It is a breezy and cold day in the coastal megapolis of Pakistan, Karachi. Immense traffic jams are routine in this city – in so many ways a microcosm of Pakistan itself. Commuters hardly abide by the red and green lights of tragic signals.
For decades now, two political parties, the Mutahida Qaumi Movement [MQM] and Pakistan People’s Party [PPP] – and in times of martial law the security establishment itself – controlled the affairs of this great Asian city. Owing at least partly to the port, the seaside city generates immense revenues. But Karachi’s millions of inhabitants have seen infrastructure worsen. There appears to be general agreement, though, that the law and order situation is now much better than previous years. The population of this crowded city is over 20 million. This population is engaged in activities which constitute the backbone of the Pakistani economy. In short, Karachi’s fate is Pakistan’s fate.
From Karachi’s Saddar district to Mithadar, the journey is a few kilometers but it takes more than 30 minutes due to the unplanned traffic system and poor management of infrastructure.
The sun is appearing behind the tomb of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, known to Pakistanis as the Quaid-e-Azam (Great Leader) and founder of the state. In narrow alleys and crowded markets, hundreds of people are at any given moment bustling off to their workplaces. Rickshaws, cabs, bikes and other vehicles on roads and push-carts on footpaths: all together make walking seem somewhat impossible.
In one such market street, placed in a corner in a steel cage, a number of sick birds are staring at passersby. The passersby, meanwhile, glance at the portrait hanging on the wall. The hanging image is not of a politician or a cricket player but of a man known to Pakistanis as ‘Abdul Sattar Edhi Sahib’. Edhi started his humanitarian work in 1951 and established a dispensary at Mithadar. That humble little dispensary is now one of the largest charitable organisations in the country – and easily the most widely recognised.
In his biography A Mirror to the Blind, narrated by Tehmina Durrani, Edhi is quoted as having said: “I began at Mithadar and brought back bloated, drowned bodies from the sea. Black bodies that crumbled with one touch. I picked them up from rivers, from inside dwells, from roadsides, accident sites and hospitals. I picked them from manholes and gutters, from under bridges, from railway bogies, from tracks, water sheds and drains. I picked them up and brought them home, to my work force, spreading the stench in the air forever. Then I bathed and cared for each and every victim of circumstance, just like I had done for my mother.”
“Abdul Sattar Edhi is the nearest to a saint that I have met,” English journalist and author of Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan, Peter Oborne, says of him. Oborne had spent time with Edhi for his documentary Unreported World: Defenders of Karachi.
Edhi was no stranger to the calamities that have tormented Karachi. He buried more than 200,000 unclaimed bodies
In the past fifteen years, due to the uncertainty of life and death in every city of Pakistan, charitable foundations like Edhi Foundation have found that their responsibilities and the services expected of them increased dramatically. Karachi’s violent turf wars keep such humanitarian foundations on their toes every day. In his life, Edhi was no stranger to the calamities that have tormented Karachi. He buried more than 200,000 unclaimed bodies.
Edhi himself was buried last year but his vision and activism is flourishing with the same zeal and energy as what he brought when he started out with his humanitarian struggle.
The Edhi Foundation Main Office presents a frenzied, business-like atmosphere at Mithadar. On the ground floor of the office, Faisal Edhi, son of Abdul Sattar Edhi has replaced his father on his seat. Bilquis Edhi, Abdul Sattar’s wife, continues her own heavy involvement in the work.
Alamgir Jan is a local shopkeeper. He donates now and then for the Edhi Foundation, and has been doing so for five decades. Alamgir used to contribute 100 rupees per month when he worked for someone. Now he donates a moderate amount to the foundation. “Abdul Sattar Edhi himself was the main reason why his organisation gained people’s trust. He started from scratch and built a humanitarian empire!” Jan tells me.
This was an empire that was completely devoted to the work of serving the forgotten. An empire from which Edhi himself gained nothing – living and dying like the gentle, humble man that he always was.
Faisal Edhi says his father was an avowed socialist and dreamed of a welfare state
“The Nobel Prize didn’t deserve Edhi Sahib, nor the Edhi Foundation” a Pakistani-born American woman tells me in Bilquis’s office. She has adopted a child and now lives abroad with her husband and three-year-old daughter. “In the US we have precious few positive symbols from home and Edhi Foundation is one of the prime sources of pride for us!” she smiles.
Peter Oborne elaborates: “If ever a man deserved the Nobel Peace Prize it was Mr. Edhi. He was a great man who illuminated the world through mercy and compassion. His life showed that true greatness lies in serving humanity.”
The Nobel, however, was not to be Edhi’s. Not that it would have bothered him at all. He enjoyed the recognition of the only people who truly mattered to him: the poor.
An old woman takes off her shoes outside of the Edhi Foundation entrance. She leaves money, clothes and blankets as her own contribution to this immense charitable enterprise. “It would be an insult if I didn’t come barefoot to this sacred place!” she whispers.
Another old woman with hennaed red hair, calling herself Nargis Bibi, arrives soon after, requiring help. Her back hurts and she needs a stick to be able to walk. Fatima Hameed, office assistant, goes straight to the store near the main office and hands over a walking stick to her, free of cost. “Khuda aur ziyada de, beta” (May God give you more, child) the old woman says as she leaves.
Bilquis Edhi is busy with the daily activities and affairs of her office. A woman with her partner arrives, seeking information about adopting a child. Bilquis asks her assistant to provide the woman with an information page. The assistant, a nurse, guides them and hands a printed page of rules and regulations to the couple.
“To mitigate the high intensity with which I miss Edhi, I throw my all energy in his mission!” Bilquis Edhi tells me. “We spent five decades together. I learned the art of living and love for humanity from Edhi,” Bilquis remembers. “Three of my children were born in an Edhi Labour Room. Although many doctors would treat me willingly, Edhi sahib would never have approved of that. He was a man who trusted his resources and he believed very much in leading from the front.”
Difficult as it is to imagine in a world driven by consumerism and hyper-individualism, the whole Edhi family devoted their lives to serving humanity without any personal benefits – and they have done nothing else. To date Bilquis Edhi and her late husband Abdul Sattar Edhi have given shelter to thousands of children and arranged for the marriage of hundreds of poor couples.
On the second floor of the building in a separate portion, dozens of special babies are lying on the ground on a carpet as nurses care for them. One of the nurses tells me that most of the babies were abandoned by their parents in front of offices of the Edhi Foundation in different parts of the city.
After 9/11 as instances of terrorism increased in the country, humanitarian organizations (led by the Edhi Foundation) found their duties expanded to that of first-responders at scenes of carnage – providing aid and transport to hospitals for victims of horrific violence, sometimes on a daily basis.
The Edhi Foundation has been targeted by mullahs from seminaries, for running their humanitarian work on ‘secular’ terms and conditions – which presumably refers to the fact that the organisation does not discriminate on the basis of of creed and religious belief. In the recent past, viral social media campaigns by religious conservative clergy targeted Edhi himself. Among other instances of this campaign, a video did the rounds, showing a popular religious figure who directly charged Edhi sahib as an ‘infidel’. This is a dangerous accusation in a Pakistan where religious fundamentalists have been going from strength to strength – and violent outrage to violent outrage.
Some years ago a Hindu girl was found near the Pak-India border and was brought to an Edhi Centre. When she reached adult age, she was deaf and unable to speak, but she wrote her name as ‘Geeta’ in Hindi. Last year she was handed over to the Indian government, safe and sound.
Bilquis Edhi misses Geeta. She had spent a decade with them but the Edhi Foundation did not ask her to change her faith. Bilquis tells me her husband had liked to visit his birthplace in India. She praises Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj: “She treated us with the utmost respect on our last visit.”
After the incident, Faisal Edhi helped the Gadani workers in organising themselves into a union
The Foundation’s manner of going about its humanitarian business has changed little even after the death of its larger-than-life founder. The sofa on which Abdul Sattar Edhi would sit and run the affairs of the Edhi Foundation from Chitral in the far north to Karachi is still lying near the front entrance of the main office. The same two young women, Saba Danish and Fatima Hameed, are performing the same job as they were with Edhi.
Now the boss is changed but the attitude and level of care are the same, I am told by both the assistants.
Faisal Edhi, son of Abdul Sattar Edhi, comes to his father’s office and works tirelessly from morning to night. He admits that his father was an avowed socialist and he wished that no Pakistani should sleep without proper shelter, food and clean drinking water. He had dreamed of a welfare state.
Dr. Faizullah Jan teaches at the University of Peshawar. Responding to the hate campaign and the rhetoric of some mullahs from their pulpits, he terms it all as ‘sheer jealousy’. He insists that the Edhi Foundation’s work in providing humanitarian assistance regardless of race or creed was something that won great admiration even in a deeply divided society like that in Pakistan. For him, the problem was simple: “The people trusted Edhi more than they did fanatic mullahs.”
The energetic Faisal Edhi doesn’t care much about religious fatwas (opinions of the clergy) or speeches. “The Edhi Foundation has facilities for all human beings!” Faisal announces simply. “Since the establishment of Edhi Foundation and in the life of Edhi sahib, some fanatics tried to demonise us, but it doesn’t work.”
Faisal Edhi nevertheless admits: “These days we are facing a 15 to 20% reduction in our financial budget.”
Could this be because the virulent hate campaign might be affecting donations to the Foundation?
Dr. Faizullah Jan opines: “In Pakistan, Edhi is not only the name of some free-of-cost services but also of a credible practical organisation. This propaganda might hit a little portion of the finances but in the long run, those mullahs won’t damage the Edhi Foundation as they want. And that is how it should be: collectively we have few such personalities and organisations in our history. It is a prime duty to protect their work and legacy.”
Edhi himself made no secret of his worldview. He is quoted in A Mirror to the Blind saying: “I became passionate about revolution and was anxious to learn its lessons. Gandhi’s decision to remain in Calcutta until the Hindu-Muslim riots ceased, impressed me, and Ghaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgar Party touched me.”
Faisal Edhi recalls the old days he had spent with his father. “Most often we had hard discussions on the failure of left politics in Pakistan and many other subjects. Edhi sahib was a democratic person: instead of silencing me, he encouraged me to oppose and question, but always on rational grounds.” The late Edhi told his biographer also that the “Khaksar Party moved me by its mission to solve people’s problems by travelling from village to village and door to door.”
Faisal Edhi offers an explanation for the reduction in budget, saying that it is not due to mullahs and extreme religious right-wing propaganda but because of the unemployment of Pakistanis in Gulf Arab countries. “We had received a hefty share of our budget from the Gulf,” Faisal admits.
Faisal Edhi’s style of work is more aggressive than that of the senior Edhi. He is also more forthcoming in his convictions: besides his services he also tries to raise awareness among people regarding their constitutional rights. Recently at the Gadani ship-breaking yard, dozens of workers died in a horrific incident at work. Faisal Edhi, along with his Edhi Foundation colleagues and Fire Brigade staffers worked hard there. After the incident, Faisal helped the Gadani workers in organising themselves into a union.
“The wealthy and landowning classes are crushing the rights of the lower strata of society!” Faisal Edhi says. He believes the lower and lower-middle classes have to organise against the country’s notoriously rapacious elites.
Shehnaz, known affectionately as Laado Baji, was born to a poor family. Her father died when she was one year old. Then, when she was eight years old, her mother also died. Since then Bilquis Edhi brought her to the Mithadar office and she flourished in this centre and then married Khuram Shehzad – a man as devoted to it as she was. The couple now works and lives at the Mithadar office of the Edhi Foundation.
“Edhi sahib was a gentle man. Besides me, all the people called him Abbu [father] and Bilquis was known to them as Ammi [mother]. I was nothing and would have vanished, but the Edhi Foundation gave me identity and shelter – and even a life partner!”
She smiles. “Besides shelter, food and medical treatment Ammi gives us a salary. “I have faced many problems and shocks but when Abbu died, that was the ugliest day of my life. I had never seen my biological father and for me, Edhi sahib was Abbu.” She uses her dupatta to wipe her eyes.
Faisal Edhi knows that when it comes to the intense deprivation of the Pakistani people, the problem lies within the state organs. But he doesn’t wait anymore for them to correct it. The Edhi Foundation has launched a massive education charity program and Faisal reveals it for The Friday Times. In Karachi’s sprawling Lyari area, home to millions and famous for street crime, gang wars and extortion, Faisal has started providing extensive education to school-aged children in science-related subjects. He provides modern and well-equipped laboratories in girls’ schools there.
He adds that in this part of Karachi, there are more than 50 schools but without the option of studying science subjects. “Now we are going to invest in girls’ education. After completion of their courses, the Edhi Foundation will provide nursing seats to the local girls. Lyari is the true Karachi and it was a hub of support for the PPP but it remains backward. There is hardly any proper infrastructure. The Edhi Foundation has planned also to work on family planning according to World Health Organisation conditions.”
They also have plans for a 100-bed modern new hospital there, Faisal Edhi tells me.
“Edhi has been declared ‘traitor’ many times but it doesn’t stop us from our work,” Faisal says. “It gives us oxygen and energy. These days we have 1,800 ambulances, one airplane and a helicopter.” Speaking to me, Faisal Edhi repeatedly emphasises a “strong community”. Clearly, his focus is to bring reforms and awareness to the Pakistani people in addition to the basic services that they so desperately need. “The Pakistani state recognized Edhi sahib’s contribution after he received the Lenin Peace Prize. But he himself had told me many times that his award and reward is a smile on his poor countryman’s’ face” Faisal recalls.
Bilquis Edhi has, in the course of her life, met many powerful and famous people when they visited the offices of the Edhi Foundation. Among these, she remembers, was Benazir Bhutto. “She came to this office and in a light mood offered that I join the PPP. I replied to her ‘We do politics but on the people’s hearts.’”
“Dr. Abdus Salam, Ghaffar Khan (Bacha Khan), G.M. Syed, Malala Yousafzai, all are great people but in Pakistan they were judged with prejudice and they were demonised by non-state actors – sometimes even with the help of facilitators from the state. They have been seen as being opposed to the so-called ‘Ideology of Pakistan’. Abdul Sattar Edhi was also targeted by such elements in society – but he was far beyond the reach of his detractors and such appalling drama!” Dr. Faizullah Jan remarks.
Abdur Rauf Yousafzai reports for The Friday Times from FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.