Published in Daily Times / 09 March 2013 under the title MISSION I(A)MPOSSIBLE
Author(s): Lorenza Raponi and Michele Zanzucchi
Translated from Italian by Lorraine Buckle
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Described as an ‘agent of change’ and a shining example of ‘humanitarian Islam’ by one author and hailed as a modern day ‘St. Francis of Assisi’ by another - the simply dressed old gentleman who sits unobtrusively in the front row is merely on a stop-over before he runs off again to save some lives. Many present at the launch of ‘Half of Two Paisas - The Extraordinary Mission of Abdul Sattar Edhi And Bilquis Edhi’ - co-authored by Lorenza Raponi and Michele Zanzucchi, are already part of the ‘Edhi’ admiration society.
Lorenza and Michele met ‘The Edhis' during a trip to Pakistan in 2005. The philanthropist on the frontline of poverty who founded the Edhi Foundation and charmed the visiting Italians has been playing the part of the savior for over six decades. Ms. Raponi first heard of Abdul Sattar Edhi in 2001 while on a Pakistani Holiday. The Italian translation of Tehmina Durrani’s book on the living legend published the same year as part of a series on great religious leaders, eventually became the basis for this research, and – as Lorenza admitted, ‘ the beginning of an enormous curiosity’.
‘Half of Two Paisas’ was originally published in Italian in 2007 – the English version was launched in early 2013 at the Karachi Literature Festival. It is a slim little volume profuse in its praise of this ‘tireless messenger of peace’ referred to in the Western world as the ‘Mother Teresa of Pakistan. Both Edhi and his wife Bilquis have been featured in the book that re-traces the outlines of their incredible journey through the gritty streets of Karachi based on a road-map of their own making. The Foundation’s remarkable reach and Edhi’s personal philosophy is embedded in the narrative that delves into the challenges faced, sacrifices made and lives saved.
The book takes readers deep inside the world of organized charity led by an ensemble cast of helpers. It has been described as ‘an incredible introduction’ to the Foundations ‘way of life, which aims to make personal ascesis a springboard to the purest and most radical form of charity’. The visit includes a trip to the poorest area of the city where Edhi launched his rescue mission with a dispensary for the underprivileged all those years ago. The scope of Edhi’s humanitarian operation will stagger even those used to the sight of his little ambulances whizzing past them day and night and aware of the numerous centers dotted across the city.
He is a recipient of several awards among them the prestigious ‘International Eugenio Balzan Prize for Humanity’ for his admirable role in providing a continuous lifeline to the needy. That he does not receive grants from Pakistan or other countries or large donors for that matter may not come as a surprise. That 99% of his funds come from his fellow citizens might please many. Readers prepare to meet the man whose reputation precedes him where ever he goes. When a young Saudi was kidnapped in Pakistan, distraught parents have turned to Edhi to appeal to local authorities for recovery. The John Doe taken to an Edhi centre in Tokyo is successfully traced back to his hometown. But subsequent passages dealing with the fate of missing people and referred to as a ‘dramatic and mostly inexplicable facet of Pakistani society’ are less hopeful. Most never see their families despite the organization’s best efforts.
An outsider’s perspective adds another dimension to these findings. The halo is never in question when a lone voice functions as a bulwark against tyranny and neglect, but the writers occasionally stop to observe the limits to his benevolent vision. Their encounters with society’s rejects at the Edhi Village on the receiving end of ‘palliative treatment’ that gives these people ‘an infinitely better quality of life than they would have had on the outside’ set their thoughts off in a different direction.
The Foundation’s compassion extends to all God’s creatures and the same sentiment resurfaces at the animal shelter. ‘…we are plagued by a sense of unease and incompleteness …’ they state, later wondering if ‘…the sense of ingenuousness that this place conveys to us is’ because ‘the next step of recovery and rehabilitation is missing.’
The other book on Edhi has the Foundations stamp of approval but, according to the writer did not have space for personal opinions. ‘Half of Two Paisas’ promises detailed insight into the man and his mission. Lorenza had called him not just ‘a star for his country but a star for us as well –and for humanity’. Every aspect of his courageous life is carefully woven into the tapestry and the little sanctuaries he helped create drawing upon an inexhaustible stream of good will, fortitude, humility and selflessness. Yet the forlorn faces stay in focus. Society, at its weakest in dire need of reformation remains a part of this picture. We get a chilling view of what the nation would be like without his intervention followed by a surge of relief that there are men like Edhi at the tiller to ensure that the flickering flames of empathy do not die. This book helps promote Edhi’s legacy of tolerance and the Foundation’s infinite reservoir of optimism.
Two weeks after the book launch, shock-waves from a devastating bomb attack left Karachi reeling. In an atmosphere of deepening rifts and in the absence of State assistance, the good Samaritans on the social media stepped forward redirecting donations to Edhi centers. At a time when the nation stares into the abyss, a feeble looking man tagged as a ‘weapon against militancy’ solemnly plods on unmindful of the real/ideological minefields.
Lorenza Raponi Image taken at KLF 2013, CopyRighted.
Book Cover taken from net.