The Pakistani who missed the Nobel
Looking through the list of Asia’s greats who passed on in the year past, it is impossible to escape a sense of awe at their accomplishments even as you are struck by the realization that, ultimately, everyone is mortal.
One standout personality who did not waste a moment of his life, and will perhaps be immortal among his people, was Pakistan’s Abdul Sattar Edhi.
It is not quite possible to tally Edhi’s contribution to his adopted land by the time he passed away this July. By some reckoning, he was 88 years old then. But it would be no exaggeration to say he was the most respected Pakistani of his time. All three service chiefs showed up for his state funeral.
The eponymously named foundation he started in 1957 as a tent hospital for victims of the Hong Kong Flu had grown into a sprawling enterprise involved in running ambulance services, clinics, maternity homes, blood banks, mental asylums, shelters for street kids and battered women, and much more.
Among the millions who benefited from his charitable work were thousands of dead men he had washed himself before shrouding them for burial. Such was the enormity of his humility that he never once considered this too menial, or demeaning, a task.
Edhi was sometimes called the Mother Teresa of Pakistan but that, while intended to flatter, is an inadequate comparison. It is a wonder that the Nobel Committee, which awarded the Peace Prize to Mother Teresa in 1979 and to child rights activists Kailash Satyarthi of India and Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan in 2014, should have overlooked Edhi all these years. He himself did not care about the award, saying he expected a better reward from Allah when it was his turn to meet his maker.
A watershed moment in his career came in December 1986 when the Pakistani military and intelligence launched Operation Clean-up in Karachi’s Sohrab Goth area against antisocial elements backed by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. Amid the chaos, street fights and arson, it was left to Edhi’s team to pick up the pieces. Working round the clock, his ambulances went everywhere, his drivers and doctors risking their lives as they offered medical help and retrieved bodies.
It was said that rival gangs stopped their firefight when an Edhi minivan approached. Such was the respect they had for his work.
Considered the largest private ambulance service in the world—there are some 1,800 Edhi ambulances across Pakistan’s four provinces—this was the part of his work of which he was most proud. The vans sprang from an incident a half-century earlier—when he tried to ferry his badly ill mother to hospital and was told that the entire city of Karachi had just one ambulance and that was owned by the Red Cross.
In the last decade of his life, more than the dispensaries and the sheltered children, it was the ambulances that would regularly highlight Edhi’s work for they were often the first responders to the many terrorist strikes that Pakistan suffered.
An obituary in The Guardian newspaper of the United Kingdom accurately described Edhi as a “symbol of Pakistan’s shriveled secular tradition.” It was this part of his personality that so irked groups such as the Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which often issued death threats against him and labelled him a “kafir.”
In January last year, Hafiz Saeed, a cleric wanted in India for masterminding the Mumbai attack, attempted to set up a rival foundation in Karachi with a fleet of 15 ambulances. Edhi shrugged off the challenge.
The full-bearded Edhi was once asked why he was prepared to help people from all faiths, without prioritizing Muslims over others. His response was “because my ambulance is more Muslim than you.”
As the world braces itself for terror attacks in this festive period conducted in the name of Islam, his life and work are a useful reminder about the true essence of the Islamic faith.
Ravi Velloor is associate editor of The Straits Times, Singapore.
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