The land that loots Edhi sahib

Asad Rahim Khan

SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)

They asked him whether it had ever happened before.

“Meray saath kabhi waqeya nahin hua aisa. Mujhay daaka maartay huay chhor diya tha,” Abdul Sattar Edhi said. “Aisay waqiay huay hain, lekin daaka nahin maara.”

A stupid question. How could it have happened before?

After all, this is Edhi Country. A country that is home to one of the largest welfare networks in Asia. A country where our mothers face a choice: dropping their babies in the cradles he cares for, or leaving them to die. A country where a full-grown doctor, herself a mother of four, goes searching for Bilquis Edhi; she’d been told by her parents that she had been adopted from the Edhi Centre a lifetime ago.

“We both broke down in tears,” Bilquis Edhi remembered.

Greatness of spirit doesn’t come close to describing it. Edhi sahib’s life has been filled with human misery, and he has been healing that misery for the last 60 years — with his bare hands.

He is, in many respects, an angel for the unwanted. “I began at Mithadar and brought back bloated, drowned bodies from the sea,” he said in his autobiography. “Black bodies that crumbled with one touch. I picked them up from rivers, from inside wells, from roadsides, accident sites and hospitals. (…) When families forsook them and authorities threw them away, I picked them up and brought them home, to my work force, spreading the stench in the air forever.”

In one painful paragraph, we understand why this is the man Pakistanis revere more than any other living citizen. Because in a country that’s never known moral clarity, we’re still certain about one thing: Abdul Sattar Edhi is the last of the saints.

And this past weekend, we became the world’s worst witnesses to sainthood.

As Pakistan’s greatest humanitarian lay sleeping, 10 men broke into the head office of the Edhi Foundation. They won themselves the hottest parts of hell: holding Edhi sahib hostage, robbing him of money and gold, and escaping with ease.

We braced ourselves for anger and tears, but nothing happened. Civil society shrugged. The press moved on. The state put out a sound bite: “the incident has been taken notice of by the chief minister of Sindh.”

It’s been a rough week for the robot suit that controls Qaim Ali Shah. First came his speech on Saturday (at an otherwise impressive PPP rally). Not hours later, the Edhi centre was broken into, and QAS rushed to the fore again, telling the police “to bring the culprits to book”. One hopes they take action on their own — Qaim presides over Sindh like Mamnoon presides over the centre.

But Qaim’s not the story; not the whole story at least. “We don’t fight them,” Edhi sahib once said of politicians. “We ignore them.” If only we could point to the usual suspects: the state, the system, the namaloom afraad who hit the headlines every so often. But not this time. This disease runs deeper.

This is about society.

When we heard the news, too many of us cried, ‘Is nothing sacred?’ What’s surprising is we continue to be surprised: sacred left Pakistan a long time ago. We read often in these pages about institutional failure — that the state fails, again and again, to protect our heroes. But as society, we fail them as much. There are no angels in Pakistan.

We’ve forgotten our Aitzaz Hasans. We’ve forsaken our Nabila Rehmans. We’ve exiled our Malala Yousufzais. We’ve desecrated the grave of Abdus Salam. We’ve looted the charity of Abdul Sattar. We’ve looked on as pregnant women are murdered outside our courtrooms. We’ve lost our ability to empathise, to emote, to hold anyone up to a golden standard of truth.

So what do we hold sacred?

A week or so ago, Asif Zardari said that building charity hospitals didn’t a politician make. “If this is taken as the criteria,” Mr Zardari said, “Abdul Sattar Edhi should be leading politics.”

Which is why, perhaps, Asif Zardari gets to lead our politics, and Abdul Sattar Edhi gets robbed in broad daylight. Such is the nature of the beast.

Consider: Mr Zardari was the eleventh president of Pakistan. He co-chairs its one-time largest political party. He is one of the country’s wealthiest men. He was the victim of a ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’ (a la fellow First Spouse Hillary Clinton), but emerged from jail triumphant. He was the first man to complete a full term in office; a month shy, among our democrats, of being the longest serving.

With no higher educational qualifications, work experience, or known source of income, Mr Zardari has been phenomenally successful on all levels. Such is the essence of AZ — a saint Pakistan recognises. But what of the ones it robs?

The 19th of October was a day we (yet again) lost our moral compass. But it bears repeating: this is the same country Abdul Sattar Edhi gave up everything for, the same nation he brought together regardless of creed.

And Edhi sahib knows a thing or two about the other side of humanity. “Another major obstacle in the promotion of welfare was exposed,” he said in his memoir. “The disgust of man towards mankind. There was only one expression, one reaction from everyone… 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 (…) There was nowhere to go with this attitude. We could not reduce suffering unless we rose above our own senses… cringing was the first and the greatest hindrance that blocked our way, the most brutal, but also the most understandable.”

The shock we feel is understandable too, but it’s time we rose above it. As with the Edhi model, we need to soldier on, ignore the politicians, and make up the shortfall ourselves: in time and donations to the Edhi Foundation.

Because Edhi sahib’s the one saint we have. It’s time society took his cue.


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