Posted by Mahim Maher
If you ever visit Karachi make sure you have a local socialite contact so you aren’t bored out of your gourd on Saturday night because we have no bars, clubs or strip joints in town. Well… sorry, we actually do have strip joints – they’re called ‘mujras’ and tend to be rather sleazy affairs in farmhouses on the outskirts of the city. Take plenty of spare 100-rupee notes. Ask for a woman’s show otherwise you may get stuck with a hijra or trans-gendered lapdance.
Everyone, except for losers like me, ‘parties’ on Saturday night. The definition of party varies but if you’re talking about getting together with a couple of buddies to shoot the shit, it doesn’t really matter where or how. In the inner-city neighbourhoods, alley-cat runts with stone-washed jeans that would do Belinda Carlisle proud play cricket. Malnutrition and poor diet choices keep them poker thin with tiny fists for buttocks. Their hair is plastered down with their mom’s sesame oil and they wear leather wrist bands to look impossibly cool. If you ever want to learn real street Urdu, hang around these guys.
On Saturday night some of the ladies get chauffeured to the gymkhana where they sit on fold-out chairs with daycare coloured markers and play ‘tambola’ or bingo. Their drivers squat on their haunches and pick their teeth or suck on tobacco in the parking lot where they discuss Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Other women – the kind who wouldn’t be caught dead in cotton – swill around in their best drawing room silks at financier’s houses with their French manicures and ironed hair. Their banker husbands wet their lips with single malt scotch and pontificate about the rising tide of the Taliban, jockeying in unashamed spars of one-upmanship over who knows exactly WHERE Mullah Omar is hiding. The ladies grow steadily tipsier on the few bottles of the red stuff that were siphoned off an embassy connection.
And then there are some parties where vodka would never be seen. These parties take place in mosques where arthritic men lounge around on straw mats and drink cup after cup of tepid green tea. These Saturday night gatherings are ‘parties’ too, just the kosher kind. For everyone needs a little down time.
The ‘parties’ that have long fascinated me are the middle class ones. They take place in drawing rooms with leopard print sofas and baroque chandeliers. Families with too many cousins and overly polite conversation. Bored teenagers sulk in the tv room while their hosts develop crushes on them. Now that everyone and your dog has a mobile phone most of these long silences are taken up with them.
This Saturday night I wasn’t quite such a loser. A friend of mine IY is leaving Karachi and he was having a small farewell get together at his place. I finished work and drove over to the genteel neigbourhood of Defence Housing Authority Phase I. IY is from London and came traveling to Karachi where he worked at our newspaper for a short while as the sports editor. He’s a devilishly handsome young man with a likeness to Jeremy Irons, with a clipped British accent to go. When he came to Karachi he found a fantastic upper portion of a house for rent at Rs28,000. While he had put all his stuff in storage he still had a few chairs left that were out on the rooftop gallery.
While I’m too old to care now, the minute I walked in I realized that I wasn’t dressed for the night. (This is invariably the case with me). I was in a shalwar kameez and everyone else with in trousers and shirts or shorts. There was even, much to my marvel, a hot little thing in black tights and a tank top. Now, I’m no conservative, or fundo, but how in God’s name can you skitter around Karachi in clothing like that? Whenever I leave home I always make sure I have a dupatta or scarf at hand if I can help it. What if your car breaks down or you need to go to a police station? I guess, as a journalist, I tend to have to go to places like that, but still, it could happen to anyone.
They were drinking vodka and juice in paper cups and munching on slightly damp peanuts. Two groups had formed, one was IY’s journo friends from Geo, Dawn and The Express Tribune and the other was, as my friend R put it, “the kind of people we write about”. It included the black tights.
This group included a writer, a young woman who I am not terribly fond of because she thinks she’s better than me. She’s written one book and is working on a second with some Indian guy. I was introduced to a musician, a writer from the website cricinfo.com and a model-cum-director-cum socialite. They were discussing the male sex drive before 30. The musician was carrying on about how you have to produce your best work by 30 and that sex drive was key.
I quipped that the more someone talked about sex, the less they were getting.
When I grew faintly bored of the pseudo-intellectual drivel I turned to the other group where the more down-to-earth people were located. They offered me a drink and I refused. That opened the floodgates.
“She’s doing it for a man!” exclaimed R and IY in disgust to everyone else.
I used to say that it interfered with my SSRI intake but truth be told I have kind of given up drinking because I know my boyfriend doesn’t like it. There are Islamic reasons too. Your prayers aren’t accepted for 40 days after you’ve had a drink. Once I heard that, it was enough for me to stay away. When you’re 33 and chronically unmarried, you need God to listen when you pray.
I hung around that group for a while before deciding that it was time to go home. I wasn’t really up for much conversation anyway. The newsroom kind of leaves me dead. And because people know I’m a journalist, they often try to start a conversation with ‘So, what’s going on, what’s news?’ And that is the last thing I want to discuss on a Saturday night.
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May 29, 2010 | 1:44 pm
Posted by Mahim Maher
I went shopping today. With the exception of good bras, you can find pretty much anything you need in Karachi. One of the best markets for kitsch is Zainab market in downtown Saddar.
I park at the Karachi Press Club and walk over to the market. We’ve been getting pretty hot weather but what’s worse is the damn humidity. It’s completely impossible to stay ladylike when your whole body is covered with a thin film of sweat that will not disappear no matter how much you swot yourself.
I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t let the heat bother me. It’s about 39 degrees Celsius these days in Karachi, which at least has a sea breeze. In the interior of the province people are dropping dead like flies in 53 degrees.
But nothing will come between me and my shopping. In particular I’m hoping to find a small embroidered bag for a little girl I’m planning on visiting in London in a week’s time. My boyfriend, also a journalist, is back there, packing up his life in London to return to Pakistan because the recession dried up whatever little work there was. The gift is for his goddaughter.
There are two types of shops in Zainab market – t-shirts and lounge wear and handicrafts. Men skinnier than alley cats call out for me to step into their stall as fat-bottomed women in black burqas rub past me. I’ve never been much of a haggler so I always feel a little infantalised when I venture into these areas. I feel they can tell by my face that I’m ready to part with my money if they give me a good enough excuse.
The handicraft shops stock silver filigree, wooden camels, Quran holders, rip-off Arab tea glasses, mother of pearl boxes, hookahs, stuffed cloth dolls in the traditional dress that bear more of a resemblance to Priscilla Queen of the Desert than anything else. There is even one shop I know where you can buy a Russian Matryushka doll set. The cute items are the mini rickshaw models, which I stop to consider. S said L was interested in fairies these days. Modes of transport might not amuse her. I move on.
I’m a sucker for handicrafts, cushion covers, batik, mirror work, shawls, bright baubles, beads, useless things that tend to look tacky the minute I bring them back home. My mother, who will buy nothing less than Hermes Birkin, scoffs at my more ‘slummy’ tastes. I generally like ‘slumming’ it whether it’s my choice of dates or clothes. I’d rather wear a glittery 200-rupee ($2.50) sandal covered in sequins than Nine West wedges.
Some of the shopkeepers call me ‘Baji’ or sister. Others call out ‘Aunty’ which reminds me that I’m no longer a spring chicken with my little pot belly and fleshy arms. At least I looked moneyed, I comfort myself and grip my 7,000-rupee fire engine red leather Jaferjees bag closer into my sweating armpit.
I get into one stall after I’ve decided that they all look the same anyway. I look around at his stacked shelf and remember I’ve been here before. This was the man with the necklines from Mithi, Tharparkar, a desert district nearly bordering India where the women do great work.
I sit down on a stool and he starts pulling the scraps of cloth out. They are tattered and old but the work is beautiful. I feel very vintage. Some of them are even fully stitched. I pull one up and the smell hits me. It’s a musty smell that you get if you’ve been layering rugs.
I pick out a few and decide that even if I’m being ripped off, which is most likely to be the case, I can get the work copied and still have emerged the winner. I barely haggle and he prepares a bill.
Listen, I tell him. If any fresh stuff comes in, call me. I hand him my visiting card and he goes off.
When he comes back, he looks a little perplexed.
“Aunty, the card isn’t working,” he says.
“See… It’s not working.” He holds it out. I realize he’s running my visiting card through his handheld debit card machine.
May 28, 2010 | 3:19 pm
Posted by Mahim Maher
I was going to make the first ever Pakistan blogger awards the lede today when a source of mine called at 7:30pm. They had been giving the Sunni action committee a hard time, he said. Things had been ‘garbar’ or unsettled.
When this source calls me, I listen. He is so tight with the mullahs that he knew when Umm-e Hasan, the wife of the Red Mosque cleric, paid a secret visit to Karachi. He used to be a reporter for a two-bit rag but it was guys like him who had their eyes and ears open. They knew when something was going down. Today, at The Express Tribune, where no one with less than a BA can qualify for the desk, if they give me the choice, I’ll go with an Urdu reporter rather than an English one.
He said he was going to a rally by the ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (The Sunni Party) at Nagan Chowrangi. We have a good understanding. I’ll call him up and get the story on the phone. I’ve worked with him so long that he understands how I’ll structure each paragraph and when I’ll ask for a quote.
A little bit about the ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat. It is actually the Sippah-i-Sahaba dressed up with another name. A little after the Twin Towers fell, Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf banned militant outfits in Pakistan. The Sippah-i-Sahaba was one of them. They just re-emerged, however, under a new name. Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat is pronounced eH lay soon nat w’l jum’maat. There are some pretty good explanations of how the split between them and the Shias took place. They are ahle Sunnat, the Sunnis, and the ahle Tasheeh are Shias, in a rough explanation.
At a little after 8pm one of my sub-editors called the source up and got the story from him. There had indeed been violence. The Sippah had held its rally at a place called Nagan Chowrangi near its central mosque Masjid Siddique-i-Akbar. The rally or protest was being called against the target killings of the ‘party’ workers. It lasted for three hours and clerics from all over the country came to attend.
After the protest, a procession of the SSP men headed out. They were stopped by the police at Islam Chowk because a Shia neighbourhood lay ahead. The police told the men to take some other route but they were bull-headed about it. ‘Why should we divert our procession,’ they are reported to have said.
An argument ensued and it got so ugly that the police had to fire in the air to scare them off. This was, I think, a rather stupid thing to do as the procession included the Sippah’s own ‘security’ force, a small army of volunteers who were armed to the teeth themselves. They had been protecting the protest on their own. The police and paramilitary Pakistan Rangers men were also at the site and on the rooftops.
When the police fired in the air, men in the Shia neighbourhood heard the fire, couldn’t tell where it was coming from, thought they were being attacked and fired out in response. This is quite common in certain Karachi neighbourhoods that are marked by an identity – either religious, ethnic or political. What happened in the middle is not clear, but all hell seems to have broken loose and the Sippah men also opened fire. It was in this crossfire from the police, the procession and the neighbourhood that one Shia man, a 25-year-old initially identified as Shahzad, was killed.
Sippah men also torched a bus and two of its passengers were badly burnt in the ensuing violence. By the time I was putting this copy to bed, there were reports one of them had died. But I’ll follow up on that tomorrow morning.
So the bloggers went down to the anchor and the Sippah protest became the lede. This incident was symbolic of so many different themes that run through Karachi. Violence, trigger-happy young men, a sense of biradari or brotherhood and belonging to one group, a turf war, the law-enforcement agencies, mobs and their innocent victims. The groups may change or the actors may be different, but as I’ve long felt, the story is always the same.
May 28, 2010 | 5:29 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
At least 19 people have been killed in Model Town Lahore, gunfire continues. It is 430pm in Pakistan on Friday. The police have defused a suicide bomber’s jacket. The place that has been attacked apepars to be a minority Ahmedi mosque. For more details and developing news in English go to:
May 27, 2010 | 1:43 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
The Pakistani media is going crazy with reports that Mullah Fazlullah, commonly referred to Radio Mullah, has been killed in a fight with security forces in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province that border’s Pakistan’s Dir.
Fazlullah (pronounced with a lifted, flourished ‘LaH’ at the end) became a nuisance after he started broadcasting his own version of Islam over the radio in Swat, a beautiful valley up north. Women would send him their bangles as donations and he managed to amass a small fortune with which he funded his fighters. He became such a nuisance that the army had to go in and thousands of people were displaced from their homes last year. As many of the fighters were just local kids, critics said that an operation wouldn’t help because they would just return home.
Postscript: Ha ha, just as I suspected, we’re not sure if he’s dead or alive. Sometimes I think it’s incredibly strange how we’ve become: we sit and speculate whether a man is dead or alive. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not terribly fond of the guy; he wasn’t as good looking as my man Hakeemullah aka Orlando ‘Doom’. But living in Pakistan you are surrounded by so much violence (seen and unseen) that sometimes you lose perspective. For anyone interested in reading more on whether he is dead or alive, here is a link from the newspaper, where it is explored in more detail:
May 25, 2010 | 1:36 pm
Posted by Mahim Maher
[Karachi, Pakistan] A friend of mine is telling me about her new man. They are driving back from the French Beach, a heavenly strip of Karachi sand and sun that has yet to be polluted or spoilt by humans.
“So I told him at the hut not to flush the condom down the toilet,” she says.
I shake my head. “Why’d you tell him that?”
“Because they get stuck you know. How embarrassing would it be that his guys… you know the fishermen who mind the hut for him, had a sewerage problem. They’ll think I’m a whore.”
She takes a look at my face. “Don’t laugh at me. I read it in Cosmo years ago. You’re not supposed to flush the condom down the toilet.”
“So what the hell are you supposed to do with it? Didn’t you have a dustbin there or something?”
“There is a dustbin there,” she replies as if explaining things to a child. “But even then, if the men at the hut…”
“Okay, okay… I get it. So…”
“We’re driving back from the beach and are on Mai Kolachi. He rolls down the window and I think he’s going to smoke one of his stinky cigars or something. But before I can say anything he takes the condoms…”
“You took them back with you in the car?”
She rolls her eyes. “I wrapped them in tissue paper and stuck them back in the brown paper bag… Anyway. He grabbed the brown paper bag and chucked it out the window!”
I sit back. My coffee has grown tepid. “So your um… dirty business, your sex life is lying on Mai Kolachi… as we speak?” I can see that she is getting irritated. This was supposed to be a different kind of conversation.
“You know me,” she says through tight lips. “I never litter. Ever. Which is why I was like, ‘Dude! What the hell are you doing?’”
“What’d he say?”
“He said… ‘Let the Americans have it.’”
‘The Americans’ her boyfriend was referring to was the monstrous new US consulate compound that has been under construction for a couple of months now in Karachi, Pakistan. It is located on Mai Kolachi (Mother Kolachi in Urdu), a long strip of road that connects the harbour to Clifton neighbourhood in the south of the city. On both sides of the road are mangrove swamps or at least what is left of them. The Americans had to relocate because the old consulate, which has been shut for years because of a series of bomb blasts, is too centrally located.
The smart new complex is, as far as one can gauge from the road, a high-tech fortress. It is a marked departure from the old building on Abdullah Haroon Road, opposite the posh Sind Club and wide gardens of Frere Hall. When the first consulate was built times were different. I remember Kay Anske, I think, the consul-general for Karachi, or Karen Waltz-Davis, another embassy official, once tell me that when they built the first consulate they chose a spot close to the US CG’s residence which is located on the further side of the Frere Hall gardens on Millionaire’s Row – a breathtaking avenue of colonial architecture now hermetically sealed off from the rest of the city for security purposes. The idea was that the consul general would be able to walk across the gardens to go to work.
How times have changed. You won’t see a single white person in Karachi these days, unless they are the Russians out shopping in the early hours of Sunday morning at Paradise Store for their groceries.
As I wrote this, the big news of the day was that there was an audio message from Hakeemullah Mehsud, the longhaired tribesman who took up the battle in Waziristan after Baitullah Mehsud. It was thought that he was killed in a drone strike. We weren’t that surprised when the news broke in the newsroom where I work.
“Oh my God!” exclaimed Sara, a colleague. “He looks like Orlando Bloom!” And indeed, as we all crowded around her computer, the similarity was uncanny. I had always found it hard to believe these men were the enemies of the State. When Baitullah Mehsud gave a presser, he smiled and laughed and seemed like any old bloke you go could down to the local bar to have a beer with. Even Hakeemullah, in most of the photographs we have access to, seemed like a pot-smoking hippie with his stringy tresses and goofy smile.
Now we have Faisal Shahzad and his facebook or Orkut photos. And it starts all over again…