By Salma Hasan Ali
In about a week, InshAllah, I will be traveling to Pakistan. My ticket is booked; visa arrived this morning; shalwar kameezes are at the dry cleaners.
It’s not the ideal time to be going to Pakistan. A recent report by the Atlantic Council said Pakistan “is on a rapid trajectory toward becoming a failing or failed state.” A New York Times editorial last week put it this way: “Almost no one wants to say it out loud. But between the threats from extremists, an unraveling economy, battling civilian leaders and tensions with its nuclear rival India, Pakistan is edging ever closer to the abyss.”
The abyss grew depressingly deeper this week, when the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked in a commando-style ambush, leaving eight people dead and several players wounded. Twelve gunmen — carrying sacks of ammunition — attacked the team’s bus in broad daylight — in the heart of Lahore — and then escaped in motorized rickshaws. What??
The terrorists knew what they were doing: attack the nation’s most cherished pastime — it’s symbol of camaraderie and goodwill — and you attack the heart and soul of the country and instill maximum fear.
So, why exactly am I going to Pakistan when relatives there and here are counseling not to, and those who can are leaving?
It’s to witness the work of two men – one a Pakistani, the other an American – who are tirelessly, quietly, and with humility working to improve the lives of Pakistanis so the desperation and hopelessness at the root of the current chaos, one day, diminishes.
An AP photograph in the NYT shows those who died in the Lahore massacre lying on stretchers covered with blood-stained white sheets with four letters printed on them: EDHI.
Edhi is hardly known in the United States, but to Pakistanis around the world he is a true hero. In the past 60 years, he’s created one of the largest and most successful health and welfare networks in Asia. He started off begging for donations. Today, he runs a nationwide organization of ambulances, clinics, orphanages, homes for the physically handicapped, blood banks, mortuaries, and much more. Edhi, and his wife of nearly 45 years Bilquis, live in a small two bedroom apartment next to his office in one of the clinics. He accepts no salary. He’s on call 24 hours a day. Their wedding night is indicative of how they spend their days: Edhi and Bilquis rushed a 12-year old girl with major head injuries to the hospital and supervised blood transfusions throughout the night. His vision of charity is at the heart of Islam. Why don’t we hear about it?
Many know of Greg Mortenson’s inspiring story through his best-selling book “Three Cups of Tea”. He is receiving the Sitara-e-Pakistan, Pakistan’s highest civilian award, in Islamabad on March 23rd. No doubt, he will receive the award accompanied by his indomitable Pakistani staff, including Suleman Minhas, with whom I’ve been communicating. After two brief phone conversations, and not even a shared cup of tea, I already feel like family.. I call him “bhai” (brother); he writes to me as “respected Salma”. Most of our conversations have focused on his assuring me not to worry; that the minute I land in Islamabad, I will be his most revered guest. No wonder Mortenson was blown away by Pakistanis’ generosity and warmth.
Maybe Mortenson will bring some of the girls from his schools, because as he always says, they are the true heroes. Perhaps Shakeela, who started by writing with sticks in the sand, and is now in her third year of medical school in Lahore. She will be the first locally educated woman to become a physician. Or maybe Ghosia Mughal, one of the first students to return to school in her village after the devastating 2005 earthquake in Azad Kashmir, that killed her mother, several of her siblings and left her father paralyzed. “Watching that first brave girl enter a school, is like watching man taking his first step on the moon,” says Mortenson. “It’s one giant leap for mankind.” Mortenson is keenly aware that behind one girl comes dozens more, eventually hundreds and thousands.
No doubt there are tragic forces at play in the country trying to undermine the fabric of its politics, culture, society, and soul. Sometimes seemingly overwhelming forces. But there are also kernels of hope that remind us that all will not be lost to violence and a distorted mindset.
There are people like Edhi and thousands more working each day to feed, nurse, console, support and shelter. There are people like Suleman and hundreds of others fiercely loyal to Mortenson’s commitment — and the commitment of so many NGOs around the country — to educate Pakistan’s children. There are young women like Shakeela, smart, capable, determined, and feisty, who will ultimately change the country, if given the chance.
This is the Pakistan I’m going to see. And when I get back, these are the stories I’m going to share, with anyone willing to listen.
Babui / Arjun
2008 November 29th, Sat.
Brooklyn, New York
Mumbai, city of such wealth,
And of such poverty!
Today, the jet-set here have felt
A new anxiety.
And yet, when we have sorted through
The bodies bathed in red,
How many workers will we view
Among the ones now dead?
Be it from bombers in the sky,
Or gunmen treading earth,
It is the poorer ones, who die
The most, yet leave no dearth.
And even when he seeks out those
In Oberoi and Taj, *
The gunman, with his bullets, mows
The lowly of the Raj.
The ones, who went from Mumbai slum
To earn their few rupees,
Lie murdered. Who will forward come
To help their families?
Now death unites the ones, who were
By birth and wealth divided.
For just a day, has Lucifer
All privileges voided.
And she, who partied at the clubs,
And swam in bluest pool,
Now lies, and rusting shoulder rubs
With maid, as fires cool.
The firemen came, at last, to quench
Those fires that long had raged.
And now, we smell the awful stench
Of corpses that have aged.
Whence came those ones, so zealot eyed,
With guns that spewed out death?
They did not know, the ones who died,
In Mumbai’s horror met.
* The Oberoi and Taj are names of famous hotels in Bombay.
The Taj is in a historic building by the sea-front. The Oberoi is
in a modern one, and is part of a chain, with branches in major
Indian cities as well as elsewhere.
Unusual interview, on CNN, with the materialistic “guru” and physician, Deepak Chopra, regarding the recent horror in Mumbai (Bombay).
She may well have been the best leader available. With a military dictator and a corrupt businessman as the alternatives, Benazir Bhutto, with her western admirers and her feudal followers, was clearly a front-runner. How she died will probably remain a mystery, but she was playing the game of death, and it was unlikely she would win every time.
It is difficult to write about people who have just died. Many are grief stricken at the untimely death of the former prime minister. Even her critics are shocked by the way she was hunted down. An insensitive piece would aggravate their pain, and one doesn’t generally speak ill of the dead. I remember as a child asking my mother “Amma. Do bad people never die?” A man not known for his strength of character had died, and newspaper reports had described him as an honest social worker. I am no longer of the age to get away with such questions. But even for those who have loved Benazir, I believe the questions need to be asked if this cycle is to ever stop.
It was 1995. They were troubled times in Pakistan. I had gone over to Karachi on the invitation of my architect friend Shahid Abdulla. There were no telephone booths at Karachi airport, or anywhere else in the city. The government was worried the MQM would use them for their communication. Sindh was at war with itself.
Shahid wanted me to run a photography workshop at the Indus Valley School of Architecture and Design that he was involved in. Those were the days when we had time for long conversations. We talked of many things. The gun-toting security men outside every big house in Karachi. Shahid’s meeting with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. His memories of Benazir. But the conversation would often veer to a person we both admired. Abdus Sattar Edhi, the humanitarian who had set up an unparalleled ambulance service all over Pakistan.
On the morning of the 10th October, I went over to see the man. He had an easy charm that came from living a simple life and having little to hide. He sat on his wire mesh bed, talking of how things started. We were regularly interrupted by people coming in with requests, and Edhi responding to minor crises. Then we heard about Fahim Commando the MQM leader, having been killed. Fahim and his comrades had apparently been caught in an ambush and all four had died. They had been in police custody, but the police had all escaped and not one of them had been injured. Edhi was not judgmental. Fahim was another man who needed a decent burial. As I watched him bathe the slain MQM leader, I could see the burn marks on the bullet holes on the commando’s body.
The extra-judicial killings during Benazir’s rule are well documented. The fact that no investigation was done when her brother Mir Murtaza was killed outside Bilawal House, the family home, fueled the commonly held belief that her husband Asif Zardari had arranged the killing. Even Edhi’s ambulances had not been allowed access. Not until Murtaza had bled to death. Anyone who witnessed the murder was arrested; one witness died in prison. Benazir was then prime minister.
Murtaza had been vocal against the corruption of Zardari. Benazir defended her husband stoically throughout. Despite the Swiss bank accounts, she assured people that he would be seen as the Nelson Mandela of Pakistan. With Zardari now tipped as the new chief of PPP, Pakistan’s Mandela and his Swiss bank accounts might well be the new force. Whether Pakistanis will see this polo-playing businessman as the saviour of the day remains to be seen.
Supported by the US, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had been largely responsible for the break up of Pakistan and the genocide in Bangladesh. The current string pulling by the US has hardly made Pakistan a safer place. The western support of militarisation in Bangladesh and the growing importance of Jamaat is an all too familiar feeling. If Pakistan is an omen, it is a sinister one.
Perhaps Mrs. Packletide would have known how the former prime minister of this nuclear nation died. But the government’s attempts to cover-up will do little to quell the conspiracy theories. Like the Bhutto family, the military too have burned a lot of bridges in getting to where they are. There are too many skeletons in their closet. There is no going back, and no price too high.