The Badshahs of Karachi

Scroll: October 31, 2015

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I might have been in the sixth or seventh grade when my teacher asked, at the start of our mandatory Islamiat class at the convent school I attended in Karachi, if we were Shia or Sunni. “Raise your hand if you’re Sunni,” she instructed. I turned to a friend. “Am I Shia or Sunni?” I needed to know immediately; hands were going up pretty fast. “Well, I’m Sunni, so you must be too,” my friend replied. My hand went up.

I thought of that question on the day I met Dr Syed Zamir Akhtar Naqvi, a Shia scholar and public speaker. “Anything you might want to ask me, you can read about in my books,” he said after I was introduced. “And every year, the TV waalay take my interview, so you can find those online. In fact, if you just write my first name in Google, it automatically fills in the rest.”

I met Dr Naqvi a few days before the start of Muharram, the month of mourning for the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussein in the Battle of  Karbala in 680 CE, almost 50 years after the death of the Prophet. In gatherings of Shia Muslims during this month, a horse (often snow-white) called the Zuljinnah will make an appearance, walking with the mourners during the processions. It has no rider, nor will it ever have one. The Zuljinnah (meaning “the two-winged one”) is a replica of the horse Imam Hussein rode.

According to accounts of the battle of  Karbala, Imam Hussein and his 72 compatriots (including the Imam’s six-month-old baby boy) were brutally killed by a corrupt caliph’s army of up to 10,000 men and at the time of his death, the Prophet’s grandson had been alone, shot at by arrows and stabbed 33 times. His body was pummelled under the hooves of the caliph’s army’s horses before he was beheaded. Legend has it his loyal horse refused to abandon him. The Arab stallion wept, and, covered in his master’s blood, returned to the camp to inform the remaining women and children of Imam Hussein’s death. In the years since, this moment – when the cleft between Shia and Sunni Muslims deepened irreparably – has been resurrected in this witness every year during Muharram.

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New project sheds light on Pakistan’s lesser known feminist history

The New York Times/Women in the World: July 14, 2015

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It had been there for decades  — a red, blue and white flag unfurling in the wind, an unwanted blot in the sky for many who walked under it. And then, in the blink of an eye, it was gone, removed by a woman who heard the calls for the flag’s removal and decided to do it herself.

This is not the story of Bree Newsome, but instead, of Fatima Sughra. In 1947, Fatima, then a 14-year-old girl living in Lahore (in undivided India) pulled down the Union Jack from the Punjab Civil Secretariat Building and replaced it with the emblem of the Muslim League, the political party fighting for the creation of Pakistan and freedom from British rulers in the Indian subcontinent at the time.

But while Bree Newsome’s name may be familiar to many young women in Pakistan, Fatima Sughra’s is known to a handful, relegated to a time when hashtags did not commemorate heroes. Sana Saleem and Ghausia Rashid Salam, two Karachi-based women, are hoping to change that. HERstory, an online record of Pakistan’s feminist legacy, is a collection of oral histories the two women have been collecting for eight months, since an intern they worked with elsewhere mentioned she had no clue about Pakistan’s feminist movement.

Full story here

Nobody Home: The Indian government’s Karachi properties

The Caravan: June 2015

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On 13 April, I finally managed to get through to Tasnim Aslam, the spokesperson for Pakistan’s ministry of foreign affairs. I had called to inquire about three properties I had seen in Karachi, all surrounded by barbed wire-topped walls bearing the same warning painted in bright red: “This property is owned by Government of India. Trespassers will be prosecuted.” The moment I was done asking my question, the line was disconnected.

I called Aslam back. “There must have been some problem with the connection,” I said. No, she replied. “If you needed to ask me this, you should have SMS-ed me.” I explained that I had several questions, and asked if I could email her instead. “If you wanted to email me, you should have talked to my staff in the first place,” she said. She hung up again.

My next call was to Arif Belgaumi, an architect who works extensively on urban development in Karachi. “I’m really not old enough to remember how long these Indian properties have been around,” he told me. He pointed me to Arif Hasan, another architect and a known history buff. “Call him,” he said. “He’s older than the hills.”

I called Hasan, and asked about the properties for the third time that day. “There’s no such thing as the Indian government’s properties in Karachi,” he said. But there are—I’d seen three such places already, and the signs on their walls, I insisted. I asked Hasan if I could email him a photograph of one of the properties. “You can,” he said, “but I don’t plan to check my email today.” I sent the photograph over, but never heard back.

Subsequent searching revealed a total of six Indian government properties in Karachi: India House, at 3 Fatima Jinnah Road; India Lodge, at 63 Clifton; Hindustan Court, at 42-43 Kurrie Road; Panchsheel Court in Frere Town; Shivaji Court on McNeil Road, and Hut 61, Hawkes Bay.

These spots are, and for the foreseeable future should remain, small dominions of the Indian republic within Pakistan.

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Photo by Sitwat Rizvi

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Karachi’s Chairman: Saving her a seat

The Express Tribune: December 27, 2013

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On the 27th of December, 2007, Riaz Ahmed was at his workplace, Manzoor Sons, a catering, decoration and tent manufacturing business, when he received a call from his wife. “I was very busy as we were juggling seven or eight functions that day,” he says. “When I answered the call, my mind was preoccupied and all I heard my wife say was “Zaalimon ne BB ko maar diya”.”

As his workers scrambled for updates on the functions, Ahmed thought of a room one floor above his office, where a caramel coloured wooden chair was placed in a dark corner, the curved S-shape of it’s legs peeking out from under an olive green tarpaulin. This is the chair that Benazir Bhutto sat on when she visited the National Refinery in 1995, during her second stint as prime minister. “It had rained the night before,” recalls Ahmed, “and it was still damp when Benazir arrived at the refinery in her helicopter.” Not wishing for the prime minister to tread on the muddy ground, Ahmed and two of his employees stood by the helicopter with a tightly rolled red carpet, unfurling it before Benazir as she walked from the helipad to the building. A photograph of the day sits under the glass surface of Ahmed’s desk at his office on Burns Road. “She came back to do something for Pakistan this time,” he says, looking at the image. “She didn’t realize how much love we would give her.” Ahmed says he was unable to process the news of Bhutto’s assassination until he reached home at 4 a.m. on the night of the 27th.

The weighty sheesham chair with a cranberry red velvet seat is now upholstered in a royal blue fabric and it was last used at a function for the former chief minister’s nephew three years ago. “He told me he had seen a blue fabric he liked at the PM house in Islamabad and so we had to change the fabric,” Ahmed says. This ‘sadarti kursi’ or presidential chair was made in Chiniot and has been used at a few weddings and some government functions but, Ahmed says, those who request it don’t know who sat on this chair nor do they care. “That time is long gone,” he says. The chair can be rented for Rs. 600.

Ahmed, who refers to Benazir as ‘Bibi jee’, feels a connection with the Bhutto family. “I’ll show you a chair that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto used,” he says, describing the lions’ faces carved into the chairs arms. “You’ll feel like the sher will jump out at you,” he promises, uncovering a sheesham high-backed chair with a red velvet seat, gulkari work or carvings of gold flowers curled around a crest of two swords and the crescent and star, their brilliance faded over the years. Sitting on the chair, your hands rest on the manes of two lions. The chair was first used by Queen Elizabeth in 1961 during a visit to Pakistan. “We also provided this chair for a function for Zia ul Haq, but we needed to create a special footstool as…” Ahmed breaks off, lowering his tone, “woh kadd mein chotay thay, you know (he was short in height).” Crafted in Multan, the chair cost roughly Rs 3000 to produce during the 1940s. It’s creamy velvet upholstery pockmarked with small holes, nibbled away by moths, it can now be rented for Rs 1000.

Since Zia ul Haq used the chair, it has been used once during a theatre production at Karachi’s Arts Council. “I also met Nusrat Bhutto when Sanam Bhutto was married,” Ahmed says, introduced to Mrs Bhutto by the manager of the Shezan Hotel on Victoria Road. “We visited 70 Clifton to meet Mrs Bhutto,” says Maqbool Hasan, who inherited the business from his father, “and press people followed us back to the shop to ask us what the Bhuttos were up to and why we went to their house.” Ahmed adds, “The day after Sanam’s wedding, Mrs Bhutto called me and said she’d gone to Larkana and so I shouldn’t worry that she’d skipped out on paying me.” The concern over payment is legitimate – Maqbool Hasan explains that “kaun le ga payment inn siyasi logon se, woh baad mein nazar hi nahin aatay.”

Much has changed in Ahmed’s line of work since he first met Benazir. The business, established nearly 150 years ago in India, moved to Karachi in 1949 and employed 50 workers; as the market for catering to weddings changed, with a focus on modern decoration and in-house services at hotels and marriage halls, Ahmed says the business only has 10 employees today. Primarily a tent-manufacturing firm, providing tents to Pakistan’s army since the country’s inception (in India, the business catered to maharajas requiring tents for events or camping trips), Manzoor Sons focuses now on weddings and events such as birthday parties or convocations, as they face stiff competition from cheaper businesses in China and Spain. The last tents they provided to the Pakistan government were sent to Awaran this year.

As he covers the chair in its tarp, Ahmed says he has not catered to the younger generation of Bhutto-Zardaris. “Hum ne abhi tak toh nahin kiya,” he says. “Bilawal kahaan hota hai Pakistan mein?”

Link to article in the Tribune

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Going nowhere

The Express Tribune’s T Magazine: December 22-28, 2013

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about, but my father might,” said the ghora gaari waala to Sarah Khan, when she asked him if he knew Ahmed Rushdi’s Bunder Road se Kemari. The artist met the young man’s father, who immediately recognised the song and took her on a ride in his tonga along the route Rushdi sang about in 1954.  “I took that route every day,” Khan says, “as my house was located in the area and I would visit Khori Garden for my art supplies.” Her trip on the tonga, however, allowed her to glimpse familiar sites anew, as she furiously sketched while perched in the carriage. The sketches form part of Khan’s contribution to Right to the City: Travel guide to Karachi, a collaborative project by four artists, a historian and a curator determined to challenge local and international perceptions of Karachi as ‘Pakistan’s dark heart’ (as characterised by Time Magazine in 2012) or a ‘sweltering gangland’ (Time Magazine in October 2013).

Link to full article in T Magazine

Jinnah’s abode: No. 35, Russell Road

The Express Tribune’s T Magazine: July 21, 2013

The Indians get India House. And a serene cross-legged Gandhi in Tavistock Square. And Chicken Tikka Masala, now one of Britain’s favourite national meals. And Bollywood premieres in Leicester Square. When I asked some friends living in London what comes to mind when I said ‘Pakistan’, I got ‘Im-run Kahn’ (New Zealand), ‘houses in the middle of the desert and sand everywhere’ (Brazil), ‘your terrorists’ (Belgium) and ‘no clue’ (Ireland).

So when, during the course of research for my MA dissertation, I read the following sentence in Stanley Wolpert’s biography of Quaid-e-Azam, I thought it might help me feel a little more rooted in London, to allow me to feel as if I could have a foot in both my Pakistani and British worlds: “His father deposited money enough to his account in a British bank to allow Jinnah to live in London for three years. There is no record of precisely how many hotel rooms or ‘bed and breakfast’ stops he rented before moving into the modest three-story house at 35 Russell Road in Kensington…”

Link to full article in T Magazine

“We are examining the relationship between faith and society”

The Herald: September 2011

“We are examining the relationship between faith and society”: Venetia Porter, curator of the British Museum’s Hajj exhibit

London’s British Museum announced this August that a new exhibition entitled Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam will open at the museum in January 2012, bringing together historic and contemporary objects – including contemporary art, video, pilgrims’ testimonies, manuscripts, textiles, archaeological items and photography – to explore the experience and importance of the annual pilgrimage. Visitors to the exhibition can also expect sound-cones emitting the labbaik prayer, extracts from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (he went on Hajj in 1964), the Kiswah (the cloth covering the Kaaba) and the bottle that explorer Richard Burton filled with water from the Zamzam well in 1853. The show is scheduled to run from January 26 – April 15, 2012.

Venetia Porter, responsible for the British Museum’s collection of Islamic and modern Middle Eastern art and also chief curator for the exhibition, spoke to the Herald on how this exhibition will focus on the history of Islam and the region, while looking at the material culture surrounding the religion.

Link to PDF of full article