By Jon Boone
1 April 2015
Abdul Sattar Edhi’s foundation provides hundreds of ambulances and medical centres across Pakistan. Photograph: Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images
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 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 Edhi himself if he happens to pick up the phone. He rarely strays far, given that his bed occupies an even more humble back room behind his office.
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 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 more than £400,000 of cash was swiftly replaced by donations that poured in from a horrified public, although Edhi turned down a large gift from a man he dismissed as a “capitalist” and “big robber”.
The theft was a shocking moment for an organisation that is facing growing competition from Pakistan’s militant, religious right.
What we are doing should be done by the government and should be appreciated, but instead we are blamed
In January Hafiz Saeed, a cleric wanted by India for his alleged masterminding of the 2011 terrorist attack on Mumbai, announced his Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (FIF) was establishing a bridgehead in Karachi for the first time with a fleet of 15 ambulances.
FIF is the charity wing of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the parent body of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, regarded by some experts as one of south Asia’s most dangerous terrorist groups.
Unlike Edhi, Saeed uses the platform of his fast-growing charitable works to call for jihad against India and to create a parallel state that makes a point of being first on the scene when disasters strike.
Edhi says he is not worried, pointing out he has a 60-year head start on Saeed: “If he wants to become Edhi in two years, how is that possible?”
But he 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.”
The foundation has lost much of the annual charity it once scooped up during Eid al-Adha, when families would donate the skins of animals sacrificed on the day, which could then be sold for cash.
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As well as hardline Islamist groups, the foundation has lost out to the strong-arm tactics of what Edhi calls an “ethnic organisation”, a reference to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the dominant political party in the ethnically divided port city.
“There is more hostility towards us from the religious and political groups,” his wife complains. “Our strong cupboards used to be full – nobody would steal from us.”
But Edhi says he is unfussed by aggressive political parties or the mullahs’ claim that he is an atheist who will not be allowed into heaven.
“I will not go to paradise where these type of people go,” he smiles. “I will go to heaven where the poor and miserable people live.”