When I Met Edhi

In 2010 I was on a flight heading home to Pakistan from New York, sitting by the emergency exit door of a Boeing 777; a seat given to me as a birthday present by the nice boarding attendant, for it came with the extra leg room well needed for my 13 hour connecting flight to Dubai. I decided to enjoy my intercontinental birthday over the atlantic binge watching documentaries with legs stretched out till the emergency exit door. Lazying in the air like I just don’t care, I slouched into a comfy lounge esque position.

As Carl Sagan explained how light bends around a black hole, I felt my divine privacy bubble disrupted by a couple of rubber slippers chirping up to me. My peripheral vision sensed a man wearing ankle length grayish blue shalwar kurta (a Pakistani traditional dress) with a long white beard, walking up to me and standing right by my unapologetic feet. I looked up wondering, “who dares disturb my… wait.. how do I know this man?”.

As millions of lightbulbs illuminated my couch-potato-esque state of mind, I immediately stood up straight like a soldier, gave my Salam (respectful Hi) and offered this man my seat.

It was Abdul Sattar Edhi. Pakistani philanthropist, ascetic, and humanitarian who founded the Edhi Foundation, which runs hospitals, homeless shelters, rehab centres, and orphanages across Pakistan. The organization has held the Guinness record for world’s “largest volunteer ambulance organization” since 1997.

In his lifetime, his foundation expanded backed entirely with private donations, including establishing a network of 1,800 minivan ambulances. By the time of his death in 2016, Edhi was registered as a parent or guardian of nearly 20,000 children. He is known as Angel of Mercy and is considered to be Pakistan’s most respected and legendary figure. In 2013, The Huffington Post claimed that he might be “the world’s greatest living humanitarian”.

For perspective, he was so trusted and respected in Pakistan, he could go sit by any footpath for a few minutes and collect thousands of dollars worth of donations without even uttering a word.

It was no surprise that he was traveling in the economy class. Abdul Sattar Edhi maintained a famously monkish lifestyle, never taking a salary, never owning more than two suits of clothes and living quietly in an apartment room within the foundation’s original headquarters.

Edhi sahib (sir) responded with a pronounced “Walaikum” (“Hi back”), smiled and politely declined the offer to take my seat explaining that he was tired of sitting in his seat and needed to stand. He then looked away, facing the emergency exit on the other side. I pondered whether I should switch to my Pakistani manners: “nahi nahi aap please baithain” (“no, no, please you must sit good sir”), or my American “alrighty then sir, I’ll sit right back”. I opted for neither. I just stood there. Awkwardly. Hands in my pockets, staring deeply into that bland emergency exit, right next to the most respected living figure I or almost anyone I knew could think of. Frankly, just felt wrong sitting while he stood.

The awkwardness was short lived. As if he knew me, Edhi sahib simply turned to me and started telling me about what he had been up to. I guess since everyone talked to him like they knew him, he felt comfortable talking to strangers like he already knew them too.

There had been a terrible earthquake in Haiti that year. In Urdu, he spoke about how things there are bad, and that he was just there supplying ambulances. He talked about what he needed to do when he got to Karachi. I kept nodding and indulged him with a few questions. He was surprisingly frank. He didn’t hold back his feelings on matters, most of which pertained to the bad state of things in Haiti and Pakistan.

We chatted for a good 15 mins. Afterwards, Edhi sahib said, “chalain, Allah hafiz” (“Alright, goodbye”) and walked back to his seat. It was a nice little birthday present from the celestial gods of inflight entertainment.

This wasn’t the last time I met him.

A year later, I was working on a short-documentary series project of my own called Seerat, which covered people doing extraordinary things in Pakistan. Not having him in it would have been a sin. He was very easy to arrange an interview with. Very approachable. Maybe too approachable. I simply showed up and walked right into his small headquarters in the crowded slums of Mithadar, Karachi. No guards, no security, all in the middle of a crowded market, there he was sitting by his desk with his hands on a newspaper, waiting for someone to read it to him; he couldn’t read or write. I remember him casually brushing off how many (honorary) degrees he had.

In that newspaper, there was an article that he had recently given an interview for. It was on the issue of poor families unable to marry off their daughters. In his usual style, he started talking to me about it while my crew went about unpacking and setting up the equipment.

He seemed weaker. He coughed a lot this time. He could no longer stand up on his own and often needed assistance while walking. He was not as healthy as the man who had walked up and stood next to me in the airplane a year ago.

As he spoke, it was apparent that something was tearing him apart. He told me about the very “sakht” (“harsh”) interview that he had given to the paper on the issue of poor families unable to marry their daughters, the lack of social welfare, and how he was especially angry about the inconsiderate state of our society; how no one cares about the poor. He mentioned how he had even been scolding the poor for their spendings on useless obsessions like paan, gutkas (tobacco delicacies) and cigarettes instead of saving for their future.

Like any decent documentary maker, I responded with blatant disbelief. “No. That’s not possible Edhi Sahib”, “I don’t believe that you can give a sakht interview”. This exasperated him further as he picked up the newspaper and shook it, asserting that the interview he gave was indeed very “sakht”. I paused, smiled, and shook my head, “no no… you’re mistaken Edhi Sahib, you can only give the most polite interviews”. He was determined to prove me wrong.

See, thanks to that interaction with him on the airplane, I knew what Edhi sahib was like in person. He was frank, very direct, sometimes with a sharp tongue. It was surprising because it wasn’t how we had come to know him from the TV growing up. My main concern going into this interview was Edhi sahib’s ‘TV mode’. Every single one of his prior interviews had this official press conference feel to it. A giant mic on the desk and him going on in the safest formal ways, politely thanking people, constantly expressing gratitude, smiling and talking about his work. Every sentence was “I request people to…”, or “I thank everyone who…”. I knew he had more to say. I didn’t want him treating us like some TV News program from the eighties. I wanted him to express what he was feeling openly, as he would to the strangers he meets, like he did with me on the airplane. I wanted him to be him, for the sake of generations to come who ought know what he was like. If he was upset, I wanted him to be upset. If he was concerned, I wanted him to be concerned.

We filmed the interview, and here is what made the final cut. English subtitles are included.

The complete Seerat series is available here.

I often refer to Pakistan as the world’s documentary goldmine. Not because of the hotchpotch of troubles that infect our society, but the astonishing human resilience that prevails in the face of it. Edhi sahib has been the embodiment of this resilience. He showed us that we’re capable of not just overcoming our own troubles, but can help others overcome theirs. He personified the Pakistani dream.

What I remember the most from the interview was how he was sick, but refused to let us stop. Frankly, nothing stopped him. I’ve come to learn that instead of a philanthropist, he was a fighter first. His philanthropy was simply a reflection of his resourceful resilience. He fought his way from nothing, from a difficult childhood to a struggle filled adulthood, with empty hands, in torn clothes and rubber slippers, not for himself but for those nobody would fight for.

Whenever religious zealots confronted him with “Why must you pick up Christians and Hindus in your ambulance?”

He would respond “Because the ambulance is more Muslim than you.”

After having met him twice, I personally believe that he knew very early in his life, that he was stronger than most of us. That he felt responsible for putting this strength to good use; fighting for what’s right. Today, as we look back in his absence, it is apparent that he had been fighting for all of us.