Delving into the Life of Abdul Sattar Edhi

It started with watching the trailer for an upcoming documentary for a film called “These Birds Walk” about the work of the Edhi Foundation, Pakistan’s largest social welfare organisation.

These Birds Walk – Teaser from Omar & Bassam on Vimeo.

I had heard much about the work of the Edhi organisation before. I knew about the cradles across Pakistan for women to anonymously give their babies up instead of abandoning them, the burials through the organisation for people who wouldn’t receive a proper burial otherwise, and their care for the mentally ill in addition to their many other services. I’ve always had a strong respect of their work. And so when I learnt that a book existed about Edhi in his own words (as narrated by Tehmina Durrani) called Edhi: A Mirror to the Blind  I tried to find a copy so I could learn more. Today, after a long week reading the book in spare moments, I finally finished.

First, the not so positive parts of the book. Perhaps because it’s translated from Urdu it’s a choppy read, and the book drags and lengthens at parts unnecessarily. There are times when Edhi is talking about a certain event in very vague terms, and it is difficult to know what exactly he is referring to. The book uses big words when shorter words would perhaps be more suitable, and the book often feels like a long sermon.

Having said that, this is a worthwhile read because it is about an amazing individual and his journey to build an incredible organization. The book begins with the death of his four year old grandson Bilal who is burnt by a mentally ill patient in one of their centres, and goes back in time to start Edhi’s story from its beginning, with Edhi’s mother deep emphasis on charity for her children. From there the book spans decades – from Edhi’s early childhood to his first dispensary, to his marriage, the birth of his four children, the growth of his family and his organisation, and finally ends in the mid nineties.

Reading about Edhi and his wife’s simple 2-room apartment, his insistence of minimal personal expenditure, their use of every moment, their simple food (Edhi speaks about eating stale bread for decades) and little sleep (Edhi sleeps on a bench outside for a few hours nightly) is a powerful reminder that life is not meant to be a self-centered exercise. It’s not meant to be about collecting and broadcasting ‘neat experiences’, it’s about helping others, and being of use. It’s about privileging others needs over your own and not indulging in extravagance when so many others in the world/your own community are in desperate need. This book really drives home the point that charity is not a ‘good action’ you are doing, it is a component of being a dignified human being. Reading this book has been a reminder to strive to be a bit less selfish, a bit less concerned about the opinions of others, and a bit more conscious in how I use my money and time.

In no particular order, here are some of Edhi’s lessons I took away from the book and favourite quotes.

  1.  Religion is about more than praying in a room to God. Islam in particular is about social action, personal transformation, and alleviating the pain of others. If your religious practice is not benefiting anyone, than there is something deficient in what you are doing. Edhi heavily critiques being ritualistic about religion by frantically ‘chanting prayers’ daily and ignoring the needs of people at the same time.
  2. The way charity is given matters. Edhi speaks many times in the book that many people give charity seeking prestige and not because it is the right thing to do. They want to be thanked, and the presence of ego makes this an impoverished action.
  3. Because burial is a huge part of what the Edhi Foundation does, death is a major theme of the book. The imminence of death and how it should shape one’s life (Edhi asks why people pursue luxuries instead of helping the poor and oppressed) is something that people rarely think about, but should.
  4. “The human body needs rest according to the degree of perseverance it injects into commitments. Those who pursue nothing need the most rest. By this rule all people are inflicted with varying degrees of lethargy. I am convinced that the foremost evil is laziness, it is the source of all addiction, and gradually encompasses all forms of decadence. It kills your abilities so casually that you think yourself hale and hearty, whereas you have become an invalid.” (p.132)
  5. Love deepens when you work to build more than simply a life together. Edhi’s description of his wife Bilqees, and his honesty in describing both how much he loves her, is beautiful. In his own words, he cannot do the work he does without her, and her happy personality transforms his life. She is a tremendous person in her own right, and the story of their relationship is a lesson in how powerful the right partnership can be.
  6. The lessons from our families run deep. Edhi talks tenderly about his parents and in particular his mother, and also reflects on the good within his mother in law’s life.  Remembering them both he says, “We led our lives by the values set by our mothers. They touched our souls and all we have to do and will do.” (360)
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