Tribute to a Pakistani Icon

The story of Abdul Sattar Edhi is an awe inspiring one. Amidst the daily materialism, frenetic rat race, ambition and angst which envelops one, here is a man who only thinks of others and their suffering.

Edhi single-handedly set up the Edhi Foundation in 1957, and continued to operate it as a non-profit social welfare organisation. Over 300 centres of the Edhi Foundation span the length and breadth of Pakistan, and provide the needy with medical aid, family planning, emergency assistance and education. There are also maternity homes, mental asylums, homes for the physically handicapped, blood banks and orphanages, among other services.

The remarkable Abdul Sattar Edhi has no qualms about going where others fear to tread, and for taking a stand against extremism. He went to Tank, the gateway to the tribal areas, although he was advised against travelling to such a volatile and dangerous place.

There were fears that he might be killed by the Taliban, but instead they welcomed him with open arms. Edhi tried to reason with the Taliban and told them bluntly that they should renounce their violent way of life, which is against the teachings of Islam. The Taliban called him a ‘’Khudai Faqir’’ and listened to him with great respect, and provided him with safe passage.

Edhi was recently awarded the UNESCO Madanjit Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non Violence. He was conferred the award in recognition of his life long efforts to ameliorate the condition of the most disadvantaged groups in Pakistan and South Asia, and for promoting the ideals of human dignity, human rights, mutual respect and tolerance.

The prize giving ceremony was held on November 16, the International Day for Tolerance, at the sprawling United Nations edifice in Paris. Amidst all the fancy suits, designer coats and gleaming shoes, Abdul Sattar Edhi stood out in his simple Shalwar Kameez and worn slippers. A documentary was also screened, which showed Edhi and Bilquis Edhi, his wife and companion of 50 years, engaged in their charity work amidst the poor, disadvantaged and outcasts of society.

As Edhi rose with difficulty to receive the UNESCO award, there was prolonged applause for this great Pakistani. Many Europeans remarked on how privileged they felt to have the opportunity of meeting such a great man. An Indian couple postponed their flight home, and came to the UN to pay homage to Edhi, saying that they only wanted his blessings.

As soon as the impressive ceremony was over, Abdul Sattar Edhi was surrounded by a bevy of delighted Pakistanis. Their stimulating interaction with Edhi and the countless photo opportunities went on and on, until some UN officials started glancing at their watches, and it was obvious that it was time to leave the hall. But then the dinner invitations started rolling in.

At times, Edhi looked a trifle tired, but he never lost his composure. At 88, and grappling with diabetes, life could not be easy for him, but he always seems to think of others. Accustomed to sleeping at 7pm and waking up at 4 am, jet lag and the constant socialising must have been draining. When asked how he was feeling, Edhi admitted that he was exhausted, but said that he did not want to turn down the opportunity of meeting with Pakistanis.

Many Pakistanis sought his blessings and said they were willing to contribute to his organisation. Despite all the hero worship, Edhi remained calm and focused, displaying none of the whims and attitude which signifies the behaviour of many Pakistanis who have not achieved even an iota of what he has.

Notwithstanding his lack of formal schooling, Edhi came across as alert, witty, mature and savvy. Talking to him is an enriching experience indeed. He refuses to espouse any political party, because he likes to steer clear of politics.

What motivates this octogenarian to work for such long and punishing hours. and refuse to take time off? When he was still a child, Edhi’s mother became very ill and he nursed her for years until she passed away.

“I had accepted at the outset that charity was distorted and unrelated to its original concept. Another major obstacle in the promotion of welfare was the disgust of man towards mankind. There was only one reaction from everyone ñ cringing. From the grimacing faces of my colleagues, I understood that I was the only one not disgusted. They washed their hands vigorously, smelt their clothes repeatedly and complained incessantly of the stench having seeped under their skins.

Then they rushed home to bathe, scrubbed their clothes and disinfected them, sometimes gave them away saying, ‘The very weave was stricken.’ We could not reduce suffering unless we rose above our senses”

Abdul Sattar Edhi has devoted his life to a thorny field where hardly any one can match his dedication, focus, common sense and sagacity. Being in his presence gives one hope for the future, because it is his belief that there are no people more generous than Pakistanis in giving aid, and there is no place in the world as great as Pakistan.

Originally Printed December 14, 2009
By Maheen Usmani
The News, Karachi

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