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Jewish Journal

Karachi’s umbilical chord of violence

by Mahim Maher

August 6, 2012 | 3:06 pm

This photo by Nefer Sehgal for The Express Tribune was taken in May 2011 in Karachi outside the Edhi morgue

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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