September 30, 2012
Karachi as Gotham city
Karachi is a primordial Gotham city of New York in my imagination, which has mostly been fed by Hollywood. When I watched the Dark Knight Rises a month or so ago, sketchy parallels emerged between the anarchic supervillain Bane and the faceless, unknowable killers who we know here as al Qaeda or the Taliban or the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi or Sipah-e-Sahaba. Our paralysed terror is directly proportionate to their evil.
The study of violence fascinates me and over the last year or so I’ve been scrounging around for answers. Bookshops in Karachi are a nauseating, unending permutation and combination of the words ‘holy’, ‘terror’, ‘dark’, ‘most’ and enemy. The War on Terror spawned an entire new genre of non-fiction. Some of it is written by non-Pakistanis and smacks of post-colonial fetish; their titles are all about looking in from the outside (Pakistan: Deep Inside the World's Most Frightening State), ‘understanding’ a terrible enemy (Pakistan, a hard country), or predicting its end (Pakistan on the Brink). The ones by the Pakistanis are just as bad. Whenever I sweep past those shelves in disgust, they reek of apology.
Karachi has long been called one of the world’s most dangerous cities (even though its homicide rate is up there with Ciudad Juarez’s). I had an argument with someone the other day over saying that the violence here, sectarian and political killings or those for extortion, is senseless and chaotic. In fact, it isn’t. It is extremely organized crime perpetrated by the ruling political parties, their youth militant wings, sectarian outfits (Shia/Sunni), groups of extortionists and kidnapping gangs. They have lists of targets in many cases, as investigations have proven.
But explanations of that side of violence don’t interest me at all. Other people love talking about it; if you sit down with journalists in Karachi or the police or even at a dinner with bankers and businessmen, all they do is try to one-up each other on how good their source of information is. Everyone knows Zardari, the president. Everyone knows the real story behind who killed Benazir Bhutto.
All of that talk seems pretty useless to me. What is instead more crucial is another element; how is this violence affecting us? For this too, you’ll get a good dose of pop-psych tch-tching around the dinner table. But no one has really been able to satisfy me on this phenomenon.
The controversy vis a vis Zionism didn’t interest me, but something she said bowled me over: “What is the condition under which we fail to grieve for others? Or the condition under which we fail to be able to acknowledge a loss and to grieve a loss?”
This is what I had been looking at for so long in Karachi/Pakistani society racked by different kinds of violence, anarchic behaviour, destructive social trends, extremism. Each day in the newsroom we have a debate on whether to make the killings in Karachi the lede. I disagree most of the time because I think people are just sick of reading about it. I know people don’t read about these ‘routine’ killings, as we call them. And while I hate to use the word, densensitisation is a thread that runs through this.
Prof. Butler frames this question against the Holocaust and postwar Germany. She also highlights how gay people could not, at one point in time, openly mourn the death of a partner.
The Jewish angle interested me; how do a people mourn such a loss of such magnitude? Six million people? How does Karachi mourn each day for the faceless victims? We don’t. Perhaps we can’t because it would be too much. But how do we live with ourselves knowing this is who we are. Does this not do something to us?
From Butler this line of inquiry led me to Hannah Arendt and her coverage of the Eichmann trial (Eichmann in Jerusalem). I confess I started reading her work on violence but it is taking time to absorb. She speaks of the banality of evil and I know there are answers here.
If Karachi had a super hero who she/he be, I wonder. A cursory search turned up Buraaq by Splitmoonarts.com that created a Muslim super hero. (Buraq is the mythical steed that took Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) on the Night Journey). Reuters has reported that DC Comics created a new Green Lantern in the story of Simon Baz, an American of Arab ancestry raised in a Muslim family, who leaves behind street racing to join an intergalactic police force.