I first met Fateh Shah Firaq eight years ago on Valentine’s Day; he was giving flowers to passers-by outside the Hyderabad Press Club. At that time I wondered about his motive, but much later I discovered that he just wanted to spread messages of harmony and love.

A tireless peace campaigner for the last 30 years, Firaq is as enthusiastic about his activities as he was in his youth. Age hasn’t dented his passion for his work, and even at the age of 52, hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t have a packed schedule. Some people may consider him strange or eccentric, but others see him as a great humanist.

Firaq has participated in around 50 peace marches to different places and shrines, including a barefoot march to Bhit Shah, under the motto: “make this world peaceful”.

He celebrates every national and international day: on World Labour Day he dons a labourer’s costume, on Valentine’s Day he distributes flowers, and on Friendship Day, handkerchiefs. It’s impossible to count the number of protest demonstrations he has held, or the days he has celebrated so far.

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Born to a Syed family near Matiari, Fateh always dreamt of becoming someone who left their mark on society. At the age of 15, after the murder of his brother and reading up on the history of wars, he reflected on the violence and lack of harmony in the world and decided that steering humanity towards peace was something he wanted to dedicate his life to.

Fateh Shah Firaq is often homeless and penniless but that hasn’t stopped him from doing charity work and campaigning for harmony

Fateh starts his day by writing letters to his friends and acquaintances (he has more than 7,000 addresses listed in his register) on celebratory events such as Eid or birthdays. Once he has made your acquaintance, he will always remember you and send you letters. On Oct 9, 2001, on World Post Day, Fateh set a new record for himself — sending out letters to an astounding 3,000 people.

If a tragic event takes place in the country, he sends condolence letters to the bereaved families. If it happens abroad, he writes to that country’s head. He claims to have written more than 100,000 letters to different people including world leaders and received replies from many of them including Colonel Gaddafi, Fidel Castro, Queen Elizabeth II, and Tony Blair.

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He feels ecstatic about receiving responses from such well-known leaders and politicians, but at the same time, he is saddened that not a single Pakistani leader has responded to his letters. He keeps all these and other important letters in a plastic coating to preserve them. Since he has no permanent residence in the city, he has booked GPO box 114 at the Hyderabad post office.

Letter writing and campaigning is not the only thing Fateh does: in the summer he takes a water cooler and embarks on buses to offer water to thirsty travellers. “At times,” he says, “people avoid taking water thinking I would charge them, but when I explain to them, they take it smilingly”.

“I have worked all these years without looking back. I can’t live without my work. When people write to me, or call me on Eid or any other occasion, I feel bad that my family was so detached; I wish they would at least be on speaking terms.”

Completely engrossed in his work, he gave up studies before reaching the intermediate level, which he now regrets. Perhaps, that’s why education is another passion for him. When he has some money, he buys ballpoints, books and bags, and distributes them among children who work in bungalows, and persuades their employers to let them study. People call him to help find missing children or to lead Quran khwani when the local Maulvi is not available.

He has won many awards but it is people’s admiration that makes him most happy. However, things are not always what they seem: Fateh’s cheerful nature belies his innermost secrets. When he opens up, he reveals a man who is completely dedicated to peacemaking, but is living a life that is not so peaceful.

When he was a child, Fateh used to distribute his new clothes among the needy on Eids, and carried meals to farmers working in the fields. That worried others, but he didn’t care. His work has cost him everything; his family disowned him, his marriage didn’t last for long, and all his relatives left him.

He has no permanent residence. He occasionally lives with people upon their invitation but eventually their welcome ends, and when they are tired of him, they make different excuses to get rid of him. But there’s no shortage of admirers. Currently, he is living with a friend who has allotted him an air-conditioned room. But it’s too small a place to keep all his things. Hence, his belongings — books and letters — are kept at some four or five different places, including a mosque.

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Fateh says, “I have worked all these years without looking back. I can’t live without my work. When people write to me, or call me on Eid or any other occasion, I feel bad that my family was so detached; I wish they would at least be on speaking terms.”

Interestingly, Fateh is also a poet and writer; his poetry encompasses peace and social issues. While we were in his home, he kept us entertained by singing peace songs in his melodious voice and reciting poetry. He has written enough to compile a book but it requires a lot of money. Fateh plans to write a book titled From Beggar to King and Diver to Flyer that will include every man of society by profession and class.

His full-time involvement with peace campaigning does not leave him much time for a paid job, and so he often runs out of money. When he has time, he does menial work to fulfil his needs, and at times his friends and sympathisers support the projects he initiates. One of his friends gave him Rs10,000 for the registration of an organisation, Peace and Development Society, in 2008, which according to him has “9,999 objectives” but is yet to get any project.

“I have gone hungry many times, borne pains, suffered from sleeplessness, but my passion to build a good society doesn’t [end]. I think we can build a good society through education and awareness. I’m playing my part. If everybody does so, the world will be peaceful.”

In the coming days, Fateh plans to start a peace march to Islamabad, some 1,200km away from Hyderabad, in solidarity with the Peshawar and Charsadda attack victims.

For the rally he has written a peace song and recorded it in 12 languages including Sindhi, Urdu and English. He has bought a big MP3 player to play the song, and a map of the world, which he will put around his neck and on his head respectively.

How does one man manage to do so much? I ask. “Once a man decides to do something, nothing is impossible,” he says smilingly.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 29th, 2016



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