By Zubeida Mustafa
“Human beings make their own history. They do not do it in circumstances of their own choosing. Their actions are framed by the economic, social and political structures of their age. But, subject to these constraints — indeed, because of them — human beings face a succession of choices.” — Neil Faulkner
HOWEVER everyone doesn’t look for the choices that one can create for oneself. Fewer still actually exercise these choices. Most just sit back and let the state or society make decisions on their behalf. They are mostly the victims of fatalism — kismet or naseeb as they choose to call it — but the fact is that they have opted for the line of least resistance.
Those who consciously decide to bring about change in their lives become the exceptions. They may not make history by spearheading social change on a grand scale. But these individuals initiate the process of change in the lives of their own family that affect generations to come. These quiet actors do not seize the limelight but their courage must be respected.
One such man of courage is Abdul Jabbar. Dressed primly in a shalwar kameez and always wearing a white cloth cap, sporting a white untrimmed beard, and with a gait that characterises deference to others who cross his path, he is quite a venerable figure. Finding something very striking about him — his cultured mannerisms and speech, his chaste Urdu which is not his mother tongue (he speaks Hindko at home) and his courtesy — I was curious to know more about him before we went our separate ways.
Abdul Jabbar was a peon in Dawn’s editorial section for 46 years when he decided to call it a day on Dec 31 last year. He planned to return home to his village on the outskirts of Abbottabad, the city that shot into world headlines when it was found to have Osama bin Laden’s secret sanctuary.
I had always been impressed by Abdul Jabbar’s tolerant approach to Islam. I had discovered this aspect of his character soon after I came to know him, his deceptively orthodox appearance notwithstanding. He accepted diversity in religious beliefs as something very normal. When discussing events with religious ramifications he displayed a remarkably broadminded worldview and a matter-of-fact acceptance of the other’s right to have his beliefs.
Never dogmatic, he was more tolerant than many of the supposedly highly educated. When the preacher in the mosque had been intolerably irrational in his Friday sermon, Abdul Jabbar had much to say when expressing his disapproval. That is how I discovered that he — who would be classified as the silent majority — had a mind of his own that could think. There are many Abdul Jabbars I have met in Pakistan. I do wonder who are the people who are selected for the surveys that the Pew Centre, Gallup and others conduct to show that an overwhelming majority in Pakistan are intolerant bigots.
The only thing that I found different in Abdul Jabbar compared to others of his kind was that he had the courage to stick to the moral high ground he had selected for himself. He was not one who would succumb to a mob mentality to suffer from remorse when the passion had died.
I attribute that to the good education he received in the government school he attended in his ancestral village of Tanoli where he was born in 1946. He studied till Class VI — one of the few boys who attended school in those days — his only regret in life today is that he didn’t study further.
To leave school and come to Karachi in 1960 in search of a job was a considered decision he took. His father was in poor health and had left his job to return home. The family was facing a financial crisis. “I left home without even letting my father know since I didn’t know how he would react,” he says. Initially, life was tough as he worked as a labourer until the turning point came. He landed a job as a peon in Dawn’s editorial section.
Education — though only six years of it — made a profound impact on Abdul Jabbar’s thinking in two ways. He sent all his children — four daughters and two sons — to school and ensured that they completed their schooling. When he took this decision education for all and gender equality were not creating the hype they do today. All his six children — that include four daughters — have completed their schooling. One boy studied mass communication and is a journalist.
The second impact that Abdul Jabbar’s schooling had on him was that it paved the way for, what is termed today, continuing or lifelong education. It equipped him with the capacity to assess people and learn from those who impressed him. It developed his critical thinking. He says that he learnt from all the editors he served. There were eight of them. He rattles off how they influenced his thinking and his observations about each of them are succinct. If one was good at talent hunting, another knew how to weld together and lead a team. Yet another recognised the value of hard work and still another understood the importance of human dignity.
In the context of the violence around us, he says, “All I have learnt is that if you save one life you save humanity. Whereas you take one life and you kill humanity.”
The writer was assistant editor at Dawn from 1975 to 2008.