Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

August 21–28, 1997

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Julia Lehman/City Paper
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Our Man From Pakistan

Julius Salik, former Pakistani cabinet member and troublemaker extraordinaire, is on the short list to win the Nobel Peace Prize. So what's he doing in Philly?

By Steve Bunk


The Help Wanted sign in the window of a little stationery shop on Chestnut Street reads, "Book Writer and Story Writer," a syntax just off-kilter enough to be intriguing.

At the counter, a diffident man named Davis Hidayat says his cousin from Pakistan, an important person, has come to Philadelphia. His cousin was a minister in Benazir Bhutto's cabinet, and she nominated him for this year's Nobel Priz e for Peace. But he doesn't speak English well and wants help from a writer, maybe to do a resume or something like that.

It's vague, it's exotic, Sam Spade probably wouldn' t pass it up. Nor would he have been disappointed by the man in question, one Julius Salik. Wearing an open-necked shirt and slacks, he has a neatly trimmed beard, soulful eyes and a humble grip. Hidayat reiterates the importance of Salik, who certainly has bearing. In the shop's upstairs office furnished with two desks, a couch, a compu ter and fax, Salik produces scores of articles pasted every which way into a cardboard album, from 10 English-text newspapers across Pakistan. All the stories are about him. Some are dated early 1980s but most are from the ' 90s, right up to a month or two after the Pakistan People's Party of Bhutto fell in the Feb. 3, 1997, election to Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League.

Salik, who lost his seat as head of a minority party called Quami Masiha ("National Savior," no less), had been minister for population welfare, equivalent to U.S. secretary of state, he says. It was a big accomplishment, because he 's a Christian, and no Christian had ever been in a Pakistani cabinet. Several of the newspaper pictures show him prone and emaciated at the end of a 35-day hunger strike. In others, he' s draped on a crucifix being carried by throngs down a city street, then he's lying on the pavement while military police thump him with clubs, then riding at the head of a camel train out of town after the election loss, the animals' sides bearing large portraits of former Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Clearly, this is a freedom fighter in the Gandhian mold, but with a theatrical bent that has worked wonders with media coverage in his part of the world. He has been elected five times since 1979 to represent Pakistan' s Christians, variously estimated at between 6 and 9 million of the country's approximately 120 million people. They're the largest minority, but Salik's histrionic demonstrations on behalf of the poor and oppressed have embraced minorities all over the region, indeed, the world. He whips out a copy of the nomination letter to the Nobel committee, in which Bhutto called him "the nation's conscience."

So why is he here in Philadelphia?

What does he want?

Ostensibly, he' s here to visit family. Almost a decade ago, his younger brother, Marcus, and his wife followed their father and stepmother to New York City. Marcus, who had been official photographer for the governor of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia during a 15- year stay there, didn't like the Big Apple, so they moved to Philly. He' s a cab driver here, still saving up for an exhibition one day of the hundreds of oil paintings stacked in his basement. Julius sent his 26-year-old son, David, to live with his aunt and uncle about six months ago, when life in Pakistan was going to get hot, politically and personally. Pakistanis tend to be less than kind (imprisonment is favored) to politicians and families of deposed administrations, particularly when they' ve been outspoken. In that regard, Julius Salik has sinned monumentally, which makes it a tad hard to swallow that he' s here now merely to see relatives. The big deal he makes about having gotten a multiple re-entry visa suggests that he hardly can believe his luck; he even photocopied the stamp: look, I got out legitimately, here's the evidence!

What Salik seems to want at the moment, as Pakistan celebrates its 50th anniversary, is publicity. That's been the lifeblood of his activism, which has made him one of the most colorful characte rs in the brief yet tumultuous history of a nation forged, along with India, from a British colony.

He says he needs someone to call all the media for him, because, sorry, he says, his English is not good. People must know he's here, and all else will flow from that. He doesn' t have a plan, he says, he just wants someone to write letters, use the fax, computer, work here, the hours are flexible, the wages will materialize, write his biography.

Hidayat calls to him from the stairwell and they speak rapidly in Urdu. He returns, chastened, and says his cousin has warned that he's in a different country now, he's pushing too hard, his passion is about to spiral out of control. He 's burning to change it all for the better, immediately, but perhaps it is wiser to go one step at a time.

He gets a shop employee to photocopy the jumbled newspaper clippings, from which an amazing narrative eventually emerges. This man, who 10 days earlier arrived unremarked in America, appears to be one of the world's most inventive an d dedicated agitators for peace and civil liberties. He is beloved in Pakistan but also scorned and feared. And he most likely can consider himself blessed to be still free and alive.

—-

From his birth in Lahore in 1948, Salik was destined to feel the brunt of discrimination.

His grandfather, converted by English colonial missionaries, became a priest and built a church. As Christians, the family belonged to the largest minority in a country where Islam is the official state creed, where non-believers suff er and too frequently die. Although neither a conquered people nor immigrants, Pakistani Christians are economically depressed, without organized labor, fixed wages or benefits. They work at low-paid jobs or scavenge, and their political power is scant.

Salik' s father was an army storeman who was court martialled for insubordination and jailed for a year. But he had a knowledge of chemicals that he parlayed into a successful soda ash factory. His son worked there as a young man, ran a small business, and st udied the Bible intently with his father for years. He doesn't like to talk about his youth and his poor education, dismissing them as unimportant compared to his politically active years.

In 1977, when Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was deposed and jailed by strongman General Zia ul-Haq, Salik came to prominence as an agitator for his release, even though the Christian community then favored Zia. Salik was arrested during a protest in 1978, the first of many jailings — often accompanied by beatings or torture — that he was to endure over the next 10 years of Zia's martial law.

Committed to the "Islamization" of Pakistan, Zia made constitutional changes that separated the Muslims' majority elections from those of Christians, a kind of electoral apartheid based on religious affiliation. Although protesting against the junta was a crime, Salik atte mpted to circumvent this threat by turning his protests into street theater. He dressed in a military cap and dark glasses to indicate the regime's blindness, a nd wrapped his body in barbed wire to symbolize the enslaved nation. He created a Lamp Day that became a national tradition, during which lamps were turned on in the daytime to simultaneously symbolize hope for a more just future and to suggest that sunli ght alone was not sufficient for political and intellectual prisoners.

Pakistan's Christian leaders were an understandably meek bunch in those days, and their clerics tried to tell Salik that fasting and protesting were not Christ's way. Nevertheless, Lahore' s Christians elected him as their municipal councilor in 1979. Soon, the indifference of the mayor to Christian concerns forced Salik to resign, so he called a press conference, donned a black robe, smeared himself with ashes and led the reporters into the mayor's office.

As his activism escalated, his sympathies turned increasingly outward, toward the repression of minorities in all countries, and toward the idealism of world peace. He demonstrated on behalf not only of Pakistani causes, but for the plig hts of repressed people in India, Iraq, Iran, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Lebanon, the Philippines, Uganda, Burma and Palestine. In 1980, when 300 Muslims were slaughtered by Hindu militants in India, he protested by abandoning his normal clothing in favor of sac kcloth. He wore it for 12 years, in solidarity with a persecuted minority in India that was a persecuting majority in Pakistan.

—-

One afternoon in the stationery shop's office, Salik points to the couch, draped with a Pakistani rug embroidered with a cruc ified Christ; lovely work, if your taste runs to that sort of thing. He then produces a letter offering it as a gift to America' s toughest Christian, Evander Holyfield. Just a private gift, not for the media, he says. If Holyfield wants to give something back, that's fine, and if not, that's okay, too. But so far, he hasn' t even been able to locate a fax number for Holyfield's manager.

In this country, Salik seems disconcertingly like Bambi in Godzillaland. Isn't there some local association of Pakistanis h e can approach? Of course, he smiles, suddenly in his element, but they are Muslims. The Pakistani Consulate is indifferent. When asked if they knew Salik was in Philadelphia, a man answering the phone at the Pakistani consulate in New York said "Oh, no, no, no we don't know where he is."

When asked if Pakistani officials were concerned that Salik would cause trouble in America, the man said "Oh, no, no, no, no, we don't care."

Salik talks urgently, and clumsily in English, about the power of love, his woun ded eyes threatening to spill over. The scene is reminiscent of the newspaper articles that ridiculed him for bursting into tears in the National Assembly, and of the ones that reported with awe his gale-like oratory. He says he once gave a speech to 20,0 00 people in a Lahore stadium that lasted 16 hours. It was about, what else, peace and love.

—-

In 1983, Salik raised money for his reelection campaign in Lahore by setting up a shoe polishing stand on the footpath. He also fielded questions from a Public Office for the Minorities on the sidewalk. Soon after he won the election, minorities got an official public office. Salik' s demands to General Zia for government recognition of Easter as a Christian holy day were accompanied by a five-week hunger strike that ended in his arrest.

When the police arrived, they were armed with shields, tear gas and guns. Salik was surrounded by 8,000 followers.

In a faint voice, he told the people to lie down, and they complied, avoiding violence. In prison, he was force-fed, then kept in solitary confinement for more than two months. Once, he was taken before a firing squad in an attempt to coerce him into writing an apology. He refused, and eventually was freed.

He immediately called a conference of 280 Christian clerics from around Pakistan, who demanded that General Zia listen to them. Shortly afterward, Salik met Zia at a function for municipal councilors.

"When I was introduced to him, he asked me how things were," Salik later told a reporter. "I said, 'We are very happy, sir, very, very happy... We don' t get any leave on Easter but we are very happy, sir, very happy. Even though you have no time to meet Christian clerics, we are very, very happy.'"

Not long afterward, he again resigned due to lack of response from the government. His wife, Mary, contested the by-election.

In 1985, he gave away his belongings and set out with Mary on a 40-day, 1,200-mile trek to the Pakistan-Iran border, during which he campaigned for an end to the Iran-Iraq war. For two years, the couple c ontinued the protest by living in a tent on the sidewalk with their boy, David. In 1988, General Zia died in an airplane crash, giving the country its long-promised national elections, and Salik the chance to move from provincial to federal politics. He r an for a minority seat in the National Assembly, but poll-rigging prevented him from officially claiming victory for 19 months. The day he took office, the National Assembly was dissolved.

—-

At Hidayat's shop, Salik's immaculate pin-striped suit seems to make a wry statement about the ephemerality of possessions. The previous day, he had returned from a nursing home in New York where he visited his father, of whom he speaks with reverence. Twice, Pakistani cab drivers recognized him, he says happily, and refused to accept payment for the ride. Perhaps he will soon visit his elder brother Octavius, who lives in Indianapolis. Their father, ever the Anglophile, named all his boys from Shakespeare: Octavius, Julius, Marcus.

Julius says his Oslo contact told him he' s on a preliminary shortlist of 133 nominees for the Peace Prize. He has been vilified as a half-mad opportunist, eccentric, ridiculous, the flotsam and jetsam of Pakistani politics, yet he remains clear about the purpose of the publicity, including t he Prize, should it come. "It's not my privilege," he says, "the privilege is the people's."

To win would enable him to achieve a long-held dream of setting up a University of Peace where world leaders could lecture and a Ph.D. in peace could be earned from a syllabus of "accountability, peace, progress and prosperity." He already has taken the first step in that direction by establishing a Peace Chair at Quaid-e-Azam University, Pakistan's most prestigious institute of learning.

—-

In 1990, he won election in Pakistan for the fourth time, and soon was protesting against a decision by the Punjab province' s government to hold local elections during the Christmas holidays. When the government refused to acknowledge his demands, Salik tied himself to a crucifix and was paraded through the city streets by his followers. The assembly was tear-gassed, about 60 were arrested, he was booked for attempted suicide and was beaten. The government then froze welfare funding he was to have distributed to widows.

In his corruption-ridden country, he knew the people might suspect he had stolen the millions, so he organized a hunger strike of widows who had applied for the assistance. The government still did not respond.

"Some of the women were so old that after the second day, their condition started to worry me," Salik told a newspaper. "But they simply refused to call off the strike until they got their money."

He reacted to this dilemma with characteristic bravado.

Packing all his household belongings into a truck, he unloaded them in front of a government building and burned them. There was no official response. A few days later, he staged a mock funeral for himself, with candles at his head and feet, mourners thro wing dust into his grave, and plans to be buried alive.

The government's response?

Salik was arrested.

When the welfare funds remained frozen, he again announced he would resign. It was an economic tactic: ever since General Zia' s constitutional changes that divided Pakistan into multiple sectarian regions, by-elections had become extremely expensive. Beca use the Christians were scattered throughout the country, the by-election would have to be conducted nationwide within 60 days.

"After my resignation, government will have to arrange by-elections at 33,000 polling stations," Salik said. "Government has blocked my fund... just to punish me for my support to the opposition."

He threatened to poison himself if the government attempted to forcibly prevent him from resigning. At the National Assembly on the appointed day, he pricked his finger, intending to sign his resignation in his own blood. He was kept from doing so by a ru sh of ministers. A reporter noted, "The general Treasury view was that it would be better to win him over by extending the hand of cooperation than trying strong-arm tactics on a man who is willing to burn all his household goods as a protest. "

—-

Salik produces a letter of support for his Peace Prize nomination from Center City lawyer Bernie Resnick, who went to Pakistan in 1995. A few days later, Resnick is at the shop, sitting with Salik among his usual coterie of respectful Pakistani businessme n. An open and aware man in his 30s, Resnick first met Davis Hidayat when he was running a vending stand on Chestnut a dozen years ago. He helped him with a licensing matter and soon began representing the city' s Christian Pakistani community. After years of encouragement by Hidayat, he finally agreed in 1995 to accompany him and another client on a three-week visit to Pakistan. "I' m a Jewish American guy with Israel stamped in my passport, going to Pakistan after they've just sent some guys over to blow up the World Trade Center," he recalls. " But they treated me with really welcoming respect that I never would have imagined, as if I were a dignitary."

Eventually, he and Hidayat flew to Islamabad to visit Salik, who was then in Bhutto' s cabinet. Resnick got the front seat of honor in the government staff car that picked them up at the airport and screeched away, siren wailing, to deposit them in the archit ecturally planned capital city at the foothills of the Himalayas. Over the next days, Resnick watched as Salik held audiences with a constant stream of people asking his advice and aid, often until the early hours of the morning. "I' ve seen him entertain people with bad teeth, who smell bad, who don't speak well, and he will listen intently to them and try to help them, just as he would the president," he says. " No matter how rich or poor, what religion or political background, he would meet everyone."

Resnick thinks that some good publicity might help his friend toward the Nobel Prize (the selection committee begs to differ, claiming on their web site that any attempts at influence are either useless or adverse), but he basically wants Salik to lie low until September, when the winner is announced. The problem, he admits, is that lying low is simply not Salik's style; and if some action does transpire, it's bound to be an eye-opener.

—-

In 1992, Salik assembled the photos he had collected of all the Nobel Peace Prize winners from 1901 onward, and wrapped them in barbed wire. He used this display in a sidewalk demonstration for peace in Bosnia and Kashmir, the barbed wire " arresting" history's leaders in their quest for global tranquility.

In 1993, he was reelected to the National Assembly. The following year, he was named to Bhutto' s cabinet, and he unveiled the results of his national competition to paint all Peace Prize winners, based on the photo collection. More than 300 portraits of former winners were d isplayed to the press and public, culminating eight years of planning by the Salik Educational Peace Foundation that he had established in 1986. At the unveiling, he once again wrapped all the images in barbed wire, which he then clipped away for the came ras.

As a federal minister, he championed legislation for improved religious and employment conditions for Christians, and traveled to countries stricken by war. In April of 1996, Bhutto nominated him for the Nobel Prize. Her letter to the committee chairman r ead, in part: "The flame of liberty shines brightest in the dark. Thus, for Julius Salik, General Zia's decade of dictatorship was his finest hour. While other individuals and parties struggled against military rule, Mr. Salik' s was the loneliest path, for he fought not only for democracy, but for the rights of the minorities as well. Frequently jailed and beaten by the junta, he soldiered on despite the hardships he endured. "

"For many Pakistanis, Julius Salik has become the nation' s conscience. But his passion for peace transcends national frontiers: during the Iran-Iraq war, he undertook a long peace march. And he publicly appealed to Iranian leaders to release American diplo mats during the hostage crisis. Mr. Salik has consistently raised his voice to protest human rights violations wherever they occur."

When Bhutto lost the election in February, Salik was surprised to also lose his seat. Before leaving office, he burned his five three-piece suits to express his opposition to elitism in government, the so-called "VIP culture." He then distributed 350 donated suits to the poor, and rather than driving away from Islamabad in a Pajero, headed a train of seven camels in imitation of Christ. Draping the sides and back of the caravan with portraits from his Nob el Prize art competition, his only remaining possession of value thus made a traveling peace gallery of his exit from politics.

In March, he announced that he had obtained the voting returns and had performed a recount that showed 10,000 more votes were tallied than were actually cast for his seat. He urged the Supreme Court to take action against the Electoral Commission, vowing, "If the actual results are not upheld, I will water the plants on the parliamentary grounds for the rest of my life in protest."

—-

In Urdu, "Salik" is not merely a surname but a larger sort of patrimony. Salik says it means "good" or "righteous" but his son, David, adds that it cannot be directly translated. It refers also to the itinerant style of doing good that characterized Julius' grandfather, the family priest. Following that tradition, Julius moved often to reach his constituenc y throughout the country.

"My father did not believe in owning a home, and we had to move from city to city, and I got three or four years behind in my studies," David says. "But I think it' s good; somebody has to do for Christians in our country. He's the one. Maybe God gave him the job to save the Christians there."

In Pakistan, David had completed two years of a three-year law course, but he can't afford the schooling in America. "I don't like to stay over here, it's a hard life," he says. "But it' s harder there, because I might get kidnapped or maybe shot."

He worries, too, about his father's eventual return to Pakistan.

"I don't know, maybe sometime he's going to try to burn himself, I think he might," says David. "He's a very different kind of person, I know him. Whatever he thinks, he does. He never worries about what 's going to happen in the future. And the government knows what kind of person he is. "

"I fought with him a lot, over a home and things like that, but in my heart, I have a lot of respect for my father, because I know what he's trying to do. I need something from him and he's not able to give me that, but I' ve learned a lot from my father about how to treat people, about humanitarianism."

Marcus Salik is out on one of his long work days, but Julius stands in the doorway of his brother's modest home in Upper Darby, making a prayerful gesture of welcome. While his wife and his brother' s wife bustle cheerfully behind a beaded curtain, preparing a huge array of snacks, Salik puts on videotapes of his political exploits, including a visit with his family to Bosnia one Christmas to pass out "tokens of love" to hospitalized war victims, and a three-minute spot on the BBC News of the World that describes him as, "Pakistan's stunt man par excellence."

Salik knows his stunts get results, and the concessions from government that he won over the years gradually convinced other minority leaders of it. When a plan was announced to make Pakistanis disclose their religion on their national ID cards, Salik 's hunger strikes were emulated not only by Christian clerics but by Sikhs, Hindus, Parsees, Buddhists and scheduled castes. The government dropped the proposal.

Also notable among his many achievements over the years are the restoration of minorities' right to vote for general seats, the establishment of a guaranteed 5 percent minimum employment of Christians in government offices, and official recognition of Easter as a Christian holiday.

Does he think it's dangerous to go back?

Yes, and so does Mary, but God will protect them. Even so, he adds, it would be best if this story didn't say bad things about the Muslims. Anyway, his message is not about conflict, it is about love. "Actually, I' m not a politician," he says. Then follows a disjointed discourse on the people's need for soap, soup and salvation. Amid the religious art and family photos on the walls of his brother' s home, he gazes at a framed shot of Benazir Bhutto's cabinet, she and Salik the only ones in traditional garb. "I'm not a great man," he says. "My mission is great, but I'm not great."

Pakistani Christians regard him, great or not, as their messiah, the one to lead them toward salvation. All the better if he can garner for them some soap and soup along the way.

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