Former Chairman of the Management Board of Citibank Kazakhstan, Pakistani author Asif Zaidi presents essays on a myriad of eclectic subjects in The Stuff of Life. Not hesitant to weigh in on such topics as philosophy, religion, social issues, anthropology, and even evolution, Zaidi is after finding the very meaning of life in this intriguing and wide-ranging collection of essays.
Zaidi spends a lot of time on the subject of religion, and how it defines or derails us. His focus may not always be popular, but it is certainly interesting. The expectation of the coming of a Messiah anticipated by many of the world’s great religions, Zaidi asserts, makes us complacent. He writes that we must learn to forgive – not, he states, a function of loving, but of learning to cope with life’s events – and make change happen, even if we must do so in isolation.
Zaidi is in many ways a pragmatist; he resigned his post at Citibank because he came to understand that in the corporate world, one must either “step up or step off,” and he chose to do the latter. But he is also surprisingly romantic, rhapsodizing about “The Starry Nights of Tian Shan Mountains” of Pakistan where, he says, “I look up at the sky and surrender.” He unabashedly admires a pantheon of personal heroes, including the famous, such as Nelson Mandela, and the sometimes-overlooked, including Pakistani social worker Abdul Sattar Edhi. Some people, he observes, simply have an innate compulsion to do good, and will inspire others to follow, as Zaidi himself is attempting to do with this book.
In other sections, Zaidi decries regimentation and standardization in all aspects of human life, feeling these will always “eventually shipwreck.” He also criticizes the world wide web (“Is the Internet Stealing Your Life?”) as undeniably an addiction that may “allow us to know more about fellow human beings than is prudent.” In this way, Zaidi’s book can inspire people to action – to change how they view the world and act accordingly.
A major focus unsurprisingly is on Middle East issues. A frequent contributor to such sites as LUBP (“Let Us Build Pakistan”), Zaidi’s work is integral for those who are trying to bring their nation onto the world stage as a respected, rational player. He completes his collection with the poignant true story of a Pakistani teenager who threw himself on a suicide bomber, losing his own life to save a group of school children who were the bomber’s intended target.
Above all, Zaidi is an astute intellectual with a keen eye for human failings, as well as appreciation of human achievement. He’s not a naysayer so much as an accurate observer of people on a societal and personal level. The book is written in strong, erudite prose, and Zaidi expresses his ideas without the slightest tinge of trepidation. It could be said he has taken on too many ideas, but in doing so he displays an expansive knowledge base, and it’s the breadth of his focus that makes the book so inspiring and informative.
Zaidi’s The Stuff of Life will interest anyone who studies the Middle East in general and Pakistan in particular, but also the armchair philosophers and observers of human nature among us.
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