by Claire Chambers
As I step, bleary-eyed, out of my PIA aeroplane from Manchester, UK, I notice a door sign warning of the danger of falling personnel. Partly amused, partly disconcerted, I head for the luggage carousel at Karachi's Jinnah International Airport.
In the car on our way to my hotel, we follow a man in a shalwar kameez the colour of lapis lazuli, one leg hitched over the tailgate of a Toyota Hilux, caressing the shaft of his gun. Our security guard occasionally uses his walkie-talkie to give a number and a crisp 'Roger' to a disembodied voice at the other end, which responds with another number and a 'Roger'. There must be some logic to it, but amidst my jet-lag pea-souper I can't see what.
A wall darkly proclaims: PREPARE ANY STRENGTH YOU CAN MUSTER AGAINST THEM. Countercultural stencils sunnily protest this authoritarianism with such slogans as 'I Am Karachi — United for Peace'. Banksy-style balloons brighten one Maersk Sealand container, and a lotus painted using truck-art techniques adorns a grim underpass. American sociologist Anita Weiss has regularly spent time in Pakistan since the 1970s. She is currently researching wall art, and calls the I Am Karachi group a 'guerrilla art movement', especially when it comes to the challenge they are sending out to sectarianism.
On the main road we see Land Cruisers rather than the Pajero jeeps I remember from 1990s Pakistan. Men hang off buses, and my eyes are assailed by a dizzying array of hoardings. KK Rehabilitation Centre. Handi Inn. Baithak Peshwari. On dusty slip roads, I notice a family eating their dinner under bedraggled trees on the pavement near the glittering Park Towers. Four men on the pavement are smiling, perspiring and conspiring. Yameen Chicken. Mutton and Beef Centre. WalkEaze. A school advertises its 'salient features' in businesslike bullet points. A beggar pleads at our car window on his bachche's behalf, exposing the lack of government capacity to deal with the country's grinding poverty.
Later, at the Karachi Literature Festival, I sit on the floating pontoon at the Beach Luxury Hotel, taking in the sound of the lunchtime call to prayer, the cries and wheeling of kites, and the metallic angles of cranes sprouting from the fast-disappearing mangrove forest. Two very young armed policeman, one clean-shaven, the other bearded, murmur desultorily to each other as they undulate on the two boats strung together defending the terrace. One FaceTimes his friend Asif and tells him in wonder to look at the seawater. The Pakistan flag flies from their vessel. Another hefty and much more imposing policeman strides across the pontoon-restaurant looking for trouble. Traffic sounds spill over from a nearby bridge and chatter from the literary panels drifts across the water, syncopating with the cawing of crows. Sometimes one of these crows flies in to feed on scraps, and a waiter shakes a bottle filled with pebbles to frighten it away. The light dappling the river enchants, despite unsightly plastic rubbish drifting in the water. A women-only rowing team scuds along, and later two emboated lovers trace a lazy parabola past the hotel.
After a literary lunch with some women friends, I am pleased to use the Western-style toilet. As I relax in the restroom, out of the corner of my eye I spy a luminous body in the mirror. My handbag appears to be on fire! I narrowly avoid becoming a sati, as I realize that the scarf hanging out of my bag by the side of the sink has dipped into an unnoticed tea light and ignited. Panicking and nauseated by a smell like burning sugar, I struggle to put out the flames. I take such a long time in the lavatory and emerge looking so wan and shaken that my companions assume I have succumbed to the Foreign Madam's nemesis of diarrhoea. On hearing the story of my conflagration, a friend jokes: 'Better a dupatta fire than the fire down below'. I bring down my heart-rate with a calm evening at my best friend in Karachi's family home, playing the traditional board game carrom, eating sweet gur with almonds, and gossiping for hours.
I'm lucky enough to be taken by author and campaigner Maniza Naqvi to Karachi's old city. In her tiny Toyota, with me in the back propping up folding chairs and boxes full of promotional tote bags, we rattle past impressive Anglo-Indian architecture and sandstone university buildings. The shop we visit here, the Pioneer Book House, was established in 1945, two years before Partition transformed the metropolis forever. It was recently saved from closure by Maniza's back-breaking activism. Inside is a harmonious exhibition, with photographs of a young Pakistani boxer, an outdoors school, and grinning street children hanging nonchalantly from the bookshelves. In the bazaar outside people chew gutka and Maniza gives me a beautiful stainless steel bowl inscribed with Surah Maryam, the Qur'anic chapter about Isa (Jesus)'s mother Mary.
The tempo changes as I explore Khaadi's über-cool new clothes shop Chapter 2 in Dolmen Mall. Entering through a dark corridor throbbing with bass-heavy dance music to browse the boutique's minimalist garments, I could be in Shoreditch or Eilandje. Similarly hipster-friendly is a restaurant I'm taken to down bumpy kutcha roads, where bootleg alcohol is served in bone china teacups and the sushi is sea-fresh.
On my way back, drum-stomached, late at night, our car is brought to a halt by a frail buggy traversing the road width-ways in lieu of a level crossing. We linger for a while as a train crosses the freeway, transporting countless carriages of kerosene to faraway oil refineries.
At a house party, I am introduced to a Sufi folk duo comprising a plump, curly-haired woman and a man from Chitral Valley in northern Pakistan. They treat us to an impromptu concert, playing songs from Leonard Cohen to Coldplay, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Abida Parveen. It's late and they are unprepared, but the music is sonorous and trancelike, the woman tossing the corsage in her hair and raising her hand to the sky in ecstasy.
Strange to think that in 1993−1994 I spent the full academic year teaching English in the northwestern cities of Mardan and Peshawar and happily visited the notorious locales of Darra Adam Khel and Quetta during school holidays, but wouldn't have dreamt of venturing outside Karachi's airport. Then the whole of Sindh was considered a no-go area for all but the most adventurous or foolhardy of travellers, while Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan were relatively safer. Now, as terrorists and insurgents maintain a firm grip on much of Pakistan's west, there has been almost a 180-degree shift.
In my well-thumbed 1993 edition of the Pakistan Lonely Planet, David St Vincent sounds downbeat and not a little Orientalist as he writes of almost being abducted from one of Karachi's main arteries and admits: 'The city certainly demoralised me'. This was one of the high-water marks of ethnic violence in Karachi last three decades of turmoil. In 1992, Altaf Hussain, the MQM leader, had escaped the military crackdown on his party and claimed asylum in London. From his Edgware headquarters, Hussain carried on giving rabble-rousing speeches and orchestrating targeted killings, as fictionalized in Omar Shahid Hamid's crime fiction novel The Party Worker.
His remote-control despotism finally ran out of juice in August 2016 when Hussain publicly made anti- Pakistan statements by telephone, causing a riot, injuries, and a death in Karachi. For most senior MQM figures, Hussain's speech was a step too far, and the party now finds itself split and defanged, with several politicians jockeying for power. This is one reason for the cautious optimism I sense this spring in Pakistan's largest city. But it will take years, if ever, for peace fully to return to this southern port. And it would be Pollyannaish to ignore the sharp edge the metropolis continues to display. Even during my short visit, I hear of a female acquaintance being brusquely turned away and followed by inscrutable men in Ray-Bans for trying to give a talk about civil rights at a women's university.
Karachi has a population size greater than the Netherlands', so it's no wonder my cursory trip has been so layered. My last snapshot of the city is of white-robed families catching flights to Medina and Jeddah for the Umrah pilgrimage. Rose petals stipple the floor, the flowers' scent mixing with the strong odour of naphthalene balls wafting from the airport's bathrooms. Goodbye, Karachi: I had a gala time and am pleased to be getting to know you at last.