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.

  • Ayesha

    What a wonderful story!Recommend

  • Afshan

    I just said the same thing!Recommend

  • Ahteram Khattak

    Dear brother,
    Whatever your name, but you have done a great job. May Allah reward you for this kar e khair here in this world as well as in the world hereafter.
    God bless you .and May Allah open up a series f opportunities for Riaz. and no doubt he is the best of the planners and executers. Recommend

  • Zara

    vry inspiring story….
    tell us about riaz more, how is he doing now? job? married? is he happy with his life? what did he write in the email? and did learning a language transform his future? English is the gateway to education (fortunately or unfortunately which ever way u look at it) in this society, was this the case for riaz?Recommend

  • Iqbal Hussain

    Conspicuously very responsive for the action you took and patronage you provided to Riaz. Its a good for him and for your inner (the man inside you) as well – We must come forward to educate if anyone wants to read – there is no matter to speak English – if there is a desire then we should assist – try today you will get reward tomorrow Its a universal saying Recommend

  • http://www.acceleratedstall.com Maria

    Having travel to and through countries where I didn’t speak the language, the scene of Riaz in the car attempting to decode the conversation hits home. This is a great read. Kudos. Recommend

  • Muhammad Zarak Usman

    an awsome article. hats off to the author. Recommend

  • sohail pervaiz

    wow, what a wonderful story is, really appreciate your efforts and especially Riaz’s hard work………………. A BIG SLAP ON THE GOVT OF PAKISTAN.


  • Bilal khan

    Speechless !Recommend

  • faryal malik

    It was an amazing article. Hats of to you for showing such generosity and kindness towards a street boy ( both of these qualities have almost disappeared from are society).And salute to the young boy for his will and determination to quench his thirst of knowledge. Both of you are an inspiration to all of us out there:)Recommend

  • shahinamumtaz

    nothing is impossible,aim high. each one teach one.Recommend

  • saad siddiqui

    A worth reading piece of article , brilliant may Allah bless him and you too !Recommend

  • Lord J

    after reading this article i realize i don’t do anything practical to change things around except for talking and suggesting and criticizing which is far more easier..Recommend

  • Lord J

    @san: thats not going to happen, i assure u. what we can do is to teach or arrange resources for atleast one person for their educationRecommend

  • Ayaz Saeed


    That’s how we are suppose to be…

    There is a thirst in every one, all we have to do is just keep highlight the positive frame of mind of THRISTY FELLOWS.

  • Abdul Majid

    A fantastic article ! its a motivation 4 a nation which have a low literacy rate but a high debts. So it is a inspirational 4 us. Recommend

  • http://facebook Maheen

    An eye opener! hats of to the author. Bloody Brilliant!Recommend

  • anum


  • Asad Ali

    This is perhaps the most inspirational story I have ever read. This too coming from a Karachiite like me! The immense joy must have overcame anyone’s life after receiving that email. WOW.Recommend

  • Khan

    so you’ve been using the same email for the last 11 years? hmmm I don’t believe youRecommend

  • Sameed Ahmed

    Sir it was a great story
    first i thought that leave it it’s a long story but then i thought just read it once a lifetime.I really love these type of stories this built up interest in social work.Recommend

  • http://nill salman khawaja

    well ,
    i do appreciate dt u listen him and googled him…. these r very common bt it needs our lil attention…Recommend

  • Hasnain Iqbal

    thanks alot for sharing this beautiful artical.God bless youRecommend

  • Imran Khoja

    @Asad Ali,

    Hi Asad, Its about 422 comments on this article by now and I have been scrolling through many just to find out answers to few questions in my mind i.e. where is Riaz now? What happened to his dream? You gave him your contacts but did you take his contact as well ?Did he contact you again ?
    Is this story about Riaz’s dream or is it about our helplessness to provide him the solution. There are many NGOs working in the education sector. If we cannot teach somebody ourselves cant we direct him to a proper organization. Is it our lack of awareness or lack of responsibility ?Recommend

  • Tahira Abid

    It is great. Some times i feel that despite I have eyes and can see this world I lack vision. All such people and stories are around and the nature provides us the opportunity to serve them but we dont even think about them and totally forget that we will be answerable on the day of judgement.

    Thank you for reminding me of my responsibilitiesRecommend

  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/dr-iffat-zafar/21/88a/474 Dr. Iffat Zafar

    Dear Author;

    THis is an amazing account of how one who is determined can actually do something for himself. Riaz’s character made me believe that we can do a lot its just a matter of motivation. Thanks for sharing this story.Recommend

  • Waseem Syed

    Great article. I planning inshallah to give back in this way.



  • Kashif Memon

    wao thats the really awesome im feeling tht i was with riaz!! Recommend

  • Iftikhar Ali Rana

    Assalam-o-Alaikum to all,
    Well really speechless feelings. Thanks Asad sahib for sharing such a nice experience, u did a great job n ur thought is really impressive. I wish our whole people think like this, then this really won’t b dream of any other Riaz to speak English. Muzammil sahib u have also done a great job u people r great. May Allah keep our country safe n make us think positive for our nation n for our country also. Salam Mr. Asad and Mr. Muzamil.Recommend

  • riaz

    i am that riaz… and thank u asad sahib…mashallah :)Recommend

  • Imran Khoja

    you mean that you are the real hero behind this story ?Recommend

  • madiha bashir

    the article was very touching and i am speechless after reading it.I truly appreciate and respect the small step you took towards Riaz. WellDone!Recommend

  • Atif Zia

    @Riaz. i want to stay in touch with you Mr. Riaz. plz share your email id. if you dont want my id is [email protected].
    plz send me an email. i will talk to you. you are the real hero. we need lot of riaz like you to save pakistan. Recommend

  • http://deleted Nazia

    The fruit received after 11 years !! i can imagine such a waoo feeling the person would be having .. Recommend

  • Fahmida

    This is so moving. Thank you for sharing.Recommend

  • Amber





    salute to u man if u r real [email protected]: Recommend

  • Russell

    Dude, why don’t you take a step. seems like you do have the courage to start this idea and implement it well.

    Main Akela chala tha Manzil ki janib
    log miltay gaey Karwan bunta gaya.


  • Mina

    So many people were sharing it on fb so I thought to check it out and thankgod I did…Great Article and thankyou for showing us hope when we cant see any!
    Mina @ Rent Dubai ApartmentsRecommend

  • naila latif

    wowwwwwwwwww…. wow wow wow…Recommend

  • naila latif

    i am speechless…Recommend

  • Faryal Hasan

    Another inspiring story of a young talent. It was touching yet undoubtedly, an eye-opener. Pakistan is indeed rife with talent. Just a spark; a little help, can turn someone’s life around.

    Thank you, for sharing this remarkable story. Recommend

  • Omar

    That’s beautiful man, I can’t imagine picking up a hobo (no disrespect meant) in this day and age, in the streets of Karachi, though. It sounds ridiculous, but thoughts of getting mugged or worse by a 10 year old would be too much to bear.

    What you did deserves more credit than you think, you gave this young man a push. We all need it, after all the first step is the hardest. The rest is the beautiful domino affect of life taking over. Recommend

  • Javeria Hassan

    Mister Asad,this is the very first article I’ve read in my life which has provoked me to think twice! Reading the blog, and when coming to the end I nearly had goosebumps!
    Hats off to you sir! May Riaz attain enough success in his life. (Ameen)Recommend

  • Saeed

    cant control my tears …. RESPECT!!!! i wish i get same chance to help someone. Recommend

  • http://ovais-envisage.blogspot.com/ Fahad Javaid

    Finally, got something to cheer up, something other than bombs and politics. We must ought to understand the importance of studies. Our infrastructure has been destroyed by private schools and to which I guess its quite difficult to match. Our honourable government definitely need to take some stern steps because they are the one responsible for the future of Pakistan. Recommend

  • Usman Kaleem

    Sayings remain meaningless until they are embodied in habits!! And Mr.Asad has described his way of making it happen!! Thank you!!Recommend

  • sarika

    the best article i ever read :) it made me astonished about childrens like Riaz…..Recommend

  • Faizan Saleem

    I hope and i pray that i can help at least one “Riaz” in my life. Allah Bless you and Riaz :)
    Great work!!! You are a Real Rock Star!!! Recommend

  • Saud Ahmed

    I have the same email i.d for the last 15 years.. the point is to learn, and move on positively and not being Sherlock homes and investigating if this is a true story or not. Grow up !Recommend

  • Raheel

    ray of hope!!!!Recommend

  • http://facebook.com/jawaab Rizwan Hussain

    This blog was absolutely inspiring and only heads up my motivation to empower and equip young Pakistanis with the skills to become future leaders. Currently Jawaab is a social enterprise which is working in the UK to tackle and raise awareness of social and political issues with young Brit Paks though new age multimedia.

    I can only imagine if I were to take this initiative to Pakistan and give that mentoring and pastoral care to young Pakistanis there, the effect this will have on the lives there.

    There are too many individuals and organisation that either work with youth with a tokenistic approach or with a lack of professionalism or high quality of excecution. I believe that Jawaab can be right answer for Pakistani youth. I just wish I could find the right leads to make it in Pakistan and help out these young people.

    Overall an amazing article and just shows even one step towards an individual can change their life forever. We need to take this type of outlook and apply it daily to our lives.Recommend

  • gito

    Thank u for sharing ,such a nice story . this shows as u said pakistani children love to learn .. GOD bless u …
    FE AmAn Allah Recommend

  • amna

    it was a pleasure readin it…n alsoo vry inspirin!..Recommend

  • Raza

    Thank you Mr. Asad for the excellent article, after a long time I read such a good article and I agree with your suggestions. Recommend

  • http://funzist.blogspot.com/ Funzist

    If you could read only one article this year, this could be it!
    Awesome Article and inspiring Story !!
    tht was amazing….i had tears when i read the end…inspirational

    tears of happiness tht is:P


  • Ehtisham

    it was touching.Author is a great man.we’ll have to believe in Allah and ourselves that we can do watever we want..thanx alot for this article :)Recommend

  • AK

    Asad Ali, hats off to you! And you sure had some good luck in meeting Riaz who really was determined enough to learn :)

    On another note, however, i do have to say that the difference between genders does matter. We had a (teenager) housemaid who was the eldest and the only one uneducated in her siblings because her family needed some extra income to be able to afford to send the other siblings to school. My mother started teaching her from scratch and she was able to read and write and study from school books upto primary level within a span of 6 months. Had she stayed a bit longer with us, my mother had planned to make her appear for the “middle” (8th grade) Board exams in the next attempt. But, unfortunately, her parents wanted to marry her off to her cousin somewhere in a village in Punjab. So her education was discontinued. We sent some books alongwith her… especially relating to some religious ettiquetes etc. (such as the manner of performing wuzoo and how to pray), assuming she was capable enough to read Urdu on her own now. Alas! One year later she came to meet us with a toddler in her arms and without the ability to even read or write her own name! She had forgotten every thing she had been taught! (I should mention here that her husband is a “graduate” and is also a school teacher in some government school).

    Point being, the society determines roles of the genders. When we say “roles”, do we include will (and the right) to receive education too? If yes, why?Recommend

  • Asim

    A beautiful piece; the will to learn is irrepressible.Recommend

  • Thefirstmom

    Thanks for sharing, this was beautiful. Recommend