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Chan'ad Bahraini

(Scomberomorous maculatus Bahrainius)

Note: This page has moved to a new address. Please click on the following URL to get there: http://chanad.weblogs.us/index.php?s=Karachi: City of contradictions. Sorry for the trouble.

Karachi: City of contradictions

Saturday, August 28, 2004

A few days back I asked people to take a guess at which city this photo was taken in. I only got one response (weep), but it touches on an interesting subject so I've quoted it below, followed by my reply. Says Mr Anon:

I thought it was one of Pakistan’s more liberal cities because I assumed that was a church steeple in the background but on closer look it seems to be a Victorian style clock tower – either way I’d imagine that in one of Pakistan’s really conservative cities there’d be attempts to cover (or blow) it up.

The city in question is actually Karachi. I don't really know what exactly makes a city "conservative" or "liberal", but Karachi is one that would fit in both or neither of those boxes. On the one hand it is the most modern, and most commercial (more billboards than New York) city in the country. You can go to underground parties where the girls are dancing in very skimpy outfits, and drugs and alcohol float around freely. On the other hand Karachi is also home to a wide variety of religious organizations, including conservative militant ones. It was also the place where Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered, not coincidentally.

These two extremes in Karachi feed off of each other. Youths who are sick and tired of being told what to do and not to do by the mullahs often reject Islam completely, except in name. At the other end, youths who are put off by the extreme materialism of Karachi, and the constant hammering of American culture through satellite TV often turn to religion, and sometimes militant Islamism. After visiting Karachi it becomes easier to understand when Olivier Roy says that Islamism is very much a product of modernism, not a reaction to it. It is not surprising then that several of the foreign Al-Qaeda militants captured in Karachi were actually being given refuge by some residents of the city's most posh and elite district.

Finally, I should let you know that there are many beautiful churches and cathedrals left by the British in most of Pakistan's cities. Certainly, there have been a number of disgraceful attacks on churches in Pakistan, but for the most part these buildings remain intact and visible.

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4 Responses to 'Karachi: City of contradictions'

Anonymous Anonymous says:

Thanks for the post about my views about Pakistan’s “conservative” cities, by which I was thinking foremost of Karachi. How much can you know about a place not having visited it? I’ve never been there, and my impressions are based on seeing it in the news and through reading this beautifully written - and not unsympathetic - essay on the city by William Dalrymple in last year’s New York Review of Books. He begins:

"Karachi is the saddest of cities. It is a South Asian Beirut: a city on the sea, rich and almost glamorous in parts; but also a monument to hatred among different sectarian and ethnic groups, and to the failure of a civic society. It is a city at war as much with itself as with the outside world. The most populous metropolis in Pakistan, Karachi is a profoundly troubled place, intermittently engulfed in terrible bouts of killing and kidnapping. It is a city where the police sit huddled in sandbag emplacements for their own safety, and where the foreign consulates now resemble great fortified Crusader castles—which is how the people of Karachi look on them: the unwelcome, embattled bridgeheads of alien powers."

If you’re interested the rest of the article it can be found at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/16823    

Blogger Dilnareen says:

Just found your site through Mahmood's. Have been reading through the other posts, must say some great stuff over here and very refreshing, I'm linking you up.    

Blogger Chanad says:

Anon: Yeah I've read that article by Dalrymple before and found it quite interesting. Although the way he describes the city isn't untrue, he also doesn't paint the whole picture. Like I said before, the city is full of contradictions. Even though it is the most crime-ridden and dangerous city in the country, it is also country's commercial and financial hub. Despite the the frequent robberies and kidnapping the city stays alive until 2 or 3am every night. You go out on to the street at 2am and there are people wandering around with their kids enjoying food and stuff as though it were the middle of the day and there were nothing to worry about.

Growing up in such an environment definitely screws with your head. The people of Karachi have a mindset which is impossible for an outsider to understan. When the government announced that a typhoon was about to hit the coast, and warned people to stay away from the shoreline, what did Karachites do? They all congregated at the beach to see what a typhoon is, and made a picnic out of it. And last year when an oil tanker broke apart near the Karachi shoreline the government announced people to stay away citing the medical risks from the toxic fumes of the crude oil. But once again, thousands of the city's populace thronged to the coast to see what a broken oil tanker looks like as though it were a tourist site.

But just to clarify things a bit. Although the militant Islamist groups are an element in Karachi's patchwork, their influence over the city is miniscule when compared to the real dons, the MQM, a secular political party (read Mafia). These guys are the ones that run the show, and violence between opposing factions of the MQM is where much of the Karachi's crime rate stems from. So in that respect, it is hard to label it as conservative or liberal. Thanks for your thoughts though.

Also, is there any chance of convincing you to start signing your comments with an alias, so that I can address my replies to you? Cheers :)

Dilnareen: Thanks for your comments. Will link you up also.    

Blogger Scorpio says:
8/31/2004 09:23:00 pm

Thanks for the very illuminating post on the city - it certainly doesn't sound dull.    

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