For most of his life Abdul Sattar Edhi was used as an example of the unmeasurable size and resilience of Pakistan’s spirit. A lone saint that imbued optimism in the population of a country accustomed to self-interested leaders. His name was the one used to salvage Pakistan’s image at every opportunity. He was the personification of selflessness, and we sometimes pretended that people like Edhi were the norm in our society.
But Edhi was exceptional in almost every way. One of the greatest humanitarians the world had ever seen, on the day of his death, three years ago, Pakistan looked poorer than ever before.
The stories of Edhi’s selfless work are easy to come by, but hard to believe as fact, not fiction. You must read them twice to allow the brain to register that, yes, there did indeed exist such a human being.
In 1992, his grandson would die tragically at one of his charities. In this moment of intense personal bereavement anyone would have understood if Edhi Sahib had forgotten other people for himself — just this once. But if you believed he would do such a thing, then you did not understand the spirit of Edhi Sahib. Instead, on the day of his grandson’s funeral, Edhi was in Ghotki, his clothes drenched in blood as he oversaw a relief effort in the aftermath of a horrible train accident that had left hundreds dead. Never a day off when you are trying to save this country’s soul.
Fact, not fiction.
Empty cradles can be found outside Edhi charities. These cradles, according to one estimate, have allowed more than 25,000 abandoned children to find homes through the heart of Edhi sahib.
Fact, not fiction.
His honesty allowed him to have access to millions of dollars from around the world. Yet, those who visited him found a man who owned only two changes of clothing, lived in a cramped 8×8 room in a part of Karachi that most Pakistani’s try their best to avoid.
Fact, not fiction.
Edhi’s world, Edhi’s heart, was the Pakistan that could have been if only its leaders had chosen Edhi’s path. Instead, Pakistan continues to spend billions on cracking down on basic liberties, intent on becoming a police state at the expense of human welfare.
In following this path, this nation is discarding Edhi’s example. Even though in Edhi’s life lie lessons that Pakistan’s leadership should be learning from every day. There is, for example, his commitment to the value of all life as being equally important. In a nation obsessed with its Muslim identity, Edhi Sahib didn’t care what your faith was. His ambulances, his charitable work, were not a holy mission but the product of a heart that could not stand seeing human suffering. When the ignorant asked him why his ambulances carried bodies of Hindus and Christians, his answer was of the sort that should be taught to school children all around the country: “Because my ambulance is more Muslim than you.” The West called him Pakistan’s Mother Theresa, but while Theresa’s legacy became the subject of controversy upon her demise, Edhi’s remains secure, and perhaps even more remarkable. For Edhi did not have the support of a religious fraternity. Edhi only had himself. Luckily for us, that was enough.
While our leadership buckles under the slightest pressure from the religious right, Edhi brushed it aside throughout his life. As Lorenzo Raponi and Michele Zanzucchi write in Half of Two Paisas: The Extraordinary Mission of Abdul Sattar Edhi and Bilquis Edhi, in 1970 when Edhi started placing cradles outside Edhi centres to provide shelter for babies, the religious right fiercely opposed the practice. The practice that would save the lives of more than 25,000 children was resisted. “On the one hand, the hardline mullahs said that the cradles would certainly provide an alibi for girls to give birth to more children outside of wedlock. On the other, there were a whole series of formal issues related to the Quranic laws excluding orphans from inheriting and from bearing their adoptive father’s name.” Yet it was Edhi who won because Edhi never gave up.
What is fascinating about Edhi is that his love ran for all of God’s creations. For Edhi did not just have a shelter for society’s downtrodden, but, for animals as well. The Edhi Home for Animals in Karachi shows that Edhi’s compassion went far beyond human beings. Are we as a country anywhere close to this man’s belief in the value of life?
For all that Edhi did for Pakistan, Pakistan should have tried to make Edhi’s mission easier. It didn’t. One example is when on the 19th of October 2014, ten men broke into Edhi Sahib’s office, held him hostage, and robbed him. It is events like these that show just how many obstacles must be overcome by people trying to do some good in Pakistan. The state is oblivious to this, ignorant about the fact that by failing its duties it is creating serious hurdles for more people like Edhi to exist.
It is not possible for someone to replace Edhi Sahib, but it is possible for people to emulate his mission. Our country must make sure that tomorrow’s children learn about Edhi as one of this nation’s greatest heroes. Parents can change the course of this country’s future just like how Edhi’s mother changed the course of his by giving him two paisas every day. One for himself and one for someone in need. Through this simple act, this great woman helped foster one of the greatest philanthropists in the world. There is no reason Pakistan cannot produce more like him. The beauty of Edhi was that he was an ordinary man doing extraordinary things. He is an example of how one individual with his heart in the right place can make a difference in the lives of millions.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2019.