If you are a friend of mine and guessed the book that kept me going to be either “1642 days” by Jason Sant, a fellow inmate, or APPNA Qissa II, The History of American Physicians of Pakistani Descent (2004-2016), then I am sorry. It is neither, it is a book that you are reading. At least a part of it. Please keep on reading and you will find the title of the book also. I told the judge about this book at my sentencing. Don’t be alarmed, I am not going to narrate a devotional story of being saved by religious scripture. No doubt, one’s faith, and scriptures keep the rudderless boat caught in the hurricane of conviction from drifting and drowning in the sea of nihilism. This book is a search for an answer to the second most important question asked in a conversation after one’s name. It is, “Where are you from?” I knew from my previous incarceration in my home country under martial law that books are the antidote for the poison and stagnation of life and inertia that seeps into every vein of one’s existence. I knew the demeaning life of an inmate. Not just the daily humiliation and constant reminders of one’s insignificance that is built into the prison system by design. This is de-meaning as in the loss of any meaning, purpose or productivity. My first incarceration resulted from a meeting with the General that turned into a disaster when I reminded him that whoever was occupying the throne before him was similarly confident to be the shadow of the divine on earth. Political activism was not the only reason for my exile. The centuries-old traditions and customs, gender and caste-based inequality, pervasive nepotism and religious intolerance made me feel alienated in my own country. The rebellion against these traditions made living in that society precarious. In pursuit of life and liberty, I came to the land of the brave and the free. Empty pockets, but eyes full of dreams. I met Dr. Sir Herman Vann Praag. This was another life-changing meeting. From an asylum seeker, who spent some nights in the NY subway system, I became the highest-paid psychiatric resident and on my way to becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States. On my graduation ceremony, my mentor made a light-hearted remark that in hindsight seems prophetic. He warned me “You are running out of countries to seek refuge! America of your dreams is not the America you are living in.” My material success did nothing to cool the fire of my mission to search and develop the new and effective models of taking care of severely mentally ill. I helped start Shifa Psychiatric Services. Shifa literally means healing. As our mission for me and my highly dedicated team of mental health professionals stood for solution-oriented healing and hope aimed at illness prevention, combining innovative forward-thinking approaches to psychiatric care. Shifa grew from one room and one employee to become of the largest private psychiatric entity. Then in 2004, acting on an anonymous compliant a number of regulatory and law enforcement agencies raided Shifa. They cut off our funding and suspended our license. We continued to provide the services. My friend and a brilliant lawyer Kent Payne made it very clear that a fight with the government can only result in three possible outcomes: a) Poor House b) Nut House c) Big House.
I set aside his sage advice and with him and another great human being and lawyer Michael Meuniere, we went to Court. In 2006, two years later, we had a hearing. After three days of hearing it became clear even to the Government that they had no case. The Government took the unprecedented action of conceding a defeat and withdrew all the charges. Prosecutors declared that “they will do anything and everything in their power to pull the ‘plug on us'”. In the following decade I was the target of relentless and egregious attacks by the State and the Federal Government. We were subjected to a 100% prepay audit for the years 2007 to 2009. In 2011, the Government unleashed the power in the form of 44 FBI agents and 29 assistant US attorneys and froze our assets. The Government presented their case for three days at a hearing before the Federal Judge Brady. Once again, the case was dismissed by the Judge in its entirety. In 2013, after I was named in a superseding indictment, I pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud. The prediction of the campaign proved true and I moved from a Poor House to the Big House. My lawyer told me that my attempt to tell the truth during my chance to speak before the Judge at my sentencing will result in a charge of Perjury. I realize that I had to live and go on to fight another day. I promised the Judge that this incarceration is not going to define me. It is not the last and final chapter of my life. I am keeping the promise with the Judge. I am writing the story of my life. The title of the story is “A Stranger in Every Land”. I am keeping my promise with you, the reader that I made in the beginning. My mother taught us that a man who does not keep his promise is like a barren land, like a tree that bears no fruit. I am keeping my promise to the Judge by writing a few more chapters of Stranger in Every Land. The book is not complete but this is the book that kept me going. I have no Land no home in any country. I wanted to be the voice of my voiceless patients but I lost my own voice. Writing this book will help me recover my own voice. A wandering Sufi poet of Punjab, Bulla Shah serenaded,
Neither a sinner among sinners
Nor pure among the pious
Neither Moses nor the Pharaoh
Nor a Pagan Deity nor His Prophet
Neither a Scholar of Scripture and Tradition Nor mastered the arguments of Agnostics
To this I add, I never felt comfortable among the rich and never felt poor.
I remain a stranger in every land.
In exile from my country of birth and convicted in my adopted homeland where I am homeless.
So where am I from?
But again only a stranger can challenge the notion of blind Justice. You won’t ride with a blind chauffeur or a blind pilot, may I ask why you accept blind justice whose gyrations turn the truth into perjury?
I could never be a sheep to become a part of the herd; I cannot join also a pack of wolves to hunt together because I may feel for the sheep. I have no desire to lead my flock for the fear that I may be wrong and become responsible for leading them on the wrong path. I also do not follow false prophets who knowingly promise what they cannot deliver and then have followers who have a herd mentality. I am not a rebel without a cause nor am I a loose cannon. I just want to be free knowing that freedom is an illusion. As one poet put it nicely
those who freedom won’t find it either in this world, not in the life hereafter
In this world, there is no escape from death and hereafter one must live forever and is not free to die!
Since I wish to be free, so, I remain a stranger in every land!
— Zahid I.