DECEMBER 15 2013

Thank-you for having me here today to share a unique perspective on Sohail and his writing. You all know he is a psychiatrist and a writer; I have worked with him as a psychiatrist and a writer. You hear the stories and see the finished products; I know the back stories and have one way or another been part of most of those finished products. It’s not possible to give a chronological retrospective of my collaboration with Sohail, as the many parts are interwoven; but I am pleased to offer some highlights of creative Sohail that no-one else can share.

Before I focus on our gathering to honour Sohail, I would like us to remember what else happened today, half-way around the world. They are laying to rest Nelson Mandela, a great fighter for his people’s freedom. Sohail and I share a history about Mandela. When my children were small, I used to sit at my kitchen table writing letters as a member of Amnesty International, asking for Mandela’s release from prison. He was a young man then. During my years with Sohail, we would discuss Mandela; Sohail used to read Mandela’s writings and he was one of those who understood like Mandela that there is no peace without justice, and justice often requires struggle, and sometimes violent struggle, as those with power and control don’t easily give it up.  The world acknowledged that when it honoured Mandela over the years, and  today the world is saying goodbye to one of Sohail’s heroes.

Back here to Sohail. I worked for 40 years as a nurse, mostly in psychiatry. I met Sohail at Whitby Psychiatric Hospital, where I worked a community mental health nurse attached to an acute admitting unit.

Our first meeting was in  1984. I had visited a  patient on a leave of absence  at his home. I remember him well, because as we sat on his couch, he pulled out from under it a stick of dynamite. He meant no harm—it was from his days working in construction, but it made for a few tense moments for me. A few days later I got called to a team meeting on Sohails’s unit from where the patient had been on his leave. He had drunk alcohol and the staff wanted to discharge him from treatment as drinkng was prohibited.  Sohail as the attending psychiatrist, was strong in his advocacy on the patient’s behalf; he felt that he should not be discharged from the treatment program.   Staff are usually punitive and rule-bound, and doctors are mostly conservative and traditional—not given to overlooking bad behaviour. I still remember looking at Sohail as he walked away—in those days he wore suite and  on this day he had on a dark suit with his short dark curly hair just touching the collar.  I am not at all intuitive but thought: here is a man who will change things around here.  Sohail

Sohail was instrumental in reorganization of the Outpatient and Admitting departments in the fall of 1984, so that people seeking help would have better care coming in to hospital and after they left.  Sohail did home visits to see where people lived and how things were in their homes or boarding homes—no other doctor concerned himself with that.  He started doing  psychotherapy,  relationship and family work;  previously staff met with family only to discuss things like placement, education, med compliance).  He was frequently in conflict with the unit director re more humane approaches and more family-centred care and with other agencies who were too rule-bound and traditional. He was different in those days…played practical jokes,  flirted with older ladies from Administration who ventured over to our department—never maliciously but just having fun. They were flattered but unsure how to take him.  He was kind to anyone who worked hard for patients’ wellbeing, but could be hard on anyone who did not.

I became aware of him as a writer when he published his first Canadian book of short stories, Breaking the Chains. He struggled at that time with English as he was  not used to writing in it but he persevered.  I remember I gave him a dozen red roses which I thought was an elegant gift for a writer.  His short stories reflected his compassion as a doctor—themes of loneliness, alienation, need to respect and nurture each other and the earth. He once got into trouble when a copy of a short story was found lying around in the office, as it was critical of women; people apologized when they learned that I had written it. He learned from that the hazards of being a male writer writing anything critical of women in those strongly feminist days.

In 1995 we left the hospital to start a clinic. At my suggestion we called it the Creative Psychotherapy Clinic because he already had a publishing company called  Creative Links. That clinic in itself was creative—nowhere in Canada is there a clinic like that one. We did individual, marital, family and group work, which you will not find anywhere else in Canada in that format.  It is a unique approach because of the financial sacrifice that Sohail was willing to make for the comprehensive of his patients, and because of the trust he placed in me to work with him in that way. It was creative for me learning to work closely with Sohail both professionally and in his literary projects, and because I had to learn how to manage an office on day one with no experience. We grew together in our ability to work effectively with people in our care using our contrasting personalities and styles but always united in our goals of restoring people to the best they could be.  I was there with him till 2005 and now Bette Davis has taken my place there.

The clinic is creative for his patients in that Sohail encourages his patients to write and indeed to produce any form of art that they can—painting or sculpture, in order to share their experiences, feelings and dreams. Many find that in doing so, they discover talents that had lain sleeping all their lives. Or they knew they had talent but never developed it. He supports people not only to heal, but to discover their special gifts, so that they focus not on the symptoms of their illness, but on their uniqueness as human beings.

During those years, Sohail became interested in making documentaries about mental health issues, and he used to ask his patients to share their stories. That was one thing he and I had creative arguments about…I never supported that because of my concern that they would do it out of affection for Sohail and then regret having their faces and stories out there in public forever.  Over the years he was proved right—people like being in the media and we never had any problems doing it. I learned that people felt proud to share their journey with Sohail to healing and personal growth, and it gave them a chance to participate in something exciting and creative.   It was also their gift to others.


Creative lunches:  Sohail felt that the lunch break was an important feature of the day. Not just a break from work, squeezed into a short time watching the clock, but an opportunity for renewal and exploration of ideas.  Met at specific restaurants for lunch—would start benignly with an innocent remark by somebody. Led immediately to heated debates—the heat supplied by Sohail. He called it play-fighting.   People went back to work after lunch humiliated, vowing never to come for lunch with Sohail again, but of course came right back the next day as wouldn’t want to miss the next invigorating discussion. There was always the hope that somebody, someday, would prove Sohail wrong. Never happened but we tried for years.  These play-fights often provided material for his next essay. We debated everything—politics, ethics, religion, parenting, fashion, patient care, even attitudes towards animals. It was a question Sohail threw out one day and the ensuing discussion, that sowed the seeds of years later, my ceasing to eat any kind of living creature.

Green Zone Philosophy   I was there at the beginning when he started using the traffic light analogy to help people understand calm moods and situations, tense moods and situations, and moods and situations that were out of control. Out of those early days of developing and expanding that idea grew numerous books, an entire website, and lectures and presentations.

He went to Pakistan to interview Javed Iqbal accused of murdering 100 children. As a psychiatrist he was interested in the person and the motivations, and as the humanist, in fair process.   The judge’s remarks about having Javed Iqbal’s body cut up into 100 pieces and put into a vat of acid were horribly extreme. Sohail’s interviews of Javaid Iqbal in his prison cell, his family, and people in the justice system resulted in the book, The Myth of the Chosen One, an exploration of the life of Javed Iqbal and the concepts of psychopaths, cults and charismatic leaders. Sohail the psychiatrist and humanist highlighted the man, the justice system and the wider world of personalities like Javed Iqbal, while Sohail the writer brought all those elements together in a fascinating book,

He never stops thinking, creating, writing. Every encounter is an opportunity for the generation of ideas and constructs. A passing glance at a flower inspires a poem; a discussion over lunch finds an outlet in a letter about the issue. He cannot not write.

His profession provides boundless material for his writings—he might be a poet at heart but he sees patterns and sets in the material he receives. He might love Mother Earth in the abstract, but he is a keen observer of politics around the world, and writes constantly about the struggles of nations and communities

Mentors other poets, writers and playwrights. I have worked alongside Sohail all these years, as he perfected his style and discussing the content of his many books, poems, essays and articles. In the past few years he has asked me to collaborate with other authors, and in so doing I have encountered other talented and creative people. This work has allowed me with my very modest skills to partake in the creativity of others.

We have been creative partners on this journey, growing together in our language skills, and learning together about the world of publishing, audio and visual media and distribution channels.

I remember saying to a nurse who worked with us: “Sohail never gets angry about anything bad that happens to him; but he gets furious at injustice or harm done to someone else or some other group. Then, watch out, as he is merciless in his defense of that person or group.”

I find that Sohail has mellowed over the years. His first personalized license plate said LOVING, the second said DARVESH, and the present one says HUMANIST.  I think those plates symbolize the metamorphosis of Sohail starting from romantic flirt, progressing through a phase of focus on his guru self, to the mellower philosopher we know today.

This brings me to the book we are celebrating today, Love Letters to Humanity. Sohail notes in his introduction that his main identity is as a writer, and that when he picks up his pen, or I suppose, sits down at his computer, he is most connected to his honest and intimate self. I suppose I have read just about everything he has written in English, and many of his works translated from Urdu; and looking back over the years and the writing, I would say that he has never written anything other than love letters to humanity. Whatever he has explored and discussed, from the psychology of suicide bombers to religious intolerance, to family violence to interpersonal conflict or social inequality and intolerance, he has never done what I call a dispassionate and intellectual review of the factors involved. Everything he writes carries a heartfelt plea, however subtle, for human beings to respect and care for one another as members of the same family. Whether letter, poem, essay, or short story, from the first work he ever created back in Pakistan, of which I have seen English translations, up to the book we are celebrating today, everything he has ever written has been in one form or another, a love letter to humanity.

I join with everyone here in congratulating you, Sohail, on the publication of this beautiful book, and as one member of the human family of the world, I thank you for these love letters to me.