The twisted pride of a Karachiite

Published: December 31, 2011

A scene from the violence in Karachi this year. PHOTO: FILE

KARACHI: If any one person can embody the insanity that was Karachi in 2011, it is Zulfiqar Mirza. To so suddenly rise to manic heights of frantic activity and then instantly collapse into stillness, these are extremes of state that only someone living in Karachi can manage. They also reflect the state of the city itself. Karachi is, at any given time, either in a condition of chaotic flux or in calm silence.

Zulfiqar Mirza’s strangeness truly manifested itself later in the year, but that doesn’t mean the first half of 2011 was lacking in morbid excitement. The first signs that this was going to be a difficult year came when Salmaan Taseer was killed. His murder may have taken place in Islamabad, but the innocent bystanders that got hurt in the shooting stood in Karachi as well. MNA Sherry Rehman had to go into hiding for her own stand against the misuse of the blasphemy law. Death threats and protests began throughout the city, most in favour of Mumtaz Qadri. When, one month later, the 2nd Karachi Literature Festival began, it was still a focus of discussion.

By May the real violence began, when on the 22nd, PNS Mehran was attacked by a group of militants with exceptional preparedness. In the 17 hours it took to clear the base, unfortunately not before the two surveillance aircraft were destroyed and 10 people killed, Karachiites were treated to the surreal experience of going about their lives while a major military installation in the heart of the city was under siege. Business never stops in Karachi. Life goes on strangely.

Life, unfortunately, did end rather violently and sadistically for Sarfaraz Shah, a civilian shot by Rangers. The murder was caught on film and the resultant outrage was more than anyone could have predicted. Karachiites, exhausted by the repeated indignities they had suffered at the hands of authority figures, forced the issue into the courts.

Another issue that the courts had to involve themselves with, albeit grudgingly, was the surge in target killings in the city. Violence of a level not seen since the 1990s once again returned to the streets as each political party took it upon itself to wage war on the civilian populace. Innocents died for their ethnic background alone. It did not matter to these self-appointed racists that in the end they were not killing Pashtuns, Mohajirs or even Sindhis. They were killing Karachiites. They were killing their own. By July of 2011, 1,138 Karachiites had died. Not in massive bomb blasts that killed most of them at once, but one at a time. Each bullet individually shot, each life individually taken.

When the chief justice did finally deign to descend from on high, his highly anticipated judgment announced, in much legalese, that indeed people were dying and it was really quite a bad thing. Then he left.

In a highly charged atmosphere like Karachi’s, it is important to pick your words carefully and to avoid offence. Zulfiqar Mirza decided to do exactly the opposite of that. On July 13, deciding things just weren’t tense enough, he launched into a rant directed against Urdu-speaking people in Sindh. The protests that the MQM organized the next day were typical of all MQM protests in that they were peaceful and calm. Once you ignored all the shooting and killing. A forced apology followed before Zulfiqar Mirza once again decided to let loose with his opinions. On August 28, with a Quran on his head, he began detailing the MQM’s role in violence in Karachi and involvement in target killings. It took the MQM close to two weeks to provide their rebuttal, delivered on September 9 in the form of a surrealistic performance art exhibition by Altaf Husain that left even his biggest critics in stunned silence.

As if to remind us that local politics isn’t the only thing that can kill us, al Qaeda jumped back into the fray when 10 days later it attacked SSP Chaudhary Aslam Khan’s house in Phase 8 of DHA. The bomb blast destroyed his home and killed 7 of his security guards and a schoolteacher and her son. Many more would have died had it occurred any closer to the school nearby. In tragedies we are sometimes left looking for blessings.

If there is anything to be grateful for, it is that since then Karachi has been relatively silent. Sure the daily rhythm of car thefts, kidnappings and cell phone robberies continues, but that has just become the monotonous bass beat that we barely register anymore. The sense of security has increased so much so that when the PTI finally held its rally on December 25, over a 100,000 turned up to cheer. It was probably the largest gathering at the Quaid’s Mazar in years and it went off without any tragedy (not counting Salman Ahmed’s karaoke).

What we mustn’t forget in this chaotic mix is the Karachiite. That strange creature that has so insulated itself against the tensions inherent in living in such an extreme environment, that it begins to carry itself with a twisted sense of pride. To go for a job, step out with the family, visit Port Grand or drive down to Hardees, despite the constant violent interruptions, takes a kind of resilience that not many cities can manage. Still, it would be nice to not have it tested so often.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 31st, 2011.

Reader Comments (11)

  • Dec 31, 2011 - 11:30AM

    Stands in Applause

    Sami, you just keep getting better and better as a writer. The surrealness of people going to work in the morning as the military relieved the siege of PNS Mehran was otherworldly.

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  • Omer
    Dec 31, 2011 - 11:41AM

    Unfortunately, Karachiites have been gradually desensitized to killings and bombings. Its sad that the largest city in the country can ignore all the problems and everyone carry’s on with their daily routine. Karachiites should lead by example and put an end to this unnecessary killings. God knows what effect this environment will have on the youth 10-20 years down the road.

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  • aysha
    Dec 31, 2011 - 12:01PM

    All because those in authority just dont care about Karachi.

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  • Ali S
    Dec 31, 2011 - 12:53PM

    Great observation. It is quite disturbing how desensitized we’ve become to living in an increasingly abnormal environment.

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  • Imran
    Dec 31, 2011 - 3:16PM

    You Sir deserve a medal… I Love Karachi …

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  • sharmeen
    Dec 31, 2011 - 3:51PM

    Still, it would be nice to not have it tested so often. Excellent. Good Job Sami; you are fast becoming the voice of my generation for this city.

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  • Arsalan Ahmed
    Dec 31, 2011 - 5:48PM

    Its a relief they got mirza muted, otherwise this beautiful port city could have fallen into more chaos and bloodshed. a job well done sami….

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  • Dec 31, 2011 - 7:02PM

    @Author

    You, undoubtedly, deserve praise for this write up.

    “To go for a job, step out with the family, visit Port Grand or drive down to Hardees, despite the constant violent interruptions, takes a kind of resilience that not many cities can manage. Still, it would be nice to not have it tested so often.”

    However, what one may feel uncomfortable about is the absence hear of any concern shown for the underprivileged. I don’t know if the majority of this class are ever going to even hear names of spots like Port Grand. Many could have been jobless most of their lives with little or no hope of finding one.

    For all I know if the Kaptaan becomes a viable alternative chosen by the puppeteers to play Kiyani’s boss, would the residents of Machhar Colony ever going to taste a hamburger, find proper clothes or a roof over their heads other than a jhuggi.

    We can easily forget the populace which lives in the rural areas, and finds life in the shanty towns of Karachi nearer to jannat.

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  • The Truth
    Dec 31, 2011 - 7:53PM

    Well written article, yet still a visible bias against the Govt. “art exhibition by Altaf Husain that left even his biggest critics in stunned silence.” I watched the Altaf video, it was a disaster, his critics were silent because Altaf saved them the burden of having to say anything. And with regards to the blast at the SSP’s house “Many more would have died had it occurred any closer to the school nearby” That is a completely unnecessary statement meant only to elicit an emotional response. The fact is that it Didn’t occur any closer to the school. Its the same as saying that it could have been alot worse if it happened at a Mall but it didn’t, its speculation that is not relevant to facts as they occurred. Otherwise, Well done!

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  • Abbas
    Dec 31, 2011 - 8:53PM

    What has disgusted me most in 2011 is how the word ‘resilience’ has been misused countless times by so many Karachiites I know. As far as I am concerned, most Karachiites (including myself) are pretty much emotionally dead. I’m not proud about the fact that I can go to Hardees or Port Grand happily when I know at the back of my head that innocent people are dying all across my city. This is heartlessness, not resilience. We have forgotten the value of human life, and this article sums it up perfectly. I’m not saying we should stop living life because of the dead, but we should tone down celebrations and respect the dead, who at any given point could have been us. Let’s not switch the TV channel every time we hear about the death of a stranger, let’s acknowledge it and let our heart feel it so that we can even think about bringing change.

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  • MarkH
    Jan 1, 2012 - 11:01AM

    Speaking of the guy… Did he ever open that briefcase at any point and I missed it?

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