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Comfortably numb, carelessly vocal

by Mahim Maher

July 10, 2010 | 4:42 pm

Paradise Point is one of Karachi's most popular picnic spots. The solitary rock column in the middle used to be connected to the main one but it fell a few years ago. The irony of this natural 'collapse' makes its name 'Paradise Point' all the more ironic and symbolic for Karachi. The heat has been driving people to the beaches over the last three weeks or so. But sadly at least 10 people have drowned because the monsoon waves are so treacherous. Where do people go in times like these? Photo: Getty

Truth be told, I haven’t been able to write the blog since I returned to Karachi this week after a month’s holiday in London. The depression is too great. And I just didn’t want to whine about how shitty Pakistan is. I just didn’t want to say it. I still don’t. Because I love this Godforsaken place and because if I said it, something would open up in a shuddering, heaving cataclysm.
I went back to the newsroom the day I landed. Piles of crap were waiting for me. They’ve been killing Shias again. The Punjab is cutting off our supply of water by siphoning it into a link canal reserved for flooding. Little babies are growing gaunter by the day in village clinics because the water they are drinking is dirty. The heat is so thick and pervasive that I am eternally covered in a thin film of sweat. On a more personal note, my 14-month nephew got sick and the sight of a canula in his baby fist made me want to tear the world apart.
The stories were endless and morbid. A 22-year-old girl was thrown into a fire by an exorcist who thought he would be able to smoke out the evil spirit. We spoke to a psychiatrist about the symptoms she was displaying and grew convinced that if taken to a doctor, the girl would have stood a better chance of getting better. They’ve never heard of Tourrettes Syndrome here. (http://tribune.com.pk/story/26357/exorcist-throws-22-year-old-into-fire-to-%E2%80%98smoke-out%E2%80%99-evil-spirit/)
Aside from what was pouring in, the first thing I had to do was commission a piece on why the hell Shias were being targeted again (http://tribune.com.pk/story/26860/money-makes-the-world-go-round-but-in-karachi-it-brings-lives-to-a-standstill/). I was rumour weary, I wanted some explanations why 11 of them had been targeted in two months. The Jafferia Alliance of Pakistan actually puts the number at 23, but when we asked them to provide the names and places where they were killed, they refused.
When my best friend, another journo, himself a Shia, told me late one night that one of the victims, 24-year-old motorcycle factory worker Fayyaz Hussain Naqvi was the third man in his family to have been targeted in one year, I could barely take on the information. Where the hell do you put that kind of information? Where do you store it and what do you do with it? (http://tribune.com.pk/story/26861/in-1-year-family-loses-3-members-to-target-killings/) At night when I returned after a harrowing day I went to take a look at Susan Sontag’s book on regarding the pain of others. But my own ‘pain’ or sadness was too great to let me read it.
In a city of 20 million people a death rate will be high. But it is the nature of this crime, the drive-by shooting, that chills me. The hatred for Shias angers me. The fact that the killers are never caught angers me. I’ve run out of headlines. The stories are always the same. We are growing number by the day, numb to the corruption, violence, inequality, senselessness of society. I decided that I would say it clean: “Fayyaz Hussain Naqvi, the 11th Shia to die for nothing”.  (http://tribune.com.pk/story/26140/fayyaz-hussain-naqvi-the-11th-shia-to-die-for-nothing/)
The next day a reporter from our sister organization, the Express Urdu news channel, stopped me in the corridor.
“Ap ne Shia’on ko direct hit kia he,” he said in a voice filled with incredulity. Why did you hit out directly at the Shias?
“What do you mean direct?”
“You said, ‘for nothing’.”
I didn’t quite understand what he meant. I knew he was Sunni and probably of the more orthodox Deoband stripe. It amazed me that he would say it so openly. When I shared this with my editor Kamal Siddiqi, he was nonchalant: “He didn’t understand the headline.” The more I thought about it, the more that seemed an explanation. The reporter probably thought I meant that this Shia’s death didn’t mean anything. We had a good laugh.
My sister has been going around the city on her break from Bennington where she’s studying photography. She came back after a visit to Jam Chakro, Karachi’s largest landfill site. “The children were like zombies,” she told me. I knew of Jam Chakro, it is probably the saddest place in the world. Scavenger families live in the rubbish. My sister saw an old woman who wouldn’t stop twitching. Sixteen-year-old boys looked 10. I asked her to stop telling me. I couldn’t take it any more. We live like animals here.
There was good news, however. And it would be unfair to say that it was all doom and gloom. I just couldn’t absorb it.
In Karachi we’re really excited that ‘Dancing’ Matt is planning to shoot one of his videos on Wednesday. We ran the story today and I’m hoping and praying that the right-wingers don’t spoil the party.
In other good news, two young Pakistani girls are being sent to the UK by the British Council on an expedition in which they will interact with schools and try to talk about Islam and misconceptions. The Citizens Foundation, very strong non-government organization working across Pakistan, wrapped up its summer camp that brings together rich kids from fancy schools and less privileged children. I learnt about a 16-year-old who started his own theatre company. The Edhi foundation has a shelter for animals. More and more people are growing organic here. I’ll take anything at this point.
I’ve been reading Toni Morrison’s ‘Burn this Book’ which has PEN writers speaking about the power of the word. David Grossman, who had I had never heard of before, struck me as the one who describes our situation in Pakistan the best:
“I feel the heavy price that I and the people around me pay for this prolonged state of war. Part of this price is a shrinking of our soul’s surface area – those parts of us that touch the violence menacing world outside – and a diminished ability and willingness to empathize at all with other people in pain.” In this job, they tell you to stop at a certain point. But for the life of me, I know I will never be able to switch off from Karachi, this explosion of a city that defies metaphor, escapes words. 

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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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