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Thursday July 18, 2024

Let’s save a library

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
June 16, 2024
A representational image showing people reading books inside the Darra Adam Khel Library. — AFP/File
A representational image showing people reading books inside the Darra Adam Khel Library. — AFP/File

The cost of ignorance in some societies is more than the value they put in acquiring knowledge. If you doubt this statement, just have a look at how many libraries you have in your city or town and in what conditions they are.

Karachi is a cosmopolitan city that accommodates nearly 10 per cent of the country’s population. It has 20 towns from Baldia, Bin Qasim and Gadap to Shah Faisal, Surjani and SITE – each accommodating nearly a million people. Ideally, each town should have at least one big public library with several small ones, but the list of public libraries on the KDA website shows that half of the towns in Karachi do not have public libraries. Even those who claim to be the custodians of the city have been more interested in flyover and underpass projects instead of functional libraries.

Perhaps more than any other segment of citizens in Karachi, the Baloch living in Lyari and Malir have displayed a serious interest in libraries. The kind of injustices the Baloch have been facing is no secret, and their intellectual pursuits reflect their desire to learn and the value they put into knowledge and learning. But now two libraries in Lyari and Malir are in danger of closing down.

Mulla Fazil Library (formerly Lyari Textbook Library) has played a central role in the intellectual development of the people of Lyari for the past many decades. The library used to have a vast collection of college, school, and university textbooks that many students living in Lyari could not afford to buy. Several generations of Lyari visited this library in search of reference material that expanded to fiction, academic journals and popular magazines.

But this library faced neglect and no new major collection arrived apart from some books from donors. Now, the library has been shut down, and its books shifted to a warehouse where they are likely to disappear or become food for rodents.

At the premises where Mulla Fazil Library once stood, a multi-storey building is under construction where various government offices are likely to emerge, and perhaps one floor will be given to the library. If that was the plan, at least an alternative accommodation for the library would have offered visitors a chance to continue their reading habits. Thousands of books are now in danger of damage and destruction. The Lyari Awami Mahaz staged demonstrations and protested, but to no avail. In addition, Kalakot Library in Lyari has also been dysfunctional for many years now.

In Malir, we see another major library, Sayad Hashmi Reference Library, in danger of closure and demolition. This library is the brainchild of a young Baloch intellectual and professor of Islamic Studies, Saba Dashtyari, who lost his life in a gun attack in Quetta in 2011. Dashtyari was a native of Lyari with degrees in philosophy and Islamic studies and fluency in Arabic, Balochi, English, Persian and Urdu. He joined Balochistan University as a teacher of Islamic Studies but kept his close contact with Karachi, especially with Lyari and Malir where most of the Baloch live.

His major contribution was the promotion of Balochi language and literature for which he penned nearly two dozen books before his death when he was still in his 50s. One of his dreams was to establish a big library in Karachi exclusively devoted to Balochi heritage, history, language and literature. He felt uncomfortable at the absence of any such library in the city, which has such a large Baloch population. Initially, he wanted to establish this library in Lyari, but he could not procure a building there to house such a large project.

Then a Baloch activist and philanthropist, Azeem Dehkan, donated a large piece of his land in Malir to initiate this project. In addition to Azeem Dehkan and Saba Dashtyari, three individuals who contributed greatly in cash and kind to this project were Comrade Wahid Baloch, Dr Hameed Baloch, Raheem Bux Azad, and Lal Bux Rind who laid the foundation stone of Sayad Hashmi Reference Library near Malir Bridge in 2003.

In the last 20 years, Sayad Hashmi Reference Library has catered to the intellectual needs of thousands of researchers and students with its immense collection of rare articles, books, dissertations, essays, and full-length journals and magazines.

It houses perhaps the largest collection of material on Balochi language and literature with nearly all issues of every Balochi magazine and newspaper published in the past hundred years or so. The library is now in the process of digitizing most of its collection for easy online access. A small group of dedicated individuals such as Akbar Wali, Azeem Dehkan, Bashir Baloch, Comrade Wahid Baloch, Ghulam Rasul Kalmati, and others have dedicated their energies and time so that this library continues to serve journalists, researchers, students, and teachers alike.

The library is running on a voluntary basis, and the Karachi city government or the Sindh government has never taken any interest in it. Ideally, the city and provincial governments should come forward to announce annual grants for this project which needs financial and material support. The land is not government property, and no authority should acquire it without compensation or an alternative piece of land and building.

During a recent visit to this library, one could clearly see the marking on the outer walls of the library. The authorities are planning to demolish it to make way for the expressway. The people of this area are dismayed at this threat to the library and want immediate clarification from the city or provincial governments.

This project has materialized through some hard labour of love by dedicated activists and intellectuals and must not see any demolition or destruction. This is hardly a 500sq-yard piece of land which means nothing for a 40-km long expressway. A slight realignment or a sympathetic redrafting or relocation of a pillar or two would save the library.

The PPP government, which runs both the city and provincial administrations, must not let this library down. If it is extremely hard for the builders of the expressway to spare this small piece of land, the government must announce an alternative building for the library.

The announcement should not look like what happened to Mulla Fazil Library where thousands of books ended up in a warehouse for mites and rats to feast on. If a relocation of the library is necessary, another large piece of land in the nearby area with enough money to build a suitable structure for the library will do the job.

The mayor of Karachi and the CM of Sindh must take notice of this situation and protect Sayad Hashmi Library which is so close to people’s hearts in this area. The PPP has a large vote bank in Lyari and Malir and it must not ignore such a significant library. Images of ZA Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto are ubiquitous in these areas that display an undying love for the Bhutto family and the PPP. If the government manages to protect this library, it will be a good gesture that will go a long way.


The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets/posts @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: mnazir1964@yahoo.co.uk