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Listeners are enthralled by Pakistan's first true crime podcast

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

In Pakistan's port city of Karachi, a famous poet is discovered dead, slumped near the unconscious body of his lover. It's 1970, a time when the city is renowned for its wild nightlife and society scandals. The apparent murder triggers a media frenzy. But times change, and memories fade - until now, that is. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports. And first, a note - this story includes a mention of suicide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Vocalizing).

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Mustafa Zaidi had a winning smile and a way with words. His broody lines were even put to music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: He says, "the sunlight torments me. There's no shade. Call my beloved. Let her eyes shelter me." Lines like that lured women like Shahnaz Gul, a socialite renowned for her wide black eyes, rose-petal cheeks and a certain sex appeal. Zaidi and Gul were both married to other people. Both had children. They had a public affair. One man who socialized in the same circles, Imran Aslam, recalled it like this.

IMRAN ASLAM: She was a free spirit and became a muse for him. And so he wrote his poetry around her, and they had an affair. And they probably had this love pact, suicide pact.

HADID: A lovers' pact - a suicide pact. Decades on from Zaidi's death in 1970, that's what Pakistanis tended to recall until two writers investigated the story. They're writing a book that's expected to publish next year. They also made one of Pakistan's first true crime podcasts and unearthed details like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "NOTES ON A SCANDAL")

SABA IMTIAZ: On the morning of October 12, 1970, Shahnaz went over to Mustafa's house. They began to talk. There was something else in Mustafa's house. Locked away in the garage were copies of a flyer that Mustafa had designed. And printed on the flyers were photographs of Shahnaz taken while she was in the nude. There was no word for this then, but we now know this as revenge porn.

HADID: The writers are Saba Imtiaz and Tooba Masood. And as they scoured newspaper archives, they found Zaidi's death triggered a murder trial. It was breathlessly reported. The main suspect? His lover, Shahnaz Gul. This is Saba Imtiaz. We spoke at a cafe in Karachi.

IMTIAZ: The depths that journalists went would rival any paparazzo known to mankind.

HADID: Reporters chased cop cars so relentlessly that, at one point, police disguised an officer in a burqa to throw them off the trail. The media and Pakistan were obsessed with Gul, portrayed as beautiful, murderous, consumed by lust. Imtiaz says the papers reported details unthinkable in today's conservative Pakistan.

IMTIAZ: How long somebody can last in bed, somebody's sexual instruments, love sessions.

HADID: The co-hosts examined how Zaidi's death, reported as a love affair gone bad, hid a more disturbing story.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "NOTES ON A SCANDAL")

TOOBA MASOOD: This wasn't just love. It was love mixed up with something else.

HADID: The co-host discovered that Shahnaz Gul had ended the affair with Zaidi, but he wouldn't let her go, like when he heard she was about to board a flight to London. This is from the podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "NOTES ON A SCANDAL")

MASOOD: He managed to intercept her at the door of the plane itself.

HADID: Gul pushed past him and boarded the plane. When she returned to Karachi, Zaidi stalked her home. He blocked her car when she tried to drive away from him. He threatened suicide. Finally, Gul paid him a visit, and that's when the podcasters reveal Zaidi had printed flyers with Gul's naked image on it. She may have consented to having her photos taken, but what Zaidi wanted to do with the images was revenge porn. Then Zaidi died.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "NOTES ON A SCANDAL")

IMTIAZ: The police break open the door. He sees Mustafa lying on the bed. Blood is oozing out from his mouth and nose. The buttons of his shirt are all opened up.

MASOOD: In the adjacent room, Shahnaz is lying on the floor. She opens her eyes, moans and closes her eyes again.

HADID: Both had ingested tranquilizers as sedatives. Zaidi was holding an old-fashioned telephone receiver in one hand. Who was he trying to call?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HADID: Did Zaidi try to kill Gul and then kill himself thinking that she had died? Or did Gul kill Zaidi to free herself from his grip? Was it somebody else seeking to end this affair? Like all good true crime, the podcast illuminates the time and place it happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HADID: Karachi in the '60s, the freewheeling capital of a young Pakistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "NOTES ON A SCANDAL")

MASOOD: Glamorous and cosmopolitan, criminal syndicates and mafias - politicians and their cronies were all emerging.

HADID: There were bars, strip clubs, cabarets. Champagne flowed. A movie called "Society Girl" tried to capture the zeitgeist. A bleach-blonde woman sleeps with a stranger she dances with at a party. Then she polishes off a bottle of whiskey.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOCIETY GIRL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) Society girl, society girl...

HADID: The real Karachi of the '60s was wilder. There was a wife-swapping club whose members included industrialists, politicians, police. There were jealousies, fights, divorces. The club unraveled. It echoed what was happening to Karachi, to Pakistan. Imtiaz, the co-host, says Zaidi's death...

IMTIAZ: Took place at a very pivotal and strange time for Pakistan. Like, a lot of things were changing and about to change.

HADID: Weeks after Zaidi died, Pakistan's president announced the country's first elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YAHYA KHAN: I have no doubt in my mind elections will be held.

HADID: But elections led to an army campaign in Pakistan's eastern flank, a territory physically apart from the rest of the country. It broke away and became Bangladesh. Years later, the General Zia-ul-Haq came to power and transformed Pakistan by imposing his own conservative values, like banning alcohol sales and supporting jihadis. Karachi's nightlife withered. Turf wars between strongmen exploded into clashes. Militants joined the fray. From a party capital, Karachi became synonymous with violence. This is Imtiaz.

IMTIAZ: The city has changed. The politics have changed. The landscape has changed.

HADID: But the co-hosts say Karachi's elites today have similar lifestyles to Mustafa Zaidi and Shahnaz Gul.

IMTIAZ: People are still partying. People are still having affairs. People are still drinking alcohol. The difference now is that the walls have come up.

HADID: It's all private, hidden, until a scandal or a mysterious death brings the walls back down again. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Karachi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.