Back from Karachi

After a six week belated-honeymoon of sorts, during which my wife Margit and I used Karachi as a base from which to launch several short excursions including a 5-day trip to Sri Lanka, I have just returned to New York City. This trip to the city where I was born and grew up felt different to me than others. It was the first time that my wife, who is Italian, had ever been out of the first world, and my experience of Karachi was colored by her presence. For the first time, I experienced the various restrictions that women contend with in that increasingly conservative society. In Pakistan’s sexually repressive culture, a Western woman (the few that are there) is simultaneously the object of hostility and desperate lust, something which made it uncomfortable to walk around in a marketplace or on the beach, and which meant that I had to make sure I was never more than a few feet from my wife, lest she be molested in some way. (As it was, nothing more serious than some catcalls and the everpresent unrelenting stares took place.)

Karachi is a more and more culturally arid place, starved for entertainment, increasingly religious, intolerant, lawless, and intellectually bankrupt. There is a small self-congratulatory elite which prides itself on its worldly sophistication at cocktail parties where smuggled Scotch greases the endless mutual admiration of the rich, and there is ecstasy and cocaine available for the raves that the children of this elite throw behind heavily guarded walls (something declaimed with great pride to me several times as proof of Karachi’s modernity and refinement), but there is little sustained intellectual activity of any sort, nor a single institution of higher learning of a quality which could anchor such activity. On a given day, it is highly unlikely that there is live music to be heard anywhere, or a poetry reading, or a theater performance, or anything else for that matter (in a city of over 14 million souls!). Once in a while these things do happen, but rarely enough that the only entertainment available most of the time is dining out, or watching the proliferating channels on cable TV (the local ones being dominated by third rate sitcoms or religious programs and other unadulterated junk).

For the first time, I had the depressing feeling that I no longer belong in Karachi. It used to be my home, but we have gone separate ways. Until a few years ago, I still entertained the dream of returning to live there for a while, but unless I grow a beard and undergo a conversion to being a mullah, that is now no longer possible for me. Of all the places I have ever been in my life, the one I would least like to live in is Saudi Arabia, a place characterized entirely by violent repression of almost every playful human instinct, and by shocking hypocrisy, and Pakistan is becoming more and more like that than the culturally diverse, tolerant, and progressive society of my youth.

If I manage to collect my thoughts a bit, I may attempt to compose a longer essay about Karachi and what has happened to it in the near future. Meanwhile, Ethan Casey, an American journalist, has written a book about travelling and teaching in Pakistan, Alive and Well in Pakistan. Here’s an excerpt from a review by Alex Spillius in The Telegraph:

The book starts slowly, recording his visits in the mid-1990s to Kashmir and Pakistan, when he was a fresh freelance foreign correspondent motivated to visit the area by an obsession with VS Naipaul, who travelled there extensively. His work finds itself when Casey, through the kindness of a contact, gains a temporary membership at the Gymkhana Club in Lahore, where he plays tennis with the elite, makes friends and loses 20lb.

Over post-match lemonade and tea, he explores this beguiling, confused country through its amateur tennis hands. They discuss the comparative benefits of working and living in the United States, of their culture versus his.

They discuss the dangers but merits of Islamic politics and the art of the backhand. Most importantly, they become his friends, as do his college students, who end their course with Casey with their eyes opened and their minds broadened. The author’s real journey is a search for common humanity.

Read more here.