans of Koochis (gypsies) returning to the hills. Their free and unfettered life style fascinated him. They were totally in touch with nature, which was the only thing that ruled them. The Koochis life was regulated by the climate, moving to the cooler hills as the plains heated up.

When he arrived in Peshawar, the heat of late April 1970 forced John to follow the example of the Koochis. Instead of going to India, his original goal, he hitch-hiked to Swat. John promptly fell in love with Swat, a love affair that continues to this day, unabated.

The easygoing acceptance of the Swatis was a novel experience for John. Finally losing the need to roam, John decided to stay in the Frontier. The Pashtoons struck a chord

in his soul. He found that he could relate to them better than he had ever related to his own family. John hiked all over Swat, Chitral, and the Northern Areas, getting to know them better than most Pakistanis. For the first time in his life John felt a sense of belonging. This feeling was reinforced by the fact that `Butt' was a common Pakistani name. He he had come home.

Inayatullah Khan, whom John had met in Peshawar, offered him a house and a piece of land to till in Masma, a village near Peshawar. John took up his offer loving every moment of the strenuous yet eventless life of a farmer. A donkey, a cow, a buffalo and a horse shared this idyllic world with him. Blending in with the villagers, living like them, dressing like them, John learned to speak Pashtu like a native. Jan Muhammad Butt had replaced John Michael Butt.

There was finally a stillness in his soul. After all the restless wandering Jan Muhammad needed this quiet period to sort out his thoughts and all that he had learned while on the road. He read voraciously. As time passed, farming began to take a back seat as his reading gradually started taking precedence over it.

Among others, Jan Muhammad studied Sa'adi's Gulistan and Bostan (in Persian), Iqbal's Persian poetry and Islamic History. His reading eventually led him to a serious study of Islam. He found he could relate to Islam without difficulty and his conversion was a simple matter. In his own words,

"How could I convert to something that was already inherent in my nature?"

Jan Muhammad learnt Arabic and became a Talib (student), visiting various madrassas (school, now synonymous with religious schools) all over the country when he heard of an exceptional teacher there. Finally, in 1978 Jan Muhammad left for India to study at the Dar-ul-Uloom Deoband.

In India Jan Muhammad learnt Urdu, which wasn't very difficult as he knew and could read Pashtu, Persian and Arabic. At Deoband he was amused and flattered that everyone thought he was an Afghan masquerading as an Englishman. It is interesting to know that the only long-lasting friendship that he formed at Deoband was with a Trinidadian student Abdus Salaam.

Jan Muhammad completed the eight-year Alim Fazil course at Deoband in five years (1983) earning a scholarship for his studies. He then joined the staff of a Delhi based Urdu magazine `Al-Risala'. Al-Risala was committed to a scientific, modern interpretation of religion, which he thought was a perfect counterbalance to his studies at Deoband. The year with `Al-Risala' was his first introduction to journalism, which to him was the perfect vehicle of self expression.

Jan Muhammad returned from India in 1984. Until 1988 he lived in Swat studying, contributing to Al-Risala, singing Rumi's Mathnavi in a state of junoon (ecstasy) and generally living the life of a Sufi.

In 1988 Jan Muhammad joined the Frontier Post as its magazine editor. They say God looks after his own. Jan Muhammad the hippie, the farmer, the Talib, the recluse, the ascetic was gradually being returned to the world. As with anything he did, Jan Muhammad put everything he had into his work, frequently sleeping for only four hours and often forgetting to eat. Besides writing most of the articles, (as Jan Muhammad, John Butt or J.M.Butt,) he preferred typesetting and proofreading the sixteen-page magazine himself. After one year as the magazine editor he became the feature editor, and was also responsible for the leader pages.

Finally, after twenty long and eventful years, Jan Muhammad was ready to settle down and returned to England in 1990. As Jan Muhammad puts it, he came to the East in search of the truth and his return to the West was a continuation of the search. He felt he needed the higher standards of journalism prevailing in the West to improve as a journalist.

In July 1991 Jan Muhammad joined BBC Radio, and was sent to Pakistan with the BBC Pashtu Caravan in 1992. Later, in April 1992, he was the only foreign correspondent who went to Kandahar when the Mujahideen took it over.

Jan Muhammad met and married Shahnaz in 1992 and finally went to Trinidad, for his honeymoon. In the spring of 1993 his daughter Surraya was born. Jan Muhammad was content with life.....but it wasn't so easy to get away from the Frontier!

The BBC was planning to establish the Afghan Education Drama Project, its first local production centre, in Peshawar. With his knowledge of the Afghans and the Pashtoons Jan Muhammad was naturally offered the post of Manager. Naturally Jan Muhammad accepted. In September 1993 he returned to Peshawar to the most creatively challenging job he had held so far. Jan Muhammad the Malang is now manager of over 100 people.

Jan Muhammad's knowledge of `Pashtoonwali'(Pathan code of honour) has made his job easier. He understands the Pashtoon psyche because it is so much like his own, forthright, brave and honest. Jan Muhammad carefully nurses each stage of the plays aired, making them so authentic and close to life that many listeners believe the characters are real people. `Naway Kor, Naway Jwand', the BBC radio soap-opera eagerly awaited by its Pashtoon and Afghan listeners, gives some respite to families in war-torn Afghanistan. It is the only source of learning what it is like to live a normal life for the youth of that country.

The circle is complete. Step by painful step God has led Jan Muhammad to the place where he can do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Yes, my son was right, `Malang' is just about the right word to describe the Manager of the BBC World Service's biggest overseas operations.

- ed note Jan Butt tweets at @jmbutt2 The following additional information and the above picture is from his institutions website.

He returned to the Pak-Afghan cross-border regions in 2004, where he established PACT Radio. The aim of PACT Radio is to find “Traditional Solutions for Modern Problems” through popular consensus-building.
Besides his work in Central and South Asia, in 1999, John Butt became Muslim chaplain (Imam) in Cambridge University in England. He continues to occasionally visit Cambridge, where he gives lectures in Quranic studies, as well as leading the Friday prayers in the University.
Explaining his motivation for establishing the Mahad’ad-Dawa Institute, John Butt says: “I am trying to give back to the Pashtoons what they gave to me. They gave me Islam over 40 years ago, a grounding in traditional Islam, a good Islamic education – in 1983 I became the only European ever to graduate from Darul Uloom Deoband  – and then a successful career in the media – I rose to senior management with the BBC in Afghanistan before branching out on a career in traditional media. I would like other Pashtoon religious scholars to have similar opportunities, and also to be more effective force for peace and well-being in their own community.”
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