Aitzaz Hasan, we are told, stopped a suicide bomber from entering his school in Ibrahimzai in Hangu district on Jan. 6. Actually, we don’t know if his surname was Hasan or Hussain. There is confusion about this basic fact. I will settle for Hasan. In any case, either of these surnames can get you killed for the greater glory of Islam.
Ibrahimzai, we are informed, is a Shia-dominated area. Reports also tell us that there were around 2,000 students in the school, gathered that morning for the routine fall-in. It would be safe to surmise that most, if not all, the students in the school belonged to the Shia faith. It is equally safe to argue that the suicide bomber was sent to kill as many of them, as his approach, position at the time of detonation, the amount of explosive in his jacket, and the number of ball-bearings and nails that would be dispatched as high-velocity projectiles would allow him to.
It is logical to assume that if Hasan hadn’t stopped the bomber from entering the school—the only way he could have done that was by grabbing the bomber—there would be more boys dead and injured than just one, in this case Hasan. As for the bomber, we all know that he dies. So that number doesn’t really count. Or does it? Perhaps it does, but we will come to that later.
For now, let’s say some more about Hasan. What was he doing outside the school’s main gate? We are told he was late for the morning fall-in and was not allowed in as punishment. This means Hasan was not exactly what we would call a disciplined student, one that goes by the book. From his photograph, released with reports of his self-sacrifice, he seems like a big boy—and fat. Not fat-fat, as in obese, but one whose genetic makeup would be a matter of existential concern for him if he lived in the upscale neighborhoods of Islamabad, Lahore or Karachi. He doesn’t look like a boy who could have scored with the girls, and he certainly needed to go to a stylist instead of getting a shabby 30-rupee haircut from a barber.
Except, in Hangu, he probably had other concerns. The basic ones, like how to survive from day to day, not in the sense of where the next meal would come from—his father labored in the U.A.E. so we can be sure things weren’t too bad on that front—but when a Lashkar-e-Jhangvi/Pakistani Taliban zealot would come to claim him as his ticket to Paradise.
We can reconstruct that morning for this unkempt, not-too-disciplined, fat boy: a very ordinary boy on a very ordinary morning who did something extraordinary because someone tried to kill the boys at school. We can also see that if Hasan was a studious student, he would not have been late. In which case, he might have been killed with many others or got injured or perhaps escaped with his ordinary life. Other boys are probably happy that he wasn’t the nerdy, by-the-book type. Are they also thankful to the teacher—we don’t know which teacher punished him—for keeping Hasan outside?
There’s another character, too, in this drama—the suicide bomber. Hasan could not have traveled the distance from ordinary to extraordinary without the bomber. If we are looking for who contributed the most to raising the stature of Hasan, it’s the bomber. Let’s not mistake that for an altruistic act. The bomber was selfish; he wanted his place in Paradise. And he believed he was sending everyone else to Hell.
We are talking about the dialectic here, between Hasan and the bomber. The teacher who punished Hasan doesn’t really matter. He was merely enforcing an ordinary rule because Hasan was late. Just like Hasan, the bomber was also a young man—much older than Hasan, but young nonetheless. Why did one young man choose to wear a suicide jacket while another tried to stop him?
It is important to mention Hasan’s sacrifice and celebrate his extraordinariness. But if we don’t want other Hasans to die, we also have to focus on the bomber. But, wait, shouldn’t others emulate him? I hope not. There’s something extraordinary about the ordinariness of collective life. Hasan sacrificed himself to sustain the ordinariness, even triteness of the life at school: the morning assembly, the humdrum of teaching and being taught, the routine punishments, the returning to home on tired feet to an ordinary meal, getting into bed, thinking ordinary thoughts until sleep comes on “limbs that had run wild.”
The paradox is fascinating: the extraordinary in the service of the ordinary. Andrea Sarti, in Brecht’s play, Life of Galileo, says to his teacher, Galileo, “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.” Galileo replies: “No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”
What does a hero do if not sacrifice himself in order for others to live ordinary, day-to-day lives without the rush of adrenaline? Where children are safe, parents have boring 9-to-5 jobs, lives are regulated through laws that no one likes but most still adhere to, where a family picnic doesn’t turn into a drama requiring extraordinary courage and skills in jungle warfare?
As we both mourn and celebrate Hasan’s sacrifice, an act that almost none of us can, to the last man and woman, emulate, let’s not forget that he died so we can lead ordinary lives, go to our hairstylists, worry about weight gain and several of the other banalities of life that constitute modern existence. We do not need ‘a million more’ Hasans because, as I said, there are two characters in this drama: Hasan and the bomber. Neither is complete without the other.