The Middle Way, the Difficult Way—Sharper than a Sword and Narrower than a Hair

by Maniza Naqvi

WhirlingWe drank hot tea which helped to cool us down. Without the fans swirling the air around us, it was sweltering hot in the room. And the many layers of silk I was wearing were beginning to stick to my back and arms. Just as we were getting started, the lights went out—load shedding—a power cut. This was normal for Karachi. It could have been October or maybe May–must’ve been early evening because just as I was wondering how to peal of a few layers— I remember also wondering how the lovely azaan in the background would affect the overall sound. Like a mantra he invoked his teachers: Rumi and Saadi and the Buddha and Bishop Grundtvig and Confucius, and Gandhi, and Raiffeisen the Americans and the Chinese. He talked about Al Ghazali and Imam Hunbal, and he talked about how he learned of the Prophet’s teachings at his mother’s knee.

His response to my questions whirled around the Cooperatives movement, land grants, Development, technology, how change happens, China, the British and the Indian Civil Service, the Orangi Pilot Project, Sufism, Buddhism and the World Bank. And how “money is not the answer it only corrupts”.

I grew anxious when we discussed religious beliefs and stumbled upon the threatening and most dangerous menace of being accused of blasphemy in Pakistan by anyone for anything if they provoke and upset the established power base. A very real menace that he had faced from 1989-1992. A menace, which continues to threaten Pakistan and beyond. To the point where to simply exercise one’s brain let alone be brilliant or brave is to be blasphemous. “No one can help the poor without evoking the ire of one vested interest or the other,” said I.A.Rahman, the director of the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan when HRC took up the case of Dr Khan back in 1989.” (here).

He, Dr.Akhtar Hameed Khan, was the founder of three important Development programs which are examples all over the world for community based approaches for low cost and appropriate technology solutions in low income communities. These were the Comilla Pilot Project in Bangladesh, the Orangi Pilot Project, in Karachi Pakistan and the Aga Khan Rural Support Program in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. He was called Dr. Sahab though he was not a medical doctor. I had first met Dr. Hameed Khan when I started working in Karachi in 1986. That’s when I also met his very dynamic team including the brilliant urban planner and architect Perween Rahman and her colleague Anwar Rashid. Together they have run the Orangi Pilot project and its training institute which supports the replication of the approach and its lessons in other towns and cities of Pakistan and other countries. Dr. Hameed Khan died in 1999.

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A Matter of Detail: The Masonry of Graffiti and Symbols




by Maniza Naqvi

The photographer, the journalist, and the novelist: wrapped in each other’s facts, cloaked in another reality, set out to worship a city mapped in news and fiction. A peacock sways across the tiled floor brushing its iridescent tail upon black and white marble elongated squares. We slip off our shoes, the floor cool against our restless soles, bare.  An unguent. A devotee presses a rose petal on the forehead of a deity’s image. The photographer refrains from taking a shot though the angle is good. Here, photographs are forbidden. But the novelist free to capture images, no matter what, imagines many more. For example, of the journalist, thinking a headline, of just facts “Three people in search of gods in hiding, who whisper: seek us and we will appear.” But knowing, that facts don’t make for good copy or sell papers, the journalist would instead spin a tale: A novelist, shot, by a bearded man, inside a mandir, on M.A. Jinnah Road.”


Bear with me, I have a story to tell, something to sort through, a record to set straight and perhaps a score or two to settle too. So, I’ll begin somewhere in the middle and work to a beginning.

I was contacted by a journalist in March 2008 when I was visiting Karachi. She wanted to interview me for my novel, A Matter of Detail. When we met, I listened with growing guilt and self doubt as she lectured me for a good half hour on how my novel should be written.  Then she questioned my right to write such a novel since I no longer lived in Karachi. This done, she told me she was very interested in my novel’s focus on the Bene Israel of Karachi. She told me that she had not known before she read my novel, that there had been a Jewish community in Karachi. My book was her first inclination of this and her first introduction to the Bene Israel community in Karachi. She explained that the interview was for the Friday Times as would be the photographs she wanted to take of me. I told her that, beyond the research that I had carried out, my book is wholly imagined. It is an imagined possibility. My efforts were to create a sensation of sweetness, an essential sweetness in a cultural milieu—symbolized perhaps by the sugar that my character Hajrabai stirs into my character Razzak’s ovaltine in the novel.

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The Great Land Grab: Bhatta And The Route of War

by Maniza Naqvi

Lyariexpresswayij9Nearly 80 percent of the war supplies, non lethal war supplies, as they are called, for the US led coalition troops fighting in Afghanistan, snake through the city of Karachi. Much of the containers and oil tankers to the north from the Port either go through the Northern Bypass or through the National Highway from the oil terminal in Keamari. The Lyari Expressway does not carry heavy traffic although it was meant to and by night its southbound track shifts to becoming a northbound route carrying lighter cargo from the port to the Super highway which leads all the way to the Khyber Pass in the North at the border with Afghanistan. If the war in Afghanistan stops then the violence in Karachi and in Pakistan will subside. Just think what this war machinery moving through Karachi means for the city and what impact it has on the security, society and on the economy when it moves through the country going from the south of the country to the north to the Khyber Pass. Safe passage of these precious goods is assured through the city by gangs of extortionists and enforcers who collect a fee—Bhatta from the war enterprise. These gangs have deep connections to the militaries, international mercenaries and political parties. Their leaders are the biggest Bhatta collectors in the chain and are given safe haven to live in Dubai and in London. International business interests and local armed mercenaries have made Karachi their base to protect their war supplies. There is big money to be made. Karachi has always been of interest to Empire and it has never let it go. Their bidding is done through petty gangs across the city who have also learned to collect Bhatta from ordinary citizens, households and shopkeepers. These extortionists know how to enforce their rules: Non compliance means death.

Hundreds of residents of Karachi have lost their lives to violence in July and August of 2011 alone. Since the beginning of the US led war in Afghanistan in 2001 thousands of citizens of Pakistan and Karachi residents have been killed. The war in Afghanistan in the 1980s had a similarly gruesome impact.

The Lyari Expressway was meant to carry heavy loads and its northbound traffic from the port of Karachi was opened in December 2009. The Expressway was meant to be able to shift goods to and from the port on a high speed route bypassing the congested streets of the city center. But the Northbound route has not become fully functional yet. Nor can the Expressway carry heavy loads such as oil tankers. The Lyari Expressway was highly controversial when it was under design and it was opposed by citizens and community action groups, urban planners and activists because it displaced thousands of people, their homes and livelihoods, and it threatened to change the social fabric of the city. But it was built anyway under the Military regime of General Musharraf. Some who opposed the expressway were killed including one who belonged to a well known family and was also a political and social leader and activist who opposed the construction of the Expressway. He was found dead in 2002 inexplicably and improbably by having committed suicide by hanging himself in the guest room of his family home. Another person among many an FM station talk show host who was spoke up against the Expressway on his show was beaten up and threatened that he would be pushed off the roof of the building where the radio station was housed. Construction of the Expressway began in 2002. The bomb blast and the fire in Bolton Market which occurred during a Moharram procession in 2009, many believe, simply cleared out the shopkeepers and traders who had earlier refused to move out of the way of the Lyari Expressway’s planned support route.

The Lyari Expressway’s primary purpose was and is to provide a swift route for goods moving from the port to the rest of the country up north and bringing supplies down to the port. It carries to and fro from the port precious and high value imports and exports: the supplies going to the war and as most Karachi residents are convinced heroine from Afghanistan trucked back to the same waiting ships that bring in war supplies. Hardly any civilian city traffic can be seen on this Expressway.

The forces that rule Karachi thrive on the enterprise of war in Afghanistan. They dream of making Karachi a Dubai or a Singapore or a Hongkong. They in turn are linked to the petty street and neighborhood thugs linked to organized gangs and gang bosses who owe allegiance to these bigger bosses. They all owe each other. They are in the business of land grabbing, logistics, finance, drugs and weapons trade.

Whoever can ensure the war supply routes is king. Whoever can do that extorts Bhatta. This is the artery that feeds the heart of the golden goose. The Lyari Expressway in parts of the city is elevated above rooftops and in others runs alongside densely packed neighborhoods and passes through and over all the areas of Karachi currently in flames. The war supplies are swiftly moved on cargo trucks by night over this flyover that passes on a raised structure through the heart of the city passing alongside the large slum of Lyari, then through all of the city’s neighborhoods—while the war supplies move unobstructed from the Karachi port towards Afghanistan a war rages in Karachi including turf battles and land grabbing and strong arming to ensure territorial rights for guaranteeing the safe passage of the war machinery. The war supplies for Afghanistan bring death and destruction as their daily traffic to Karachi.

A drive on the Expressway feels eerily like on an exclusive and unobstructed rollercoaster ride dipping and rising alongside and above the city from the port on either side are the sprawling, densely packed and heavily congested neighborhoods and traffic congested streets of Lyari, Ranchore Lines, Soldier Bazaar, Liaqatabad, Nazimabad, Orangi, Sohrab Goth, Gulberg all the way till it reaches the Superhighway on the city’s outskirts.

Karachi a city of nearly 20 million people spreads out on either side of the expressway and convulses with its toxic impact. The graffiti on the massive structure’s concrete walls—and pillions hint of the rage that seethes around it. Each night while millions of Karachi residents try to sleeps or lie awake unable to sleep because of the heat and power cuts or anxiety over the raging violence in the streets—the war supplies slip by –slithering quietly and silently from the Port through and around the city swiftly, smoothly, safely.

Karachi was a tiny fishing village more than 150 years ago. It became a lucrative piece of real estate for Empire as its trading outpost and a cantonment town when the war began in Afghanistan between Britain and Russian in 1850s for territorial control of Central Asia. Then Great Game of Empires was on as it is now. The Empire owned Karachi then as it does now. Traders flocked to Karachi from other parts of India to position themselves as suppliers and servicers of the war around the newly built port which was built for the purpose of war supplies to be able to supply the war. Mercenaries and the army of the British Empire was housed in barrack in the city—in places named Abyssinia Line and Ranchore Lines. War had always benefited the city. In 1838, the British afraid of the Russian Empire’s expansion to the Arabian Sea, occupied Karachi and the city served as the landing port for their troops for the First Afghan War. In 1843, they annexed Sindh and shifted the capital of the province from Hyderabad to Karachi. Then the British made Sindh a district of the Bombay Presidency and Karachi was made the district headquarters. Troops were stationed in Karachi and businessmen from all over the country arrived to cater to the needs of the army, an opportunity not to be missed. Karachi started to become a vibrant town, particularly the part where the military barracks and commercial activities merged particularly at the confluence of the military barracks and commercial sector. This area became known as Saddar, the Presidency. Karachi is built on and continues to expand on the land grabbing effort called Empire and War—and within it, the forces that rule it—have grabbed land from small villages called Goths to expand its boundaries the biggest land mafia is probably the military with its Defense Housing Societies where the elite of the city live. Land is grabbed from the poor and it is grabbed from the sea. Reclamation of land from the sea continues unchecked and unregulated with no regard to the environment or to city planning. It is handled improperly, senselessly and dangerously with construction beginning even before the land has dried.

Karachi has always been the conduit for the supplies of war. In the powerful, muliti layered and international mercenary war machinery these local guarantors of safe passage of war goods are just petty thieves and gangs, extortionists who murder and collect Bhatta—extortion fees. But in the lives of Karachi and Pakistan’s citizens they are the biggest bosses, the most powerful forces of rulers and administrators, the police, the army, the politicians.

Whoever can ensure safe passage for war supplies extracts Bhutta from the war enterprise and controls Karachi . And this system extends all the way North along the supply route on the Super highway which cuts through the entire country from Karachi to Khyber Pass. All the way to Khyber Pass from the Karachi port extortionists, enforcers and service providers for the war machinery. Extortion cascades from the top down—from the Generals to the political leaders to their minions of militias and gangs. Extortion. Bhatta.

The routes of war supplies and their traffic must be part of the story of why there is such murder, mayhem and criminal violence in Karachi. The violence must be seen through the prism of war and land grabbing. The war is profitable for all those involved in making it happen. As long as the war goes on the gangs in Karachi and Pakistan will be encouraged to keep fighting and killing each other for the profitable business of collecting Bhatta for ensuring safe passage for these goods and to keep the conveyor belt for war supplies running smoothly. An analysis of what is happening in Karachi which looks for its root causes in poverty, ethnicity, population and a lack of services tells only a very small part of the story. This suits the enterprise of war because it ensures that the route for war continues uninterrupted.

Also by Maniza Naqvi (here):

Imagining Lyari Through Akhtar Soomro


By Maniza Naqvi

“I’ve lived all my life in my old neighborhood of Lyari. My father was a mason and he died of lung-cancer when I was six years old. I still feel his presence and remember his gestures and his appearance with his beard and a black and white checkered scarf on his head— you know like a Palestinian- scarf on his head.” Akhtar Soomro narrates himself. AkhtarSoomroselfport

And through his photo journalism Akhtar Soomro challenges us to enter on journeys that make us confront the geography and calculus of our own reality and recognize and imagine other stories. Stories of people, who have been systematically humiliated and diminished: people, who have been marginalized; and criminalized by those who have amassed power by grabbing every resource and facility and service in Pakistan. These photographs, as stark evidence, let us enter their world of survival, of how despite it all, people cope, triumph, flourish, create and celebrate, kick and punch back. Occasionally he gives us glimpses into the pathology of those grabbers of power: glimpses of the glint in their eyes, of the cynical grin on their faces and of the instruments and weapons that they wield to maintain their supremacy.


Akhtar Soomro tells us:

“I want to document a world that is in danger of disappearing. I have in the course of my own interest in these communities, photographed people at their festivals and in the streets. I remember the daily ordinariness of the Leva dances at weddings and other festive occasions in our streets. This dance is meant to induce a spiritual trance of joy. And how that is not a common place event any longer but still can be found. I want to show this world to the world and to these people themselves as something of value, of cherishing and for safekeeping.

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