After living and working in London for more than a decade, I moved to Pakistan eleven months ago and soon realized that the Pakistan I knew had migrated elsewhere — mainly to the front covers of current affairs magazines of the kind that you find in posh dentists’ waiting rooms. The world media reached a quick consensus that I had boarded a sinking ship. Time, Newsweek, and The Economist have all written obituaries of Pakistan; some have done it twice over. The more caring ones are still holding a wake.
A couple of years ago when we decided to move back, Pakistan wasn’t exactly the world’s safest destination. It was fighting its demons of poverty, the Taliban and the military dictatorship that fostered them. But it very much belonged to this era: a new bank was going up on every street corner it seemed, and a new generation of media, telecom professionals and property speculators were working overtime to sell bits of the country to each other. Then while we were negotiating with the packers and movers and stocking up on jars of Marmite, the various editorial boards across the Western world decided that the end of the world was nigh and it would all begin in Pakistan. We have been repeatedly subjected to this dreary message ever since we arrived. Channan, my eleven year old, born-and-bred-in-London son, was so miffed at this that when he saw some white people at Karachi airport recently, he whispered furiously in my ear. “What are they doing here? Don’t they know it’s not a tourist country. They are always saying it’s a terrorist country.”
All the news about Pakistan’s imminent demise is, at the very least, premature. The country has its civil wars. It has its doomsday visionaries who like to send poor kids to blow themselves up to kill other poor people. It has appalling levels of poverty. But if its peasants and workers all shared the doomsday vision, they wouldn’t be marching up and down the country demanding better wages and working conditions. We have seen five-star hotels and mosques full of worshippers blown up. We have seen a visiting cricket team attacked. Yet over the past two years, hundreds of thousands of citizens have participated in the largest peaceful political movement in South Asia’s recent history and brought down one of the most well-entrenched military dictators in the world. (General Musharraf, by the way, has just bought himself a house on Edgware Road in London. All dictators, in the end, turn out to be property speculators. If anyone in London spots a man puffing on sheesha and lecturing some unsuspecting Arabs about enlightened moderation, avoid eye contact.)
Here in Karachi, most people have other things to worry about than the fact that the leading current affairs magazines have declared us dead. They moan about power breakdowns and rampant urban crime. The better-off talk about the sex lives of their domestic help and the dumbing down of TV drama. During our year in Karachi we have seen many riots over electricity shortages, three general strikes and continuous ethnic tension that has more than once turned bloody. But we have also watched the city host one hugely successful film festival, about forty music concerts, more than twenty plays and hundreds of protests.
Unlike many immigrants in London, I did not have a frozen, idyllic image of the motherland to cherish and yearn for. Firstly, because the motherland was never idyllic, and secondly because my day job in London involved covering Pakistan. But yes, places change, and they change when CNN is not looking. I grew up in a village in Pakistan where the burqa when it first appeared in the eighties was seen as a sign of vulgarity. It was a conservative village, but it was also open enough that you could walk into anybody’s house. Surely, someone who decided to cover her face had a deviant mind or was attempting to camouflage a new perversion imported from some big city. For days, my late mother went around muttering the Punjabi version of “there goes the neighbourhood”. The purda-fication of Pakistani women proceeded apace, but as a visitor from London I always assumed it was nothing more than a bout of seasonal piety. By the time I moved back to Pakistan, it seemed that a significant part of the country had decided to cover itself in black hijabs and an amazing variety of burqas.
Walking along the Karachi seafront , I used to get into a self-righteous rage at seeing these young women in hijabs and black burqas hanging out at the beach when they should have been at school or in some mosque praying for our collective salvation. But then I looked closely and found out that many of them were there on a date. Some were actually making out, sometimes in broad daylight, some with men with beards. My wife pointed out that it’s probably a liberal prejudice that girls in hijab don’t know how to romance. On second thoughts she added, maybe hijab is just a cover up, to date boys. Whatever their motives, making out when covered from head to toe in a black robe is quite a spectacle and provides just the right combination of challenge and opportunity. Walking on the beach with my wife the other day, we stared at a couple who were exploring the full possibilities of the burqa, using their motorcycle to lean against. With the Arabian Sea lapping at their feet.
At the other end of the fashion spectrum you can watch on TV nattily dressed fashionistas who have taken the righteous path and started mixing piety with plunging necklines. (We have two 24/7 fashion channels. Also three food channels and, at last count, five religious channels). They talk about their last shopping trip to Dubai, pouting masha’Allah and conclude their plans for next season’s collection with insha’Allah. Depending on what else is happening in the name of religion on that particular day on the news channels (twenty-three and still counting), I find it either very cute or another sign of the destruction of our civilization as foretold by the leading current affairs magazines.
After the first few weeks in Karachi I realized that a part of multicultural Britain had also moved here with me: all the halal signs from London seem to have followed me. I grew up in Pakistan under General Zia, the most halal of military dictators, but even then I never saw a sign saying “halal” anywhere in Pakistan. It was in UK that I saw these signs for the first time; Muslim shoppers needed some kind of reassurance that what they were consuming was not going to condemn them to hell. In Pakistan, we are ninety eight percent Muslims and I have never in my life met a butcher here who is not a Muslim. So why would anyone worry about halal? A friend rightly pointed out that it would be difficult to find anything haram in this country. But now everything – bank accounts, life insurance policies, artificial sweeteners, debit cards, frozen chicken nuggets, crisps, donuts, car loans – comes with a reassurance that it’s all halal. Recently a friend found a halal porridge too. I am waiting for the day when someone will come forward with the concept of halal car parking.
The real spirit of Karachi lies elsewhere, in those who go through the gruelling cycle of life to earn their daily bread with a heart-breaking dignity – those who do not have the luxury to cover up or doll up (or doll up and then cover up), who do not have a TV or time to watch it, and who will never be on TV except as a backdrop to the latest bomb attack. These are the ones who go to work every morning regardless of what any local of foreign media might be predicting. What really lights up the shores of Arabian Sea in the evening are brightly dressed transvestites who turn the beach into their own catwalk. They are so elegant and poised that even our police don’t mess with them. They have to be the most glamorous beggars anywhere in the world. They have their reasons for dressing up: begging has become very competitive. Our transvestites have to compete with kids so young that sometimes they forget that they have been put on the streets to beg and not to play.
And how are we doing?
We fretted about moving Channan from London to Karachi, but my fears were that of a parent who consumed too much news. He has taken to Pakistan like those colonial officers who went from grim British suburbs to hot and noisy Indian cities . He is already a smart little politician, cutting deals, coming up with charters of demand, thinking ahead, scheming and plotting – mostly for his next acquisition. Family members visiting us in London used to chide us for not teaching him proper Urdu or Punjabi. Now not only does he read and write Urdu, but sometimes I hear new slang on the street and go home to ask him what it means. And he always knows. Chappa is not a police raid as I remember from my earlier days in Karachi, it’s that very un-cool thing when you copy someone’s style.
My wife, Nimra Bucha, says she has found tropical plants and her actor’s voice. Her one-woman show, The Dictator’s Wife, which premiered at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in front of kind but dozing pensioners, has been playing to packed houses in Lahore and Karachi. Sometimes I find out about her views about myself and other problems facing the nation through her media interviews. She has also found more old aunts that I can count. She misses wearing skirts but loves the new harem pants with pockets. I used to worry about men ogling women in public spaces. She says she doesn’t mind and reminds me it’s better than those men in the London tubes who worked so hard to avoid eye contact.
Like most middle class people in the world who have more furniture than ideas, we turn up for an occasional protest or a play and moan about why there are so many poor people in the country and nothing good on TV. As a family we have also come to appreciate the fact that we live in a world where the day a bomb doesn’t go off somewhere in the country is a pretty good day.
Even the power breakdowns have become bearable. In Karachi, people discuss the comings and goings of electricity much as we used to discuss weather in London; they boast about the capacity of their generators the way Londoners show off their holiday snaps. Initially I quite liked the idea of not having electricity for part of the day – a mandatory media fast, I thought. I even started reading (War and Peace). Then electricity started disappearing six times a day, and the May heat slapped us around a bit. We dropped our eco-friendly posture and bought a generator.
Karachi is a combination of oddities and surprises. Altaf Hussain, the city’s favourite son and its most powerful politician, has been living in exile for more than fifteen years. Since he left Karachi, his party has won every single election with a massive majority, but he finds Karachi too dangerous and prefers to live in Edgeware. He runs Karachi like an absentee landlord. So in a way my life here is still governed by someone who lives in a London suburb.
A journalist colleague pointed out recently that we the people of Karachi would much rather live with secular chaos than with the Taliban. And every recent election has proved that assertion. Every few days we keep hearing warnings that the Taliban are coming, but Karachi has seen its share of militant mullahs in the past and doesn’t seem much bothered. One of the local parties spearheading the protests against Talibanisation, as they like to call it in Karachi, is called Sunni Tehrik. Looking at their regulation beards and fiery rhetoric, outsiders wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from the Taliban. Their leaders have titles like “Naked Sword”, and they go around the city with Kalashnikov-carrying bodyguards. But they hate the Taliban as much as the next fashionista.Even our local liquor shop (which is supposed to sell to non-Muslims only but runs its business along very secular lines) put up a poster recently: Beware of Talibanisation.
I am often asked by friends whether I miss London. I am alright in Karachi, masha’Allah. But occasionally I do miss hanging out with friends in a certain pub on the Strand and saying things like, “Yes please, another organic lager”. I hope there will be an opportunity to visit soon. Insha’Allah.
Mohammed Hanifwas born in Okara, Pakistan. He graduated from Pakistan Air Force Academy as a Pilot Officer but subsequently left to pursue a career in journalism. He has worked for Newsline, India Today and The Washington Post, and has written plays for the stage as well as the screenplay for the critically acclaimed BBC drama What Now, Now That We Are Dead? His feature film The Long Night has been shown at film festivals around the world and he is a graduate of University of East Anglia’s creative writing programme. His novel A Case of Exploding Mangoeshas won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and Commonwealth Writers Prize First Book Award.