7 Zafar Sobhan

A.T.M. Hasibul Islam

Mr. Zafar Sobhan is the present editor of Dhaka Tribune, one of the most circulated English Newspapers in Bangladesh. Unlike others at an early age, Mr. Sobhan took 33 years to realize and step on to his passion in life- Journalism. This book ends with the interesting account of Mr. Sobhan’s his life, education and the journey to find his true passion.

Zafar Sobhan is son of the renowned economist and freedom fighter Rehman Sobhan and Salma Sobhan, the first female barrister of Bangladesh. Zafar studied at Pomona College in the US and his alma mater is University of British Columbia in Canada. Zafar is currently working as the editor of the Dhaka Tribune, the fastest growing English language daily newspaper in Bangladesh’s history. Before this, Zafar worked as a senior editor at The Daily Star for seven years and spent another four years as editor of a monthly longform magazine called Forum. Prior to that, Zafar was a transformation consultant for The Independent, Dhaka Courier, and Shokaler Khobor, among other media clients. Zafar is Bangladesh’s first columnist to be syndicated outside the country, and has written for the Guardian, TIME, YaleGlobal, Vice, and Outlook, among other publications. He was selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2005, an Asia 21 Young Leader in 2008 and and is a 2009 Yale World Fellow.

It all sounds quite rosy, doesn’t it?

But these accomplishments didn’t come so easily. He had to deal with the expectation of filling the colossal shoes of his parents.  It wasn’t until he was 33 years old when he found his true calling, journalism.

Zafar was born in 1970 in the United Kingdom. 1980 is the year when he moved back to Bangladesh at the age of 10. Though he didn’t speak Bangla at that time because of spending the early part of his childhood abroad, still his parents put him into a Bangla Medium School. That was an unusual experience for him, since most people coming back from abroad usually go into English Medium Schools. After 4 years there, since his Bangla was still not the greatest, for class 9 and class 10 he went to Bangladesh International Tutorial (BIT), and then completed class 11 & 12 into Woodstock High School in India. He went to Pomona College for undergraduate studies in English literature. After a brief teaching stint at Scholastica back in Bangladesh he went to University of British Columbia for a master’s degree in Literature.

After completing his post-graduation, he wasn’t sure if literature is something he wanted to build his career upon. So instead of doing a PhD in literature, he went for a law degree from Pepperdine School of Law, California. He began working in a New York based law firm called Debevoise & Plimpton, and soon realized law was not his true calling either.

In between all these, he had been writing letters to the editor, Op-ed. Pieces, and he was very passionate about politics and news. And one day he came to the realization that journalism is something he was truly passionate about. He was then 33 years old, and if he changed his career then he would have to start the bottom again. But Zafar decided that life is too short not to follow his passion. For him, it was better late than never.

Zafar has written probably over a thousand ‘op ed’ columns since he has been into this business. Many of his opinion pieces have been very well received by the readers and critics alike. He wrote a column called “Original Sin” 8 years ago which people still talk about. He was talking about war crimes trial and how it was something this country absolutely had to do. As we discuss about his work Zafar remembers talking about these two people- Shafiul Haq Mithu and David Bisshash who were both being persecuted by the government which was back in 2003-2004. “When I was working with Forum Magazine, we worked on this piece called “Justice, Bangladeshi Style”.  Tasneem Khalil, my friend was the reporter. We talked about a lot of the extra judicial killings that have happened then. To this day it’s the most complete piece about how RAB operated. That’s a piece I am very proud of, that had some kind of impact. I wrote a lot about politics, elections, etc. It has been 12 years. It’s been a lot.”

Zafar thinks Bangladesh is one of the greatest place in the world for media. According to him, “In other countries media is in big trouble. People aren’t interested in media, newspapers are shutting down, and people aren’t interested in hard news. Luckily in Bangladesh the appetite for hard news is still huge. More and more people are interested in media as our literacy rate goes up and people really care about the news. If you go to India, mostly it is very sensationalistic, what is happening in Bollywood, this and that. Nothing like that in Bangladesh. We don’t have celebrity culture. I am an editor of a newspaper and I need to put solid news on my front page. If I put a starlet on the front page, no one is going to read my newspaper. And people in Bangladesh look for news.” And he says “Believe me, I have been in Bangladesh for 12 years, I have covered more news in 12 years than people cover in 12 lifetimes. Think of what has been happening in Bangladesh since 2007, since I came here. There have been assassinations, terrorism, elections, there has been a military coup, there has been floods, there has been cyclones, and there has been the BDR mutiny. It’s like there has been everything. There is no shortage of news in this country.”

“But there is a downside of this too. We do not have the freedom we deserve and it is getting more and more difficult. And as a journalist or a writer, you need to be really careful. What you print, what you write really matters and you need to be really careful while doing these. So, that’s the difficulty.”

Zafar’s parents inspired him into public service and moral well-being. As Zafar says, “They were people with a high sense of moral values, they always believed in working for other people, they were extremely educated and meritorious people but they never made that much money in their life because they gave their lives to public service and so I have learnt that there are more things in life than just material success.”

Zafar loves football. He has been playing football since he was three years old. He has played for teams since he was six, even now he still plays whenever he gets the chance to do so. As we were talking, he showed me all the various trophies places behind his desk, on the shelf. There was one trophy which was from the Ascent Corporate Tournament. Dhaka Tribune won it in 2013. It was Dhaka Tribune’s first year and he played as the goalkeeper of the team despite being 43 years old at the time. He ended up winning the best goalkeeper of the tournament award, which he proudly showcases right behind him. Sports has given him a lot of injuries. But that has never stopped him from playing. He is still pretty fit at this age and he wants to play football as long as he can.

Zafar has been supporting Manchester United since 1976. “Well there are a lot of supporters for ManU now a days may be, but when you go back to those days of my time, they didn’t play this well then” said Zafar. His father, Rehman Sobhan has been supporting Manchester United from 1948. The first Manchester United match he watched was on television, it was the 1976 FA cup which they lost. “It is really wonderful growing up watching these amazing players”, remarked Mr. Zafar Sobhan.

Zafar’s inspirations? Well, all the Bangladeshis are inspiration for Zafar. His parents, his teachers since childhood, everyone he has worked with, in his legal profession, in journalistic profession, all the mentors he had, all of them inspire him. He is inspired by the hard work of all the Bangladeshis that he sees every day. There is no single person that inspires, it is the struggle that inspires us. And he said, he is surrounded all over by them.

Talking about frustrations and the moments of downs, Zafar had many to share. He has had a lot of injuries, he has had surgeries on both of his shoulders, he has a broken ankle, broken toes and he had to overcome all of these. When he was a lawyer, he wasn’t satisfied with his work, because that isn’t what he wanted to do ultimately. Working in the media is a constant frustration, “because every day you want to tell certain things out loud, and yet you cannot do that for so many reasons. So, life is just a composition of all these ups and downs and we need to learn to deal with them.”

Zafar’s master’s thesis was on “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdi. For a long time, Salman Rushdi has been his favorite writer, and this is one of his most favorite books. Among other writers he mentions Arundhati Roy, David Sedaris, Michael Lewis, Tom Wolfe and Malcolm Gladwell.

Zafar has had the privilege to visit and stay in a number of countries. He has lived in England when he was a child. He went to school in India for two years. He has been in America for around 12 years. He has lived in Canada for two years. And, Bangladesh of course, motherland. Among all the places he has lived, he misses California, a lot. He spent many days there, went to college there, it was a beautiful place and he loves everything about it. And among other places, Vancouver, Canada is another lovely place to live in. In India, the Himalayas gives a breathtaking view. “And of course there are so many beautiful places in our Bangladesh, if you just go to Srimongol, Bandarban or Sundarban you’d be amazed by how beautiful our nature is.”, he remarked. He has also visited other places like Turkey, Jordan, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore.

“Success comes to those who dedicate everything to their passion in life. To be successful, it is also very important to be humble and never let fame or money travel to your head.”
-A. R. Rahman



[Utmost dedication has been given to transcribe and write the interviews as flawlessly as possible . However, the information and events shared in this book might not be cent percent perfect and there can always be human error in collection and dissemination of information. It is thus requested to forgive any mistake, if found, in this book. At the same time, I request all readers and visitors not to copy the content of this book without the written consent of the author of this book, as these interviews are the author’s original work that has required a lot of hard work and patience. The full book can be purchased here.]


Zafar Sobhan Copyright © by A.T.M. Hasibul Islam. All Rights Reserved.

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