It’s quite strange to be sitting in the basement of Peshawar University, surrounded by six blind men. “Do you know why we are called special?” asks Iqbal Adrali. “It’s a euphemism for disabled. If someone’s wounded, nobody refers to them as disabled, but instead the wound is treated consistently till it’s better.” Clearly these men are not looking for handouts or pity, but are instead determined to triumph despite their disadvantages.
They have gathered in this basement, which doubles as a makeshift computer institute, in order to teach each other how to use computers, but when I look around there isn’t a single computer in sight. That’s strange, considering that the TV report that led me to their doorstep featured several computers on which they were diligently working. “Where are the computers that I saw in that TV report?” I ask Yasir, the person around whom the whole project revolves.
“We borrowed them that day for the report,” he replies. I suppose that must have made for better footage than bare desks and walls.
“The vice chancellor of the university has promised to give us some computers soon — let’s hope he does,” he says as if anticipating my next question. His lips curl in a cynical smile as he speaks, clearly showing that such promises have been made in the past.
Not all of them were born blind; some lost their eyesight recently, like Amir Khan, who has come over to see if the group can help him get some software for his phone. “It’s called Talks & Zooms,” says Yasir. “Anything that appears on the screen is read out aloud.”
However, the software cannot run on just any phone and requires a comparatively expensive one. That’s something out of Amir’s reach for now as his blindness has also deprived him of his previous job as a reporter in a local newspaper. He is still coming to terms with the loss of both his vision and his livelihood, but while he cannot restore his sight, he has invested in a small business and hopes that he may soon have at least a regular income. Then he can think of buying the phone that will make his life so much easier.
In the meantime the only computer they have is the laptop that Nadir has brought from his home. “We use a screen reading software called Jaws that costs somewhere between $800-1000 while Talks & Zooms costs about $300,” says another Amir, who works as a telephone operator at the local phone exchange.
“Luckily, we live in Pakistan and the pirated version is available for free here!” he says as the group bursts into laughter. Nadir has brought the laptop to teach the others how to use the internet, and while the Facebook page loads, various emails are exchanged. Since there’s only one laptop, not all of them can access the internet but they learn by listening to Jaws read out the screen. The group then starts discussing videos that they can share on Facebook. “What if I can’t find you on Facebook?” asks one of them. “My ID has a display picture,” Yasir replies. “Just ask someone from your family to sit with you and they’ll help you identify me.”
Along with computers, there’s something else that’s missing here. “Are there are no women or girls in this group?” I ask. “Taboos”, they reply in unison. “They are blind, they are women and they are living in a conservative Pashtun society. That’s enough.”
The group members say they are trying to spread awareness about their programs, but haven’t had much luck. Security is a major concern and, of the twenty or so members, only a few can actually make it to the meetings. Most of them find it hard to travel on their own, and the lack of transport is a serious problem. However Yasir, who live in Charsadda (40 km from Peshawar) rubbishes such concerns as he picks up his white cane saying: “When you have this and enough willpower, you don’t need to worry.”
The group decide to take Amir to a computer store to get the software installed on his mobile phone but as the sun sets, they are faced with another problem. The CNG stations have called a strike and public transport is not available so they decide to pool in their money and hire a cab.
As they are about to leave, Kamal, the eldest among the men, says something that makes them all laugh. When I ask what the joke is he says, “Whenever we go into a shop, the shopkeeper’s first reaction is to say: ‘Maaf ka rora, nan khairat nashta’ (forgive us brother, we don’t have anything to give in charity today).”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 6th, 2012.