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A bullet waiting for us all in Karachi

by Mahim Maher

August 4, 2014 | 2:46 am

I was robbed at gunpoint this week in Karachi. I don’t really want to write about this because the repetitive telling of the story or externalization of the experience feels as if it will give it another life—numb its essence or fetishize it.

I’ve worked as a journalist in Karachi for 14 years and that has placed me sometimes at the very nerve centre of violence whether it is bomb blasts, target killings, street fights, gang violence. I always knew I’d be mugged one day and whenever I stop at a traffic signal I fear someone will tap their gun politely at my window and tell me to hand everything over.

I don’t want to write about yesterday but it so strongly goes to the heart of my lived experience of being a Karachi wallah and a Pakistani that I feel compelled to. Also, oddly enough, I have been reading certain things and editing certain stories that have made me revisit the myriad nature of Pakistani trauma, a phenomenon that has long concerned me whether it comes in the shape of sectarian Shia killings or the Taliban’s brutalization of the population of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, our northern province/state.

What interests me about a mugging actually happening is that it gave birth to a space where the visceral experience intersects with my understandings of the violent society I live in.

I went to see my sister and brother-in-law for the evening. They live in a middle-class neighbourhood which is slowly being taken over by shops and restaurants. Sindhi Muslim Cooperative Housing Society was once and indeed still is a well-respected place to live in. But the main roundabout has become commercialized, attracting a steady crowd each day. As a result of the change in the urban fabric, at the end of my sister’s lane a tikka place rubs shoulders with a mechanic’s workshop, around the corner a Gloria Jeans is always packed, and right behind her house a mall is coming up. Just to give you a sense of how busy and rocking this neighbourhood is, I’m listing the shops and restaurants: Ginsoy, Cactus, Bundoo Khan, Nandos, two frozen yoghurt shops, Student Biryani, two kulfi falooda and juice places, two bakeries, a pharmacy, a video store, KFC, and Del Frio keep this central meeting point busy well up to 2am. My sister’s street, however, is not well lit. Karachi doesn’t have an elected city government and her neighbourhood has traditionally been neglected because its voters backed the wrong party. No money has been put into street lights, road paving and patchwork and policing in several years. 

Additionally, this neighbourhood lies in the jurisdiction of Ferozabad police station which has the highest crime rate in Karachi (carjackings, pickpocketing, cell phone theft, motorcycle theft dominate as street crime). A month ago, when I came outside after dinner at her house, I found my parked car’s window had been smashed and its entire electronic system had been ripped out. This set me back Rs37,000.
So, yes, when my sister and I decided yesterday to walk down to the roundabout to get ice cream at the back of my mind there was the knowledge that something could happen. But I will always want to walk in Karachi. I will always find some excuse to do it. It didn’t make sense to take the car down to the corner of the street either, especially given the post-Ramadan rush on a Saturday night.

We closed the gate behind us and turned left to walk down the street. We were chatting but I heard someone’s voice from behind us. “This is it,” I thought for a split second, to myself. And sure enough, as I turned to look back, a young man was approaching on a motorcycle. “This is it,” I said to myself, my heart sinking to my knees. We stopped as he pulled up.

He was a young fella. A Mohajir, dark, sweaty, in a grey t-shirt and cargo pants. He held a greasy fat TT pistol in one hand, pointed at us but low, from his belly. “Don’t scream or make a fuss and give me everything,” he said, not in a loud voice. I looked at his TT pistol. It gleamed a grey silver and was larger than I recall them being. It was a thick, fat near phallic barrel. He kept repeating we shouldn’t scream or call for help.

“These rings,” he said, pointing to me. I was wearing three rings, my trio of editing rings, I’ve worn for years. One was a small, small diamond my father gave me after a soothsayer said it would help me get married if I wore it. One was a challa stolen from my mum whose fake stones had kind of fallen off over the years and the other was three bands intertwined, also ferreted from my mother’s collection. One of her really old ones. None of them were of any value. Except they were my editing rings. I took them off and gave them to him.

I was carrying my Mulberry bag that my brother-in-law had brought from China. It had my wallet, my favourite Lancôme lipsticks, my prayer beads from Mecca, my journalist notebook, my single Bulgari wet wipe from my the plane ride to the US for my sister’s graduation from Yale, bits of tissue paper because my nose keeps running, a sanitary pad because it strikes at the most unprepared moments, a small square cello-taped ‘charm’ with Allah’s names on it for protection, my pens, my eyeliner, my inhaler, my bashed up Tissot watch, my foreign Panadol strip, my Rigix anti-histamine strip, two USBs with the latest urban studies conference slideshows, my lip balm, my 200-rupee scented oil. My iPhone.

“Ok, no problem,” I said calmly. I gave him my bag. So did my sister. He put them awkwardly in front of his crotch on the gas tank of the motorcycle just behind the handle bars.
And then, he gave the bags back. “Just give me the money,” he said. We took the bags back. He started to nervously tell us again not to panic.
“No problem beta (son),” I said lovingly, calmly. “We understand. Look, here take the money.” I pulled out a wad of Rs10,000 I had in my wallet because I had just gone clothes shopping. “Here, sure, take it. It’s ok. It’s ok.”

He took my money and it seemed to relieve him because it was a lot. My sister had nothing in her wallet except receipts. He didn’t believe her and rummaged through it. “Sure, take a look,” she said.
“I understand,” I said to him as he gave her wallet back. And then he was gone.

We went ahead to have ice-cream. There was no point in turning back. I wept for a second because of my editing rings. It has been a hard week emotionally. We’d get screamed at for walking in that neighbourhood. My fingers felt naked. I had just emerged from an emotionally abusive relationship. I was close to a graveyard I had been forced to visit many times in recent months. I was in a part of town I grieved for. I’m thinking of leaving journalism. I never have enough money. I wept for a minute. My rings.

I am a fearful Muslim. I’ve fasted all this Ramadan. Thank you God, I said, nothing bad happened. We must measure the threat. How bad was it? What was this experience like for me? Will it change me?
That is at the heart of my point of inquiry.

When my media group’s offices were thrice attacked, for weeks I went to work thinking a bullet would come from nowhere as I walked in to work. There is a bullet waiting for us all in Karachi. And so, as many people in Karachi will tell you, we live in fear. We live in the permanent fear that something bad will happen to us, to our loved ones. In the 1990s, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif conducted nuclear tests and in the fallout he froze everyone’s foreign bank accounts. At the drop of a hat people lost their savings in millions of rupees.
Anything can happen at any time.

But of course, I ask myself, isn’t the very nature of life premised on the unease of not knowing what will happen the next very second. My God! How do we even function? We are mercifully numbed to this terrifying existential threat.

But in Karachi our daily existential threat is layered on by an additional threat of violence which hovers at all times. What is this doing to us?

Of course, I acknowledge, as we are learning through the media that there are places like Gaza where a terrible violence in unfolding to unbelievable proportions. The effects of living in that nightmare are unfathomable. This is an area I cannot purport to comment on.

What interests me more is Karachi and me and what is happening to us. Naturally, the violence and crime rate and everyone’s reaction to it is the subject of almost all dinner table conversation. These conversations inevitably bore me because they offer nothing new.

I hear people resigned. I hear them describe the changes they have made to their lives and routines to be ‘safer’. I see them roll around in their bullet proof Vigo trucks with armed guards in the back. I see their lives contract physically and mentally as the geographical terrain they will negotiate shrinks. My instant reaction was, “I will never go back to my sister’s house”. I have been robbed there twice.
Do you know what that sounds like? It stinks of fear.

I’ve prided myself for years for going not only where no women go, female journalists go, but also where people from my social class never go. Karachi was always wide open for me. No one will tell me I cannot go to a certain neighbourhood because it is unsafe. No one would hem me in.

I once meanly scoffed at an NPR correspondent for not going to Lyari to meet one of their gangsters. I’ll take you there, I told her. “Everyone and their mother has gone to Lyari, why shouldn’t you?” Indeed,
there is a way to negotiate dangerous terrain. You prepare. She ended up writing a stellar piece.

Yes, there are places I don’t go to because it is not smart at all. For example, take Manghopir where the Taliban are holed up. Two of my reporters were almost kidnapped while on assignment there.
So in general I always made informed and sensible decisions on living in Karachi and my mobility. I refused to live in fear. I had seen what it did to people’s lives. It limits you; you end up living a half-life. An unseen threat, an invisible force dictates who you become. I was aware, however, that my insistence on expanding and not contracting my life was based on the fact that I had never been robbed or subjected to gun violence in recent times. (I was once held at gunpoint and nearly raped, but that is another story).

I still don’t buy into the reactions and explanations people give themselves to Karachi’s violence. There is a passivity to their reaction. Is it that we slowly give up agency? Authority and a sense of ownership of living in a city.

My other sister, when she learnt of the incident, said something that we’ve spoken of much: “The city is eating itself alive.” There is a cannibalism at work.
What feelings does this event elicit in me? I am, surprisingly, not feeling violated. I am not feeling sad either. I am happy I dealt with him calmly. I am happy to give someone Rs10,000 if they are unemployed and desperate and locked in a spiral vice of party-fuelled violence. I know how organized violence works in Karachi.

I’ve informed Ferozabad police station and asked them to increase motorcycle patrols in the area. I registered the crime so that they are involved. They know. Will it change anything? Perhaps not. But I won’t let that fixity prevent me from doing what I can.

Ironically, just hours earlier, I had edited a piece on the number of psychiatric patients in our most violent province, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa: 24,000 people have sought psychiatric help in hospitals across the province in the first four months of 2014. I’m sorry I don’t have comparative numbers from the previous year. The population of the province is about 26m (given the house listing census) and since 9/11 it has suffered the brunt of the US-led fight against terrorism as it is a frontline for the battle that ropes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Its people have been brutalized over the years by the Taliban and security forces themselves. There was a time when there was a bomb blast in Peshawar, the capital city, each day. I’ve seen reporters go numb with PTSD. How has it changed these people, I wondered. And I don’t just want the pop psych answers.

And so as I thought of my own brush with violence I thought of the people in KP who are living with a heightened excruciating violence each day. How does this affect us, I have long asked. My thought process has been informed by reading Martha Stout’s review of Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness by Joel and Ian Gold.

“Can zeitgeist have an enduring negative effect on the individual psyche?” Stout asks in her review, ‘Is Modern Culture Making us Crazier?” published in New Republic July 31. Yes, I shouted inwardly. Yes. What is this when it comes to me, to Karachi, to Pakistan? But mainstream discussions, or the discourse as fancy folks put it, are not providing us with answers. It hasn’t seeped into the way we think. We are fumbling in the dark.

I was impressed by Stout’s clarification that there is something missing in the way we have tended to think of “nurture” only in the familiar sense when we talk of the nature vs nurture debate. Who we are is not just determined by genetics or the child-rearing environment. This argument always left me cold. Stout finally provided an answer to my unease that something was missing: “That an individual’s personality or mental illness might be affected by environmental factors outside the home has been largely overlooked.” I assume she is talking about the debate and analysis or research and media coverage in the global North. In Pakistan, for example, we just skim the surface on PTSD, depression, schizophrenia. We just give badly gathered numbers in our reporting of research or state the obvious symptoms when discussing our mental health given the violence in Pakistan.

Why have we ignored the effect external societal environments have on us—not including our families and how we were reared? Consider this: After the crime takes place it is only because I understand the police system as a journalist that I am able to find the phone number to the police station, call up the SHO and tell him to increase patrols in the area where I was mugged. The average resident of that neighbourhood is not generally inclined to want to even deal with the police much less consider that they will try to fix the problem. Doesn’t this have a long term effect on us?
We get stuck between the system and the culture of the system and our own self-perpetuating apathetic behaviours in Karachi. When the number of kidnappings and extortion in the Korangi Industrial Area, home to thousands of factories and their owners, reached an unbearable height, all the big tycoons got together and used their clout to hammer the chief minister to give them more protection. An independent cell was opened for their complaints and the police were hauled up.

I’m glad I reported the crime, which many people I know in Karachi don’t bother doing to avoid what they think will be an unpleasant interaction with the police. Here you will see the crime map that I designed for my newspaper, The Express Tribune, when it launched five years ago. I wanted there to be a physical accessible daily record that showed us where the crimes were taking place. As most crimes go unreported, however, we never get to see the true picture.

I suppose I am trying to argue for more push back from the average citizen, more cognizance of why we have come to accept living in fear. What is the nature of our fear and why have so many of us collectively succumbed to it? Why is there no resistance? Why are we not holding those in power accountable for the descent into violence? Fear is just one of the many, many effects.
Stout provides some insight into why we are not linking cultural to our mental health: “A cultural hypothesis frustrates prevention… Setting out to alter the entrenched belief systems of an entire society is even more daunting”.
 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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I am a 33-year-old journalist in Karachi, Pakistan where I work as the city or metropolitan editor for The Express Tribune, a daily national newspaper in English affiliated...

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