TEDxKarachi – Reflections on inspiration

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Also cross posted on Express Tribune Blogs

TEDxKarachi 2011 was an event for the elite. It had a political slant to it. The line to get in was long, the air-conditioning sucked, there were too many technical glitches with the microphones. The snacks were mediocre.There were people there that didn’t deserve to be invited over many others that weren’t there. The talks were not all exactly what we see at TED Global. Yet I returned from the event thinking that making the impossible was possible. I returned with some ideas that inspired.


People went to TEDxKarachi with different mindsets. A lot showed up wanting to hear Imran Khan and Mukhtar Mai speak. Others wanted to go meet the right social crowd. Some went because everybody they knew was talking about it. I went to learn.

Having joined the family business after my Bachelors, I never got the chance to do my Masters. I had returned from University thinking I would get the 2-3 years of work experience and then apply to some hotshot MBA program. Now that I look at it, it really wouldn’t have made much difference. Running your own business gives you a better education than any MBA program. It however, has to be coupled with a desire to learn and adopt new ideas and concepts. Visiting TEDxKarachi was part of that learning.

Making the Impossible Possible

Despite the fact that a couple of speakers didn’t really fit in the general mold of making the impossible possible (Noori most definitely should be awarded a special mention of non-compliance), there was an undercurrent of achievement despite the odds. How to do something that others say is not possible, or to sacrifice things to achieve your dreams is what really moved me.

“Education is like tinday. You only eat them when you have to.”

While Fasi Zaka’s engaging and filled with humor talk was more like a presentation designed to evoke thinking, it was definitely not a case of making the impossible possible. It was however a case of the impossible that we really need to make possible. There is a real emergency on our hands. No I am not talking about the fact that our Armed Forces have been caught yet again with their pants down, nor am I talking about an enemy at the border. I am talking about the enemy within. I am talking about the fact that we are a nation of illiterates. I am talking about the fact that 26 countries poorer than us are sending more children to school. I am talking about the fact that we spend more on PIA, Pakistan Steel and PEPCO than we spend on education. I am talking about the fact that somewhere there is a petition signed by 170,000 citizens of Pakistan which was not delivered to the Chief Ministers of our provinces due to their lack of response (with the exception of Shahbaz Sharif). I’m talking about the tinday (a type of pumpkin) that no one wants to eat.

Fashion Models financed my first drone

“I do not support the drone attacks.” This was repeatedly emphasized by Raja Sabri Khan. What does RSK do? He makes drones! In Pakistan! In a factory in Korangi! From the time that he modified some toy planes to be more aerodynamically better, RSK knew he was going to do something with airplanes. He ended up with a degree in Aerospace Engineering “from a small liberal arts college” called MIT and got a job making tractors! What do fashion models have to do with it? RSK apparently did a stint as fashion photographer on the side in order to earn money for his drone making. Luckily SUPARCO came to the rescue and one thing led to another and we now have drones made in Pakistan measuring the weather somewhere over Australia among other things. Non-traditional exports that definitely should be encouraged! And while we are at it, we should spend some money and get RSK to make an anti-drone drone.

“The body adjusts to ambition.”

Imran KhanBefore I go any further, I must categorically state that I am not a supporter of PTI. In fact I think that Imran Khan is a terrible politician and should quit politics altogether. I must also say that I walked into TEDxKarachi expecting a political speech from Imran Khan. However, to his credit he managed to keep his political rhetoric to the minimum (a total of 4-5 minutes only). Did Imran Khan do something worthy of the impossible becoming possible? Yes. It was his ambition to become a fast bowler, going against the advice of coaches and experts who said that if he changed his action he would kill his bowling and harm his body. It was his ambition to provide a cancer hospital that provided mainly free treatment to cancer patients and it was said it can not be done. However, Shaukat Khanum is undoubtedly one of the premier cancer hospitals in the region and 75% of its patients are treated free of charge.

Bulleh Shah was the Che Guevara of his time?

I walked out of the hall when Noori was introduced. I do not actively listen to music anymore as I believe it is forbidden in Islam. However, I hear that Ali Hamza made this statement that confused many.

BullehShah-Che“Bulleh Shah was the rock star of his time. The Che Guevara of back then”

I have no clue what he meant by that. And if Bulleh Shah had been alive he too, I suspect, would be equally clueless.

“Pain is not a bad thing, it’s OK to be in pain”

Quratulain BakhtiariMy currently stiff neck begs to differ with Dr Quratulain Bakhtiari on this point. Pain is definitely a bad thing! What she meant was that feeling of pain is not a bad thing, if you channel that emotion in doing something creative. Her story of how she had to choose between her social work and her children and she chose her work. Indeed her passion for her work must have been something for her to bear the pain that only a mother can feel when she is cut off from her children. Her work in promotion of sanitation and in bringing education to girls in Balochistan was inspiring. Similarly the story of her childhood when her parents gave up their ancestral wealth to bring up their children in the Drag Colony refugee camp in Karachi. How they put a positive spin on everything unto the point that when her mother burnt her wedding dresses to harvest the silver thread from it, she made it seem a game. The standing ovation that Dr Bakhtiari got was well deserved. Her talk however made the 23 year old next to me totally confused. I guess such things are lost on the youth.

The talk that stole the show

Sarmad Tariq“I will never have enough money for full physiotherapy, because I would much rather spend it on a Ferrari. I’m not one of those people who sit around waiting for a cure. I like the attention I get in a wheelchair too much.”

Imagine that one bad decision could lead to your becoming a quadriplegic (losing function of all four limbs). Would you have the will to wake up each morning and get out of bed? Would you drive a car continuous from Khyber to Karachi? Would you tape your fingers for months to force your fingers into a hook like formation so you could hold objects? Would you enroll in a marathon pushing your own wheelchair? I would not. I would give up, blame life, God, the guy who told me the water was deep where I dove, etc. Sarmad Tariq inspired us in the true TED style. And when the hall jumped to its feet to give him a standing ovation he pointed out the irony: he could neither stand, not clap. If you had a choice of seeing just one talk from TEDxKarachi I am sure every one in the hall would say it would be Sarmad’s talk.

What good is an independent judiciary?

Mukhtar Mai“I believed the Supreme Court would provide me justice. Now I have left my case to Allah.”

The story of Mukhtar Mai, sadly, is the story of many women in our society who are subjected to abuse and treated as commodity in a tribal justice system that is sadly often allowed by our courts. To survive a panchayat sanctioned gang rape, to get the courage to file a case against the perpetrators, and to continue on living even when the “independent judiciary” failed her. She realized that her illiteracy played a major part in her inability to seek justice. Unfortunately, she is often forced to pass by and be subjected to verbal abuse by her, now acquitted, rapists. She however turns the other way and continues to her school. Mukhtar Mai used her ordeal to start an initiative to educate young girls and to educate the community on women’s rights and gender issues. The Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organization opened a high school in Fall 2007 which was the first school she ever saw in her life.

What is the take home message?

  1. We need to focus on education – Fasi Zaka, Mukhtar Mai
  2. Lack of resources should not be an excuse to do something you believe in – Raja Sabri Khan, Imran Khan
  3. Mind can triumph over body – Imran Khan, Sarmad Tariq
  4. Pain, if channeled in a positive direction, can achieve great things – Dr Quratulain Bakhtiari, Sarmad Tariq, Mukhtar Mai
  5. Don’t blame life, or anyone else. You may be down but success is about getting up that one last time. – Sarmad Tariq
  6. Bulleh Shah was a Commie (oops sorry, a revolutionary) – Noori

I would like to end with the lyrics of the chorus of Noori’s song (which they apparently also ended their ‘talk’ with). It is probably the only thing that ties them to the theme of making the impossible possible.

Hum Duniya Badal dien Ge
Hum Ne Khaayee Hai Dil Ki Qasam
Aasmaan Choo Leingay, Choo Leingay Hum….
Dil Ki Raah Dhoondain Gay!
Kay Dil Ne Jhailay Hain Kitnay Sitam…
Roti Yaadon Ko Bhooleingay Bhooleingay Hum…

33 thoughts on “TEDxKarachi – Reflections on inspiration”

  1. I enjoyed the event as I got to learn a lot. It’s a pity that people were there only to rub shoulders with their own kind. I vaguely recall the airhead next to me who said she was going to boo the “Drone Guy” and stand up for Mukhtar Mai. It’s true that there were glitches but then they were minor enough not to ruin the experience for me. The worst act was Noori who talked about Bulleh Shah being some sort of cross dresser and then belting out yet another Sufi Tune (don’t we have enough sufi music already? It’s like every other artist is a Sufi wannabe). The snacks were horrible this time around (last year’s snacks were really yummy).


    1. Shobz

      Yes unfortunately there were some questionable guests that were on parchee (I hopefully was not one of them!). So did she boo the drone guy?

      Can’t really say about the snacks as I don’t really remember the ones from last year. I spend the breaks catching up with all those I know or want to know.



      1. She didn’t boo him because he spoke really well. Nope you weren’t one of them. Maybe we should ask the doc to reserve some good seats for us next year hehe.


  2. Well written. 🙂

    I too felt Imran Khan would only talk about politics, but surprisingly there was no American Kutta in the speach, as I have heard him talk like this a week before at the Dharna. No doubt, Imran Khan as a person has brought change to the lives of many and that is what he has made possible through Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital.

    Noori was a complete misfit. Personally, I felt their ‘TED’ style show was shallow.

    Last, the competition to track down inside-out was fairly biased, in the sense that it didn’t give people like myself and many others a chance to be at TEDxKarachi. We are just not into photography and art exhibitions, the competition could have been something more relevant to all. I think photography has become a buzz word these days in Karachi, and maybe that is why they opt for such a game to get 2 tickets. Quite honestly, I don’t even know any other art gallery other than one at T2f and that too because I go there often not to attend art exhibitions but for other events.

    Overall, a good effort and an event in Karachi which has brought so many people together in these times, hats off to the TEDxKarachi Team.


    1. I really didn’t pay much attention to the photo competition as you rightly said photography is not the hobby of all. It was part of something TED Global has been doing so can’t really comment on it.


  3. Brilliant write up. I had been looking around for some interesting updates about the event, and this gives pretty much everything what happened. And yea, I don’t think Noori should have been there anyways.


  4. listening to so many people who actually walked their talk, must have been amazing.
    sarmad’s account is really moving.
    Thanks for bringing that event to all of us who missed.
    Good luck disco maulvi 🙂


    1. Thank you for your encouragement Shoaib. TEDxKarachi and other such events give us a side of Pakistan that shows the resilience of the people of Pakistan. There is a great shair I came across recently that sums it up:

      Watan ki mitti mujhay airiyan Ragarnay day
      Mujhay Yaqeen hai Chashma Yahin say niklay ga


  5. Thumbs up! Probably the best way to summarize the whole event and give an insight to even those who were not able to attend or even get the updates.

    Here is my verdict on TEDx Karachi. I appreciate the initiative, I appreciate the efforts, I liked the whole hype being created before the event but yet again, there is no follow up system. I agree that the event was inclined towards ‘elites’ of the society and it was meant to be that way because of the intellectual understanding of guests and the list of speakers lined up as per required. However there should have been a forum where the “Ideas worth spreading” could be re-vitalized and people actually willing to learn about those ideas or be a part of them could interact with speakers one-to-one. It should be like TEDx should have an yearly impact so people can remember what they heard is last year’s TED talk. Just my opinion.



    1. Kulsoom

      Now that you bring it up, I have felt that way also. I just didn’t know how to express it properly. We need to channel the motivational boost that the participants felt into an appropriate direction of progress. We as individuals will channel the efforts in some of the existing projects we might be working on but as a collective that energy could be way more powerful! maybe it is something we can work on with Sharmeen, Awab, & Asad for TEDx 2012? If their format allows this.


  6. Not only did I enjoy TED-X Ienjoyed your comment. By the way you have the best teacher right in your family.YOUR FATHER. One of the greatest guys to know in this country


  7. A great write-up steeped in positivity and optimism. Thumbs up!

    We have to know our limitations but also learn how to make the most of our energies despite these limitations.


    1. Delirium

      It is definitely lot of potential. I believe that we each have a big role to play in the turnaround of the country. It is being changing ourselves and our families! Just this morning I read a quote by Ronald Reagan that makes a lot of sense “All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” Indeed we must change ourselves and our family and if each family concentrated on improving themselves we might mend some “Broken Windows“.


  8. feeling sorry for not reading in time but it has been in my to read list ever since it was published.. i must say that this one is the awesome write-up. you summarized the things very well and it helped me to captures some of the points that i missed on the live stream.


    1. Rai Azlan

      Thank you for the praise. Frankly speaking had I written this immediately after exiting TEDxKarachi I would have not been able to write. It was only after I tweeted the next morning and also read up on others’ tweets / write-ups that I managed to recollect all that I managed to publish. So I guess a thanx should be put up there for all those who wrote/tweeted on the event. 🙂



  9. Wow, I’m late commenting here as I just read this piece… awesome write up. I feel like I got a really balanced perspective on the TEDx event! 🙂 JazaakAllah khayr.


  10. @Aly
    Though I was not there for the event. But the picture you have presented in enough for me, as I already have listened to almost all the TEDxKarachi talks. I agree with you on most matters, but I disapprove you views about Imran Khan. I know that he is an idealist, and he might not exactly be the kind of person we need, but its for sure that he has many qualities to do the job.
    I really didn’t want to say anything about Imran, but then I couldn’t stop myself from doing it.
    5 stars for the Article man.
    May you always write like that or even better than that. 😀


  11. MashAllah bro, you’ve summed it up quite nicely and I believe most of your talk was not even opinionated. I wouldn’t have been there even I wanted to, because I’m out of country but I like how you’ve made it look like I was there and I experienced it myself… 🙂


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