What we talk about when we talk about Karachi

Boat magazine: June 2012

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“It is difficult to speak adequately or justly of London,” wrote Henry James in 1881. “It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent.” James’ observation lends itself just as well to Karachi – a Pakistani city of more than 18 million (the last census was held in 1998, and the figure has well surpassed this modest calculation since), the former capital of the country until the 1960s and a place composed of inherent oppositions – always brutal, but never not-beautiful, shockingly violent and welcoming in equal measure. Karachi is home to those who casually drop five-figure sums on a restaurant table and little girls who go to schools where a tree-covered enclosure serves as a lavatory, where one of the largest garbage dumps in Asia is populated by Peter Pans who never age as they breathe deep the fumes of the city’s rotting detritus and forage through the festering piles of human and animal feces for precious bits of copper and other material to salvage and where the women are amongst the most educated and hard-working in the country.

I am often disgusted by and unhappy with this city; rarely am I not proud. My identity as a Karachi’ite is a marker of courage and resilience, most evident when speaking with an outsider who is horrified by the city’s crime, poverty, filth and cruelty. Recently, while interviewing a New York-based filmmaker who had shot a documentary on the city’s misfits, mobsters and miscreants, I felt a surge of pride when he mentioned how terrified he had been while speaking with a target-killer – a hit-man who confessed to murdering up to 35 men (and often killing the wrong man). It’s an odd thing to feel proud about – a thick skin, an armour that the city teaches you to develop. And in that subject, Karachi’ites have had a fine, full education.

In December 2007, Pakistan’s former prime minister and the leader of one of the largest political parties in the country, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated at a rally. For nearly a week, protestors torched cars, railway stations, rickshaws and motorcycles – vehicles belonging to the poorest of the poor – and shops and ransacked ATM machines and banks. More than 20 people lost their lives in the violence. But the memory of this fury is not as tangible as the days I spent with my family, cloistered in our house, uninterrupted by work, school or outsiders, as it was unsafe to venture into the streets.

While the pixelated image of Bhutto’s final moments is forever seared into my memory, so are the images of the late artist Asim Butt’s graffiti across the city during those days – in one work, he stenciled the ‘Stop’ sign onto the skeletons of burned rickshaws and later, in a comment on the country’s ‘addiction’ to violence, created the altered image of a cigarette pack on a wall near Bhutto’s mausoleum, with the words “Kills Kings”. During the 1990s, my generation of school-going children delighted in multiple protest strikes and warnings of violence that meant one less day in class as the government and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a political party criticized for its militant tactics, waged a war in which the collateral damage – hundreds of young men, found shot or mutilated, their bodies tightly bound in gunny-sacks across the city – haunted those who witnessed the government’s “operation” to cleanse the city of those who held it hostage. An older journalist once told me how, during those days, it was common practice for him to head to the city’s beaches after a day of reporting on rising death tolls and scores of women widowed in one fell swoop, in order to scream in anger and frustration against the roar of the ocean – it helped him, he told me, to let it all out, or he felt he would go mad.

When writing about Karachi, or more specifically, Pakistan, it is common to seek out the superlative – “the most dangerous country on Earth”, “the most dangerous place for journalists”, “the worst country to live in as a woman”, “Pakistan’s dark heart… dangerous, chaotic, ungovernable… one of the most violent cities on Earth… doomed… indestructible” (this last quote courtesy Time magazine’s January 2012 article on Karachi, which seemingly had a quota of adjectives to ascribe to this third-world country to fill). As citizens of this “most dangerous” country, we are naturally “the world’s bravest nation” (a headline that appeared in Newsweek magazine’s local edition, three years after we were labeled the “world’s most dangerous nation” by the same publication). Often, however, ‘necessity’ is mistaken for ‘resilience’ in Pakistan’s case – the romantic assumption that the ‘bravest’ nation on earth keeps on going out of sheer will and determination, and not because they might have no option, no other means of taking home a paltry sum of money at the end of the day. While researching a story on the persecution of the Ahmadi religious group in Pakistan, I spoke with Umer, a twenty-nine-year old shop-owner living in the city of Faisalabad, whose father, uncle and cousin were murdered in a drive-by shooting in 2010 for their religious beliefs. I asked Umer why he continued to live and work in a country where he can be jailed for even uttering the traditional greeting of ‘Assalam-o-alaikum’ (Peace be upon you), forbidden to members of the Ahmadi religion, who are considered to be traitorous non-Muslims for denying the finality of the Prophet Muhammad. “I’m sitting in my father’s chair right now,” Umer replied. “This is the same shop he worked in. I wish to leave, but practically, it’s quite difficult.”

When speaking of Karachi, it is easy to peddle in nostalgia: a cabaret dance in one of the city’s numerous clubs; the Beatles’ brief stop-over at the airport, on their way to Australia (John Lennon is reported to have said, “Karachi, yeah yeah yeah”); Dizzy Gillespie playing his trumpet in a public park in 1954, a snake-charmer seated beside him; American tourists cavorting on the beach in the city that was “the Paris of the East”. It is easier, in fact, to keep these stories of a different Karachi in mind, rather than the one in a photograph printed in an English-language newspaper in 2011 of family members fanning the open caskets of two men killed in a spate of violence in the city’s Liaquatabad area. It happened during a routine bout of ‘load-shedding’, hours of no electricity as the country’s energy grid is weighed down by a demand that far exceeds the supply.

It is common for people to stop reading the newspaper or watching news channels here, because the news is always bad. As a journalist, I cannot tune out, as much as I’d like to. And so, I look for examples of the city’s (often inadvertent) sense of humour. The graffiti in an upscale shopping district, which features a burqa-clad woman in heels, her outfit billowing around her, a modern-day Middle East Marilyn (circa The Seven Year Itch); the presence of a paan kiosk named “Tension Paan House” in a neighbourhood plagued by gang violence; a street vendor selling French fries from a pushcart painted with the McDonald’s logo; ‘wall-chalkings’ that advertise solutions for male erectile dysfunction. I take photographs of these everyday sightings, because they remind me that the best approach to surviving in this city is, as the Urdu slogan painted on thousands of trucks reminds you, to dekh (look), magar pyaar se (but with love).

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