Salman Hameed tells us more about that girls’ school in Lahore that was torched by an angry mob because a teacher accidentally photocopied the wrong page of the Koran for an exam. It’s heartbreaking.
He starts with Umair Asim and his passion for astronomy.
But what truly lights up Asim is his passion for public education. During the International Year of Astronomy (IYA) in 2009, Asim helped lead and organise numerous public observations in Lahore as well as in government schools in smaller cities and towns in Punjab. Wherever he went, he would bring his telescope with him. During IYA, it was a common sight to see Asim standing in front of an audience of 500, first explaining to them basic principles of astronomy and then entertaining long lines of people – from ages eight to 80 – to show them craters of the moon and rings of Saturn.
It is not hard to explain where his passion for public education comes from. His parents established Farooqi Girls’ High School 34 years ago. It is now considered one of the premier private schools in Lahore. Asim also serves as vice principal and I get emails from him when a student or students from the school would take top positions in the province-wide exams.
And now it’s gone. Incinerated.
The accused teacher is now in hiding and the police have arrested the 77-year-old principal of the school. He also happens to be Asim’s father, and his appeal for bail has been denied by the court. Asim and the rest of his family are now in “protective custody”.
But what is the future of Asim, his family and the accused teacher? With the charged emotions around blasphemy, once accused, it is virtually impossible to ever be safe afterwards, even if the court clears your name. Like the era of European witch trials, Pakistan is going through its darkest phase.
If she is lucky, the accused teacher will be able to find asylum out of Pakistan. Asim’s father, now sleeping on the floor of a jail cell, will have to cope with the fact that all the effort that he and his wife poured in for those past 34 years is gone.
And Asim – one of Pakistan’s brightest gems – must be wondering if he will ever feel safe in a country where he shared his love for astronomy with so many people.