Riaz wanted to learn English

Published: June 28, 2011

Riaz’s story is a testament to the fact that our youth is thirsty for education. PHOTO: AFP

It was almost 11 years ago when I stopped my car at the Teen Talwar traffic light to be greeted by the usual herd of beggars, windscreen cleaners and newspaper sellers.

One of the newspaper sellers, Riaz, a total of four feet in height, asked me for a lift to the Marriot signal. Irritated by the commotion around me, I chose to ignore him.

Rather than moving on, he boldly walked in front of my car, locked eyes with me, stuck his teeth out like President Asif Zardari would, if he stared at the sun, and performed a mini-break dance in defiance. His army of four footers was in hysterics.

What a cheeky little fellow!

The traffic light turned green and I drove on only to see high fives being exchanged in the rear view mirror.

About a week later, I was going to pick up my mother from the Karachi airport and once again stopped at the same traffic light. His Royal Cheekiness appeared, but this time he was alone. He politely informed me:

“Sir, signal tak jaana hai.” (Sir, I have to go to the next signal.)

I asked him to come around and sit in the passenger seat. As he sat inside the air conditioned car, he took a huge sigh of relief. He looked tired, worn out and a bit disoriented.

I asked:

“Kya huwa? Naach gaanay say thak gaye?” (What happened? Tired of singing and dancing?)

He looked at me quite confused. In return, I gave him a big smile and subtly mimicked his break dance move from the week earlier. He started laughing uncontrollably for about sixty seconds. “Sorry, sir”, he said to which I replied that Pakistan needs more artists, so he needn’t be.

After about five minutes, we arrived at his stop. He thanked me and asked if I wanted to buy a newspaper. I looked at him quietly for a few seconds trying to picture his entire day from start to finish. Perhaps a little recess was in order. “I’ll tell you what…” I proposed (in Urdu of course). “I’ll buy the entire stack if you give me company to the airport and back”.

It was as if the entire weight of the world was lifted off Riaz’s little shoulders and replaced by the thought of complete bliss, even if it was for just an hour. He agreed, closed the door and sat back down. I put on his seat belt for him (only to receive a condescending look), turned up the volume on the stereo and divided the AC vents between us. Conversation was expected to be limited, but satisfaction immense.

As it turned out, there were plenty of stories that were shared on our journey; some humorous, some serious and some downright painful (at least on his side). I could only offer two-bit advice knowing very well that it was all well and good in the theoretical sense, but too hard for someone in his situation to apply. Instead, we both chose to focus on the green patch of grass that was the present, especially the background (and sometimes blaring) music. In fact, Riaz became quite the fan of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack as suggested by his numerous head bobs and shoulder shrugs.

Upon arriving at the airport parking lot, Riaz jumped out of the car and raced towards the arrival exit as if he was going to receive some long lost friend after many years of separation. Trying to stand tall on the railing he would point towards every arriving passenger and impatiently ask, “is that them?” When my mother finally came out of the exit, Riaz ran towards her and grabbed the carry-on piece she was rolling. In her confusion, she let go off the bag not knowing its fate. To her amazement Riaz came and stood right beside me with the piece. “Er…and who are we?” she asked with a confused grin. “We sell newspapers” I replied with a big smile.

The three of us sat in the car and proceeded towards Clifton. This leg of the journey, Riaz was very formal. Not a peep came from the back seat. My mother and I conversed mostly in English with a few sentences of Urdu mixed in as we usually do, ignoring the fact that there was another passenger in the car. After about ten minutes, my mother started asking Riaz questions about where he lived, what he did, his parents etc. But I was a little surprised at the bluntness of the answers and how they lacked the same detail he shared with me earlier.

Occasionally I would glance at him through the rear-view mirror and find him staring into the empty space as if he was listening to something intently. Perhaps he was trying to focus on the faint music coming from the rear speakers. What a musical nerd I thought; God bless him. We ended up dropping Riaz at the Baloch Colony Bridge. As promised, I bought his newspapers. I also asked Riaz if I could meet him the next day at the same Teen Talwar traffic light. He agreed.

I packed a few bags of some old clothes (quite oversized for a ten-year-old) and other things that I thought would be handy for him. Riaz was at the traffic light, but without any newspapers this time. He sat in the car looking quite dissatisfied. I asked him if he had a great day and sold out. His jaw-dropping reply caught me completely off guard:

Mujh ko akhbaar nahi baichnay… mujh ko ungraizee seekhni hai.” (I don’t want to sell newspapers. I want to learn English.)

Then it hit me. Riaz wasn’t staring into the empty space trying to listen to the faint music while sitting in the back seat. He was trying to decode the conversation my mother and I were having. He was trying to absorb the ‘sound of English.’

His timing couldn’t have been worse. I was leaving for the States in two weeks to pursue my undergraduate studies or else I would have taught him the language myself. In retrospect, I could have fixed him up with another family member, but that thought didn’t cross my mind at the time. Instead I took him to Boat Basin and bought some primary school books for English. But there was a catch. He had to find someone to teach him.

Parked outside the book store in Boat Basin, I gave Riaz an hour long lecture, the content of which shall remain between the two of us.

I handed him the bags, the books and an envelope.

He looked very sad. I felt even worse.

Then I ripped out a piece of paper from a notebook and wrote Riaz a letter… in English (the contents of which shall also remain undisclosed).

I wrote my e-mail address on it. If Riaz ever wrote back to me, well I don’t have to explain what that would mean.

Almost eleven years later (three days ago) I received an e-mail from Riaz for the first time. His determination to learn to speak the language proved to be truly remarkable.

Riaz’s story is a testament to the fact that our youth is thirsty for education. Unfortunately our leaders have not provided the necessary infrastructure – but that story is old now.

We have run out of excuses to let things be as they are. If only one per cent of us took the responsibility to take one 10-year old from the street under our wing, in ten years we would have 1.8 million more educated people than what would have been otherwise. Ten years fly by. Imagine if two per cent of us mobilised.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do anything substantial for Riaz. He is completely self-made.

But, he did do something for me. He reminded me that there is no excuse for mediocrity.

Asad Ali

Asad Ali

A financial industry professional who works and lives in New York.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Dabeer

    If only we believe in our young.Recommend

  • Asad

    and finally an article that gives you a reason to smile and cry at the same time. Respect for the author !!Recommend

  • Abu Bakr Agha

    Got chills at the part where you said you received the email. Will be reading and sharing this many many times. The potential and eagerness of our people is undeniable, but also its the charitable nature of Pakistani people like you that isn’t appreciated enough. Kudos to you both, sir.Recommend

  • shafia

    em in tears at da moement.. mixed feelings.. GOD BLESS U RAIZ ! Recommend

  • Umer

    Little darling its been a long cold lonely winter;
    Here comes the sun;Recommend

  • Ahmed

    Touched for the very first time…Recommend

  • Hira

    I hope Riaz’s future is bright and that he makes something Honest out of himself.Recommend

  • Maleeha

    Though many will come hither and look down their noses at the author for implying that a desire to learn English is equivalent to a desire to get education…to Riaz, in his circumstances, it was! More power to him…and happiness too!

    For every Riaz, an Asad Ali, please God! Recommend

  • G. Din

    There are legions of Riaz’es, almost in every country, yes even in the most prosperous ones. But you are scarce everywhere! God has already blessed you, my friend!Recommend

  • Iqra

    Read something great in a long time. I was so happy when you said “Almost eleven years later (three days ago) I received an e-mail from Riaz for the first time”. Hats off to you :)Recommend

  • http://ovais-envisage.blogspot.com/ Muhammad Ovais


  • Fasi Zaka

    What a brilliant, poignant article.Recommend



  • Ibrahim

    Mr. Asad,

    Thank you for sharing such an intimate story with us,. You drove your point home well, while at the same time taking caution to leave personal bits, ‘undisclosed’. You have shown professionalism and proven to be a good man at the same time,and I thank you for making my day.


  • JB

    Seriously Amazing Article.
    quite amazed and shocked. and these kind of people can do something for our country which is leading nowadays nowhere.Recommend

  • http://www.mafarooqi.com Musharraf Ali Farooqi

    Thanks Asad Ali Sahib for sharing this beautiful story.Recommend

  • aik larki

    One of the best articles i’ve read in a long time. God bless you and riaz!Recommend

  • nafisa

    This article makes you want to smile.
    Thank you. Recommend

  • san

    I wish 2013 election bring educational revolution to serve the eductaion hungry youth of Pakistan and put a full stop on all religious madrassas madness…Recommend

  • Hamid

    Oh what an article ! Riaz my best prayers are with u hope u’ll shine like a star. God bless u eva !Recommend

  • http://adnan-adil-uae.blogspot.com Adnan

    It’s like chicken soup for the Pakistani soul! Recommend

  • Malay

    What a inspiring story.
    Thanks a lot for sharing it.

    Please help as many Riaz as you can. I know you have it in you to do it and you will.


    New Delhi; India Recommend

  • http://hasinaahmed.wordpress.com/ Hasina

    WoW what an amazing and inspirational story, made me quite emotional just goes to show you need determination and a little help and you can go very far :)Recommend

  • Ali Khan


  • muzamil

    really agreee that yout is thirsty for education, i have same story he have fortunately namesak RIAZ i study in engineering university i took a boy from our varsity cafeteria naming Raiz who left his education because he did not had school fees out of his budget,ALHAMDULLILAH he is good studying n i pay monthly to his school dues and ask regulary about his education from his teachers,,I have wish if every one take resposibilty like that for only one person per family even it would be enough for Paksitan to eliminate poverty and ilitracy at last I wana say the words of Khalil Jibran ask not what your country do for u ask what u can do for your country.Recommend

  • http://www.thehrdesigns.com Hassan Raza

    Thank you so much. It was inspiring .Recommend

  • Mehr

    What a touching story also an advice! Recommend

  • http://ictec.wordpress.com M. Uzair Sukhera

    Dear ET Blog editor! I request you to put this blog as cover on the tribune blogs. Such inspirational blogs are more than needed.

    All those who wish this blog to be made cover may recommend this comment.

    Dear Asad. I have no words for you, for words can not express my feelings :) Nonetheless i admire your blog and it will remain an inspiration for me for times to come. InshaAllah.Recommend

  • http://natashasuleman.wordpress.com Natasha Suleman

    Thanks for sharing Asad,Recommend

  • Iftikhar Sadeed Khan

    Excellent. Can read it again and again.Recommend

  • Suhaib

    Brilliant article. I never really get to read any articles. This article just caught my eye and I’m glad that i read it.
    Just curious to know what Riaz is upto now a days !!Recommend

  • jazz razz

    wow x izit fair to say tht i almst cried aftr reading ths?Recommend

  • Majid

    Asad, you are a wali.Recommend

  • nayeem

    so what is riaz doing nowadays? where is he? how is he? you left everyone on the edge.Recommend

  • usman ghani

    nice one..Recommend

  • basit

    What a inspiring story.
    Thanks a lot for sharing it.
    Please help as many Riaz as you can.

    I hope Riaz’s future is bright…..Recommend

  • Hashaam

    brilliantly written!!Recommend

  • Faisal

    thanks for such an inspirational article…:) Recommend

  • ali

    to the author : one best thing u had done in ur life, hatts off man trulyRecommend

  • Srini

    It was emotionally touched by this story. I do not Mr.Asad Ali but i have immense respect to him.Recommend

  • http://absarahmed.wordpress.com Absar

    Dear Asad,
    You are a wonderful person. I wish every educated Pakistani starts thinking like you.
    Bless you!Recommend

  • http://absarahmed.wordpress.com Absar

    Tell me one reason why this article should not appear on the front page of this very newspaper!Recommend

  • Sajid Ullah Jan

    Good one,Asad you exhibited some thing very normal but Riaz….superb.heads offRecommend

  • Samar Usman

    Amazing…its just made me speechless!Recommend

  • naushaba

    im hoping you guys ran this in the print edition. fantastic.Recommend

  • Sataish Zara

    beautiful. brought tears to my eyes.Recommend

  • Farhan Lallany

    One of the best articles recently. Brilliant read and great to see something positive happening in our country even if its only one person. True example of how an initiative and effort by one person can bring a change in another person’s life. It would be extraordinary if Riaz comes across this article one day insha Allah. Best wishes to Riaz and hats off to the author.Recommend

  • Believe

    amazing…i wish people would only do as much as you did at least….bravo Riaz!!! keep it upRecommend

  • http://islamabad Maryam

    it brought tears and smile at the same time…

    heart touching, beautifully written….
    u drove the point home….
    and as Madeeha said for every RIAZ an Asad Ali, please God!

    very inspiring…!!!Recommend

  • nazeen

    made me Cry and made me smile.. what a beautiful story. Wish we could invest in our youth. they are magical.

    Thank you for sharing this with usRecommend

  • http://kulsoom.wordpress.com Umme Kulsoom

    One word. Incredible! May GOD bless such people in our society who have the heart to take such initiatives for unattended kids. About time we realize that the nation needs us, our efforts and our contribution to give back to the society. Recommend

  • Aqeel Iqbal

    this article reminds me TALEEM-0-TERBIAT magzineRecommend

  • Anonymous

    Salute to the author :)Recommend

  • http://arslan-poetry-blog.blogspot.com/ Arslan

    A good article, and a stark reminder that every child wants to learn…Recommend

  • Z. Akbar

    Hats off to Riaz for his determination.

    And Hats off to you sir, for sharing this with us.

    Incredible! Recommend

  • Usama Zafar


  • Tariq Qureshi

    Bought tears to my eyes, and I cursed myself for my helplessness to reach out to another 10 year old. Next time I am in Pakistan, I will repeat the story….If that one unfortunate child on the street is given a chance to make it…….I will smile when God ask’s me why my sins should be forgiven….Bless you all.Recommend

  • Wajid

    Dude…I totally agree with you on this spreading education part but don’t you think we first need a BIG change in our leadership….I mean it would be a shame if you start seeing educated beggars on the streets….
    Anyways fantastic story…I hope you have finish your studies and come to your motherland again….Pakistan needs more people like you….Recommend

  • Khan

    Best piece I’ve read in a long time. I salute you both. Recommend

  • Probyn

    wonderful. Just wonderful. Yet ultimately sad.

    Finally something on ET blogs worth reading. Truly inspiring.Recommend

  • Huda.

    Asad, your story pierces through, right to the heart…very inspiring, and beautifully told.

    it reinforces so many messages –
    – changing someone’s life doesn’t take much from you…in fact, it blesses you in ways only you can truly know..
    – if you see the spark in someone’s eyes, it doesn’t take much to ignite the fire…and you might be tied down by your own life and obligations, but you can never be too busy to spare a little time to instill hope and reassure someone..
    – you become what you expect of yourself…no one should be able to tell you that you can’t do something…and if you want something and believe in your potential to get it, nothing can stop you.
    – if tiny acts can have such powerful impact on someone’s life, imagine what devoting a month, a summer break, a year or two would do!

    – i could carry on forever…the doors of opportunities we have a power to open for someone else are endless :)

    God bless you!Recommend

  • Hmmm

    Shine on you crazy diamond!! GOD blessRecommend

  • D

    1000 likes! Great article Asad. What a learning. Recommend

  • Asad raza

    Look at the potential in our youth..they are eager to learn but poverty always stands in front of them..spread this article so that so-called politicians can learn from what they are missing from the society. May God guide them to the right path..Good bless Pakistan.!

    Thanks to the writer for sharing such a learning experience.!Recommend

  • http://www.itechgiz.com Fahad

    There are only few who cares for others, you have done a great job from your end, May Allah Bless you more Recommend

  • far

    Amazing!!! it is a Brilliant message for all Pakistani people.May God bless you Raiz Recommend

  • Nouman

    That’s an awesome inspirational piece (Y)

  • Rija Miabhoy

    Beautifully written..

    KUDOS to the writer.Recommend

  • schloe kav

    beautiful .. and inspiring.. if we all start taking caring of atleast one “RIAZ” around us , the world will be a much better place :-)Recommend

  • http://islamabad Maryam

    read it for like the 10th time….
    wat an inspiring story………..

    i m amazed because u must be 17 or 18 at that point of time and so very sensible and mature mostly guys in their late teens are so not like that.!Recommend

  • http://mysticsmuses.wordpress.com Le Mystique

    Dear Asad Ali, this is such an inspiring article. My prayers and best wishes are with you and Riaz. If possible, please ask Riaz if he would be interested in being interviewed? If yes, please contact me through my blog since I can’t share my email ID here. Thanks!Recommend

  • AZ

    @Mr Asad Ali

    You sir, are an inspiration for the rest of us.

    Goes to show that there is still hope for our country as long as we have people like you.

    God Bless YouRecommend

  • Zain

    This should be in the paper.Recommend

  • Amna

    I really wanna know what Riaz did after that? i mean how did he accomplish his goals?
    brilliant story though..i wish every child in Pakistan gets the right of educationRecommend

  • Mehwish

    its really a touchy and emotional reality. we all should take initiative for such things but i am afraid that we r not determined to what we think while reading this.Recommend

  • Shahrukh kazmi

    Today i have learned something and It is because of this article, thank you Asad SahabRecommend

  • http://www.ali-zafar.co.nr/ Ali Bin Zafar

    Truly amazing! You made e cry, I hope Riaz story will affect mind set of People in Pakistan & we may see a significant change. Recommend

  • Maryam

    Overwhelmed!!! Recommend

  • http://www.tanzeel.wordpress.com Tanzeel

    Okay interesting share but instead of placing Newspaper seller picture why Tribune has put garbage collectors image in this article ?Recommend

  • commonman

    This piece gives us HOPE.

  • Sohail Ahmed

    Even if many of us are not true followers of the the religion, i.e., Islam, we must know that we are trained to behave as extrovert people. The article demonstrates that it is possible with most of us, but our priorities have been badly intermingled. This has also affected our efficacy towards keeping our systems intact in good shape…………… Prayers are a way to get out of a difficult situation, inherent energy of which is still out of the realms of our present-day science. Recommend

  • Mydah

    Goosebumps.. literally! No wonder every individual around us is a walking story waiting to be pried open. We never know how that might inspire us. Kudos to the author.. that’s the motivation we need!Recommend

  • http://habloid.wordpress.com Habiba Younis

    @author, A-W-E-S-O-M-E, u made my day! Recommend

  • A_Noor

    wow. really nice, poignant piece of work. your kindness is spectacular…wish there were more like you….plus, the child’s determination, too, is very encouraging!Recommend

  • Ammar

    Amazing, had goosebumps right at the end. Recommend

  • http://jellymansthoughts.blogspot.com Adeel Ansari

    A story like this just goes to show the potential in our country. I got goose bumps reading this.

    A message to our leaders and honestly more to ourselves. I agree that we can no longer just blame the government for all that goes wrong in our country. We need to take blame as well.

    Thanks for sharing this story and opening our eyes some more.Recommend

  • Umair Saeed

    A very inspiring read… and nicely weaved into a story too!

    But as a good friend of mine would say:

    “Education is like TEENDAY! You dont talk about it unless you have absolutely no alternative. ”

    Nations get the leaders they deserve… so in essence, it is our own doing that the educations sector is in the shape it is.

    There are many like you who try and do their bit to help, but what is really the need of the hour is vocational training to help these countless millions economically. The rest of education can follow once these young bright minds are accompanied by filled stomachs.


  • Khurram Salman

    we all praised Asad but did any of us think that today if we find any kid on the street or at the signal we will not let him do it anymore and will hold his hand and guide him to the brighter side ???…. I think thats the message we should take from here AND STOP blaming GOVT for everything .We know that GOD HELP THOSE WHO HELP THEM SELVES…Recommend

  • Syed Shoaib Ahsan Rizvi

    SubhanAllah … May Allah reward you for your efforts … Seriously … I got the chills myself too when I read that you received an email from Riaz. I hope he makes something good of himself inshaAllah. Great article! :)Recommend

  • Alamdar Khan


    This was indeed one of the best articles i read so far…. I am totally touched by the story and I hope each and every one of us learn from your experience…. and yes as far as the thirst for LEARNING can never end when it comes to the youth… only if someones there to help.

    I hope all the readers get a chance to do the same deed in helping someone learn … its more like giving a reason to LIVE for youngsters like RIAZ…

    You are a great man Asad … and I m sure this deed would be honored in this life and hereafter …. !!! AMENRecommend

  • Akber

    on my very first meeting after i joined PTI some 3 years ago i asked the welcoming office bearers of PTI Dr. Arif Alvi (who is now general secretary of PTI) that we are not political people and its only our urge to do something tht brought us here now its you seniors who need to educate us politicaly, he smiled and told us all a story, he said he was driving with his grandson and on one of signal a 10 year old begger girl came out asking for money and when she left my grandson instinctly said dadu yea kam az kam 500 rs rooz ke bana leti hu gee (she must be making 500 Rs minimum a day) and i told him you able to access tht she may or may not make 500 Rs every day but did you accessed or realised what her life would be like how she would be beaten, how many time she would be raped or how many kids she has to bore, and how she will live and die.. and so now when you realize this you have 3 options to do something about it,

    1- go back and give 10 Rs to that girl and clear your concious that you did your part.
    2- Go back take that child off the street and help her change her life by educating her and protecting her and satisfy your concious that you atleast saved one life.
    3- Or you can commit yourself to struggle to change the system who creates these children and don’t take care of them.

    PTI is the only party which besides having the squeaky clean leadership who beleive in pakistan have decleared that first thing they will do if they came in power is to declare education emergency.

    All of us who wanted to see the change who want to end the misery, poverty, lawlessness from this country need to gather there efforts on one platform so we can push off the greedy the selfish the utterly curropt and in compitent rulling political class out of parliment only than we can save RIAZ and kids like him.Recommend

  • Fooz

    This was amazinggRecommend

  • Xyra Rizvi

    Wonderful! Thumbs up for you!Recommend

  • akbar

    Excellent sir !! we can be the agent of change and i have always thought how can i help in eradicating illiteracy but now i have got the answer it has to start like this we have to take the initiative …….. Recommend

  • Khan

    May Allah bless Riaz with bright future and at the same time Asad Ali for sharing the story. Once again it proves that anyone can do anything if the efforts are made with a determination full of nobleness,strength and faith. No doubt, as a nation we can not only rise but also can touch the remarkable heights of prosperity. HOWEVER if we are sincere with our fellow citizens around in office hours,streets,class rooms and in all parts of our life.Recommend

  • Ayesha

    Haaiiiii, you write so well :) It was completely unpretentious and such a delight to read… both, the story and the its narration.
    Made my day. Thank you :) Recommend

  • sarah

    an eye-opener!!!!!!!!!!!!!Recommend

  • Atif

    … fascination, inspirational , wonderfully told story. got thrilled when u says after almost 11 years got email. Allaha may bless Pakistan with more Asad Ali like u.
    would love to know complete story, how Riaz achieved this. what he is doing now. Recommend

  • Nisar

    Respected Asad Ali Sb.
    God bless you and your family for such a noble deed. This is realy an amzing and heart touching story.

    “Almost eleven years later (three days ago) I received an e-mail from Riaz for the first time.” Tears rolls down my face…. I am proud for having country man like you!

    i will repeat the sweet prayers @ Maleeha;For every Riaz, an Asad Ali, please God!Recommend

  • Yaseen

    @ Author….

    Thank you and May God Bless You… :))Recommend