A Pakistan charity worker labelled an ‘infidel’

Published - April 02, 2015 05:04 am IST - KARACHI

“Abdul Sattar Edhi runs a sprawling health charity from a Karachi slum, but that doesn’t stop the religious right from condemning him for not saying his prayers”. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“Abdul Sattar Edhi runs a sprawling health charity from a Karachi slum, but that doesn’t stop the religious right from condemning him for not saying his prayers”. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Even in Pakistan, a cheap sofa covered with brown plastic is not most people’s idea of throw-restraint-to-the-wind luxury.

But Abdul Sattar Edhi, a legendary charity worker known for his asceticism, is still getting used to the two-seater that recently replaced the hard bench he sat on for decades in the corner of his office.

“I didn’t ask for it, it was given to me by my daughter,” he says. “I like simplicity, but I didn’t get angry with her.” The dowdy piece of furniture does nothing to undermine the uncompromising frugality of the office of a man proud to own just two sets of salwar kameez , an everyday outfit in Pakistan.

The tiny room is accessed directly off an alley in a Karachi slum and has space for only a few desks for the handful of people who manage a sprawling, countrywide charity empire of more than 1,200 ambulances, hundreds of medical centres, graveyards and an adoption service for abandoned children.

Established in 1957 when Mr. Edhi took it upon himself to set up a tent hospital to look after the victims of a flu outbreak, it went on to become Pakistan’s most impressive social enterprise.

Its minivan ambulances are a common sight across Pakistan, particularly in the aftermath of all-too-frequent terrorist bombings.

Anyone can walk in off the street and pay their respects to one of the country’s most recognisable personalities, the frail old man with a long beard and cap who many Pakistanis argue should have received a Nobel Prize years ago for his work. Emergency callers can end up speaking to Mr. Edhi himself if he happens to pick up the phone.

And yet not everyone likes and respects this saintly figure, who reckons he is about 90 years old.

In October last year eight men barged into the Edhi headquarters and smashed their way into a bank of strongboxes just a few feet away from where Mr. Edhi himself was dozing in his hospital-style bed.

One of the robbers kept a gun trained on a social worker, even though the frail man was no threat, as they proceeded to steal valuables held as a service for people unable or unwilling to use a bank account.

The theft was a shocking moment for an organisation that is facing growing competition from Pakistan’s militant, religious right.

Mr. Edhi is hurt at his treatment by some of the country’s mullahs, who are jealous of his fundraising power and suspicious of his lack of sectarian or ethnic bias in attending to the people who turn to him for help.

“They call him an infidel saying that he does not say his prayers,” says his wife Bilquis, who, with her children, helps run the foundation. “What we are doing should be done by the government and should be appreciated, but instead we are blamed.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2015

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