Another journey. This time, we’re flying to Houston earlier than we planned and the drive to the airport is familiar. Today the roads are clear. There is no traffic; most of Karachi seems to either be fasting or else participating in iftaar festivities. Already, lights are strung along shopping centers with Eid only a few weeks away.
As the driver goes up the ramp toward the departure gate, we have to cross a hurdle of security checkpoints. Armed guards ask us where we’re headed. They search the car with slim metal detectors and the drive into the departure gate is a zig-zag journey through wooden barriers so potential bombers cannot easily pass through the ramp.
We are used to these experiences: Guards manning machine guns standing outside shopping malls, in banks, and on street corners. We are in Karachi after all, in a city that has undergone a decade of civil war. There are daily reports of shootings, arrests and bombings, but still we roam and have become immune to our purses being checked when we go see movies or go shopping.
“Why do I need to tell you my story?” asks Atta Mohammad. “What do I gain from doing this interview? I’ve done many interviews and there have been many documentaries. But has anything changed?” He shrugs his shoulders and looks around his street shop filled with fans, bulbs and wires. “Nothing.”
I ask him to write his own story. “At least that will be a way for you to talk about yourself – and no one else will document and then take your words away.”
A group of children have assembled around us. Some are peering into my video camera, while others are posing for Akbar Baloch.
Atta Mohammad nods. “You can interview me. But I’m telling you my truth—about how I feel today. And I can write an essay for you. I will need to think about what to say…I will send something.”
Photo by Akbar Baloch
Today is a day of rest after a weekend of long-distance travel, interviews and filming; I need time to digest all the information that I’m gathering. At night, Minal, Ammi and I visit Clifton Seawall, a drive that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto once wanted to create as the “Jewel of Asia” and where he supported Tufail Shaikh’s vision of building a casino by the sea. The casino, with its curling roof and welcoming doors, was scheduled to open in the late seventies but all action was stalled in 1977when General Zia ‘s coup toppled Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s popularly elected government. Long after in 1979 when General Zia executed Bhutto, the building remained part of Karachi’s southern silhouette against the Arabian Sea, a haunting reminder of how the direction of Pakistan changed when Zia, supported by the US government (led by Ronald Reagan) came to power and brought Islamization into the country.
As teenagers in the late seventies and early eighties, my friends and I used to drive along that strip and often park and sit on the wall to inhale sea spray and watch the glimmering sea. There were no steps leading down to the water or any rides on camels, scooters and horses as there are today. Nor were there restaurants, teashops or glittering nightlights—just gusty winds, the rush of waves and open space.
The rental car turns onto Mai Kolachi road, and I look on both sides to mourn the loss of the mangroves that paid the price for easy access to the port from our side of town. As we head further south, we pass the new US consulate, a fort that is different from the open space I remember from the eighties when I stood in line for my first US visa to go to college. Now, the structure is fortified, and somewhere in the distance, high above the steep walls protected by glass and barbed wire, waves a lonely US flag. Everyone is happy that the consulate has moved away from Abdullah Haroon Road so once more the street can be open and Frere Hall can be visited.
Today, my sister Beena Sarwar, Aslam Khwaja (a social researcher) and I are taking this route so we can visit Rahim Bux Azad in Lyari. According to my cousin Haris Gazdar, Rahim Bux Azad has stories to share about Lyari, and this interview is a kickoff to the research project I’m doing for VBB’s next living room art productions.
Once we reach Jinnah Bridge through which we can drive to Lyari, the traffic comes to a standstill. All around us are rickshaws, trucks and buses and we seem to be the lone passenger car heading to the harbor this evening. First we think that this is just the rush for iftaar, but when the car doesn’t move for the next 30 minutes, we get worried, especially when the driver turns off the car’s engine and extracts a Sprite bottle from the trunk. He pours the liquid from the bottle into the front engine and tells us that he’s put water into the engine. “Let’s hope the traffic jam clears soon,” he says.
But another 45 minutes pass and we have only moved half a mile. When we reach the top of the bridge above Karachi Port Trust, all the drivers turn off their engines and there is an eerie silence on this highly trafficked road. I step out of the car and can hear the koels singing. As we watch, a rickshaw driver, pushes his three-wheeler onto the pavement and the next thing we know, he has turned around and has left the trap.
After a while, we decide to abandon the car. We give our phone number to the driver and tell him to find us in Lyari once the traffic clears. As we start walking down the main bridge, we see a rickshaw; the driver is the same man who left the traffic earlier. We pile into his rickshaw and he jets down the bridge. In just 15 minutes, he manages to work his way down one-way roads (going the wrong way, of course) and is able to drop us at the street corner where we need to be.
Like any large public space in Karachi, we have to go through metal detectors and purse searches before entering Port Grand near Kemari harbor, a new private enterprise designed to offer food and entertainment to middle and upper class families. The metal entry gates are far from the docks with restaurants and shops—so there’s minimal human life loss in the event that some extremists decide to ram an exploding car into the entry gate.
For a private enterprise, the owners have done a fairly good job of maintaining the original beauty of the little harbor. An old banyon tree with roots hanging low like beards has been lit up, and the entrance courtyard is breezy and wide. Along the dock are high-priced restaurants and shops, and since we are now in the month of ramzaan, the speakers play religious songs. We sit atop the roof of an Italian restaurant and breathe a sigh of relief when the music switches to qawalli.
On January 27, 2012 my op-ed Observing social change, in Houston and Karachi appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
On an afternoon visit to the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, Karachi’s patron saint, I am not surprised that we have to go through a security gate, or that the main road outside the building is surrounded by barbed wires.
I always enjoy visiting the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi. Today, I spend some time with Tazeen Hussain, who will be helping out with VBB spring living room art productions.
As I leave the building, I visit the IVS Alumni exhibition and walk through the beautifully constructed building. The basket installation catches my eye, and I am reminded of the times when Dadiamman dropped her basket into our courtyard, and Ammi sent her the garlic or onions she needed to complete her dish.
Her basket was not exactly like the ones exhibited here, but just seeing these roped objects throws me back to a childhood on Jamshed Road.
We go for a walk late at night at General’s Park. I always cringe when we name the park — Pakistan certainly has a strong history with generals, and to stamp that name upon a great space for families, kids, and multiple activities is a sad reminder of our history. I’m happy, though, to see that roller-skating rink is still in action. On the trail, there’s a good mix of fast-paced walkers, joggers mixed in with a sprinkling of hijabis. They must have been sweating quite a bit.
Earlier in the day, I stop by Ashiana shopping center to pick up a few gifts, and as always there’s a guard at the entrance.
I’ve been trying to go to Bohri Bazaar for weeks. Today, one day before my departure, I inform everyone, “I’m going.”
“The traffic’s supposed to be terrible,” my sister Beena says. “There’s some sort of strike—electrical company issues this time. And the streets are jammed.”
“Let’s just go,” I say. “If the traffic’s bad, we’ll just turn around.” I know that reaching the city center can be challenging at times, but I also have been trying to get to the bazaar for some footage and last minute shopping.
Shrugging her shoulders, my sister reverses the car and we pile in.
It takes us 45 minutes to cross the five mile distance and reach Hotel Metropole, and we still have a couple of miles to go. I finally give up and urge her to turn left while we still can. If we go further, we’ll be trapped in one-way lanes.
As we cross back over the Clifton flyover, I tell myself that at least I tried. And I did make it to Khajoor Bazaar.
Before we go to bed the previous night, we learn about the Mumbai bombings, but when we wake up in the morning, we sense new tension in the air as a result of a statement made by Dr. Zulfikar Mirza. The city is once again at a standstill as shops remain closed and public transport is curbed.
Today is also the day for Minal’s last music and dance class at Neem Tree.
“It’s not far from here,” my mother says. “They won’t be closed.”
But when we arrive at the school to drop off Minal, there are no cars. As I push open the door to enter the house, I can hear music. We walk in to an improv-music session run by the teachers, who, rather than sit around informing students about class cancellation, choose to use their time to practice their craft. Minal joins in and drums her hands on a clay pot. Instead of the formal class, she receives a lesson in improvisational music.
Later on, we stop by my friend Salma’s house; with the city closed once again, we use the opportunity to catch up with each other. As we eat lunch, we receive a text message from my mother telling us that the Gizri bridge is “clogged with agitators.” Over the phone, she tells me that certain mosques are demanding that everyone walk out onto the streets to protest against Dr. Mirza.
Unable to move, we wander over to the rooftop, where Minal chooses the moment to create art.
By the evening Dr. Mirza issues an apology. Twenty-four hours in Karachi.
The internet connection at our house has been more erratic lately, making the job of regular blogging more of a challenge. In the meantime, the violence has subsided in Orangi and Qasbah Colony, but has now flared up in Lyari where a random murder caused the death of seven more people. At the same time, life has resumed to somewhat normal in most parts of the city.
Later this evening (7:30 pm Karachi-time), I will be talking to Autumn Knight, who is in Houston, and she will be on KPFT Pacifica Radio 90.1 FM to host VBB’s regular Open Journal spot, Think Global –Act Local!. I’ll be sharing updates with her about how things have been the last few weeks. Be sure to tune in or listen via KPFT’s live stream.
Even though the MQM march was supposed to be “peaceful” (and then called off), Karachi was essentially closed today as the death-toll rose. Public transport was at a standstill all day, an.d shops remained closed as people stayed home. And in Orangi and other parts of the city, the death rate continued to increase
In the backdrop of all our adventures, the political environment in Karachi is tense. Over the past few days, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) has walked out from participating in the current government and tension grows. In our corner of the city, things are quiet. But even as we plan out our day, we are aware that on the other side of Karachi, in Orangi, violence is slowly mounting and the deathtoll has risen to almost thirty people over the past few days.
To distract ourselves, my mother, Minal and I visit Mohatta Palace Museum Mohatta Palace Museum to view the exhibition of Asim Butt’s work. The exhibition is a comprehensive overview of Butt’s life with his paintings, photographs of his graffiti art, a slideshow of sketches, and the show closes with a documentary about his short life.
By evening, city tensions have risen as the MQM has called for a peaceful strike tomorrow to protest against the killings. The city slowly shuts down and lines build up at gas stations as no one knows how long the shutdown will last. In our home, we operate with a business-as-usual attitude and make plans for the next day, knowing fully well that all plans are subject to change.
Over the past few days, life has been busy. A few days ago, I went with family to see Shoaib Mansur’s new feature film Bol, and I spent time at Koel to meet with the young founders of a grassroots group, D.U.C.K, who initiate social service projects around the city.
Today, a friend and I make a trek to Khujoor Bazaar, located in old Karachi. At the main entrance of the open bazaar are carts piled high with dates (the bazaar is named after dates, for which the space is renowned). According to one of the men selling the dates, the ones in the market right now are mostly from Iran and Iraq. In a few weeks, he informs me, there will more dates from different parts of Pakistan.
Further into the bazaar are shops filled with stainless steel plates, cups, trays etc., stores with cloth, costume jewelry, and others with spices. Visiting Khujoor bazaar is one of my rituals in Karachi. Today, the bazaar sounds are drowned by the sound of electric generators. There hasn’t been electricity for a few hours and no one can predict when the load-shedding will end and when the next one will begin, informs a shopkeeper.
Minal stands barefoot in the living room and places her foot next to a black rain-ant, the size of two of her fingernails put together. As the ant moves to one side, Minal drops to the ground to watch it closer.
As a result of pending rain, many rain ants have suddenly appeared and some have wandered into the house, along with lizards and spiders. Almost seven, Minal who has spent a good amount of time in Karachi, is experiencing the city differently this year. She is noticing details of the streets, but also, is closely watching the streams of lives—birds, insects and animals—that crawl in the garden, fly between trees, and flop along roadsides.
The other day, we googled ‘koel’, the bird that often sits outside our bedroom window. When Minal learned that koels place their eggs in crows’ nests and then fly between trees singing their rich song, she exclaimed: “But don’t they go back and get their children? I mean, can’t they be responsible parents? I don’t like them anymore.”
We engaged in a discussion about how humans have the option of changing behavior patterns, but how animals, birds and insects often cannot.
Minal said: “I don’t like the way crows look and sound—but they’re nicer than koels. They raise children other than their own….”
Without Minal, I would only be focused on the political situation around us, and I would not notice how Karachi—a teeming city of more than 18 million people from around the country—is also home to so much more.
Today is Ammi’s birthday, and she receives three streams of visitors who bring cake, flowers and other treats.
At night we drop by for a late tea at Asif and Seemi Farrukhi’s home and experience a living room art moment when poet Zehra Nigah reads an essay about Indian visual artist M.F. Hussain who passed away a week ago. She also reads her famed poem in honor of a young women who lived despite a growing trend to abort babies based on gender.
The summer breeze sways the flowers blooming on the lignum tree outside our bedroom window. When the house is quiet with just the ceiling fan whirring, we can hear leaves rustling outside and Minal loves to stand beside the window and wait for the koels to appear on the branches. On our third afternoon, Minal sees the female koel (speckled brown and yellow) sitting on a nearby branch and singing her song koo-oo. A little while later, a male koel (black) joins her with a berry in his beak, and they exchange a bite and something that Minal insists was a kiss.
We now start every morning waiting for the two birds with bright red eyes and an echoing song to eat outside our window. I am struck by the fact that I never knew—until now—that all koels have red eyes and that the males and females are so strikingly different and beautiful.
We were in Karachi six months ago, but Minal’s consciousness was at a different level. Now she notices—and comments on—the armed guards, why men are piled up on top of buses at the end of the day, the plastic bags flowing on desert shrub around itwaar bazaar, and street children asking for money.
There is a shift that happens when we land in Karachi. Life slows down and we adjust to late nights, late mornings and daily load-shedding when the house operates off the uninterruptible power source (UPS) or the electric generator. By our third day, we already understand the pattern, and for once the daily electric outages are predictable: we won’t have electricity for an hour at a time three times a day (11 am, 4 pm and 10 pm).
I remember other times in recent years—and while growing up—when one didn’t know when or how long the outage would last. Compared to those times, an hour without regular electricity, and with a ceiling fan still rotating, is nothing to complain about.
And of course, to compensate for minor inconveniences, there are family members, friends—and mangoes.
In the larger picture, the heat is a simple reminder of the privileged life we live, not just in Houston but also in Karachi.