By Zubeida Mustafa
I FIRST learnt of Sohail Fida from his fascinating book Soul Unshackled. The book is an autobiographical account of a young man from Swat who lands in prison on false charges of murder and makes a confession extracted through torture when he was not even 18.
While behind bars he finds solace in books — reading them and then going on to write one. Books become the means of his redemption. They facilitate his studies, shape his mind, help him overcome depression brought on by his wrongful confinement and in the span of 12 years — five of them in the death cell — he passes five examinations: Intermediate, BA and three MAs. The son of a petrol station owner, Sohail Fida could build on the schooling he had already received.
What makes this story special is not so much Sohail’s success in his exams as his extraordinary response to his adverse circumstances from April 2000 onwards. As he put it in his letter, “People say you are what your surroundings make you … but I would say your surroundings are how you see them”. Sohail went further and changed his circumstances.
His response so strongly epitomised in his book prompted me to seek out Sohail Fida. Paramount Publishing Enterprise, his publishers, were in touch with him since 2007 when he had contacted them from Haripur Jail requesting them for a book he needed. Quite uncharacteristically of the business world today, general manager Muhammad Ali Khan responded to Sohail’s communication and there was a further exchange of letters.
Then came a newspaper article on Sohail by his benefactor followed by the commutation of the prisoner’s death sentence to life imprisonment by the Federal Shariat Court. A series of life-changing responses from a number of people earned them Sohail’s gratitude.
One major outcome of Sohail’s love of books is this book itself and his aspiration to become a teacher. His passion for books and teaching will hopefully change many other lives.
Soul Unshackled is a powerful statement on Pakistan’s flawed judicial system which depends for its working on the inept functioning of a corrupt police force and an equally dehumanised jail set-up. How this impacts on the lives of ordinary people who have the ill fortune of being trapped in its clutches may not be generally known.
It is also an inspiring account of the writer’s own struggle against despair and cynicism. Through the author’s graphic descriptions, the reader learns of the conditions of our jails and the treatment meted out to prisoners that virtually criminalise them. But there is also a human dimension to this tale of brutalisation as exceptions are always present.
One of these was Sohail’s own dream to be a writer and his resolute pursuit of education to equip himself to reach out for his dream in spite of adverse circumstances. He writes in his book, “People can take away many things from me like my money, my books, my personal letters, even my personal freedom, but I will not let them take away my dream.”
Another exception in this world of viciousness is the deep love and compassion that bonds some people together even in their animal-like existence in jail. In the juvenile prison where Sohail went after undergoing 11 days of torture in a police lock-up following his arrest, the empathy he received from his haandi waals (as the fellow prisoners who were assigned various chores were called) restored his faith in humanity. “My feet were swollen and I couldn’t walk on my own. When I entered the barrack, the boys … stood up to greet me,” he writes. He continues, “Haji Gul warmed some oil and massaged my shoulders, arms and feet … which were black and blue with beatings.”
Then there was Gul Muhammad (22) who had been on death row for four years when he greeted Sohail in the death cell of Haripur jail. A year later a tearful Gul was taken away as he dragged his feet to be “hanged by the neck until death” and Sohail describes this as “the saddest and most sorrowful day of my life”.
In spite of all its negativity, jail life made education possible for a Sohail who was determined. There were the kind-hearted police personnel and education supervisors who went the extra mile to facilitate this prisoner’s exam-taking. And fellow prisoners — older and more educated — happily extended a helping hand.
Specially mentioned are the “retired major”, the “advocate”, “a death row prisoner who taught me the art of Urdu writing”, the “very highly educated man in prison Mr Iqbal” and the Caucasian “Prof Stuart convicted for trying to smuggle heroin”.
Sohail hopes to win his freedom in the summer of 2012. His excitement is palpable. But so is his anxiety. He wrote to me: “For over 12 years I have dreamed of walking out of jail a free man. Yet as the time finally arrives, my elation is mixed with fear, as I realise that I have changed. I do not feel comfortable with myself and have forgotten how to be in the outside world.”
Sohail Fida worries needlessly. He has the sagacity and maturity to re-adjust to life after prison successfully. Admittedly the world is a changed place —and sadly not for the better — from what it was 12 years ago when he last tread on the soil of Swat a free man. But books and education are his assets that will enable him to make a meaningful contribution to society.