Tuesday, September 7, 2010

'You're not a star until they can spell your name in Karachi'-Humphrey Bogart

Hello Pakistan. I have to tell you something. You are the craziest place on the planet. You talk too loudly, have no patience for anything, rush past people, always look to make a quick buck, stay up all night, fight for love, love to fight, and your kitchen is running non-stop. You are always late for something, one can hardly hear themselves think from all the noise you make, your almost always about to get into an accident, and you tease with your offering of electricity. You always rely on me to defend you, and you always ask me to take the fall for you. I have to tell you something else though. I love you. I absolutely, completely love you. The neurosis of your heart and the beat that it drums to rocks me to the core and completes me as a person. To my dear current city of Karachi, the perfect mess of complicated grids, amazing people, sights and smells, bustling markets, and unlimited abnormalities you present, can intoxicate anyone who dares to embrace you, and is more addictive then the best Afghan heroin money can buy. You may have recently been scratched and bumped a few times, but your heart is pure and the engine continues to run. And as long as it runs, you will always have me on your side. So Mr. Bogart, while you may have referenced Karachi to accentuate the incredible distance between it and Hollywood, you’ll be happy to know, that according to your own measure, you were the most fabulous of stars.

I have received so many incredible messages from all of you, and some of them have been far too kind. Let me set the record straight: I have cheated my way into earning your respect. All I’m doing is penning down the stories of people I meet and what I have seen on the ground. You can find plenty of other smarter people who ‘know’ what’s wrong with us and how to fix it. I will hopefully always just talk to you about simpler things. Simpler things like my dear friend, family driver, and mentor: Ismail.

As far back as I can remember, there were always two constants in my life when growing up in Islamabad. The first one was, I was always finding myself getting into some sort of trouble. The second one was that Ismail was always there to protect me. It really was as basic as that. In hindsight, I am very proud of the fact that like most children should be, I never took life seriously. All that mattered was that I enjoyed the hell out of it, and that tomorrow only meant anything if today was filled with laughter and fun. Yes, there was the usual studying bit, the homework, the punishments, the having to go to the old boring Auntie who kissed you far too much to compensate for the crappy food, etc etc. Those were all there, but never really mattered to me as much. Curiosity was the theme of the day for me. Ismail was only in his mid 20’s when I first met him.

Most people that met Ismail away from his duty as a driver could easily mistake him for an actor. With incredibly good looks, he was always dressed very sharply, and could hardly ever be seen without a big smile on his face. I was only in secondary school at the time, and will honestly say that in many ways, I took him for granted. I took him for granted in the sense that I imagined all drivers would have to be as charming and kind as him, and that they all had the same passionate dedication to work that he did. At the time, I didn’t know how wrong I was. Like many people from the lower end of the economic scale in Pakistan, Ismail did not have a formal education of note. He was our family driver, and because of the close proximity of time spent with all of us, he very quickly became a member of the family.

Ismail was married at an early age and he already had a young family at the time. I remember that when he was finished with his work, he never rushed home. He wanted to sit with all of us, and you could tell in his eyes that he was soaking up every little detail of what he saw. He was growing as a person, faster than any of us could imagine.

I spent those years in the shadow of Ismail and eventually reached that fateful day when I had to leave for college to the US. We had become very close by then. However, we both knew that things would never be the same again. We hid our emotions behind our manly laughs and hugs, because that was just what we did. I knew, however, that the Ismail of my innocent youth would eventually grow up, as our fragmented society would demand, into an old man gunned down by the rocks of his everyday life. I was sad because I knew that a flower had bud, but that the flower would never get enough sunshine to grow. I knew of that because apart from his handicap of being a poor, uneducated man, he was also cursed with that most brutal of diseases: he was incredibly honest.

Years passed us by, but we always kept in touch. He stopped working for us several years back, but he never lost communication. Whenever I came back to town, amongst the first people to come and meet me was my dear friend Ismail. Like anyone else in this world, the ticking clock was starting to show signs on him as well. His boyish innocent looks started to fade. His eyes began to show age. His body was no longer immune to health issues. His smile was now accompanied with wrinkles. Yet his mind continued to get sharper. My friends, I have to share with you what has happened to this young flower destined to cripple away in the dark.

Ismail has grown into a respected man who no longer drives a car by profession. He is the vice president of a union for one of the biggest companies in Pakistan where he sits in an office behind a desk. He has people come and visit him daily expressing their problems in hope of him helping them. He is out on the road with his team driving through the highs and lows of Pakistan meeting his union members whenever they need him. He is an important man. Indeed, he is a man that matters. Ismail also has a young son, Aqeel, who is now a fully qualified software engineer working with a reputable organization in Islamabad. I can speak to Aqeel in Urdu or English with the same level of fluency as I would to any of my western educated friends. Ismail has in short, beat the hand that was dealt to him. He never lost hope. He is my hero.

When I sit with Ismail, the most engaging conversations usually occur. I must admit, however, that there are times that he is talking and I suddenly get lost in thought staring at his face. I try to imagine what all this man has seen in his life. Could I ever even slightly comprehend the journey he has taken? Does he know what all he has actually accomplished in his life? Does he know how big a man he actually is? He has forever changed the destiny of all the generations of his family that are to come in the future. Many years on, when his great grandchildren are grown up, all they will remember of their great grandfather is what they see in pictures. They won’t know of the mountain he climbed to get them to where they are. They won’t know what I know. How is that fair? How is it fair, I ask?

I ask him questions about his life. I’ve asked him point blank how he did it. His response was short and piercing: ‘I never stopped wanting’. Ismail’s love for Pakistan radiates through every single pore of his body. If you want to truly enrage him, the best thing to do is tell him the country has nothing to offer. He will tell you that the very country that slapped his father down is also the country that lifted him up. He will tell you that he had a dream, and it was his country that allowed him to achieve that dream. Bizarrely enough, he now feels it is his responsibility to give back to his homeland. Let me tell you how disturbingly honest this man is. His job requires him to travel all over Pakistan to meet with his union members. Because of that requirement, he is allowed to fly on company expense. With my hand on my heart, I will tell you that he REFUSES to accept a penny for his flights and instead, incurs the costs from his own salary. Mind you, while he has completely changed the course of his and his family’s life, he still lives a very modest means. Why doesn't he accept compensation for his flights? ‘It’s a national organization, not a private one, and that is the equivalent of me taking money from the people’. This is your fellow Pakistani. This is not fiction.

They are out there. They are in your house. They are in your streets. They are in your family. They are in your city. Good people. Great Pakistanis. Honorable human beings. There are millions of Ismails all over this great land. We must tell their stories. We must celebrate them. We must be proud of our strengths in spite of our weaknesses. After all, it can’t rain all the time.


  1. OMG, Usman, why do you have to make me cry every single time you pen down something! This is such an inspirational post and I envy you for having such a friend and mentor. But I also congratulate you for being raised as a person who has a heart that can feel and appreciate people irrespective of their class, gender or any other boundaries that society may have created. Now go and give the link of this post to Ismail's Son so he can read it and be proud of his father.

  2. the comment above responds perfectly enough for me to not add much to it... Id just like to say that you by no means have cheated your way into the hearts of those who read you, because you have the compassion to see people around to and not be oblivious to greatness that does exist around you as and when it does. To be aware of that and respect that and then share it with others, has to account for something too!

    Thanx for sharing :)

  3. Being a small thinker and poet, I can imagine how does it feel when one bring into pen such enormously a very small thought n experience ... u r blessed with it ... i read every bit of it like its been experienced by me ... thanks for sharing!!

  4. Simply brilliant Usman. More power to Ismail and others out there like him :-)

  5. Greatness may belong anywhere. It needs a passion of mind and an eye of heart to spot one. A great bounty of life is to discover the jewels of people that exist everywhere but beneath the skin. It is in man that greater he really is the lesser he shows. Ismael epitomizes human success. Rising above his starting limitations, he has already provided his second generation with equal strength for equal opportunity. Character, and a lot of it, is what describe Ismael. Like he is your mentor, I remember how for a long time I took my mentor of character and application my gardener, the late Ishaq Khan, who taught me what a measure of grace a person can provide in real attributes no matter what social level he may appear to occupy. I compliment you to bring to share the romantics of inner eye that is bliss of the multitude. Life’s glass can never be less than half full – it is certainly more than half empty. In every setting there are a whole lot of Ismaels that keep the humanity on a forward mode. Thank you for sharing the piece, what fires your thought inspires a lot of us around.

  6. These are the people who have been called the "salt of the earth". They are the blessed ones, also lucky because they have the good fortune to not only get recognition, by people like you, but also some help along the way, a little support, be it financial or moral, brings out the best in people and can change destinies.
    Your article shows that we, the "privileged ones", need to make some effort in respecting and integrating with the less fortunate and give them the dignity to even dare to start "wanting".
    What a big responsibility on our younger generation ! The older one having apparently failed.

  7. I have a similar story to share. The sweeper who works at my mother's house also decided that his son wasn't going to be following in his footsteps, so he approached a local English-medium school in Islamabad to enroll the boy. Which they did. He never asked for a penny to fund his son's education there; the school gave him a special discount and he covered the rest of the fee on his own. It was one of the most inspirational things I've ever seen anyone do to change their circumstances in life.