Going Back to Karachi: What Changed, What Didn’t.

Posted on July 13, 2010
Filed Under >Syed Abbas Raza, Society
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By Syed Abbas Raza

Greetings from sweltering Karachi.

I am spending the summer in Karachi. It’s my first trip to the city of my birth in almost six years, and I’ve already been here a little over three weeks now.

Here are a few things, picked rather arbitrarily, which I find are very much the same as always, and some that have changed, maybe too much (also see here). These, of course, are my personal impressions, and no more.

First, some things that remain very much the same as always:

  1. The sounds: The sounds of rickshaws, scooters, street-vendors hawking stuff in a loud and crisp tone particular to their trade, a variety of birds (especially the quarking of crows), truck horns, the hammering of workmen, and other voices and noises which combine with the dusty smell to produce an ever-present aural/olfactory ambience so typical of Karachi that I am aware I am home when I awaken in the morning even before I open my eyes.
  2. The heat and the humidy: Though by northeast-American standards it is quite extreme (many Pakistanis living in the West never return in May or June, so infernal are their memories of the blistering weather, and many such people asked me if I had lost my mind when they heard I was planning to arrive in Karachi a week before the summer solstice), I instantly found the weather comforting in a nostalgic way. Yes, both the heat and humidy are always there, but then they were always always-there when I lived here, and I am used to it. And we didn’t have air-conditioning when I was growing up. We do now, at least for the hours that we have electricity (it cuts out 3-4 hours a day usually, sometimes more). The humidity is such that one almost swims through the air and one is drenched in sweat within a minute of stepping out of the shower, so it is a race to dry oneself quickly and step out of the fanless bathroom into the fanful bedroom before dressing. The ceiling fans here, by the way, are to ceiling fans in, say, your summer place in the Hamptons, what the jet engine of a Boeing 747 is to the propeller of a Cessna 172. If you had them in New York, you could blow-dry your hair into an early-Beatles mop in 45 seconds flat just by standing under one. Here, of course, one remains covered in a slimy film of dusty sweat even in the wind-tunnel-like conditions these fans generate. Heat rashes are common, and my lower legs are always itchy. Speaking of which, the best thing about extreme heat is that it keeps the mosquitos at bay. But, unfortunately, I know they are busy preparing for a massive assault and invasion in late July and August, just after the rains.
  3. The food: The food is the same but I had forgotten just how good it is. Actually “good” doesn’t even begin to describe the paradisiacal gustatory delights on offer both at home (I am staying with my brother) and in restaurants here. In America everything new is said to taste like chicken but this is a ludicrous formulation because even chicken doesn’t taste like chicken there. Here, chicken actually has a flavor, and it tastes like, well, chicken. Fruits and vegetables are all organic, small in size, have spots where they are starting to become overripe (because they are not bred to look good or ripened in refrigerated trucks on the way to the supermarket) and bursting with what seems to my long-deprived palate to be concentrated flavor. I was shocked to remember what a carrot is supposed to taste like, for example (not like cardboard, which is what you must think, you poor people). In terms of sophistication, Pakistani cuisine is to Italian what Nabokov is to Dr. Suess. Sorry, that’s just how it is. (There are ten aromatic spices alone–not counting other kinds of spice and other ingredients–which go into a commonly eaten chicken curry.) The lovely smell of fresh and hearty naan coming out of any tandoor here instantly brings to my mind the futile desperation with which fancy bakeries like Bouchon cater to the pretentious of Manhattan, and how much I hate such effete gourmandizing.
  4. The light: I notice that without meaning to, or even realizing it, I have started cataloguing the effects of Karachi on all the senses, so I might as well mention the light: Karachi is just above the tropic of cancer, so the sun is only one-and-a-half degrees from completely vertically overhead near noon on June 21st, which results in a light the strength of which is literally stunning. To get a sense of it, turn the brightness knob on your TV (well, it probably isn’t a knob, unless you have a pre-1980s TV, but you know what I mean) to max. That’s what it looks like outside over here. Without sunglasses I get a headache in minutes. Heat stroke is a real risk of venturing outdoors in the afternoon. In general, the sun is a much angrier, less benign presence in these parts. In Urdu poetry sunshine is quite understandably a metaphor for adversity and difficulty, while the rainy season is romanticised into a symbol of joy and relief (from the sun). The light is very starkly beautiful though.
  5. The traffic: While an enormous number of improvements have been made in the roadways, including the construction of many under- and overpasses, new roads, bridges, and installation of traffic lights and road signs, they have been overwhelmed by the even greater increase in the number of cars, trucks, buses, minibuses, vans, rickshaws, motorcycles, scooters, and unimaginable vehicles of types beyond my humble powers of description–not to mention the crowds of pedestrians swarming orthogonally across the streets everywhere (Karachi has more people than all of Israel and Switzerland combined, and also more than the next five-largest cities in Pakistan combined. In fact, it’s larger than 160 of the world’s 200-and-some countries). In other words, the traffic is still the same. Oddly enough, and possibly because I first learned to drive in Karachi at the age of 14, I feel very comfortable driving here. Traffic here flows much like the cells in blood vessels: chaotically but efficiently. Driving is relaxing in a bizarre way, because it’s so unencumbered by stultifying rules of any kind. Instead, one guides one’s car toward one’s destination using the sort of natural proprioceptive sense that one uses to guide one’s own body through a crowd. And having the driver’s seat on the right side of the car somehow automatically cues one to drive on the left side of the road (a vestige of British colonial days) so that’s not a problem either.

Some things, of course, are different from before. And they are different mostly in a bad way.

I’ll give just a few examples here (my anger and disappointment will sometimes be quite palpable; sensitive Karachiites, please spare me the comments of outrage at airing our dirty laundry. After all, my beloved hometown has been turned into one of the most dangerous, unlivable cities in the world, and I have a right to some outrage of my own):

  1. The media: Let me start with the one biggest improvement – the efflorescence of new media and unprecedented freedom of press. When I was growing up, there was one TV channel, controlled by the government. Now there are scores, and countless radio stations, and a boisterous and large gaggle of both Urdu and English newspapers which all function with little if any interference from the government. So we have a free press. But it is the sort of press which in weak moments makes one question one’s commitment to its freedom. Many TV channels and newspapers (I haven’t paid much attention to radio), for example, are busy promoting insane conspiracy theories and catering to the most vulgar appetite for sensation in a manner which makes Fox News seem responsible. Even the highly educated are not immune to the constant barrage of this lunacy (it serves to absolve them of responsibility for the state of the nation, after all) and many succumb to the prevailing paranoia. Nevertheless, it is a good thing. I suppose.
  2. Religiosity: There seems to have been a massive increase in religiosity across all economic and ethnic classes here, accompanied by an increase in anti-Western feeling. Mosques of all denominations are overflowing, and public displays of piety are very much de rigueur. In general, there has been a shift of religious observance from the private toward the public sphere. My father, for example, who was a devout man (and who’s death provided the occasion for my last visit to Karachi in early 2005) rarely ever went to a mosque to pray, and nor did he ever grow a beard. Now half the men seem to be sporting unruly facial hair.
  3. Hypocrisy: Meanwhile, corruption, dishonesty, and crime of every sort seem to be skyrocketing. This has resulted in a society of stunning hypocrisy. My nephew just handed me a magazine article about the hardcore porn industry here. I was not the least bit surprised to learn that some studios where young college girls and boys are filmed engaging in sexual acts of shocking perversion – even to my jaded sensibilities – are located just blocks away from where I am staying. It makes complete sense in a sick sort of way. In a society which attempts to suppress every healthy sexual impulse, behind the scenes everything goes. And in general it has become disappointingly acceptable and comfortable for most people to say, and pretend to be, one thing, while behaving in the opposite manner. Incidentally, the house that my parents built, called Gulistan-e-Raza (the garden of Raza), and in which I grew up was sold a few years ago by us, some time after their deaths. It has been reported to me that it it is now used by its new owners as a facility where the printed date-stamps of long-expired canned foods, which are cheaply (no one else wants them, after all) and illegally imported into Pakistan, are changed before being sold wholesale to the markets here. Oh well, I still have some nice memories of that house. (Not so weirdly, and not long before I came to Karachi, I heard about a man who was conducting a similar scam in the South Tyrol in Italy where I live. He turned out to be a Pakistani immigrant.)
  4. Shrinking civility: There has been an undeniable shrinkage of civility and simple good manners in society as a whole. It is now not uncommon for the mildest traffic accident to be followed by immediate fisticuffs, for example. The newspapers report that a retired Air Vice Marshal of the Pakistan Air Force (a two-star general) was recently humiliated and beaten by some rich teenagers after they crashed into his car. Yesterday I heard a man curse loudly in Urdu at another driver, using language that would make a frat boy blush, over something incredibly minor. Tonight I heard a man raise his voice in impressive rage and deliver a completely unnecessarily aggressive dressing down to a maître d’ in a restaurant, to the discomfort and embarrassment of all the other clients as well as his own children. This sort of behavior used to be rare. Now, it’s the norm.
  5. Everyone is richer: The increase in wealth is visible across pretty much all classes. Those kinds of families that used to travel as husband and wife and three kids on a motorcycle or Vespa now have small cars. Those who used to have a family car now have two or three. Everyone has mobile phones. But while this is a good thing, the distribution of wealth within society has become (as in America) even more extremely unequal than it used to be. The gap between rich and poor is an ever-widening chasm, and the optimistic hopes of social justice of the 60s and 70s are nothing but a faded dream. Like elites everywhere in the third world, the elite here are completely out of touch with the life of the common person, and are busy maintaining a razor-thin veneer of high culture over the grim reality of a divided and poor society. Hence there are things like fashion shows where the models and the haute couture and the prices are no different than in Milan or Paris. I have several times been offered Johnny Walker Blue Label to drink here (even though alcohol is officially banned) – a whiskey which costs around $250 a liter. I’ve never even seen Blue Label in anyone’s house in America or Europe. When I asked why there are no public venues for the performance of popular forms of music, which is privately enjoyed by all classes, I was told that they would quickly become targets of religious fundamentalists and Taliban or their sympathisers. Like much else, even listening to pop music must be done behind the scenes, privately, or in elite clubs. In other words, while hiding.

I’ll stop there. Maybe I’ll have more to say toward the end of my stay here in August.

Syed Abbas Raza is one of the editors of 3QuarksDaily, where a more elaborate version of this post was published. The photo at the top of this column is of the owner of a tandoor, where Raza was buying naan, and his son. He seemed very regal, and very much the master of his domain.

Editor’s note: Two previous reminiscences of returning to Karachi can be read here (by iFaqeer) and here (by Hira Qureshi).

28 Comments on “Going Back to Karachi: What Changed, What Didn’t.”

  1. Ghiasuddin says:
    July 13th, 2010 1:40 am

    Wonderful. Smells of authenticity and a real love for Karachi.

  2. Junaid says:
    July 13th, 2010 1:50 am

    Very balanced picture. The loss of civility is so striking. Everyone is always angry. Everyone is always cynical. Everyone is always shouting. You can even see it in the comments here.

  3. humaira says:
    July 13th, 2010 2:46 am

    Amazed that you mention the light. It is true. The light is what I miss in an odd way. It is so different.

  4. techunar says:
    July 13th, 2010 5:47 am

    You should also mention the developing work, the fly overs, the new roads, lights on the streets, the complete new charm of the city.

    Problems are there, electricity, traffic, security, but I think we have improved from the past, the city breadths a lot of new things.

    You should have seen the streets of Karachi when Pakistan won T20 worldcup… its a ‘lively’ city, be it guns or celebrations :)

  5. JJ says:
    July 13th, 2010 5:50 am

    Great observations. Please post again before you return to the power-hungry American shores.

  6. p4k1stan says:
    July 13th, 2010 5:51 am

    a carrot tastes like a carrot in pakistan, i gave up drinking chai after my last visit to pak over two years ago,its just not the same here. i too noticed more people were frequenting the masjid, not necessarily behind the imam, but at all times..

  7. Farooq says:
    July 13th, 2010 8:47 am

    Sorry that we have not improved city to the desired standards. Now what do we do? shall we all race towards immigration counter?

  8. RANA says:
    July 13th, 2010 9:16 am

    As a long-time resident of Karachi, to me the biggest change over the years has been a total loss of pride in the city. Despite being away, you speak of Karachi as if it was yours. With pride and with ownership. Most people who live in Karachi no longer do. That is sad.

    Most people are content on feeling bad for themselves and as victims rather than as owners of Karachi.

  9. Vinnie says:
    July 13th, 2010 9:18 am

    Very Nice analysis.

    Karachi has greatly changed when we see the construction. looks much more planned than ever. But the crime and criminals are increasing day by day and so the people have developed rage and agony for it which even reflects in their routine behaviour.

  10. Stranded says:
    July 13th, 2010 9:22 am

    I agree with the lack of civility as well, and a general air of disrespect and callous diregard for other people in the younger generation.

    Although I was raised abroad mostly, I went to Karachi University for 4 years and travelled by public transport (buses and university points) and then left shortly after. When I returned, in just 6 years, the attitude on the streets has transformed.

    I have memories also as a child (of 11 or 12) easily going out with my aunts to markets and eating out in “open air” restuarants. Now going to some of the same places is unthinkable. Travelling by bus is not the same.

    People don’t want to wait, there is a strange crassness and frustration, which was minimal or not there when I was 12 or not so much when I was in university.

    But I don’t want to solely blame Karachi for that, this seems to be the case in general all over the globe. Too many people, too many problems, too much anger, too many needs and so on.

  11. Sajjad says:
    July 13th, 2010 9:30 am

    A true Picture, specially religiousity.

  12. Karachite says:
    July 13th, 2010 9:31 am

    You have hit it on the nail man.

    Your love for the city shows through. It still remains a great city, but how much greater could it have been had we not let it go!

  13. Yasmeen says:
    July 13th, 2010 9:33 am

    Nice one. While all of this good and bad, is true for Karachi, most of it is really about Pakistan as a whole. It will be true anywhere in Pakistan. Specially the second half.

  14. Wadood says:
    July 13th, 2010 10:09 am

    Wah. Sound and light. Yes, that is the first thing I also notice each time I return to Pakistan.

  15. KARACHIWALLA says:
    July 13th, 2010 2:43 pm

    Karachi wallas stopped having ‘ownership’ of Karachi once the MQM highjacked out city.

  16. Adnan Ahmad says:
    July 13th, 2010 4:56 pm

    A brilliant write-up. Perhaps the first time I have read an accurate and a detailed account of what has changed in the city – for better or worse – from a visitor’s lens. The picture at the top has so much detail to it that it is incredible. A beautiful shot.

  17. SJH says:
    July 13th, 2010 10:29 pm

    Beautiful. The original writeup at 3quarksdaily.com is highly recommended for its additional writing and achingly pretty photographs.

  18. July 14th, 2010 1:05 am

    Dear ATP Readers,

    Thanks for all the appreciative comments!

    I am so spoiled by living a life of extreme luxury here in Karachi (not having to cook, clean, do laundry, etc.) at my brother’s house that yesterday I told him he must hire someone to bathe and dress me, and feed me, as lifting bites of food and putting them in my mouth is too much of an exertion for me now. :-)

    But seriously, it’s SO wonderful to be home. Once again, thank you.



  19. Hashim says:
    July 14th, 2010 1:19 am

    Nice writeup. And written with passion and feeling.

    Yes ‘everyone’ is richer. But everyone is also more insecure. No matter how rich!

  20. Majid says:
    July 14th, 2010 1:24 am

    I am reading Syed Abbas Raza on pakistaniat.com. It’s a delight.

  21. Kazmi says:
    July 14th, 2010 1:26 am

    I think the most important insight in this excellent piece is about disappearing civility and just the sheer level of anguish and anger that is everywhere. Maybe it is understandable, but even then it wears you down.

  22. Amna Zaman says:
    July 14th, 2010 3:20 am

    A whole lot has changed if you analyse closely. Terrorism has struck the major cities of the country and now we on the down low due to Taliban. We must eradicate militancy to get the old Khi back I guess.

  23. zeinab says:
    July 14th, 2010 2:04 pm

    Loved it, Abbas. The photos, the sincerity. The brutality, the beauty of Karachi so perfectly captured. As someone recently said, Karachi just breaks your heart. Again and again and again…

  24. Rafique says:
    July 14th, 2010 7:01 pm

    Excellent and honest description. the love for Karachi is evident, as is the pain. But also the pride.

  25. Shabbir Kazmi says:
    July 15th, 2010 4:45 pm

    Dear Abbas and ATP readers,
    I very much appreciate the accuracy, simplicity and honesty of Abbas’ writing and photographs, which without a doubt raises bar for ATP writers and readers. Also very complimentary for a writer to tell the story with photographs. Keep it coming, we want more!!

    July 15th, 2010 7:39 pm

    Wow! I love the site and the articles. Even though I an Indian American, I have a special place for Pakistan since my parents were born in Lahore / Layalpur. If there is one place I ever want to visit, that would be Lahore. God willing, some day I would and experience the awesome culture/food/traditions and brotherly culture of my fav place.

  27. July 21st, 2010 7:10 am

    It seems you speak about paradise in the first part of your article and about earth in the second part.

    I really enjoyed the colourfull pictures and vivid scenes and hope this people may live in peace…

    A South Tyrolian Boy. Jodel…

  28. zubia jamil says:
    December 20th, 2010 2:57 am

    Nice article. :) I agree with most of what you wrote. I would also like to add, the continuous decline of civic sense among people. People no longer stop on signals, don’t care if they are wasting some thing that is available to them in access and not to other people, like water, gas etc.


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