A Fairy Tale in Pakistan
With all the bad news coming out of Pakistan this week, I’d like to turn the spotlight on one woman who appears to be a Pakistani angel for the children in her country. Her name is Basarat Kazim. And she has devoted her life to connecting poor Pakistani children with books. “Reading gives the imagination a boost,” she says, “and it creates empathy for other children and other cultures.”
Basarat happened to pick up my book, A Thousand Never Evers, while she was visiting her children in Austin, Texas. She emailed and asked me to coffee. That’s when I learned all about her efforts to bring books to children.
Back in 1979, Basarat began work with the Alif Laila Book Bus. Instead of passengers, the double decker bus held books and served as a lending library for children in Lahore. While the Alif Laila Book Bus was stationary, today there is a new bus called “The Storyteller” that travels carrying books from village to village.
Basarat also started a school in a tent for the Bihari people who lived in a squatter project. “They were a disheartened people,” she explains. “These Bihari people had lost hope. They had no running water. The children went to market to sell wares instead of to school. And since they wouldn’t go to a regular school, I brought the school to them.”
The children in the Bihari village went to Basarat’s school in the tent three hours every day. She says they picked up literacy and numeracy very quickly. But on the other side of the airfield from the Bihari village was a colony of Pathans.
Basarat explains: “The Pathan people watched us come and go to the school in a tent for a year. Then they said, ‘What about us?’ So I struck a deal with these villagers on the other side of the airstrip. I said, ‘We will teach your children, if you help me build the school.’ After the school was finished, I said to them, ‘You built an amazing school. Just one thing. You have to let girls come too.’ And they actually agreed.”
“The girls say it was like a dream come true,” Basarat says. “One girl wanted to be a doctor. Her father recently passed away and now she’s getting married off. She told me, ‘Whatever I have learnt will help me raising my children. I will ensure my sons and daughters go to school.’’”
Of course, Basarat’s work is not finished. She is now starting a program called Scheherezade Ka Khazana–or in English, Scheherezade’s Treasure Trove. She explains, “I am in the process of setting up 48 libraries in cupboards.”
“Excuse me? Did you say cupboards?” I ask.
“Yes, cupboards,” she tells me. “The schools have no place for a library but we will store 1,001 books in the cupboards of each school.”
These cupboards are being specially designed with images from the story of The Thousand and One Nights, and they will also contain a Scheherezade puppet theatre. This project is being supported by IKEA and Save the Children Alliance.
Basarat Kazim would love to hear from librarians or authors who have suggestions about how to help children become life-long readers. Also, Scheherezade’s Treasure Trove needs a constant supply of books to continue. If you would like to help with the project, please contact Basarat Kazim at firstname.lastname@example.org