The Inimitable Edhi

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Newsweek Pakistan: July 18, 2016

Can anyone in Pakistan fully understand the country’s greatest humanitarian? 

The other night, my father’s friend had a terribly vivid dream about my sister. “I saw your youngest daughter badly hurt,” he told us. The next day, hoping to ward off any ill omens, my father prayed for my sister’s safety and deposited a small donation in her name at the Edhi Center near our home in Karachi. I never met Abdul Sattar Edhi, and with these offerings of sadqa [alms] to his organization, I hoped I would never have to. Like most people I know, I have been fortunate enough to never require the Edhi Foundation’s services.

Over the years, I have visited the local Edhi Center many times. I didn’t realize it at the time, but each visit taught me to count my blessings: my three nephews came into the world in perfect health, my father celebrated his 65th birthday, my brother-in-law escaped a factory fire unhurt, my sister pulled through a major surgery, I got married, and later, my husband was pulled out of the mangled remains of his car after an accident, wounded but alive.

When Edhi died late on July 8, I spent hours scrolling through hundreds of personal anecdotes about the humanitarian and his Edhi Foundation on social media and felt a twinge of envy. Why hadn’t I ever tried to meet him? The man was a cipher. How could anyone be that good? In his autobiography, A Mirror to the Blind, Edhi tells narrator Tehmina Durrani that he had received complaints about his foundation’s refusal to distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims. “Why must you pick up Christians and Hindus in your ambulances?” he was asked. “Because the ambulance is more Muslim than you,” he replied. That tart response is fast becoming the stuff of legend, as it encapsulates Edhi’s humanity in a country that appears to be rapidly losing its own. “We would call on Edhi sahib automatically whenever something happened,” a member of the minority Ahmadi community in Karachi told Newsweek when I recounted this story. “Other ambulance services would not help us if one of us was injured or targeted in a shooting. They would either make excuses and say that no ambulances were available, or they would promise us that they were dispatching someone and then just wouldn’t show up.”

This man, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of his own safety, says a recent example of the Edhi Foundation’s impartial benevolence was the targeted killing of Dr. Khaliq Bashir outside his clinic in Sikandar Goth last month. After several rescue services refused to transport Bashir’s body to hospital, the deceased doctor’s friends turned to Edhi. “There was a ticker running on the news that an Ahmadi doctor had been shot, and I suppose they figured out that’s why we were calling,” he explains, adding that many Ahmadi families in the urban metropolis are often refused funeral transport for themselves or the bodies of their loved ones. “But Edhi never refused us.” The more I learn of him, the less I understand how a place like Pakistan can simultaneously produce a man like Edhi and those who made his work necessary.

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Reeled In

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The Caravan: July 1, 2016

A rash of film bans portends rising censorship in Pakistan

On the evening of 5 May, I joined about two-dozen people at a small private venue in Karachi, to watch a film we were not supposed to watch. Security was tight. The attendees—mostly journalists, activists and filmmakers—had all been told of the event only a day earlier, and we were asked to show our national identity cards while entering the building, through a rear exit. Before the screening, one of the film’s directors laid down two strict rules: no photographs, no social media.

The film being shown was Among the Believers, a documentary that profiles Maulana Abdul Aziz, the leader of an extremist network with links across the country. The film shows how the government’s failure to provide basic services for its people enables radical clerics to gain thousands of followers by offering free food, education and healthcare.

On 25 April, ten days before the secret screening, Pakistan’s Central Board of Film Censors, or CBFC, had banned the film. The directors, Mohammed Ali Naqvi and Hemal Trivedi, asked the CBFC to review the ban, but the body rejected their appeal, saying Among the Believers contained dialogue that projected a “negative image of Pakistan in the context of ongoing fighting against extremism and terrorism.”

The Pakistani government has sporadically banned films over the last few years, but until now the targets of such censorship have mostly been Bollywood movies (last year, for example, Neerja and Phantom were banned). But when it comes to local cinema, censors have tended to be more permissive, recommending excisions instead of outright bans. Recently, however, this has changed. Among the Believers is one of three Pakistani films banned over a two-week period this spring. These bans, which targeted content deemed anti-Pakistani, point to a growing censorship of the country’s film industry, and the state’s tightening grip on freedom of expression.

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Photo: Still from Besieged in Quetta

My mother’s battle with drug addiction in Pakistan

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Al Jazeera: July 4, 2016

She was Pakistan’s first female maxillofacial surgeon. After decades of substance abuse, is she on the road to recovery?

Karachi, Pakistan –  Before I saw my mother in May, I had been dreading the meeting. I had no idea what to expect.

She was angry and resentful the last time I saw her. She had been cloistered inside a rehabilitation facility in Karachi since late 2015 and was fiercely resisting treatment. Soon after she arrived, her team of carers – a psychiatrist, the founders of the rehabilitation centre and her “psychological rehabilitation person” – had wanted to change tack and cut off all contact with the family.

She has to feel that there is no way out of here except through us, they said.

She was furious at the bind she found herself in – admitted to the facility by her family, and unable to voluntarily opt out of the programme. She wanted to leave and couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t allow it. It isn’t her first stint in rehab, but it is the first place where she cannot bully, argue or sweet-talk her way out. There are guards at the gate here.

I am told to wait in a conference room on the ground floor. A woman walks down the stairs. There’s a shaft of afternoon sunlight at her back and I can’t make out her face. But she has the shuffling, slow gait that I know well – her feet drag with each step, her head droops.

I brace myself. But then the woman moves out of the light and I see that it’s not her.

When my mother does appear, the first thing I notice are her high, full cheekbones. Last time, they were anchored by puffiness. I’m surprised by the significant amount of weight she has lost.

“How are you?” she asks, as she reaches out for a hug. It’s a simple question, but not one that she has asked in a very long time. Her hair is combed. She wears berry-coloured lipstick. Her clothes are clean and ironed.

She sits beside me at the table and leans forward.

“You’re looking very nice,” she says. “Your hair has grown so much!”

Has it? I am embarrassed by the attention. You look nice too, I tell her bashfully.

“How is your work at the magazine?” she prompts.

“I stopped working at the magazine in 2011,” I remind her. She pauses. The hair, the job – she remembers me as I was five years ago.

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Sparks fly when an artist decides to talk back to her Pakistani ‘uncles and aunties’

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Women in the World: April 18, 2016

When Maria Qamar was a child, her parents refused to support her decision to pursue art — even ripping the drawings from her bedroom walls on one occasion. Today, thousands pay to have her work on their walls. 

For many people of South Asian descent, there is a group in possession of the magic words that will instantly transport you to your most painful and rebellious teenage years — the uncles and aunties. Often unrelated to you, they are the cluster of your parent’s friends that have a word of advice (or disapproval) for everything from your weight and grades to your marriage prospects.

Maria Qamar, a Toronto-based artist and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, who goes by the name Hatecopy, decided to talk back to the uncles and aunties. And very quickly, she had more than 46,000 followers on Instagram alone, listening in to the conversation and chiming in with their stories, both hilarious and heartbreaking.

When Qamar was a child, her parents refused to support her decision to pursue art — even ripping her drawings off the walls of her bedroom in one instance. Today, thousands pay to hang that art on the walls of their homes. Qamar spoke with Women in the World about this gratifying journey and why getting let go of her day job was the best thing that happened to her.

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