Culture cousins: Beirut and Karachi

Karachi has become my new home and I am here to stay. My roots may be in Lebanon but my heart is in Karachi.

Yasmine Ibrahim July 13, 2012
The population is made up of people from diverse religious, linguistic, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds. Political parties are based on ethnic and sectarian lines which go hand in hand with political identities. Unity is relatively rare among the political leadership and the population in general.

The masses blindly follow the incompetent and corrupt leaders and unfortunately some have no other choice as their livelihood depends on it. The same faces and names remain in power for years on end considering the main qualification for holding office is that you belong to a specific family.

The blame game never ends (external or internal sources) in terms of who is responsible for the violence, instability or other issues facing the country. Targeted killings (religious or political leaders, journalists, etc.), burning tires, street protests, political violence/militias are all common realties which are more prevalent at times and less at others.

So, which city am I describing? Take a wild guess. Karachi? Beirut? Nope, it is actually both.

Will Karachi become the next Beirut? A common question and comparison we have heard on numerous occasions throughout the years and rightly so. However, I find that there are many aspects of the two that are comparable ─ beyond the political violence and instability─ especially since I have a firsthand experience of living in both cities. Yes, there are many similarities with regards to the geopolitical landscape of the two, yet violence does not define either city.

Both are situated along the Mediterranean (Beirut) and Arabian Sea (Karachi), which adds character and life to each. In Beirut, people from all walks of life enjoy walking on the corniche, where you can also find street vendors selling fresh juice, corn on the cob, and many other street snacks. Also, there are several beautiful beaches found within the city and on the outskirts, however, those from more affluent backgrounds prefer to go to the ones outside the city; private beaches which are more exclusive.

Likewise, in Karachi people enjoy the main Sea View where they spend time, ride camels and horses on the beach and eat various food and snacks. Yet, unfortunately since it is not kept well, again those from more affluent backgrounds go to private beach huts which are outside of the main city limits. The sea generally serves as a major source of entertainment for people in both cities and from all socio-economic backgrounds.

Both cities are very vibrant with crazy energy, hustle and bustle and a resilient population. The roads are generally quite busy and chaotic, and if you can drive in either city then you can surely drive anywhere else in the world!

In Karachi, certain parts of the city are still very alive till the early hours of the morning. People are out having food, lounging at sheesha places, hanging out at the beach, etc. Generally, I find that Pakistanis from all walks of life, long for various forms of entertainment and lack enough outlets to enjoy themselves, especially those that do not revolve entirely around food.

The options are limited for most people: go out to eat (countless food places which range from street food to high end restaurants), go shopping (if you visit the mall on a Sunday you will be amazed by the number of people you find there!), go to the movies (there are only a few theatres in a city of 18million people, so getting tickets is usually quite the challenge!), visit the beach, etc.

Entertainment options do vary also based on socio-economic backgrounds. For example, it is more common than you think to find private parties being organised for people who belong within a certain circle of society. Pakistanis and Karachiites like having fun just as much as anyone else, yet, unfortunately, the options are somewhat limited.

On the other hand, the night-life and entertainment options in Beirut are more diverse. The main difference between Karachi and Beirut in terms of entertainment options is definitely the happening nightlife.  No matter what day of the week it is, you will find many people out and about in select locations within the city; Hamra, Gemayzeh, Downtown, etc. There are an endless number of nightclubs, pubs and lounges to choose from and new ones pop up fairly often. Beirut’s nightlife is quite well-known, especially in the region.

Karachi does not have such options for entertainment and lacks many alternatives but people definitely crave various forms of entertainment and fun. Beirut is also full of places to go eat (ranging from street food to high end restaurants), cafes (local and western), live music and karaoke, and it is generally more pedestrian friendly than Karachi; thus you can walk around in several major locations within the city.

In my opinion, Beirut is more aesthetically pleasing than Karachi and is better maintained. Karachi is beautiful in its own way and could be more so if it was better maintained, yet there are other factors which hinder this.

Beirut is less conservative than Karachi however, I want to emphasise that wearing a short skirt in public does not necessarily make you more open-minded or empowered.  Yes, certain activities─ like openly consuming alcohol and the general dress code ─ is more restricted in Karachi, but should not automatically equate Pakistanis as being backwards.

Contrary to popular belief, some would be surprised to know that people from certain backgrounds and in private venues will easily be found dressed in less modest attire. No doubt, there are cultural sensitivities that must be considered in both places. Beirut is quite interesting, in that you can see someone who is fully covered from head to toe, walking right next to someone wearing a revealing dress.

Something to note is that in Lebanon, many media outlets are politically controlled by a particular party or ideology, and in Pakistan the outlets are portrayed as more independent ─ some argue otherwise.

The media in Pakistan is quite impressive considering in certain parts of the world media is more restricted, controlled and outwardly biased. Not to say it is perfect here, but it is definitely better than others within the region. I am amazed by how informed people are in both countries. You will find that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are also quite well-informed, regardless of their formal education.

Generally, politics and other issues are always being discussed among people and serve as the hot topics as the political landscape is so volatile and sometimes serves as a form of entertainment and debate. For example, in Beirut you can ride a taxi (which is usually a very old Mercedes that still somehow manages to run) and you will hear the taxi driver going on about his frustrations, the recent political happenings, and so forth.

Lebanon and Karachi have beautiful cultures, but I find that in Lebanon, people are failing to embrace it and instead try very hard to westernise themselves; more commonly in Beirut. It bothers me to hear that people grow up in Lebanon and can barely speak Arabic or are unable to read/write their native language. With regards to this aspect, Pakistanis are more embracing of their culture and carry it off with more pride, however I know some Pakistanis who would argue that an eagerness to westernise exists in some of the youth here as well.

The hospitality in both countries is matchless!

In Lebanon, it is impossible to visit someone’s home and leave hungry. You always feel like someone is looking out for you, and depending on where you live, there is a sense of community.

My personal experience in Pakistan has shown me how generous and hospitable people are here as well; to the point that I am treated like a member of the family within a short span of time. Family dynamics are quite similar in both places. The immediate and extended family are generally very close knit, involved, and are one’s support system. To this day, it is still quite uncommon for children to leave their parents’ home until they get married. In Pakistan, it is more common for even a married couple to remain in their parents houses.

I find that my personal upbringing has made it much easier for me to adjust to life and the culture in Karachi, as Lebanese traditions, culture and ways of life are so similar to those in Pakistan.

Karachi and Beirut have both become a part of me and I will always love them. Karachi has become my new home and I am here to stay. My roots may be in Lebanon but my heart is in Karachi.

Read more by Yasmine here. 
Yasmine Ibrahim A Lebanese American living in Pakistan who is a masters graduate from Purdue University.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Asad | 11 years ago | Reply @Zeeshan: really !! there's not much left after you've shopped and eaten. Where do you go in a city like karachi for one night of random entertainment, i'm not talking about club memberships or fun filled programs or classes you're enrolled in, where do you go for a nice outing?? hmmm... the BEACH... and thats it.
From Aus | 11 years ago | Reply One place where Karachi scores better than Beirut..... Karachi guys are far far better and well-behaved than guys from Beirut....the Lebanese guys are no better than thugs...uncultured, hot-headed bullies always looking for a fight....if you see them, avoid them !!
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