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Remembering Amjad Sabri, the family man who loved playing Ludo

A year after the qawwal's murder, his family struggles to cope.
Updated Jun 22, 2017 11:05pm

Amjad Sabri with his wife Nadia Sabri.—Courtesy Nadia Sabri
Amjad Sabri with his wife Nadia Sabri.—Courtesy Nadia Sabri

Late Amjad Sabri is remembered not only as a beloved qawwal, but also a great showman and entertainer. The qawwal’s penchant for all things filmy has been readily documented. Signs of this mutual admiration between Amjad and film stars are still on display at his home. A collection of framed pictures of the qawwal includes ones of him with celebrities from both India and Pakistan. It is perhaps fitting then that the events which led to his marriage are quite like a Bollywood story.

Amjad was first introduced to Nadia at a friend's wedding back in 2002. “Soon, he sent a marriage proposal to my home,” Nadia recalls. “Both of our families were against the marriage. You know, like in the movies,” she adds. Eventually, the parents “gave in” and the couple celebrated their transition into happily ever after.

What followed was over a decade of happy memories as the qawwal went from strength to strength.

Amjad Sabri with Bollywood actress Juhi Chawla.—Courtesy Routes2Roots
Amjad Sabri with Bollywood actress Juhi Chawla.—Courtesy Routes2Roots

The husband

For Nadia, life with larger-than-life Amjad meant making the most of his limited free time. Every year, the qawwal would be a prominent presence during Ramazan transmissions on television. This, of course, would result in him spending very little time at home during the month. “He used to come in only to take showers; [he would] sit and speak with us for a while to make up for the lost time,” she recalls.

Looking back a year after her husband’s murder, Nadia feels she did not have enough time with him.

"The only time he really felt lonely was when he used to go to the UK or US for shows. He used to make videos on his phone of all of us [to watch later]."

“A giant board game, Ludo, was always in his room where our five children, including his brother’s children, used to gather to play. There was cash prize of Rs1,000 for the team that won. Despite his innocence and affability, [Amjad] used to cheat in the game to make his favourite team win,” Nadia says, laughing at the memory.

“The only time he really felt lonely was when he used to go to the UK or US for shows. He used to make videos on his phone of all of us doing random things or talking about our daily routines. If one of us caught him making the videos, he would say, ‘I’m keeping these videos to watch later,’” she adds.

A week before leaving for any extended international tour, Amjad would spend the entire week at home.

Amjad Sabri performs in Karachi.—Shahzaib Arif Shaikh
Amjad Sabri performs in Karachi.—Shahzaib Arif Shaikh

The brother

Video by Kamran Nafees

“It feels like he’s gone abroad for one of his shows and will come back anytime,” Azmat Sabri, one of Amjad’s brothers tells Dawn. “For the first time I feel like I’m an orphan.”

Azmat says that soon after the senior Sabri’s passing, the responsibility of taking the mantle forward came towards Amjad. “See, I’m a part-time singer. I have other things to do apart from qawwali. My elder brother, who lives in London for the past 30 years, backed out citing similar reasons. But Amjad is the one who not only showed his talent as a child, but also kept the dignity of the family profession,” adds Azmat.

When veteran actor and comedian Moin Akhtar first saw a young Amjad Sabri perform, he asked Sabri to follow qawwali.

Azmat recalls that Amjad’s ability was visible since he was a kid. Recounting one of the initial instances, when people around him recognised his talent, Azmat says that, “In one of the school functions at Habib Public School, in the late 1970s, he sang Paisa Bolta Hai. Veteran actor and comedian Moin Akhtar who was present at the time told Amjad to follow qawwali.”

Azmat recognises that there are those who accuse his late brother of Bollywoodisation of qawwali. Yet, he says, anyone who listened to his last kalaam during Samaa TV’s sehri transmission on June 22, 2016, cannot ignore the soulful rendition.

This would be Amjad's last qawwali. That evening his car came under attack in Liaquatabad number 10. Unidentified men opened fire on his car and left him to die. He succumbed to his injuries on the way to the hospital.

Amjad Sabri's sons Mujaddid and Aun with their father's portrait.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Amjad Sabri's sons Mujaddid and Aun with their father's portrait.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

After Amjad

Speaking about the ill-fated eve her husband was shot dead, Nadia says her first thought was to “gather my children and leave”. She had no clear idea where she would go, “but it was a place in my head where my children would be safe and at peace”.

A year later, this feeling of insecurity persists.

Last month, news channels flashed reports that his family has decided to leave the country “due to threats”. The family also came forward with a unified stance of feeling “mentally exhausted and needing a break”.

A June 2016 vigil in Karachi remembering the qawwal.—AFP
A June 2016 vigil in Karachi remembering the qawwal.—AFP

When asked how the decision to move to London came about, Nadia says it was after a “woman came to our home one afternoon and told us that our family is still being monitored”.

The woman didn’t divulge anything further, leaving the already distressed family guessing.

“Her coming to our home like that and constantly looking towards the door and windows made us suspicious. So, I quietly asked one of our children to record a video of whatever she says to us. We then shared the video with the law enforcement,” she says. The decision to “temporarily move to London” came after the woman’s discussion with the family was shared with Amjad's elder brother in London. “We decided to temporarily go there in order to get a fresh perspective on things and to relax. People enjoy creating drama around a family already going through too much,” she adds.

Mourners gather around the ambulance carrying the body of qawwal Amjad Sabri during his funeral on Thursday.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Mourners gather around the ambulance carrying the body of qawwal Amjad Sabri during his funeral on Thursday.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

Case closed

Although speculation surrounding his murder range included wild theories of extortion and a political falling out, investigators have concluded that Amjad’s murder had a sectarian motive. Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) is said to have gone after the qawwal after “his qawwali was found to have a sectarian tinge,” according to one senior officer at the Counter Terrorism Department. Amjad’s family, however, finds it hard to believe.

His wife questions the “abrupt” conclusion of the case. “It is said that he was killed for a sectarian reason. I don’t believe it. There were all these reports about how the murder was planned and carried out from our area. A political section was also blamed and men arrested. And then it became a sectarian issue? It is hard for me to believe,” she says. After a pause Nadia adds that, “I do understand that our state has done a lot to get the criminals arrested and there are elements at play that probably we don’t understand.”

A year after his death, Amjad Sabri's family and fans still struggle to cope with his loss.—Shan Chandani
A year after his death, Amjad Sabri's family and fans still struggle to cope with his loss.—Shan Chandani

Senior Superintendent Police, Raja Umar Khattab, says there is no sudden conclusion in the case, “rather every detail has come together after proper investigation.” There was no confirmation right after the murder, but only stories and rumours, he adds. Law enforcers exhausted every possibility including the involvement of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, some “builder mafia” or extortionists, before closing the case. Khattab had earlier assured the media that arrests were made after “irrefutable” evidence was found.

Yet, instead of getting closure after the case’s conclusion, Amjad’s family continues to struggle with his loss. It is Ramazan once again and Nadia cannot believe it has been a year since her husband departed.

A fan shares how Amjad Sabri made her wedding all the more special. Continue reading by clicking the next tab.

I cannot forget Amjad Sabri's humility

By Alyzeh Rizvi

As a part of our wedding festivities, we had invited Sabri to come for a Mehfil-e-Sama. I remember the event was to start at 10pm and nobody had showed up till after 11pm. However, Amjad Sabri and his crew were the first to arrive at 9:30pm sharp.

Sabri was very friendly, and it did not seem to bother him at all that the entire venue was empty — not even the gharwalas had arrived then. He sat with one of my husband’s uncles. They spoke for a very long time and bonded over different Manqabats and Naats. Sabri was such a genuinely nice person; calm and collected in his demeanour and greeted one with a big smile.

The event went very well and as always Sabri put up an amazing mehfil; one that I will never forget. What truly stayed with me, however, was not the night of the mehfil (because I was the bride with a massive ghooghat and a dozen people surrounded me at all times) but an event that occurred about two weeks later.

Amjad Sabri at Alyzeh Rizvi and Ahmer Zaidi's Mehfil-e-Sama.—Courtesy Alyzeh Rizvi
Amjad Sabri at Alyzeh Rizvi and Ahmer Zaidi's Mehfil-e-Sama.—Courtesy Alyzeh Rizvi

Right after my wedding I left for New York for my honeymoon. About 10 days later I was on my way back to Karachi. When boarding my flight back to Pakistan, I noticed Sabri and his entire crew was waiting in the same lounge. I was a little hesitant to go up to him because I had only met him very briefly at my own event and barely exchanged a few words. But the absolutely humble man Sabri was, he came up to me and asked me how I was and enquired about my husband and other family members.

I cannot begin to tell you how moved I was by this gesture. I was speechless. Sabri had remembered me! ME! I told him, “Amjad Bhai, aap ko kesay yaad raha? Main to soch rahi thi aap pehchanay gay nahi,”[Amjad Bhai, how do you remember me? I thought you wouldn’t recognise me]. He smiled and responded, “Nahin! Mujhay meray saray chahnay walay yaad rehtay hain,” [No! I remember all my fans].

I have tears in my eyes as I type this. It took me days, weeks to process that he is no more. I am such a big fan of his work but more than that, I am a fan of his humility and kindness.

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