Monday, January 21, 2008

Fear Factor: Karachi

Karachi always slaps you in the face if you dare forget its plight. It's surprising then for me to realize that living in Karachi has made me more forgetful than I had ever conceived possible. ‘The cocooned lifestyle of the rich shelters them from reality…’ and so would begin another diatribe about the gap between the rich and the rest, but that is just too simple an explanation, and more so, much too easy an excuse.

It is easy to feign ignorance but much harder to admit impotence.

The day to day challenges posed by Karachi seem insurmountable at times but the great people of this city keep on persevering, they keep on getting up after they’ve been knocked down; they’re almost nonchalant in the face of great adversity. But then what are they to do. This admirable fortitude masks their greatest fear, the feeling that they are utterly helpless and alone and they hide this fear by marching on, with apparent courage, like the light brigade. (The inability of people from outside Karachi, to comprehend this fear, results in their inability at understanding the popularity of the MQM – it’s all about the security, stupid!)

And so after yet another bombing and an even bloodier carnage the people of Karachi return to work and head back to school and busy themselves in the daily grind. They are decent people but they are scared and the courage that they project hides the fact that they are trying to ignore that they are witness to the quiet degradation of their own moral compass. They are not outraged by blood stains on the street and they have learnt to ignore the sight of six year olds living on the streets and sniffing glue but they are not ignorant.

The evening of Benzir’s murder a secretary at my office, a young, educated and liberal woman from a modest background living on Shahrah-e-Faisal (near Rashid Minhas) was stuck at an office in Clifton. She had no option but to stay till it was safe and so at 5 a.m., when there was relative calm, she got in a van with some other people and headed home.. As the van passed Baloch Colony, on the main Shahrah-e-Faisal they saw an upturned motorcycle, and the body of a man lying next to it. They did not stop; they sped up. These were normal, thoroughly decent people and they did not stop; they could not stop.

It’s incredibly hard to be good and decent in this city.

And so after two weeks away I returned on the 30th of December to a city come to terms with its losses and was summarily slapped. A charred car sat in front of a graffiti’d wall from which the city government had hastily smudged the name of Benazir – lest it cause more grief! The fear of preventing more violence was more important than the memory of a dead leader and gave way to the retarded sight of slogans across the city missing only the name of Benazir “Welcome Home [SMUDGE] Daughter of the East”

Three days after her death the bustling city that I’d left was eerily deserted, the empty main roads gave way to brave cricketers loving their new found freedom and in its own way Karachi breath new life to a dead road.

The events following Benazir’s death only became alive to me as the city went through another bomb blast, this time in Quaidabad. At 9.30 p.m. I traveled on an empty Shahrah-e-Faisal (on the Airport to Metropole route) and passed by an equally deserted Boat Basin. The panic that enveloped the city was unique to me, but then again what the city has gone through in the past few weeks has been quite unique. The people of Karachi are now collectively feeling like targets, which is the reason why a bomb in Quaidabad led to the roads being deserted and Zamzama quickly closing down.

Karachi has been witness to the murders of many native sons and daughters, politicians and leaders; it has witnessed the destruction of various symbols of apparent neo-imperialism – from burnt KFCs to the oft-bombed American Consulate; the city has been home to unimaginable ethnic and religious bloodshed. But the past few weeks saw the target becoming banks, shops, markets and factories which are the very soul of Karachi. Take away commerce from the city and what do you have left? It’s of little surprise then to come across the heightened anxiety and the novelty of the fear that has gripped the city.

The outcome of this latest attack and this new fear is hard to fathom; the stakes though are high. The threat to the collective populace of a city that has been battered and bruised for so long can not persist perpetually and the attacks on its livelihood, its very essence, will result in retaliation

For the time being the city is starting to adapt – and with the elections so near this is a necessity. Today my colleagues and I discussed the events of the past few weeks and after recalling our ordeals everyone revealed their fail safe in case the city stirs up again and they are stuck at work – from safe routes and side streets to charting the way to the nearest relatives house and on how best to hide your car / bike (basement of Bank Al-Habib building on Shahra-e-Faisal).

The resilience and courage of this city is astonishing; its fears unimaginable.


Ahsan said...

welcome back, aks. we thought you'd died or something.

as you well know, i left khi the day after BB got killed. i can't explain to anyone who's ever lived in khi, or been in khi, how quiet it was that day. even the birds were solemnly observing a mounring period - i kid you not, i did not hear one sound. it was deathly quiet, and it easily qualified as the most surreal experience of my life. i've never, ever EVER seen khi like that, and i doubt i ever will.

AKS said...

I've been hiding away for a while now, and I just didn't know what to write about. Its strange but Karachi has been on my mind continuously to the extent that I couldn't write about anything else, and yet at the same time I didn't know how to write about Karachi.

I think everyone's having a really hard time recovering, not least the economy. I didnt highlight this, much in the post but the amount of damage done to businesses has been astronomical. There are many companies who are actively hiding their losses so as to prevent a further slump in their stock price.

NB said...


Good to have you back bro. Not least because its good to have something other than expat commentary. Charachteristically depressing posts though.


Dont be doubting it too soon. 2008 looks like its going to be a pretty bad year. Theres a solid probability that Karachi would return to that surreal state if any of the MQM top leadership were to meet their demise in the same manner.

AKS said...

"Characteristically Depressing"... Sir, I object!

I dont know how its possible to not write a depressing post about the current state of Karachi. You really do have to be here to believe it. The best way of describing it is emotional and psychological unease.

p.s. I'll post a joke next time :)