Dispatches: Sunday Bazaar

Here in Karachi the solidity of the world around you dispels much of that sense of precariousness one gets by reading about Pakistan from afar. My dashing, mustachioed cousin Munib still rides his father’s forty-year old blue Vespa around the chaotic streets, just as he did in his late teens. One change in his riding habits, however, is that he now often has his two children, aged seven and three, hanging on to him, and their mother riding side-saddle behind. When you see them pull up, you might fear for their lives, if you didn’t know they’d been doing this for the intervening three years since you last saw them. Similarly, coming to Pakistan is a good corrective to much of the doomsaying rhetoric about it emitted by public intellectuals, who hold that Pakistan continually teeters on the edge of viability. I suppose this is related to the commonplace that other countries exist in an earlier historical time, that the desired trajectory of all countries is to imitate and approach the United States. On the subject of Pakistan, most commentary is concerned with its precarious deviations from the prescribed path to modernity.

“Failed state,” “stalled democracy,” “sectarian violence,” “torn social fabric,” “endemic corruption.” These descriptions, which I’ve been hearing for decades, are belied by the simple fact that, well, Pakistan rolls on: the kites and kites (hawk-like birds of prey and child’s contraptions, respectively) still circle lazily overhead. Plus, these days, the damage America’s reputation as the anti-banana republic has sustained lessens the accusatory power of such characterizations: if the narrative of U.S. strategic benevolence, political integrity and institutional expertise was once somewhat believable, surely that bubble has burst. (I shudder to imagine what depths of irrationality the U.S. government would sink to if, like Pakistan, the U.S. had been the subject of 600 acts of terrorism, killing over 900, in 2006.) Also, for the entire class of professionals who left for the U.S. and Britain over the generation between 1970 and 1990, repeating Pakistan’s “failed-state” status has become a kind of reassuring mantra, perhaps because it makes it easier to justify having left.

If anything, Pakistan and America are becoming more, rather than less, similar over time. In Pakistan, invented in 1947, political insecurity correlates to defensive national fervor: one of the saddest things is how often people conceive of Pakistan and India’s relationship as a zero-sum game; praise of one automatically implies derogation of the other. It’s utterly silly. (These days, Pakistan is faced with more instability in the form of seditious disquiet in the province of Balochistan.) In the U.S., of course, a similar experience of retrenchment has been underway for five years now, a festering provincialism that was always the least attractive part of America’s cultural self-understanding anyway. In my last dispatch, I tried to suggest, maybe not clearly enough, that it’s wrong to identify a country with the people who proclaim themselves as its most representative representatives. Just as, purely by definition, the residents of Dearborn, Michigan are as representative an American as those of Alexandria, Virginia, regardless of how important Americanness is to either group as an elective affiliation. Every nation, including these two, suffers from boorish patriots who claim to speak for it – that doesn’t mean we should believe they do.

In both countries, a bunker mentality has led to increasing self-isolation, and in both an increasing disparity between haves and don’t-haves has led not to social change, but to greater emotional insecurity and the segregation of “gated communities.” In both places upper-middle class parents wistfully recall the days when children, in their little mobs, could be given the run of the neighborhood without any particular need for an adult overseer. As a replacement for the loss of a more tangible community, the U.S. and Pakistan have turned, inside the home, to the inner space of pixellated screens. Today only the impoverished and privileged children of both countries have access to old-fashioned styles of recreation, like playing outside or swimming, while the average kid makes do with myspace.

The U.S. consumes more provincially. In Pakistan, as flyovers, underpasses, fast food chains, and supermarkets proliferate, its elite more and more resides in a globalized cultural zone, though one that’s not just American – cable TV is an awesome hodgepodge of BBC, Al-Jazeera, Fox, StarTV (India), Geo (Pakistan), Sky (Australia), etc. Britain’s cultural currency is the most widely traded. There are lots of generalizations to be made here about the British colonial experience creating a greater sense of comfort traversing national boundaries, etc., etc., but the basic evidence is that English Premier League matches and English comedians (Ricky Gervais, Sasha Baron-Cohen) have much wider purchase in Pakistani bourgeois pop culture than, say, baseball. (And on the other side of the coin, most Americans are probably unaware of the degree to which their own television is a series of British shows remade.) Pop music is harder to divine, but much of the American pop that makes it here makes it by virtue of British distribution, just as you are much more likely to hear, say, Cheb Mami in Karachi or in London than in Chicago.

However, this global stuff is only one soapy, superficial layer. Beyond, much remains underdeveloped – and I say that with relief, “development” in the real-estate sense being a depressing if hard-to-avoid urban fate. As in most major metropolises, the best escape from mallified sameness is market culture. Here in Karachi, Sunday brings the Sunday bazaar, where people of every variety and class come to shop for kurtas, custard apples, shawls, scissors, canes, shoes, tiny lemons, fabric, tea, greens, spices, toothpaste, sundry. The one by the beach in Clifton is a beautiful place, if wheezing with dust. It’s an enormous tented enclosure that gets seasonal produce (you eat your guavas for the year right now, and there won’t be a mango in sight until March), used clothing, and many other unique items to people much more efficiently and cheaply than any other system I know. I bought a single-buttoned suit jacket, two round-ended fruit knives, and some dried cherry peppers to garnish lentils. The Sunday Bazaar is sanguine proof of the hoary leftist idea that “development” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – a supermarket/big box retailer would so clearly not be an improvement on it.

Even more importantly still in place than weekly markets, however, is the Pakistani tradition of hospitality. If these mannered rituals belong to the historical past, then I hope the slouching future never fully arrives. Paying visits and drinking tea, the scourge of childhood, becomes a little more pleasant as an adult when you realize that second cousins you’ve met once, fifteen years ago, remember you and know your current doings. And it’s not as if people don’t have many to keep track of: I have eighteen first cousins, which I thought was a lot – my niece Tania has forty-five. Much of my trip has been spent visiting an aunt and uncle who are both ailing. My aunt Farhat suffers from cerebellar ataxia, which affects coordination and makes it very difficult for her to walk, talk, write, chew, swallow. She is largely bedridden, as is her brother in the bedroom next door, and has very little outside contact. Her major concern when we visit is making sure, by whatever means necessary, that we are comfortable. She has made it clear that she expects us to lunch with her, so that she may serve as our host. And she most certainly does not live in a timeless past. As I left after our first meeting on this trip, she struggled to pronounce something. “Aaaee ooo eee.” “AAAAee OOO eee.” I couldn’t understand. Frustrating. Before trying again, she stopped and laughed, eyes sparkling. “Happy New Year!!!”

The rest of my Dispatches.