'Edhi, move or you’ll get shot'

The first and last time I met Edhi, it altered the course of my life.
Published July 13, 2016
Burdened by responsibility. —Arif Mahmood/White Star
Burdened by responsibility. —Arif Mahmood/White Star

The first time I met Abdul Sattar Edhi was also my last. It was March 23rd. Little did I know that the meeting — which happened completely by chance — would alter the course of my life.

On Pakistan Day in 2011, my friends and I from Karachi University decided to clean the area around Empress Market in Saddar. As part of a four-day campaign ‘Saaf Saaf Pakistan’, we took plastic bags to the crowded neighbourhood, and began to collect the garbage off the sidewalks.

Countless eyes were fixated on us, wondering what we were up to, but we ignored them. An elderly person even stopped to ask in curiosity, “Sister, you look educated. Why then are you doing this work?”

After we were done, we wondered what more we could do for Pakistan on its day. We thought it might be a great idea to go to the Edhi Centre in Mithadar, and take candies for the children there.

Also read: Edhi — The exception to Pakistan's faults

Like Saddar, Mithadar is another old neighbourhood in Karachi. People gave us directions, and after an hour of wandering through crisscrossed streets, we arrived there. A friend, who was ahead of us, had peeked through the office door, and was jumping with happiness and excitement.

“He’s there, he’s inside, he’s right there!”

All of us halted in our tracks, not having enough courage to face the man who was none other than Abdul Sattar Edhi. But just a few steps ahead — no security to stop visitors, no secretaries to hand out appointments — we were in front of him. His larger-than-life personality intimidated me. I couldn’t dare speak.

Finally, a friend broke the silence. “Assalam o Alaikum. Sir, we have come from Karachi University. Are there children at this centre?”

Walaikum Salam. Yes, there are a few children here too.”

“Can we meet them? Actually, we want to spend time with them and tell them about Pakistan because it’s Pakistan Day.”

A receptionist nearby interrupted and informed us that anything intended for the children could be handed over at the counter. Edhi sahib explained: “We do not let anyone meet the children now. People come requesting adoptions, and then make our children work in their homes.”

His argument carried weight, so we didn’t ask again. But we did start asking him other questions — about his work, his life, interesting stories he had experienced. He duly obliged.

Edhi and Bilquis Edhi in the new-born children's area at the Edhi Centre in Mithadar. —Photo by Arif Mahmood/White Star
Edhi and Bilquis Edhi in the new-born children's area at the Edhi Centre in Mithadar. —Photo by Arif Mahmood/White Star

Each story of his carried a lesson. He told us about the time his grandchild needed emergency treatment at Civil Hospital. The doctor was away on Eid holidays and did not come until it was too late. And to think that this man was the owner of the world's largest private ambulance service.

The child died, but Edhi sahib did not ransack the hospital, nor did angry relatives burn cars in the parking lot. It was only the heart of this kind-hearted man that burnt for his grandchild.

This man’s greatness was such that he donated his organs before leaving this world, and his last words urged his family to take care of the country’s poor. Yet, there are people still debating whether donating one’s organs is permissible in Islam.

For them, I would just like to say, Edhi didn’t believe in debating, he believed in doing.

Among the stories he shared, one was of the time he was in interior Sindh for rescue work. Bandits stopped his van, but upon recognising Edhi sahib, immediately let all the passengers go without looting anything. Edhi said he had such encounters before, with bandits and insurgents in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Another time, he was picking up dead bodies in the city, when two groups started exchanging intense gunfire at the scene. One of the gunmen happened to recognise him and shouted from far away:

“Edhi! Chale jao yahan se warna goli lag jaye gi!” [Edhi, go away from here or you’ll get shot]

Edhi replied, “I will not move. Do your work, and let me do mine.”

This was the same Edhi who had borne unbelievable allegations from people. Sometimes he was accused of selling organs from dead bodies, other times of supplying girls to brothels. But nothing broke his resolve — nothing could stop him from doing what he was doing.

Explore: Edhi — A life less ordinary

That day we realised that someone who believes no religion is higher than humanity cannot be intimidated by anyone. As Edhi sahib told us, every new government asks him what they can do for him. He tells them, “I don’t need anything from you, but tell me if you need my help.”

Edhi standing on I.I. Chundrigar Road collecting funds for his Centre. —Photo by Arif Mahmood/White Star
Edhi standing on I.I. Chundrigar Road collecting funds for his Centre. —Photo by Arif Mahmood/White Star

He meant it — Edhi sahib helped everyone, regardless of who they were. I have never met anyone more selfless. Wasn't it him who gave asylum to the woman who burnt her four-year-old child alive? Why?

Because that woman was mentally challenged. Even her family had abandoned her. If Edhi abandoned her too, where would she go?

While Edhi sahib shared his stories, his phone was ringing off the hook. Either he or a staff member would answer, then issue directives for handling the specific emergency situation.

See: Edhi's politics of kindness

During all of this, a friend happened to mention our morning activity.

He was startled. “What did you people do at Empress Market?”

“We…we cleaned it.”

“How did you? Did you sweep?” The glare in Edhi sahib’s eyes was worth seeing.

“No sir, we picked up the garbage ourselves.”

Edhi, during a rare food break at his home. Edhi routinely had fruits with his lunch. —Photo by Arif Mahmood/White Star
Edhi, during a rare food break at his home. Edhi routinely had fruits with his lunch. —Photo by Arif Mahmood/White Star

Upon hearing this, Edhi sahib’s face broke into visible excitement. “This means you have taken your first step,” he said and then asked a volunteer to take us to the children.

Now, it was our turn to be excited. We met the children and got a look around the centre. In one area, food was being prepared, and a wall in front of us read, ‘Happy Marriage’ — leftover decoration from a girl’s marriage at the Centre a few days ago.

In one room, infants were sleeping. In the next two, children were being schooled. The place was kept impeccably clean and you couldn’t tell it was inhabited by so many children.

Downstairs, Edhi sahib presented us with his autobiography, A Mirror to the Blind, which he signed in Gujarati. He then brought out photo albums of the marriage which took place at the centre some days ago. In the midst of all this, a snake charmer suddenly appeared at the door.

“Edhi sahib! Won’t you see the performance today?”

"Aray, kyun nahi dekhayn ge? Zaroor dekhayn ge." [Why wouldn’t I see it? Of course I will.]

The charmer placed his basket on the floor, this would also be my first time watching a snake performance.

We were all watching quietly when Edhi sahib commented, "I love the music of the been."

Translated by Bilal Karim Mughal from the original in Urdu here.