THE STORY OF FAMILY OF THE HEART

Dear Zahir Anwar,

 

You have asked me about the birth and growth of the Family of the Heart. It has been an exciting experience for me to see the family grow from ten to one hundred members in only three years. It all started when my dear friend Dr. Dennis Isaac and his charming wife Maria moved from Pakistan to Canada with their children and made Toronto their new home. I wanted to welcome them and introduce them to some of my creative friends hoping that it would help them integrate in the new country and culture.

So I invited nearly ten poets, writers and intellectuals for dinner and introduced them to Dennis and Maria. After dinner I asked all of them to share their poetry. Most of my Canadian poet friends had known Dennis as a playwright as they had enjoyed his plays on Pakistani Television, but did not know that he also wrote poetry. It turned out to be a wonderful evening far beyond my expectations. People enjoyed the meeting so much that they wanted to do it again and Pervaiz Salahuddin suggested that we all meet at his house the next month. I suggested that we ask Dennis to sing a few ghazals as people did not know that he was also an accomplished musician and singer. When we met at Pervaiz and Neelofer’s house it transformed into a mushaira as well as a musical evening. Like the first meeting people thoroughly enjoyed the informal atmosphere of sharing wonderful poems, songs and stories. That evening was a great success.

After the second meeting Fozia Butt and Mubarika Shakoor, our enthusiastic female family members, suggested that we should meet in a restaurant where there would be a buffet so that every member could pay for their own meal. We did not want one member to shoulder the financial burden for the whole group. We also realized that when the evening was arranged in somebody’s house the hosts were so preoccupied with the arrangements that they could not fully enjoy the evening. The other factor was that in the restaurant people felt free to invite their friends and family members and pay for the dinner without worrying about burdening the hosts. So the buffet arrangement in a restaurant turned out to be a useful and practical suggestion.

During the first poetry and musical evening in a restaurant Pervaiz was approached by Rubina and Faisal, a lovely couple, in the restaurant who had come there to have dinner. When they heard the poetry and music they wanted to be part of the group and come for future meetings. By this time the number had increased from ten to thirty so Pervaiz prepared a list of names and email addresses to inform members of the dates and times of the future meetings.

Since Pervaiz is an inter-net and website wizard, he prepared a special section in my website of Family of the Heart Clinic and put the names and pictures of all the friends who regularly came to the meetings. Since we did not have an identity for the group I suggested the name Family of the Heart and everybody liked it. I suggested that name because it reflected a personal, intimate and affectionate relationship between friends rather than any reference to religious, linguistic or nationalistic affiliation.

In the next few months in our regular meetings a number of poets and writers presented their creations for an honest and sincere feedback. I remember those evenings when Shakila Rafiq, Rubina Faisal, Faisal Farani and Nasir Shah presented their stories, Jawaid Danish presented his play, Amrik Zirvi shared his essay and Afzaal Naweed, Nasreen Syed, Kaleem Zafar, and Rafi Raza shared his poetry while Rasheed Nadeem, Atif Shikoh, Shahid Akhtar, Dennis Isaac and many others offered their critical reviews.

During that time when Family of the Heart was growing my book From Islam to Secular Humanism…A Philosophical Journey was published. Pervaiz shared the book with a number of colleagues and friends. After they read the book, Abbas Jaffery and many other friends invited me to their homes for dinner and got engaged in an in-depth discussion about my book. I was surprised to find out that there were a number of Muslims who had left Islam in their hearts but were reluctant to share their truth publicly. They were afraid of the social reaction. My book and my interviews on radio and television gave them some encouragement and inspiration to express their views openly and candidly. As those discussions became more intimate and passionate we started meeting at Rafiq Sultan’s house every Sunday evening to share our thoughts and discuss the books we had read. So weekly meetings became the meetings of the Nuclear Family and the monthly meetings became the meetings of the Extended Family of the Heart. We are always appreciative of Rafiq Sultan’s family who welcome us with an open mind and an open heart.

Over the months I gradually realized that in our family there was a core group that enjoyed the serious discussions about the ideological and philosophical issues. So when I started writing my book Prophets of Violence and Peace in which I reviewed the biographies of reformers and revolutionaries of 20th century, I shared the chapters of my book in the meetings. When it was announced that I was going to review the biographies of Gandhi, Tagore, Jinnah, Iqbal and Ataturk, a number of Indian intellectuals like Khursheed Ahmed, a peace activist and Subuhi Ansari, a serious scholar of the psychology of religion and politics, came to the meetings as they were curious what would a Pakistani writer say about Indian leaders. Those meetings were very productive and thought provoking. I encouraged friends to review my articles and it created an atmosphere of a serious dialogue among the family. I was impressed that we could have serious disagreements about religious and political issues in a respectful way.

Finally those meetings culminated in a seminar on the subject of Islam, Muslims and 21st Century in which we asked five friends to present their articles and asked other five members to review those articles. It was thought provoking to listen to the passionate essays written by Akber Chaudhry, Javed Chaudhry, Najib Qazmi, Rashid Mughal and Tahir Qazi and equally passionate reviews by  Subuhi Ansari, Zia Uddin Ahmed, Nasir Shah, Khursheed Ahmed and Masud Sheikh. We made sure that the believers and non-believers were equally respected and given equal opportunity to express their views openly and honestly. Some people were surprised to see that an atheist like me was respectful of believers. I shared with them that being a Secular Humanist I respect all faiths but I wish that believers be also respectful of non-believers. I believe in not only freedom of religion but also freedom from religion. That seminar provided an opportunity for friends to have a genuine and sincere dialogue.

We are all very indebted to Pervaiz as his dedication to update the website on a regular basis, arrange the meetings and inform everybody about the meetings has been a great help in the growth of the family. Even those members who could not attend the seminar were able to read the papers on the website and share with their friends. We were pleased to receive complementary letters not only from other friends in North America, but also from Europe and Asia. It seems Pervaiz has been able to connect with hundreds of members all over the world.

When we started sharing our thoughts in English we enlarged the circle of the family, and those Canadian friends could also become part of the meetings who did not understand Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi. We were surprised last month when a friend Arif Razvi, who was visiting his family in Toronto from USA expressed a desire to meet us during his Christmas Holidays. It was a pleasant surprise and proved to us that Pervaiz’s efforts are reaching friends in different parts of the world through our website. We also try to arrange a special meeting if a creative friend is visiting from another country. We had special meetings when Sain Sucha was visiting from Sweden, Abrar Hasan from France and Sohun Qadri from Denmark..

We have encouraged not only poetry and music but also other forms of art. In one meeting we had a painting exhibition of Youngo Verma, a well-respected artist from India, alongside our poetry recital and musical evening.

While we were having serious discussions about politics, religion and philosophy, we met a number of journalists who were courageous enough to publish some of the controversial and thought provoking articles. Rafiq Sultan translated some of the chapters of my book in Urdu and Adnan Hashmi published them in his newspaper.

It seems that in the last three years the family has not only grown from ten to hundred but also touched friends all over the world. Since there are no elections and no office bearers, there is a very friendly atmosphere in the meetings, an atmosphere of cooperation rather than confrontation, an atmosphere of acceptance rather than judgment and an atmosphere of encouragement and inspiration rather than rivalry and jealousy. I was so impressed by friends volunteering freely for different activities. They are all so generous in sharing their time, energy and money when needed.

In the last few months, different journalists, who were curious about our members and meetings, approached us. A Canadian journalist Gabrielle Bauer interviewed some of the members and listened to their life stories as she was preparing for an article on Secular Muslims for a Canadian magazine Saturday Night. One of our journalist friends Radhika was asked by her colleague Ujjwal Bhatacharya to interview me for his Hindi Program with German Radio. Ujjwal, a poet and a journalist, was quite impressed to know that we have a group where people from different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds get together and have a genuine dialogue about our philosophies and lifestyles. During my interview I shared that in the world of intolerance, prejudice and holy wars, we are lucky to have an island, where Family of the Heart meets regularly and Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Agnostics and Atheists share their art and creativity and have intellectually stimulating discussions.

When I look at our meetings and see more than hundred people getting together and enjoying themselves, I feel good that the family tree has taken roots and now giving fruits of creativity, friendship, tolerance, dialogue and peace. Through the website those fruits reach others who cannot attend the meetings. I feel especially thrilled when I see those friends sharing their creative products who have never shared their poetry and songs in public. They feel encouraged by the informal family atmosphere of the meetings. Having dinners and discussions and dialogues the family provides the food not only for the bodies but also for the minds and souls. Family of the heart has also developed a wonderful sense of humour. When a small group goes out to have a cigarette, they call themselves Family of the Lungs.

Being a writer and a psychotherapist I always believed that growth was a natural process. Creative gifts are like seeds of the tree. If we provide them with fertile soil, fresh air and proper sunshine then those seeds are inspired to grow and blossom. That is what we are seeing the Family of the Heart. We are providing people an atmosphere where friends are encouraged to share a new idea, a new poem, a new concept and a new point of view. We encourage a genuine dialogue and following the tradition of Socrates we realize that a genuine dialogue is one way of finding truth and also a meaningful way to get to know each other.

On 12th of March 2004, we are planning to have another seminar on the subject of Women’s Liberation, Men and 21st century in which speakers would discuss men/women relationships from a religious, cultural, social and personal points of view, relating to the dynamics of the contemporary world. There is already a lot of enthusiasm expressed in that seminar and many friends are looking forward to the evening. Azad Danish, a wonderful poet and musician had conducted our last meeting of poetry and music, and our respected friend Zia Uddin Ahmed, who has won people’s hearts by his impressive English translations of Ghalib’s poetry, would coordinate our next seminar.

Dear Zahir,

Although you live in Calcutta, India, thousands of miles away from Toronto but we feel connected to you and many other friends including Rafi Aamir and Nauroz Arif from America, Dr. Saadat Saeed from Turkey, Nasar Malik from Denmark, Ujjwal Bhatacharya from Germany and Naeem Sadiq from Pakistan and many others as the Family of the Heart is gradually becoming a tribe, a tribe of friends from different languages, religions and cultures, who want to share their creative ideas and products and would like to join us in breaking down walls of prejudice and intolerance and build bridges of compassion, creativity, dialogue, peace and love. We hope that all friends from other countries could come and join us in one of our meetings.

 

Affectionately,

Sohail

January 2004