I remember the grownups driving through Star Gate and entering Karachi’s international airport – I don’t even think the airport had a name back then – and walking up the stairs to the open patio to eat cake while the grown-ups sipped tea. Together we watched airplanes roar over our hair, feeling no fear, not wondering if the roar was a bomb or a suicide bombing. And when the plane landed, we raced down the stairs to see who could reach the arrival gate first.
This is just one memory that floats through my mind as I wait at Houston’s Intercontinental Airport. Heading to my first world, a journey soaked with memories filled with changes, I contemplate my long-term relationship with airplanes and airports.
I head to Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport on December 27, the death anniversary of Benazir Bhutto, who was murdered four years ago. Buildings and cars were set on fire that day as the country shut down to mourn. Check my blog entries from December 2007:
Yesterday was the much-anticipated PTI-Imran Khan rally in Karachi. I watched some of the performance on television and was amused to see Khan’s speech punctuated by pop music – a good distraction from the mixed messages embedded in Khan’s campaign. (Check Newsline blog.)
I catch a ride to villages outside of the rural township of Sujawal with architect Shahid Khan, CEO of Indus Earth Trust, an NGO that’s working with the coastal rural communities in Sindh and Balochistan. Shahid Khan is training villagers to reconstruct new hutments using indigenous materials after the flooding that devastated Sindh over the last two years.
Part of the organization’s efforts involve education and support of traditional art such as the creation of rillis using cotton rather than polyester that has permeated the region. Other forms of art, drawings on clay, also appear in spaces.
Minal and I start out the day by attending the Houston Fine Art Fair, where we see exhibition booths set up by galleries around the US. One of the highlights for Minal is an inflated sculpture by William Cannings which she can actually touch.
We spend the second half of the day grocery shopping at Central Market. As we sit down on the upstairs patio to eat a fast lunch, we witness a rainstorm, the first in Houston during one of the worst drought periods in the history of the state. In the meantime, though, we are profoundly aware of more flooding in Sindh, which still has not recovered from the monsoons of 2010.
Earlier in the day, she comments: “How do squirrels know their partners if they all look the same?”
Our flight did leave on time but Karachi’s international departure lounge was packed with people with barely enough standing room since all PIA flights were delayed.
By the time we landed in Dubai, it was already 3:00 am Karachi time. The airplane coasted along the airport runway for ten minutes. When the plane stopped, I noticed buses pulling up: There was no chute to connect us to the terminal and we would need to walk down the dark staircase and ride a bus (without seats) for another 15 minutes to the terminal for our onward flight. (I take back what I said in my blog-post from when we flew through Dubai a month ago.)
“Why do passengers from Pakistan have to take buses?” I asked an Emirates attendant, who helped me with my hand-luggage as I carried a sleepy Minal down the stairs to the heated tarmac.
He shrugged. “It’s random.”
“Random?” I held on to the metal rail. “I’ve never taken a flight coming from the US and had to deal with this!”
The attendant did not have a response to my anger.
Today, barely recovered from the long journey, I browse through the blog of one Pakistan’s largest English daily newspapers, Dawn, and come across an essay about Saudi discrimination against South Asians. Though Dubai is part of the U.A.E., and is in many ways different from Saudi Arabia, Asian laborers in Dubai experience similar hardships to those that Ahmed Ali Khalid raises in his blog entry. In a 2006 BBC story, reporter Masud Alam writes about apartheid in Dubai (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6171909.stm). Our experience at the airport is a microcosm of a larger story, one that hasn’t changed much since Alam’s narrative posted five years ago.
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.
My cousin texts me and invites me to join him and his wife for a Korean meal. I know exactly which restaurant he’s talking about. It’s the only Korean restaurant in Clifton, and not only do they offer delicious spicy food, but they also serve beer. We walk into the restaurant at 9:30pm and the interior is dark and warm. The electricity hasn’t been working for three days, the waiter informs us, and the fans and light are being run through a generator. We shrug. The beer and great food will compensate for no air-conditioning.
As we order our drinks and meal, the restaurant fills up. No one seems to be bothered by the humidity and the florescent lighting. But halfway through our meal, the whirring of the generator comes to an abrupt halt, and the restaurant plunges into darkness. The fans stop moving and we start sweating. The waiters bring out the candles, and all the guests keep eating. A few minutes later the fans start up again. By this point, my face and my body are drenched with sweat. I take a swig of my Heineken and continue to eat. The food is as tasty as I remembered.
And then, the lights flicker again, and the restaurant plunges into darkness. We persevere, pick at more food, but as the heat becomes intolerable, we ask for our food to be packed.
Outside the nightly sea breeze feels fresh. We stand in the parking lot for a few moments. My cousin tries to rescue the night by trying to find a café, where we can cool off, continue to visit and delight in a dessert. But we are out of luck. The streets are clogged. It’s Sunday night and the city is out and everyone is driving to the water. After several missed tries, we give up. The lesson: Sunday night adventures are doomed.
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.
Transitioning from one place to another is never easy, but the long journey from Houston to Karachi is particularly challenging since the trip involves a stopover in Dubai International Airport, a spot that I love to hate. I can do without the shopping mall inside an airport, sofas that look comfortable but aren’t, internet connections that come and go, sockets that don’t quite work, artificial plants, and shiny new cars that are displayed for raffle.
Every time we fly through, the airport seems to expand more and more, and Minal and I wonder how long it will take for movement between continents to be faster. I might not see many changes in my lifetime, but hopefully Minal will. One of the changes in Dubai airport—a marked improvement from just five years ago—is that flights to Pakistan now receive a chute as opposed to passengers having to take a bus and then having to climb up steep staircases to enter the airplane.
This year, as we are looking for things to do in the long layover, Minal sights a live pigeon flying between the circular glassed-in walls and she is ecstatic. She races over to one of the maintenance men (Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi) , and tells him that there’s a pigeon trying to break free from the glassed-in bubble.
He smiles. “Yes,” he says. “There are many pigeons here, but they cannot get out.”
My Op-Ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle; the title I submitted - "think global / act local" - is a little different from the one that ran in print: No escaping violence in Pakistan—or US.
I don’t often watch mainstream news, but every now again when René turns it on and something catches my eyes, I sit down for a moment. Today, I’m reminded once again why I stay far from news outlets such as mainstream TV. As I walk by the family room, I hear Brian Williams talking about the floods that are ravaging the land around the River Indus in Pakistan. Twenty million people have been displaced – they are without home and are desperate for basics such as shelter, food and water. Brian Williams tells us that the disaster is getting worse and there is no relief in sight.
After a few shots of one family that’s lost a home, the camera zooms in on the homeowner who shouts into the camera (not word for word): “Our government is useless. We’d be better off under military rule.”
And then the story moves to commentary on how the US must send support to Pakistan before religious extremists win the hearts of those who are suffering, glossing over the fact that 1,500 people have died, 20 million people are without homes, and there will be more deaths as illness spreads. (In today’s New York Times editorial the emphasis is once again on stopping ‘terrorists,’ and not as much about human beings who have lost so much.)
As I absorb the information being telecast to millions of US viewers, I ask myself if any government is ever ready to deal with disaster in a manner that all suffering will be relieved. And if the government cannot be there, why is NBC news giving airtime to a man who wants a military dictatorship? When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, did we find US mainstream news airing opinions of enraged citizens asking for the US army to take over? Governments should be viewed critically – and there was certainly a lot to criticize in the way the US government at the time handled the disaster in New Orleans – but is criticism of government synonymous with demanding dictatorship? Or does the ‘dictatorship’ option just apply to countries such as Pakistan that are struggling to strengthen structures of democracy?
Since I’m stuck to the TV now, I end up remaining on the sofa. René switches to PBS news, and there, too, is coverage of the situation. Gwen Ifill is talking to Saima Mohsin who’s reporting from Karachi, and the story is much more balanced – about the risks, hunger, and the losses faced by 12 percent of the overall country’s population since the flooding began almost three weeks ago. This is not a blog in support of PBS, because I’m not often satisfied with the reporting there either.
I’m also getting a lot of emails and phone calls from concerned friends about where to donate.
My friend Sorayya Khan compiled a great list of NGOs in Pakistan:
Exploring truck art in Mauripur, Karachi — all for the purpose of dressing up the little red Honda hatchback for the art car parade.
Karachi still gripped by yesterday's violence as death toll rises to 43.
Today is Benazir Bhutto's second death anniversary, and she is being remembered and mourned around globe. I clearly remember 5:30 pm, December 27, 2007; Minal and I were in Karachi, and I was blogging intensely at the time. So much has happened over the past two years, but even now, Benazir's murderers haven't been exposed. But today, Pakistan is functioning under a democratically elected government, even as the country and government faces harrowing challenges from all sides. As a new decade unfolds, I hope democracy prevails in Pakistan, and that the country does not fall under military rule.
VBB’s Honoring Dissent / Descent – November 7, 2009. I still haven’t fully processed the production. I think it’ll take some time. More than 300 people showed up to view and participate in the production and so many more from other cities sent warm wishes. Now, it’s on to the next VBB event: our 10-Year Celebration. Again, it’ll take time to process the work we’ve done over this past decade.