The black wrought iron gate swings open so easily it is almost as if it has been waiting for him.
Martin Van Camp is taken aback. “I thought it would be locked,” he says. A look around confirms that a family lives there. He leads the way into the courtyard, where his family house, Duarte Villa, a once stately home with an arched entryway, Greek columns and a decorative balcony, has crumbled into disrepair. Built at Lucky Star in Saddar by his great grandfather, Laurenco Caetano Duarte, the co-founder of Ideal Life Insurance Company in 1892, this villa was the final Pakistani home of his mother, who left the country to marry a Belgian carpenter-turned-photographer in the early 1960s. Laurenco Caetano Duarte also built the original Ilaco building that was designed in the neoclassical Beaux-Arts style, in the same year.
The villa isn’t the only architectural marker the Duartes left on the cityscape of Karachi. Duarte Mansion, a four-storey renaissance style palazzo, was built by his great grandfather in 1922 as a business venture. It was the first apartment building in the city and is a registered hertitage site, but it was sold out of the family possibly as early as in the 1930s.
“I never felt at home in Belgium,” muses Van Camp, who is a slim 40-something with curly salt-and-pepper hair and a distinctly olive complexion. “This is probably the last time I’ll see it. I’d like to buy the house… maybe I could’ve done something if it was in India… You hand it over easily, but later it’s always difficult.” When the last Duarte in Pakistan grew too old to remain at home, the Van Camp family donated the house to the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre (MALC) in 2004.
The villa passed through a series of caretakers, but its condition continued to deteriorate. Finally, the leprosy centre asked the Anwar family, the final caretakers, to leave the villa. The charity has begun to explore options to legally reclaim the property.
Van Camp first saw the house in 1995. Then a 28-year-old in search of a solid identity, he decided to return to the city where his parents fell in love. His father Franz Van Camp came to start the Young Christian Workers group and his mother Patricia was working with St Patrick’s parish.
Born in Rangoon, Patricia fled to Madras on a boat during the Japanese invasion in 1943. She lived in Goa, where the Duarte women lived, while the men ventured to seek business opportunities in Karachi. When she migrated to Karachi to live with her uncle, she met Martin’s father. Patricia was a pianist, who used to play on Radio Pakistan from the early 1940s to the mid 1950s. In Belgium, she played for a music academy in Geel.
“My mother always said Belgium was her home,” says Martin, a social worker by profession. But he has returned in search of his “lost identity, roots” as stated in an extract from one of his writings. “I’m just a simple man,” he says with a shrug. “I just do what needed to be done.”
Although Martin has visited Karachi four times since 1995, he says he could never live here because he grew up with a western mentality. He has hopes, however, of bringing his four-year-old daughter to her great grandmother’s childhood home but “maybe when she’s older”.
His need to find his roots was complicated by the racism he experienced in Belgium. “I was called everything from Turkish to Moroccan,” he said. “I was Belgian, but I didn’t feel like it.”
The first time Van Camp stepped foot in Karachi, he was smitten by the unity among people. “I love how Parsis, Muslims, Hindus, Christians and people from all kinds of backgrounds came together to celebrate, dine, and just live life. This is what I want to take back and show the rest of the world,” he says.
So when disaster hit in 2004, Van Camp decided to do something. He shared the on-the-ground reports he received from MALC with the Belgian media and was able to raise a significant amount of money.
Then came the flood. So he raised 13,000 euros to help the people of Gatti, near Thatta, buy the materials to rebuild their homes with their own labour. Originally the village was a collection of mud huts, but the new homes will be solid brick. “This is the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen,” said Van Camp. “I can’t let it go, even if things don’t get better.”
Published in The Express Tribune, April 20th, 2011.