Abdul Sattar Edhi: Do NOT Call Him the Mother Teresa of Pakistan

The world’s most famous humanitarian you’ve never heard of is coming to America in new documentary ‘These Birds Walk.’

Abdul Sattar Edhi pakistani humanitarian

Abdul Sattar Edhi looks towards his wife Bilquis Edhi, known as ‘Mother of Pakistan,’ as they sit together for an interview at the Edhi Orphanage in Karachi on February 22, 2010. (Photo: Behrouz Mehri/Getty Images)

Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

Abdul Sattar Edhi is the world’s most-famous unheard-of-in-America humanitarian. From his sparse single room in the cluttered Mithadar neighborhood of Karachi, Pakistan, Edhi provides the moral, spiritual and administrative center to a vast network of free hospitals, maternity clinics, dispensaries, blood banks, drug rehabilitation centers, homes for the destitute and national and international disaster-relief efforts.

Bassam Tariq is a Pakistani-born New York-based filmmaker who, along with his friend and collaborator Omar Mullick, have spent three years going from New York to Karachi filming These Birds Walk, a documentary “portrait of contemporary Pakistan created through the eyes of an ambulance driver and a runaway boy who call a dying humanitarian and his struggling organization home.”

Abdul Sattar Edhi, said to be 90 years old, is that dying humanitarian. The film, if the trailer is any indication, has the earmarks of the kind of breakout hit that will make Abdul Sattar Edhi one of the world’s most famous humanitarians, even in America.

Director Bassam Tariq—familiar to TakePart readers for 2011’s 30 Mosques in 30 States Ramadan road trip and a short film about a one-man Hindu newspaper in Pakistan’s Sindh province—took a break from finishing up These Birds Walk to talk to TakePart about gaining the trust of Abdul Sattar Edhi, the emotional pull of runaways versus orphans and the effectiveness of begging missions as business model.

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TakePart: How did you become aware of Abdul Sattar Edhi?

Bassam Tariq: My mother was always talking about him. He’s kind of revered as this saint that lives among the poor in Pakistan. He’s a very sincere and unapologetic scrappy old man. Edhi’s organization is very hand-to-mouth in a lot of ways. He doesn’t take any money from corporations. There’s no church behind him, there’s no mosque and no political ideologies, which is something that doesn’t happen a lot in developing countries. A lot of these organizations end up getting supported by one of the larger political parties, or they themselves become a political entity. He’s tried his best to always stay away from that.

I always get a little antsy when people compare him to Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa had an organization behind her. She was a nun, and she was part of the Catholic Church, and she was great. I would never want to undermine her work. But I feel like to compare them to each other is to undermine them both.

He’s very unapologetic about the way he carries himself. He’s got a big beard. He does kind of look like he falls into that world of tribal warlords. Even people in Pakistan, if they don’t know who he is, are liable to think he’s just a beggar on the street.

TakePart: What exactly does Abdul Sattar Edhi do?

Bassam Tariq: He’s known for his ambulance service. In the early 1950s, he dropped out of school, and he was selling little toys and little food things like a small vendor off the street. He sold this little business for 5,000 rupees, and he bought this van. On the side of the van, he wrote POOR MAN’S VAN. He went all around Karachi transporting the sick and dead. Little did he know, he basically formed the first ambulance system in the entire country, and it’s now the largest private ambulance in the world. He employs thousands of people just in Karachi alone.

TakePart: Is it for profit? How is it run?

Bassam Tariq: It runs on basically nothing. Everything runs on him going out on these things he calls “begging missions.” He goes out on the streets, and he sits and he begs. People leave him money because they trust him. His word, or his credibility, is a lot of what keeps the organization running. For now.

One worry the organization has is after he passes away, how will they sustain themselves? His son has done a lot for the organization, but Edhi himself is the entity, and after he goes…

TakePart: Why is Edhi not known in the west?

Bassam Tariq: The diaspora communities of Pakistan, the Pakistani Americans, love him and know his work. Outside of that, people are not aware of him here. I think a lot of that is because he’s very unapologetic about the way he carries himself. He’s got a big beard. He does kind of look like he falls into that world of tribal warlords. Even people in Pakistan, if they don’t know who he is, are liable to think he’s just a beggar on the street.

TakePart: Is your movie These Birds Walk scripted, documentary or a hybrid?

Bassam Tariq: It is a full-on documentary. There’s only a little voiceover where Edhi comes into the film. We wanted to really throw people into the film, and make it seem like you’re a part of the experience. We used 50-milimeter lenses to be very close in with the people. We really wanted to force the viewer to have empathy for the people and the subjects. The best way to do it is to truly spend as much time as we can to get to know our subjects—and have that intimacy.

TakePart: How did you select the people in the cast, and who are they?

Bassam Tariq: We have three main characters in the film. One, of course, is Abdul Sattar Edhi, the humanitarian. But largely the story revolves around Omar, who is this runaway boy who has ended up in this home for runaways, a home set up by Edhi. The story focuses on Omar and his journey home or to whatever home might be. We’re not necessarily sure he’ll go home. He’s in a search for family and his ideas of it.

The runaway’s tragedy is not as clear-cut as orphans are. With orphans, you know that they have no family; they have no parents. But with runaways, there was this choice that they had. They left their families. So it’s almost more tragic.

So for Edhi to come in and build this makeshift home and to create this makeshift family, I think that’s where we start hitting some very interesting universals that a lot of us can relate with.

There’s a third character, Assad, an ambulance driver who we meet right away. His ambulance center is stationed right next to the runaway home. So he ends up—by extension of transporting a lot of these kids to the runaway home—kind of becoming the narrator as a lot of things unfold in the film.

TakePart: How did you get Edhi to agree to being filmed?

Bassam Tariq: Oh, man. So Edhi is known for getting irritated very quickly with media. He likes the quick coverage where he comes into a press conference and has some talking points, but that’s not going to work for a documentary. We were, like, “We need Edhi’s help!”

He came to New York to visit a couple of years ago, and we told him what we wanted to do, and he went, “Yeah, just come to Pakistan, and we’ll get working on it.”

So we get to Pakistan, we show up at his door, and he’s like, “I don’t remember saying that.” He turned us away!

We were like, “We’ve come so far! You can’t turn us away.”

He’s like, “No, I’m sorry. I don’t have time for this.”

But he said, “If you want to know me, look at my work. And you’ll find me there.” He gave us access to his other centers.

So we went back, and we went to these other centers. That’s how we found the runaways.

Edhi saw our persistence. We were there for about five months, for our first trip, and the last month we were there he finally gave us a little bit of time at the end, but not that much. The second time to Pakistan, we became good friends with his son; so his son was leveraging for us. It was M&M’s that, I think, won his heart. He loves M&M’s. Every time we’d go there, I’d make sure to bring him two or three bags. I brought them from America. I knew they were good social currency with people. I didn’t know they would translate that well with Edhi. Finally, we became fairly good friends.

TakePart: How is the challenge to filming in Karachi different than in Vancouver or Hollywood?

Bassam Tariq: One thing I’ve noticed, all across America, every time I’ve filmed here with little projects, especially working on the 30 Mosques project, when I talk about the Muslim community, people get very skeptical about, “Why are you here? Why are you at a mosque?”

People are just a little afraid of where this footage is going—understandably. Over there, they just trusted us. The first day, we got some questions. After that, it was no worries. It also has a lot to do with, I think, my Urdu has gotten a lot better, and I was born in Pakistan as well; so I was able to navigate the city fairly well. When they saw us, and they saw that we were one of them, it helped us a lot.

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