Critical Digressions: Beyond Winter in Karachi (or the Argumentative Pakistani)

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,

Recently in town for the British tour, cricket reporter Andrew Miller observes,

“One of the first things you notice about Karachi, so long as you’re not being hot-boxed in a rickshaw as the morning traffic crawls to a halt, is the improbable clarity of the air. Despite being home to 14 million intensely active inhabitants, there’s none of the oppressive smog that lingers over Lahore like a caggy blanket. As the sea breezes work their magic and dissipate the city’s exhaust fumes, it’s possible too to see through some of the thick layers of misconception that abound about the place.”

Karachibynight During winter in Karachi, the sunlight is soft and milky during the day and after dusk the air becomes cool and wafts firewood and the sea. The billboards down Shahrah-e-Faisal flash and buzz and the wedding halls in and around the wide boulevards of Nazimabad and Hyderi are lit like carnivals. Winter is wedding season, Jinnah’s birthday, Christmas time, new year. In Saddar, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, garlanded by Christmas lights, glows something like a medieval structure in downtown Prague. At Clifton beach, floodlights animate the swelling gray sea and the silhouettes of families skipping on the silt. On New Year, tens of thousands of Karachites flood the beachfront on the backs of motorbikes, chanting, waving flags, celebrating themselves and the city. 

This year, however, a shadow has fallen over the city’s winter pageantry. A few months ago the earth opened up in the north and swallowed up mountains, roads, schools, villages, people. The earthquake in Kashmir is a catastrophe of epic proportion: a hundred thousand dead, three million displaced. The numbers bewilder; and grow: the severe northern winter is now claiming thousands every day. (We urge you to contribute generously, immediately.)

DisplacedchildrenAlthough far away, the tremors of the earthquake have reached Karachi: not only does the city host a large Kashmiri population but possesses the requisite infrastructure to provide relief. From the city’s efficient political machinery – notably the MQM and the Jamaat – to the remarkable civic organizations – the Edhi Welfare Trust and the Citizens Foundation – all have been involved in the relief and present reconstruction effort. Moreover, students from high-schools and colleges, some who have never left Karachi, are volunteering in far-flung Muzaffarabad and Balakot.

Fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations, Mahnaz Isphahani notes that “an August 2000 study by the Agha Khan Development Network rated Pakistan as one of the most charitable countries,” a remarkable statistic for a developing country. “It shows. The private sector, non governmental organizations, political parties and thousands of volunteers led the relief efforts. The earthquake has driven a unique mobilization of Pakistan’s civil society.” Rugged individualists, Pakistanis don’t come together often. But when they do, they seem to move mountains.

Pakistan routinely makes headlines for being a “frontline state” on the “War on Terror,” a function of its geography which is defined by a collection of tribal fiefdoms in north, Muslim fundamentalist Iran to the West, and until recently, Hindu fundamentalist India in the East. Consequently other developments escape discourse. Save a piece or two, there has been no coverage of the remarkable summoning of national resources toward relief and reconstruction. Indeed the earthquake has often been essentialized in mainstream media as a matter of five or six Indian army helicopters that were not accepted by the government. As usual, many dimensions have escaped scrutiny.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, however, political commentator Husain Haqqani picks up on an interesting development:

“So much for the popularly peddled view that anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is so pervasive and deep-rooted it might take generations to alter. A new poll from Pakistan, a critical front-line in the war on terror, paints a very different picture – by revealing a sea-change in public opinion in recent months…Pakistanis now hold a more favorable opinion of the U.S. than at any time since 9/11…The direct cause for this dramatic shift in Muslim opinion is clear: American humanitarian assistance for Pakistani victims of the Oct. 8 earthquake that killed 87,000. The U.S. pledged $510 million for earthquake relief in Pakistan and American soldiers are playing a prominent role in rescuing victims from remote mountainous villages.”

There are other seismic developments in the north that have escaped attention. A few months ago, the Hasbah bill made headlines everywhere. The procrustean legislation, passed by provincial assembly in Peshawar (the capital of NWFP, the province bordering Afghanistan), would have created a moral police. In December, however, the Supreme Court definitively struck it down. This, of course, did not make the news anywhere. (We urge you do do a google search on the issue). Furthermore, the sponsors of the bill, the MMA, the Islamist party that won some seats after the second Afghan campaign, has been unable to subsequently pursue it. Sirajul Haq, a senior provincial minister in the MMA, claims in the Herald that “some people in Islamabad are allergic to the word Islam.” Indeed, Musharraf’s administration came down like a ton of bricks on the mullahs.

Abdullahshah Of course, Haq’s Islam is not Pakistani Islam; the personality of Pakistani Islam is inherently accommodative. Whenever we return home, for instance, we visit the shrines of Sufi saints in and around Karachi, from Mayvah Shah deep in a necropolis featuring a Jewish cemetery to perhaps one of the most intriguing tombs in all of South Asia, Udero Lal (or Duryah Shah). Here, people congregate on Thursday nights, singing, dancing, smoking chars. The weekly festival features fortune-tellers, wrestling competitions, food stalls. Near the beach, at Abdullah Shah Ghazi, we pay homage to the saint who is said to have saved Karachi from the sea. In the limestone cave behind the tomb there is talk of other miracles. This time around we visited a couple of Hindu temples, including Shree Ratneswar Mahdevi, a five minute saunter from Abdullah Shah. There, we were taken to a limestone cave underneath and briefed about miracles. No doubt, the two caves are connected. Whether you talk about the Barelvi Punjabi countryside or the Maulai Sindhi interior, the weddings rituals or notions of hygiene, the infrastructure of Pakistan’s Islam rests on a syncretistic heritage. And Islam got more civilized the further it moved away from Arabs and Arabia (and arguably is most accommodative in the Far East).

Theboysfrompeshawar Another exciting development in the north is the emergence of Sajid and Zeeshan, a solidly middle class, Peshawar-based, electronic pop duo. Their thoughtful but finger-snapping, hip-shaking singles “King of Self” and “Freestyle Dive” (that we urge you dowload from their website) have topped the charts and if marketed successfully, their upcoming album can take dancefloors worldwide by storm. The latter’s animated video – featuring a bank robber who suffers a pang of conscience – was nominated for best video at the Indus Music Awards (held, by the way, with great pomp on the lawns of the Karachi Parsi Institute on December 24th.) Sajid and Zeeshan are the face of contemporary Pakistan, resolute members of the Media Generation, heterodox rockers who unlike mullahs don’t worry about what Pakistan should be, about silly notions of authenticity, but are confident that what they do is by definition, Pakistani.

Indeed, the Media Generation is redefining notions of self and sovereignty in a way that no prior generation has before, a phenomenon we have covered in this column earlier. This winter, the Media Generation is responsible for the superb Kara Film Festival and for bringing Bryan Adams to Karachi later this month for a benefit concert (where some twenty thousand are expected to attend). It was also responsible for local channels broadcasting Christmas programming on Christmas eve: not only was there a Christmas address by the Prime Minister to the a large gathering on PTV but Christmas carols on TV1, and on GEO (the most watched entertainment channel), a serial on prime-time featuring Pakistani Christian family, a first. This is the stuff that changes sensibilities. For instance, at Nasra School, one the largest private urban school networks for lower-middle and middle class students, the topic for the annual middle school debates this year (reminescent of the program “50 Minutes” on GEO) was, “Should Pakistan develop relations with Israel?”

Ourboys_1 The sports channels are commemorating another event: Pakistan walloping England in cricket. For years, Pakistan had been in the wilderness, a team with few stars, little direction, no guts. Things began turning in 2005 with Pakistan’s resounding defeat of India in India. England, on the other hand, was coming off an historic victory over Australia, the best team in the world, and was favored to win. But as with India, the Pakistan boys made chapli kebab out of them. Under the squinty, watchful gaze of Inzi, “The Big Easy,” their towering Punjabi captain who has finally come into his own, Danesh Kaneria, the Hindu leg spinner, took wicket after wicket after wicket as Shahid Afridi, the blue eyed Pathan from Karachi, transformed from a streaky opener to the most explosive batsman in cricket today, swatting pitches as if he were playing street cricket with a tape ball. Cricket reporter Kamran Abbasi avers, “There is a Pakistani way in cricket, abundant talent abundantly flawed, that leaves you holding your breath in anticipation of the next act and staring in disbelief if it comes off.” We see things somewhat differently. The cricket team can be thought as a proxy for nation: rugged individualists with varied styles and backgrounds who against all odds somehow come together at critical junctures to come out on top.

Other Critical Digressions:

Dispatch from Karachi

The Media Generation and Nazia Hassan

The Naipaulian Imperative and the Phenomenon of the Post-National

Literary Pugilists and Underground Men

Gangbanging and Notions of the Self

Dispatch from Cambridge (or Notes on Deconstructing Chicken)