On revisiting Karachi


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WHERE to begin in a city with no discernible beginning?

Karachi’s origins, cloudy with myth and retelling, are repeated back to you when you ask – something about a tribe of fishermen and a collection of huts along the edge of the ocean. A village called Kolachi, misremembered as Karachi. Kolachi jo Goth. Or Mai Kolachi. Wait, was that it? Wasn’t there another story, another name?

In its earliest mentions, Karachi is a stop along the way to somewhere else, a footnote in larger journeys. From the Ramayana: a visit that Ram Chandra and his goddess wife Sita made to the temple of Mahadev, reportedly somewhere near the spot where Karachi later sprung up. From the Greeks: a town called Kakola, where Alexander the Great stopped while he was recovering from his campaign in the Indus Valley and prepared for his journey to Babylonia. From the Arabs: Debal, the site from which Mohammed bin Qasim set off to conquer Sindh and Punjab.

Karachi, in these overlapping histories, is never quite in the centre of things. It is always somewhere just out of reach. Here’s another thing: it doesn’t matter which stories you hold on to, or which route you took to get to the story you’ll tell when someone asks you. Now that you’re here, you’re in the middle of it: a writhing, impossible narrative with eighteen million tangents.


It is 1983; I am three feet tall. I try to keep pace with my mother as she winnows her way expertly through the lanes of Saddar Bazaar; tiny spaces crammed with hawkers’ carts, infants underfoot as if the ground is moving. I worry that the city might fall down around me – how are so many buildings being propped up with sticks? I hang back as I watch my mother bargain for lower prices, making shopkeepers laugh at her audacity. ‘Sister,’ an old man chides, ‘You’ve been in America too long. You’re quoting prices from your father’s time.’

As a child, on frequent visits to my mother’s hometown, I listened to my mother and her oldest friends conjure the tidy, secure Karachi of their youth during long evenings spent swapping stories. In their memories, kids ran from one house to another unaccompanied, adults were less aware of ethnic and religious divisions, and the beach functioned like everyone’s backyard. Most of my mother’s friends were from Mohajir families like hers who had migrated to Karachi from North India in 1947, and many of the stories they told centred around St. Joseph’s Convent, a Catholic girls’ school in central Karachi run by a fastidious group of Belgian nuns. A stern and graceful Mother Superior, widely believed to have wheels underneath her habit instead of feet, featured in many of these tales. ‘Now, Samina…’ she once told my mother after she had gotten in trouble for coming to school late, ‘Pakistan will not progress without the education of its women. There is no rest for the wicked, do you hear me?’ The nuns had few resources but great determination; they were intent on creating the country’s next generation of leaders.

The Karachi my mother left in 1961 was a relatively safe and orderly city of roughly two million citizens. On each trip back, she returns to a changed place. Each decade has brought explosive growth further in every direction; attracting new populations and expanding the city’s borders as crime, kidnapping and murder rates soar. Whenever it seems that the city can’t get any bigger, stretch any further beyond its capacity, or surprise you, it does. And then it does it again. Last December, on my mother’s first night back in town, two guests didn’t arrive to a dinner party, and called the host two hours late to apologize. What was the reason for their absence, everyone wanted to know. It turns out they had been held up by five men on motorbikes just outside the gate, perhaps ten metres from the dining room. The party was shocked into momentary silence, and then the conversation continued: a litany of hold-ups, car jackings, and break-ins.

In January of 2011, I began to revisit the sites of many of those old stories I had heard growing up; walking the crowded paths of Saddar Bazaar, observing the merchants of Empress Market open their stalls in early morning, devouring rose-flavoured falooda at Boat Basin. My assignment was to produce a series of documentary films about women innovators in Pakistan, and I was to spend the next three months interviewing educators, health workers, activists and artists. Through them, I hoped to gain some sense of Karachi’s future, and what role women were playing in its creation.

One afternoon I walked inside the stone gates of St. Joseph’s Convent School and was amazed by the hush and calm of the protected enclave, situated at the epicentre of what has become one of the most chaotic mega-cities on the planet. Here, just like when my mother and her contemporaries were students, you could listen to girls in blue and white uniforms recite Wordsworth. Just outside the gate everything was different. What was once a sleepy commercial lane was now a street filled with stores selling automatic weapons. Everywhere I looked, Karachi was many things at once; a place of peace and a place of violence, simultaneously anachronistic and looking ahead, prepared for the worst. What did the future hold for this city, I wondered – and what could be gained from learning about its past?

Two weeks after I arrived I attended an elegant lunch party in the civilized chill of a manicured garden, filled with men in wool blazers and women in finely embroidered shawls. Uniformed waiters with tea towels draped over one arm carried polished silver trays with glasses of fresh pomegranate juice. I watched as some of the guests requested additions to their drinks and the waiters quietly retreated, slipping bootlegged Stolichnaya into the glasses at the bar.

I was led by the arm by the party’s host to meet a graceful older lady sitting at a large table, watching the proceedings with interest. She fixed me with a quizzical gaze, extended her soft hand and told me her name was Zeenat Haroon Rashid. ‘You want to know about history,’ she said, leaning her head to one side. ‘I’ll tell you.’ I pulled up a chair and listened to her describe how, when she was seventeen, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a close friend of her father’s, asked her to gather up her high school friends and create what would become the Sind Women’s National Guard. ‘He said, "The women are standing shoulder to shoulder with the men. What are you young people doing?" I said, "We’re ready – what do you want us to do?"’ Initially, she told me, the Sind Women’s National Guard was a small group, perhaps twenty-five or thirty teenagers who wore all-white uniforms, learned first aid and self-defence, and registered people to vote. ‘We were a symbol, you see,’ she explained. ‘Jinnah wanted to show people that in Pakistan, women would do things,’ she said. ‘We didn’t cover our heads! What nonsense. We were a symbol of progress.’

That evening, I searched through old Life magazine issues online and found an issue Mrs. Rashid had mentioned from January of 1948, with the gaunt face of an ailing Mr. Jinnah on the cover. There, in the centre of the magazine, was a series of crisp black and white photographs taken by the legendary photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White. The photos show Mrs. Rashid brandishing a lathi, standing in formation, and looking up at a flag, a sense of promise and import on her young face. The photographs taken that day suggest a bright and glorious future for Pakistan, a future where women would make an important contribution.

The next week I interviewed Mrs. Rashid at Seafield, the Haroon family home. As she led me through the dining room, she told me about an evening long ago, when a tailor placed the new flag of Pakistan on the long table in the room’s centre. Jinnah inspected the flag’s white strip of cloth, meant to represent Pakistan’s minorities. ‘He said, "The white strip should be wider",’ she told me. ‘And you know – the tailor had to go back and make it again.’ Just a few days later, I thought of this story as I heard a news report about Aasia Bibi, an illiterate Christian labourer who had been condemned to death for reportedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad. It was unclear what she had said, but clear that she would never get a fair trial. The next time I visited Mrs. Haroon, she told me how upset she was by the case. ‘This is not what Mr. Jinnah intended,’ she said sadly.


One Sunday afternoon I listened as a group of Karachiites older than my mother, people who were teenagers at Partition, talk about the cafes, bookstores and gathering places they remembered from the ’50s and ’60s. Back then, the old-timers told me, club acts stopped in Karachi to try out their sets before setting off for Australia. There was jazz, played by Karachi Christians originally from Goa. There was a school of classical Indian dance run by a popular Hindu couple. There were cabarets, social clubs where men and women danced, coffee houses where poets met to swap verses until early morning, movie theatres that showed the latest Hollywood releases. Several elderly aunts and uncles punctuated their stories with the same reference. ‘You know beti,’ they told me, ‘Humphrey Bogart once said: "You know you’re famous when they can spell your name in Karachi".’ It was like a refrain, a secular incantation.

Soon after, I attended a lecture by urban planner Arif Hasan at T2F, a café, gallery, and lecture space in the Phase 2 extension area of Karachi’s Defense Housing Authority. T2F, short for The Second Floor, was founded in 2008 as a kind of urban intervention, a valiant attempt to create a safe haven for discussion and debate and bring intellectual exchange back to the city. It is the only venue of its kind in the city, the kind of place where you might find an Urdu poetry reading one evening and a lively panel on the history of the Pakistani Left the next. That night, Hasan showed slides and spoke softly to a packed room filled with a broad mix of college students, professionals and retirees. He narrated some familiar statistics that I appreciated being reminded of: in the summer and autumn of 1947, Karachi changed radically, swapping its Hindu population (51% of the city) for Urdu-speaking migrants from North India – newly dubbed Mohajirs, or pilgrims. Within months, the population of the city had doubled. By 1951, it had tripled. The Mohajirs were now the dominant cultural and political force in the city, causing resentment among those who had called pre-Partition Karachi home.

Hasan described the radical, unprecedented social mixing that took place in the months just after Partition. Mohajirs squatted in whatever shelter they could find, in public and Hindu religious buildings and in hastily constructed refugee colonies, where people of varying social classes were thrown together. It was a dramatic change for labourers, bureaucrats, poets and professionals to interact in these common social spaces. The overlapping social worlds of this time helped to foster a progressive environment in 1950s Karachi, a period which saw nightclubs, cinemas, bars, cafes, and other vestiges of urban life rise in the city centre. It was a brief but significant period in the city’s history that wasn’t destined to last.

The following Sunday, I attended another gathering of long-time Karachi residents. In one room, three dapper octogenarians were sipping Bloody Marys, lamenting the loss of a long disappeared café that they used to frequent in their student days. Ali Khan, a self-described farmer and lawyer, turned to me and frowned to indicate that he didn’t think much of the discussion. I asked him why he looked unimpressed. ‘The Karachi we grew up with is over and done with,’ he told me. ‘I’m through missing it. The city we grew up in was a village with a handful of cars. We now live in one of the most complicated, chaotic, cities in the world. Learn to love it for what it is, or leave it.’


That winter, I spent my days interviewing women working to change their communities, collecting life stories and filming scenes from their daily lives. I followed a member of Pakistan’s Lady Health Worker Programme as she conducted her daily rounds in Karachi’s Shah Faisal Town, advising pregnant women on their diets, instructing mothers on proper sanitation and explaining that family planning was not against Islam. I visited a village on the border of Sindh and Baluchistan where an illiterate fisherman’s wife had become a local entrepreneur, turning a micro grant of a sewing machine and two goats into three successful businesses in her village. I trailed Kaniz Wajid Khan, a feisty 90-year old who had left her life as a princess in Oudh before Partition to become a social worker in Hyderabad and later Karachi. She still went to work across town every day and seemed to have twice my energy. ‘How do you do it?’ I asked her, and she looked at me like I had asked a very silly question. ‘There’s so much to do,’ she replied. I was aware that I could continue this project forever and barely scratch the surface. Everywhere I turned was a story, women effecting changes large and small.

In February, I visited a women’s school in Lyari called Ilm-o-Hunar. Lyari is considered one of Karachi’s most dangerous neighbourhoods; a powder keg of rival gangs and different political affiliations whose residents have become used to frequent eruptions of violence. I had heard that something unusual was going on at this school, where a retired educationist and a group of dedicated teachers had created a women’s centre in an abandoned building. Four years ago the group had convinced a handful of families in the area to let their daughters study for the first time. Now they had nearly 200 students and not enough chairs to teach all the students who wanted to attend.

My driver, a cranky Pathan named Abdul Qadir, was decidedly unenthusiastic about taking me to see the school. ‘You hired me to keep you safe,’ he grumbled when I handed him the address and explained where I wanted to go. ‘How am I supposed to keep you safe in that place?’ He then spent several minutes installing shaded screens in the back seats of the car, so that no one would be able to look in and see me while we were stalled in traffic. ‘Why don’t you ever want to go to a mall, Madam?’ He asked, sighing deeply and shaking his head ruefully.

When we reached our destination, I got out of the car and walked towards the school, choosing my steps carefully through a thick layer of trash and avoiding the glare of a group of men sitting outside of a tea shop. From the outside Ilm-o-Hunar didn’t look much like a school; it had no sign or any glass in its windows. But inside was a different story. There was a raw energy in the place; four makeshift classrooms filled with girls and women studying Urdu, English and Math. When the electricity shut off for scheduled load shedding, I watched as the teachers passed two battery-operated light panels between classrooms. Each classroom was filled with a standing-room section in the back, where pupils listened, taking notes. They would rather stand than miss class.

I was introduced to Nida Abdul-Razzak, a 23-year old teacher who has taught at Ilm-o-Hunar since its opening. Nida is a slim, pretty girl with freckles and wide-set eyes who grew up around the corner from the school. In our first conversation she told me about how hard it was to keep her students coming to school. ‘In our environment, girls don’t work,’ Nida explained. ‘It is generally believed that good girls stay at home, while those who leave the house have gone out of control or become too clever for their own good.’ She told me that in many families education was considered a liability, something that might hinder a young woman’s marriage prospects. ‘They think that this girl is getting too old, or she will dominate my son, or take him away from me. Many people start rumours, saying that this girl goes out, she socializes with men. I’ve faced these rumours myself.’ In many houses in her neighbourhood, women didn’t leave the house even to do grocery shopping. ‘That too is done by men,’ Nida said.

Nida started a beautician skills course a year ago, which has enabled more than a hundred young women to open home beauty parlours where they can prepare their neighbours and relatives for weddings and functions. On my second visit to Ilm-o-Hunar, I watched as young women removed their hijab and abaya before class and then crowded around a long mirror for their lesson. Students who had seemed shy a moment before class suddenly became animated, painting their eyelids bright pink, green and blue and admiring one another’s handiwork. Nida and I stood in the back, observing their progress. When they became beauticians, she told me proudly, her students would be able to contribute to their households while still operating within the rules of their neighbourhood.

Suddenly, there was a commotion at the front door of the school. Something was happening, but I wasn’t sure what. Then the news made its way through the building. Word had circulated in the neighbourhood that there were outsiders in the school, and a group of men with guns had gathered in the alley. Ilm-o-Hunar’s principal, Afzhar, came to find me on the second floor, where I was talking with Nida. ‘You have to go,’ he said reluctantly, a pained look on his face. ‘I’m very sorry, but you have to go this very instant. We never know when Lyari might explode.’ Afzhar walked me to my car parked outside.


Abdul Qadir was waiting for me, looking tense. ‘Madam, this is a bad place,’ he said. ‘Karachi is not good.’ We made our way slowly home through streets filled with soldiers – men in uniform standing at attention clasping automatic weapons, police cars with whining sirens, open trucks crammed with Army Rangers. ‘What’s happening?’ I asked, and Abdul Qadir turned on the radio to hear that Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab province, had just been assassinated by his bodyguard in Islamabad. Taseer was an open critic of Pakistan’s arcane blasphemy law and had been outspoken in the press that it should be repealed; we would learn in the coming days that his murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, believed that Taseer was an enemy of Islam and should be eliminated. Abdul Qadir looked uncomfortable, shaking his head back and forth. ‘Very bad, Madam…’ he said, over and over again.

But perhaps even more disturbing than Taseer’s assassination was the way the story was told by right-wing talk show hosts and fundamentalist religious parties in the coming days: as if Taseer had committed acts that required penance. On television and in the press, they suggested that by defending the rights of an illiterate Christian labourer who stood accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, Taseer had insulted Islam. Support for Qadri swelled, and I watched news clips of a group of lawyers in Islamabad showering him with rose petals. In Lahore, 14,000 people marched in his support.

Where was the counter to all of this? Where were the voices of those who believed that Qadri was a murderer, that to murder was in fact un-Islamic? All around me my liberal friends were venting their frustration at the muted way their government was reacting to this heinous act. But where were the streets teeming with people in Taseer’s defence? Where were the protests for what Qadri had done?


In the evenings when my work was done for the day I often returned to T2F to attend lectures and readings. I began to sit in on the meetings of a new organization called Citizens for Democracy, or CFD. The group was only a few months old and was still finding its way, but they were clearly determined to present an alternative to the tide of fundamentalist discourse surging in Pakistan. After Taseer’s assassination they had organized candlelight vigils and marches in Lahore and Karachi. Some of my friends in Karachi shrugged their shoulders when they heard about CFD, saying that a handful of lefties weren’t likely to get anything done. It was true that several hundred people, not several thousand, attended the vigils and marches. While the religious right was able to whip up thousands of marchers overnight, the liberal, educated members of CFD could only muster several hundred. But to say that CFD’s activities were pointless or naive seemed to me counter-productive. Here was a group determined to mobilize, determined to try.

One Saturday afternoon, CFD organized a letter writing campaign for citizens to lodge a formal complaint with their elected representatives condemning the death of Shabaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, who was brutally assassinated outside his mother’s home in Islamabad eight weeks after Taseer was killed. They set up a simple booth with loudspeakers at Kotwari Parade across from Park Towers, a popular mall on a well-travelled road, and sat at long tables with large stacks of preprinted letters, envelopes and pens. Sure, it was easy to discount a letter writing campaign as useless. Most likely, no one would read those signed form letters that would arrive in Islamabad en masse. But as I watched the day unfold I began to feel very differently. I watched CFD members run into the street waving their arms – flagging down cars, rickshaws and buses, explaining their letter to all who would pull over and asking them to sign their name or affix their thumbprint. A wide swath of Karachiites – labourers, madrassa students, housewives in Mercedes, drivers, clerks, and business people – listened to CFD members explain the letter and its motives and then they signed.

One boy, a teenager named Manzoor who had recently been laid off from his job at a tea shop, had ambled by the booth a few hours previous, bored and curious. He had become so energized by the idea of getting people to sign the letters that he had become the most active collector of signatures. He now boasted the highest success rate of anyone at the booth. I put my camera down and joined the team of volunteers, waving down cars and trucks.

‘We have been asleep,’ Fahim Zaman, an active member of CFD and a two-time mayor of Karachi, told me as the crowd swirled around us. ‘My generation didn’t work to foster religious tolerance and now we are paying the price. But we have a chance now to turn things around, and we must do so before it is too late.’


It is winter again, and I have returned to Pakistan to continue my project. This time I’ll be interviewing policewomen, female athletes and musicians, among others. Nearly every week one of the women I’m speaking to reminds me of a message they want me to take back home. ‘Please tell people in America that we’re not fighting anything,’ a popular recording artist tells me, her eyes flashing. ‘We’re just doing our work.’

There’s news, the accumulated stories of nearly a year away. It has been a year of assassinations, of unprecedented violence. But other things have happened as well. Nida, the young teacher in Lyari, has accepted a marriage proposal and will soon be moving to Hyderabad. CFD has hosted a successful festival honouring Faiz Ahmed Faiz, featuring a series of speakers and honouring the various cultural and religious strands of Karachi – Hindu, Christian and Muslim. The third Karachi Literature Festival has just taken place, featuring writers from India, U.K., the U.S. and Iran and packing record numbers of audience members into its events.

As ever, Karachi is expanding – makeshift camps in the desert borderlands of the city housing the newest arrivals, those affected by severe monsoon floods. Ask them what they want and they give you the same answer every time. Land, they say. They want a piece of Karachi. They see what so many others have seen, that Karachi is a place of reinvention, of constant and never ending flux. It’s not that life is unaffected by the one of the most turbulent years in Pakistan’s history. It’s that life in the megacity doesn’t stop.


* Sadia Shepard is the author of The Girl From Foreign: A Memoir, Penguin, 2009.