Posted by Mahim Maher
Veeo-lawns is how the French pronounce ‘violence’ and these days that is how I read it in my head when I’m editing copy. I think my brain is linguistically euphemizing my diction – if it sounds soft enough it won’t mean as harsh.
Today the chief of a political party that owns Karachi called for businessmen to take up arms to protect themselves from extortionists. Today one of my reporters was mugged at gunpoint. In 1994 I was almost raped at gunpoint, saved by telling my attacker that if he touched me he would contract my skin disease, eczema. In tomorrow I know I will be held at gunpoint. “Do not live in fear in Karachi,” I tell my sisters. “You will be living a half-life.” Rumi said: The wound is where the light enters you. Some wounds for us in Karachi are open. Some have become scars to keep the dark in.
Yes, in June, over the one month of my Jefferson fellowship through the East-West Center I tried to articulate how it is in Karachi to the group of journalists I was traveling with to study urban solutions. No. I could not speak. At a media conference in Seoul I was asked after my panel discussion what it was like for my reporters to work in such a violent city. I told the audience that the violence was sucking us in. I am watching young reporters become welded to the irresistible lure of covering violence. They all want to cover terrorism, the killings, beheadings, acid attacks, target killings, grenades, shrapnel. Inspired by Don DeLillo we did a story on organic shrapnel. A piece of a suicide bomber embedded in you – you walk around with him under your skin.
It is painful for me to talk about Karachi. Ever mindful of Susan Sontag’s treatise on regarding the pain of others, I frantically search for ways to edit stories so that the pain of the ‘victims’ is not dramatized or trivialized or worse deadened by pity. How can we speak for others? (Spivak speaks to me, the great postcolonial theorist who skewered Foucault and Deleuze). The edits I do are met with invective from readers.
I have, for a while, been on a path that is leading to a line of inquiry into violence. I know it is doing something to us, but I don’t know what. A hardworking young scholar, Laurent Gayer, offers me some help in his new piece ‘Political turmoil in Karachi: Production and Reproduction of Ordered Disorder’. He quotes Michael Taussig to say we live in a “chronic state of emergency”. Gayer speaks of an “embedding” of violence. He is so close, so close.
If you have ever had a loved one who is cutting themself perhaps you will know what that bond is and how the pain transfers. All through the Jefferson fellowship I heard expert after expert talk about a sense of place in a city. As I drove home from the newsroom it began to occur to me that they were mostly referring to beauty in cities during our conversations - beautifully kept, well maintained public spaces where people came to relax and revel in their history and culture. Karachi has a sense of place, I thought. It may be ugly in places but that is its ‘sense of place’, I feel it everywhere I go.
There is an umbilical chord that ties us to Karachi. The pain is amplified because it is distant and invisible. That which we cannot see can sometimes terrify us more. It is an ashamed pain. How can I purport to feel ‘pain’ when I have not lost a loved one to the bullet of a TT pistol? Place and displacement work here. You are not the subject or the object in this equation. Is there something beyond that dichotomy? Perpetrator and victim exist, but what about observer? This position is removed by a degree. What is this secondhand hurting? I am not trying to be dramatic. Drama indicates there will be a final act – this could end. Hope ceases to exist, light cannot enter.
A corollary is the doublespeak of the political parties behind the violence. The people who are killing are in the government. Do you know what it is like to live with that? The lie is so big it sits on us. Did you notice I didn’t use the word blood in this post?
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August 5, 2012 | 5:02 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
Size matters, as I am keen on pointing out much to the irritation of friends outside the newsroom and reporters in it. Their snickers indicate to me that they are having non-Shariah compliant thoughts. What I am usually referring to is the size of cities, especially Karachi, which is an estimated 20 million souls spread over 3,600 sq km. This worries me.
I found out this last week that it happens to worry other people as well. I met this group of worriers in Italy at the Urban Land Institute and Citistates Group (of Neal Peirce of the Washington Post writers group) summit for four days of brainstorming on how to tackle the challenge of fast growing cities. The sexy line-up included Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, who could talk me out of my burqa and into a nun’s habit any day. He makes BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) systems sound like the highway to heaven. Except that he doesn’t like highways.
The challenge for these urban planners, CEOs, real estate managers, scholars, thinkers, innovators was how do we think about creating prosperous, opportunity-rich, sustainable cities through the lens of four critical building blocks: transportation, water, energy and public space. America is learning from its mistakes and now China is making them all over again (for eg, the Superblock).
As is usually the case, I was the least experienced person in the room, which is why I learnt more than I could contribute, but boy am I grateful. I saw that there were solutions. The crime is that Pakistani policymakers, planners and politicians are too taken up with the power struggle to actually look beyond their noses and into the faces of the people of Pakistan. Listening to these experts in Italy freed me from the despair that had grown over the last decade from trying to cover a city like Karachi with all its attendant horrors.
While not all solutions can be easily applied to Karachi, it became more and more clear to me that unless we start acting now, we will be looking at another wave of crisis in the next 50 years. And this will matter beyond our borders.
For example, the Election Commission of Pakistan released data on Saturday about the country’s electoral rolls and while we sort of always knew this, it was still a wake-up call to see that almost half of all registered voters (84.3million) are below the age of 35 years. A research group just said that 60% of Pakistan’s population is under 30 years old and if we don’t make sure jobs are there for them, “anarchy” could be unleashed. We are facing a youth bulge.
The numbers are there, staring us in the face and they are translating into rapid growth of cities such as Karachi. To give you an idea of an emerging problem, 600 cars are added to Karachi’s roads each day thanks to population growth and the ever so helpful banks whose new religion is consumer financing. (Although this is, I am told, waning). If we don’t need mass transit, then I don’t know who qualifies.
ULI/Citistates gave me hope because real practitioners explained how they did it in their cities. So for example, Penalosa explained that in Bogota they went to the existing bus drivers and owners and invited them to run the new BRT buses so they wouldn’t be rendered unemployed. In Karachi our mass transit has been pretty much held hostage to the private minibus network or transport mafia (union says we have 18,000 buses). What if we went to them and said they dump their old buses and come to buy and run the new BRT ones? This would involve a government subsidy and the existing drivers (most of who fall in the youth bulge) would need a massive reeducation and training retrofit. But we should be able to do it because Japan is footing the bill for
the new BRT system and Rs500m has been set aside by the provincial government. A World Bank expert, Ellen Hamilton, a Lead Land and Housing specialist, explained to me that in some of their projects the capacity building was the cheapest part.
I do believe that the youth bulge is strongly linked to extremism but understand that this can be a tenuous argument. I was reading Khaled Ahmed today in The Express Tribune’s opinion pages and he pointed out something quite basic: Violence is known to spring in primitive societies. This has compelled some sociologist to say that extremist personalities are usually possessed of low IQs. Pakistan has some level of literacy but here one must note that in 1947, when literacy was 17%, people were more tolerant; today, with literacy at over 60%, Pakistanis have embraced extremist views.
As our cities grow and our youth bulge manifests itself, Pakistan will have to spend more time focusing on the education of its young people, not just for jobs but for the welfare of society. As our population grows are we going to be able to provide an education system that leads to healthy and prosperous development? In a story this week in The News, it was pointed out that our education system is skewed towards the rich. So the average labourer is not able to afford an English-medium school for his children (if this is a benchmark). I’m not sure that O’ and A’ Level schools that run on the GCE/UK system and charge Rs10,000/month in tuition ($100) are creating better citizens than a madrassa that charges nothing and in fact provides room and board along with a religious education. But I do know that NOT ENOUGH of our youth are getting a good high school education in any of the systems. The ones who are privileged to make it to top notch universities usually leave the country. This brain drain means that we don’t have enough new leaders to help us cope with urban growth.
I realize this blog is a little all over the place but I myself am on a journey of discovery these days. When I read back up the page I see that I started off in a happy mood and by the time I reached the bottom the old despair had crept up again. Perhaps what I need is to do what a lot of privileged young women are doing here instead of using their brains; just decide that size doesn’t matter unless it’s of the diamond on your finger and that it’s better to just sit at home, not read the newspaper and pretend that everything will be ok. Perhaps I need to just sit back and hope that the millions of youth (40m of 18-35 year olds) who have registered to vote will show that their future matters.