‘Mama, baba kya kaam karte hain?’, ‘beta, baba Pakistan ke khadim hain’. Little did the mother of a young Zeshan Afzal know that the words she chose to describe her husband’s profession to her young son would become so embedded in her child, that decades later, a successful corporate and social media star would still be holding on to them words in his quest to become the ‘Khadim’ of Pakistan.
This is just one of the many memories Zeshan Afzal shared whilst sitting down with Pakwired for a new series – ‘Pakwired Profiles’. Over the recent years with the growing amounts of information, the style and length of articles/blog posts seem to have gotten shorter with very specific scopes – and understandably so. At Pakwired, we still love the long-form pieces and across the site we aim to deliver in-depth pieces wherever possible. In line with this, we are trialling a new format of detailed and intimate sit downs with the popular names and faces you know in an aim to get to know the person behind the face. We want to learn as much as possible about the people we sit down with and hopefully come across details not shared previously. We hope we achieve what we intend – delightful and insightful reading.
The Khadim-E-Pakistan Story
Zeshan recollects when asking his mother what his father does for a living, her response was ‘beta, baba Pakistan ke khadim hain’. Not comprehending the context the word ‘khadim’ was used, Zeshan went on to ask the the innocent question ‘kya woh Pakistan ki safai (cleaning) karte hain?‘. As we all do with childhood memories, Zeshan had a reminiscent look coupled with a smile when recalling the story.
We were due to meet at a local coffee point for our sit down but as Zeshan was unwell, he invited me to his home which wasn’t far. This is testament to the type of person Zeshan is – committed and hard working. It was very easy to reschedule but he chose to continue with the plans. Upon entering I’d read the name sign with his fathers name and army rank, so I knew of the profession beforehand. The way Zeshan’s mother had described her husband’s profession was something new for me. It’s very easy to say, ‘wo army mein hain’ or something similar but I believe she used the specific words she did for a reason and so did Zeshan. ‘My father was in the army when it really meant something.’
Whilst answering my question related to his childhood Zeshan cut off mid sentence, ‘see people don’t understand the sacrifices of an army officer and his family’. I sensed a tone of disappointment and vexation.
‘I could never make any real friends whilst growing up. Every 18 months we had to pack up and move. We stayed in small and large cities as well as far-off places. Khana badosh is a good way to describe it. There is no zindagi of a fauji – we never used to see our father for two-three months at a time. It was fun too though, we travelled a lot and I really liked the army and whenever possible I took part in activities for the family. At the time, I was sure I wanted to be in the armed forces, specifically the Air Force – flying the F16 was a dream.’
It felt as though the anti-army movements we see today touched a nerve and justifiably so. This was the story of one officer and his family, multiply that by each officer in the armed forces and the sacrifice is huge.
‘I remember in Peshawar I used to wake up at 03.00 and take a 3 hour bus ride to school and used to return home at 18.00, and still managed to top 9th grade, so the hard work paid off. We moved to Lahore after that and my grades dropped. In difficult times, we work harder and achieve more is what I learnt.’
Despite the difficulties and sacrifices endured, the topic ended on a positive note. The highlighting of the positive aspects would continue throughout the course of the interview.
Being inspired by a fauji father, it wasn’t a surprise when Zeshan mentioned his father as his role model.
‘It’s very easy to say ‘my father’ is my role model, but I actually mean it. He came from a very small village where only 4-5 people were educated, one being my father, and another my uncle. He always emphasised the responsibility I had as the eldest of the siblings – I have a younger brother and sister. My parents were both inspirational and I learnt a lot from them.’
PAF Pilot to the Wolf of Wall Street
When younger, the inspirational personality of his father along with the army lifestyle, despite the struggles, inspired Zeshan and being the F16 pilot was a dream. This all changed when the family moved to Karachi.
‘I made friends who were millionaires and had the sparkle of the city drew me. When I used to ask what their fathers did, they’d reply ‘he is a businessman’. At that age I’d seen a whole new world in Karachi and now wanted to be a businessman.
Despite this I went to take my screening test for the PAF and failed. My parents were upset as they knew for sure I’d pass. A few days later my father, after his investigation, came to know that I had purposefully given the wrong answers to fail the test.’
Luckily for Zeshan, his father didn’t enforce anything and let him choose his career path where he started Chartered Accountancy. A few years later Zeshan was in New York and living a life similar to the character portrayed by Leonardo Di Caprio in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’.
‘It was a life of crazy hours, the average day was from 7am to 2-3am in the morning. Very corporate. I was the youngest KMPG executive working on wall street and had the ‘ideal lifestyle’, the high rise apartment in New York – living the dream.
I remember one time, it was Eid and the concept of a day off was non-existent, I left at 7am and returned at 3am the next day with my wife waiting for me dressed up still.‘
There was an unnoticeable silence, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for bhabi at this point.
‘It was difficult for her but she was very supportive at the time.’ Zeshan proceeded. ‘It was a tough time, I was exhausted and overworked but I learnt so much in a very short time. The time I spent there showed me how to deal with issues personally and professionally – things I talk about in my lectures today.
The Lady that Tamed the Wolf
Zeshan was living a live many people dreamed of. When I asked about the journey of how the wolf became the ‘molvi’ we know today, it wasn’t something Zeshan was ready to go into in a lot of detail, ‘we need a lot more time for that’. But he continued:
‘the word ‘selected’ is very popular nowadays, but I believe Allah selects you for a purpose, due to a certain trait maybe because I have been brought up to always be good and portray good and thats why I feel selected.‘
I respected the answer and asked the other question I was keen to know about. Why would a high-flying wolf of Wall Street leave all the comfort & luxuries to come to Pakistan where even the smallest of things are everyday challenges. I was particularly interested in the thoughts behind this as I took a similar plunge 6 months ago leaving the UK where I had spent all of my life to come to Pakistan.
Thinking back to the start of a new life, Zeshan smiles as he tells me how it the move came to be.
‘I remember sitting in my apartment with my wife one day and a story was playing on the news about the judges in Pakistan and I was criticising how bad things are. In response my wife questioned ‘why?, who are YOU to criticise? If you care so much, why don’t you go back and serve?’
Zeshan imitates his wife’s tone when quoting her, which can be described as authoritative, questioning, and inspiring. His expressions show that the questions seemed to bring about a moment of reflection. ‘She was right, I thought about it and asked ‘will you join me?‘. And the rest, as they say is history. Zeshan resigned a week later and moved back to Pakistan with the family.
If you’ve followed Zeshan on social media, you’ll know his wife features heavily in the posts with regular posts borrowed from her along with off-the-cuff pictures. It wasn’t the first time he mentions how much she supported him and continues to do so.
The New Guy. With a Beard?
By the time Zeshan had moved to Pakistan he donned a beard but wouldn’t describe himself as unique in relation to the beard – he knew there were others, but not many. Spending five years in Karachi and now in his third in Lahore he recalls corporate Pakistan wasn’t too receptive of a face that didn’t look like the others.
‘I felt challenged initially, and ignored at certain events but despite being optimistic and trying to rise to the challenge, I still felt ‘udaas’ sometimes. People would ask what happened to you, before you went you were fine. I wanted to be known / accepted for my talent, not my physical appearance. My wife was always there though, she used to bump me up.’
Now after many years, we all know Zeshan for his desi attire, coordinated coat & socks as well as the flamboyant pocket squares.
‘I’ve been a part of culture where good suits, shoes and watches is the norm and I continued that in Pakistan just with a desi look. I’m proud of the Pakistani shalwar kameez and always wear it all events, even internationally. People have called my disco molvi and the best dressed CEO.‘
It was nice to hear that the struggles and a new approach paid off, but I wondered if only Zeshan’s acceptability had grown or if there was a genuine acceptance of people that look like him in the corporate sector.
‘I believe a lot has changed. The rise of Islamic banking has helped a lot too. There are much more people who dress traditionally now. I am just lucky to have been seen and believe I have just glorified the look – there are a lot of hidden gems out there.’
Practicing Islam in A Modern World
Naturally we delved into Islam and why it has become synonymous with negativity. ‘
People study as per their understanding. There is a lot of us versus them attitude, a lot of rigidity in our values and views. We have become too quick to judge with little focus on ourselves. Why do we need to create so many divisions? There should be acceptability for everyone.
I have always been inspired by Zeshan’s familial values. People’s social media lives differ from their real ones, but Zeshan’s is very close to reality. Mischievously, I asked – ‘you’re a molvi, and you have a lot of posts with your family’, family being a reference for the supportive wife we have heard a lot about. Smiling he gave examples of when the prophet (pbuh) was seen to have fun and play games with his wife Hazrat Aisha (ra).
‘We have a good relationship, we enjoy life, we have fun. We do everything, just in a halal way. There’s nothing stopping us. I have very strong family values which I learnt from my parents and the best learning is from the seerah.’
A Day in the Life of Zeshan Afzal
Zeshan received countless phone calls and messages whilst I was there. Politely he asked on every occasion if he could answer, which I’d happily agree too. I started by giving open permission to answer any calls and respond to messages as required. I wanted to have a feel of how Zeshan’s life is. I’d shared a few voice messages with him in the past and could tell he had a hectic lifestyle with the speed of his speech and being there in person only confirmed my thoughts.
‘I work seven days currently, five days focussing on the companies I sit on the board with and two days for the youth of Pakistan. Due to offices being in nine countries, managing the time difference is very difficult. My usual day starts very early and ends late, but I enjoy it – there will be plenty of time to sleep after our life ends and we should utilise the time we have.’
Busy people rarely have time for hobbies and it seems the same with Zeshan.
‘I miss my golf the most, it’s been two and half years since I played. I still have my clubs stored probably gathering rust now. I’m also a keen biker and my favourite is the Yamaha Blue Ninja R6. A ride always helps freshens one’s mind and relax. Whenever I wanted a time out, I’d go for a ride. Begum ke sath larai hoti thi to mein ride pe chala jata tha.’
As part of the weekend youth focus, Zeshan and his superhero Mrs offer an advice service for the youth. He explains:
‘we are not therapists, but we are available to the youth to discuss problems. We’ve noticed that a lot of the problems are parental issues or job nahi mil rahi etc. If we feel something is beyond our remit then we refer them to a professional but have found a lot of the stuff to be everyday problems which can be analysed and resolved easily.’
‘We work hard and also try to have a good annual vacation. I love travelling, if you ask the kids they’ll say they love it too, but bechare are just stuck with me – they have no choice’ he laughingly states. He recollects
‘I enjoy the time so much, on one occasion the kids finished school at 14.00 and we drove for ten hours on the trot. On another I put the kids a mattress in the back and drove for 21 hours non-stop from Hunza to Lahore.’
Referring to the social media posts I had seen, I queried about the Singapore trip too.
‘We went on a twelve day round trip where we drove to Malaysia. Last year we visited Turkey where we saw seventeen cities and seven villages. I try to see the cultures and communities, not just the tourist locations, I talk to the people of the place I visit. It gives you a different experience.’
Although I was making notes as I was listening to Zeshan answer my questions, I had a particular focus on his reaction to my questions. Tone of speech and body language play a silent but huge role in showing one’s personality. One thing I noticed was how Zeshan had a child-like idealistic approach to everything we talked about. For those who have met him will confirm this extraordinary positive aura he carries; not only that, his eyes light up as he speaks about the future, trying to inspire people and more – hence the comparison to a child. Children have a very innocent view on things, the world is theirs to take, there’s so much hope and they find the best in everything.
Despite trying to be positive as much as possible, we all slip up at times . Social media has a way of helping bring the worst in people out, and I wanted to know how Zeshan deals with the negativity that seems to engulf the comments in statuses or tweets. As a passive reader I’ve felt annoyed at some of the comments in the past, being on the receiving end must be difficult.
‘We can’t escape it, but anybody who writes negatively, I give them dua. I pray that they understand and look for the best in people’
his soft tone echo his words.
‘It’s also good though, one can learn sometimes, people can highlight your weaknesses too. The other day I sat on a charpai and forgot to take off my shoes for which I received some comments. It was a genuine mistake but I know I will never do it again in my life. There is a positive and negative side to it but I still believe we should give some margin of error to people, we are all human and nobody is perfect.’
I threw in some odd-ball questions too. It’s always hard sharing what one believes they are good at.
What 3 words would you use to describe yourself?
Sighing deeply he states:
‘That’s a tough question! I can’t answer in three words but I’d like to give some context. I want to give back especially to the youth. There was a book I read called ‘Die Empty’ and it talks about dying empty, where you leave the world empty – everything inside you is shared, and that is what I want to do. Look at the prophet (pbuh) and in history there are so many names – just one person can make the difference. I want to inspire, instil values, regardless of one’s condition – we need to realise our self worth, and change the world in our capacity.
How do you deal with failure?
‘Again, another tough question. I think it’s a question which is much easier to deal with in hindsight as the person going through the issue really feels it. I have had my fair share of failure – I failed my CA, upset parents, let down my wife but I think to deal with it one must be persistent and not fear failure, we should learn from it. We should ask ourselves how do I improve and diversify?. Have hope in the Almighty, he will not let you down.’
He quotes the ayat:
‘The Almighty says “I am with you”‘.
What is your superpower?
‘My positivity and optimism. I trust in Allah, and try and look for the good in people. I firmly believe that every person has good in them, yes we make mistakes but we wouldn’t be on this earth created by god just for bad. None of us are perfect, but we all do have good in us. Saints can be sinners, but sinners can also be saints!
How do you develop yourself in and out of work environment?
‘I’ve had a diverse professional career, in IT, Banking and Retail which has helped me a lot. I don’t get a lot of time to read but its a great way to improve oneself. Finally, surrounding yourself with a teacher is crucial. A teacher is not someone who teaches you in a class, a teacher can be anyone that passes on knowledge to you, someone who has experience – you can learn a lot.
What’s in store for the future? You’ve achieved a lot, what next?
‘Im just enjoying every moment, I have achieved a lot, and whatever comes is a bonus.
What are you most curious about? What keeps you awake at night?
‘I ask myself why there is so much negativity in the world. Why can’t we be positive, work for the nation? And I always wonder what more can I do?’
You have extraordinary amounts of energy, how do you stay motivated and energetic?
‘Religion and my wife, they are my best motivators.’
What is the ONE piece of advice you would give?
‘Stay focused and do what your heart loves. We have a very short life, enjoy it and be thankful.’
Referring back to where Zeshan talked about the counselling the husband and wife duo provide to the youth. I asked what advice he would give to someone who wanted to do what their hearts desired, but parents are the road block – something I believe is very common in Pakistan.
‘I’d request parents to let their children explore. Tech has opened up a lot of avenues. To the youth, I’d ask them to give some reasons why you want to do what you want to do, try to convince your parents – sell it to them. Give them reasons why you don’t want to be a doctor, lawyer etc. And what the benefits of your chosen path are. Using seniors like your teachers and their peers is also worth a try. I’m positive that after some convincing, most parents would agree. On the other hand, some parents need to understand their child’s needs too.’
Entering the Cricket World
One of the first things I saw when entering the lounge were a couple of cricket bats (pictured below) that were signed by the Zalmi team, naturally I checked the list of names alongside the autographs. Zeshan’s foray into the cricket world started whilst at the Arif Habib group where he started visited the PCB in relation to promotional work and became good friends with Javed Afridi – the Peshawar Zalmi owner. At the time PSL was just launching and Zeshan saw it as a good way to serve and uplift the nation’s image in a different way.
A Million Miles to a Million Smiles
If you follow Zeshan on his social media accounts, you’ll know of the #millionSmiles hashtag. I remember when this was #millionMiles and asked about the transition, but also the thought process behind the hashtag.
‘Initially I used the million miles to document the vast amounts of travelling I do for work. I realised that a lot of people were unhappy / depressed and I knew it wasn’t because of money – I have unhappy millionaire friends. In response to this, I started ZATalks in a bid to promote self-worth and inspire readers. I started noticing that some people commented positive things, whilst other put the smiley emoji as a response, I realised that my posts were making people smile and that’s where I got the idea from. Now my focus is to continue this movement and bring as many smiles as possible. Social media posts and talks that I deliver centre around this concept.
Zeshan’s positivity is contagious and child-like innocence can only be believed after witnessing it first hand. He has achieved so much at such a young age and continues to focus on giving back to the youth in a bid to ‘die empty’. I couldn’t help but be inspired by the positivity. Life has its challenges and Zeshan tackles them face on, knowing that his wife has got his back. I appreciated the amount of credit he gives his wife and parents. Spending a short amount of time with Zeshan left me asking what more I can do? How can I give back? How can I die empty?
His father was noted as his role model, and there is no denying that he played a fantastic role in bringing up a talented and well-rounded individual but I can’t help think about the power of a few words spoken by the two women in his life.
I have young children too, and though I try to watch my tone and words around them, while writing up this article, it occurred to me the real power of a few uttered words. One refers to them as words, but in fact they hide behind them a whole thought-process. A wisdom. An inspiration. The words challenging Zeshan to go back home to Pakistan and serve instead of sitting in the US and criticising urged a new life for Zeshan, whilst in childhood, the ‘ap ke baba Pakistan ke khadim hain’ words prove, even today, to be so profound, that Zeshan’s existence seems to encircle the idea of giving back to the nation and being like his father – a khadim of Pakistan.
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about our first guest Zeshan Afzal. We would like to thank Zeshan for his time and sharing so much with us. The format is new so we’d love some feedback on what you liked and what we can improve on.