I recently had the opportunity of meeting two extremely inspiring individuals. Their courage, determination, and will power in the face of adverse circumstances leave me humbled.
Aqil Sajjad is currently working on a Phd at Harvard University in theoretical physics. When Aqil was in his Fsc, approximately 16 years of age, he lost his eyesight. Doctors call it a “retinal detachment” and believe that there may be genetic reasons for this condition. As difficult as losing one’s eyesight can be, Aqil thought he had also lost the one thing he loved the most: the opportunity to study physics. Although Aqil is from a relatively prosperous family, Pakistani colleges and universities simply don’t have the support system necessary to help people like Aqil. He dropped out of college.
But instead of falling into the world of despair, this young boy took it upon himself to relearn everything and plough his way back into life. Through brail and software designed for visually disabled people, he struggled against the darkness that had enveloped him. Through the world of the internet, he discovered a Professor of Physics in Oregon State University who was also blind. Under the able supervision of Professor John Gardner, Aqil became a straight A student and is now enrolled for a doctorate at Harvard University in theoretical physics. That is what I call determination.
When I met him a few weeks ago, Aqil opened my eyes to a world I had never seen before. We live in a country that destroys the spirit and sucks the life out of those who are completely healthy. What do the poor have but lives of humiliation, anguish, and desolation? Like rats on a treadmill, they must work day and night to justify their lives. And still they die in the millions from want and hunger. An impairment of any sort condemns them either to a life of begging or to a lonely despairing death. What can we offer such people in the way of healthcare, support, and love, when our entire system is based on greed, individualism, and avarice?
It was in a world enveloped by such poverty that Ranjha Zahid grew up. At an early age it was clear that he would gradually lose his vision because of a condition called “tunnel visioning”. His family was of the view that the boy should be given to a madrassa. But his mother believed in him. She herself was illiterate but she had heard somewhere of a degree called Masters in English. Despite the fact that she herself did not really know what such a degree entailed exactly, it nonetheless became her dream for her son. She would send him off to school every day and never let him feel sorry for himself. Slowly and surely, taking courage from his mother, Ranjha Zahid went through school, college, and finally university. During his journey through university life, he learnt of “the left” and interaction with these radical ideas led to his ideological transformation. To overcome his disability he researched and found software that could help visually disabled people. But he could not afford to pay for it so he got in touch with people who had hacked into the demo version of the software. For several years he worked with that demo version (which had to be reloaded after a certain number of uses) until he finally managed to obtain a hacked full version. Given his socialist leanings, he did not keep this secret to himself but immediately made the software available for all disabled people. Today Ranjha Zahid is married with children and works in an NGO writing reports for the organization. When I went to his house two weeks ago, I was greeted by a portrait of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and a discussion that had me riveted for hours. With him I delved deeper into the world of the disabled. He told me that according to some estimates, nearly 10 percent of people in Pakistan were, in one form or another, disabled. But the stigma attached to it, justified by religion, ensures that it remains hidden from view. According to the traditional maulvis, disability is a punishment for our sins, but he explained to me that the roots of disability also lie partly in our social system. It is because of the incidence of inner family and cousin marriages – a custom that is linked to the maintenance of property, especially landed property – that the gene pool is weakened, giving rise to a high incidence of disability. This information was shocking for me.
The semi-feudal, semi-capitalist system in which we live, not only destroys the freedom to love and marry as one wishes, it eats away at our very existence. Those who are born into privilege live as kings and those born into poverty are no better than slaves. Those born with disabilities will be lucky if they have a supportive family, or the means to overcome their condition. Those born in poverty will suffer silently without a glimmer of hope. In a society where healthcare and education serve the purpose of increasing the profit of the few, it is only the steely determination of people like Aqil Sajjad and Ranjha Zahid that can save one from a life of despair. All others are condemned before the so-called “invisible hand”, or should one call it “the invisible executioner”, of the market.
Come let us together find a way towards real freedom and emancipation for those who were called by Frantz Fanon the “Wretched of the Earth”. And if the day comes when our dreams for a world free of poverty and want are fulfilled, when the mighty fall and the meek inherit the Earth, then we might discover a new laughter, a new joy, only one that is shared by billions.