Karachi. A place to escape your heartbreak, because there is enough heartbreak here for five lifetimes. We’re in the Islamic republic of Pakistan and you need to declare the shahadah before you get your overseas national ID card, so that reference may be mildly blasphemous and you’ll have to forgive me.
I’m sitting in my uncle’s house in Kharadar, near the coastal rim of the city. It literally translates to ‘the place of bitter water’. It’s where my parents grew up as neighbours in a nearby now demolished building. It’s one of the oldest and most impoverished areas in Karachi. Narrow littered unpaved paths brimming with Dickensian style craftsmen, food carts, street vendors, mosques and steaming restaurants chaotically weave through old, dilapidated buildings crammed with pristine flats. Flats scrubbed clean by industrious women making morning chai and oiling children’s hair into tight plaits for school.
I could have stayed at a hotel, but it feels like all the stories I could want are right here- along the paan-stained walls and sad cats drifting through refuse.
The throng of traffic blares at all hours through the rectangle lattice windows, along with the poetic ramblings of beggars chastising the pious at fajr and the whoosh of intermittent water and electricity flagged by the ebb of the ceiling fan coming to a lazy stop.
The buildings lit up last night, decorated for the Prophet’s birthday which falls on the 12th day in the Islamic month of Rabi’al awwal. In honour of this day there will be electricity at night for 12 days for festive lights and processions. To make up for this more shortages will continue in the day. Maybe the Prophet would have preferred people actually had electricity to work but that’s a question for another day. I admit the music, processions and lights have bathed the city in a celebratory air.
The adhaans are not as sonorous as in the Middle East. They jar and clang together interrupted by a premature, occasionally angry khutbah. Like everything else in Karachi even the adhaans need to battle for airspace.
I understand why men have motorbikes here. They can flee the crammed rush of people pressing in at all times, at home, on the streets, in the mosques.
Privacy is a non-existent concept here. Everybody wants to talk and visit all the time. The family is like a hive where everyone moves around each other like molecules in an atom. Life happens on spotless floors, with different mats efficiently laid out for eating, praying, sleeping, furling and unfurling like flowers.
I don’t feel part of the atom, more like a galaxy far away in need of decompression and alone time. Nobody really understands my need for periods of solitude or the compulsion to post food pictures on social media. There are some cultural bridges we may never cross.
I feel happiest flying through the street in a rickshaw or if I’m lucky on the back of a bike with the wind blowing through my shalwar kameez finding my next food or sufi shrine fix. See below >
ALL THE FOODS
I am a food pest. I once spent an afternoon in Hanoi trying to find the ‘best’ noodle place in town. I spend even longer on the internets scoping out recommended hotspots. It’s easier in Karachi because I can speak the language. A few detours and instructions from helpful bystanders later- we arrive.
Sindhi style chicken Biryani at Telefood is very good, but admittedly not the best I’ve ever had. The rice is light, fluffy and aromatic. Another positive is I felt good all day afterwards. The place is superbly clean with an open kitchen. It’s more of a take-away place, there’s only a few chairs and no space for families (codeword for no place for respectable ladies). The only other option was to eat on the street so we had a #girlsatdhabas moment and sat and ate anyway because I’m not really respectable, and no one seemed perturbed. It was fabulous.
Zahid Nihari’s comes highly recommended and it lives up to its reputation as the best in town. The main Zahid in central Karachi’s arterial Tariq Road shopping district was blocked for the shi’a commemoration of the martyrdom of Hasan so we had to make do with the Saddar branch which churns out the good stuff along with hot, fluffy naans and fresh lemon.
A lot of conservative people decry sufi shrines as heretical, filled with cult-like crazy sufis engaging in idolatrous behaviour. There is that, but I can see the attraction of this more emotional spirituality reflected in the country’s legendary qawali tradition, to the throngs of women and the very poor lining the shrine. The air was filled with the warm incandescent aroma of roses and incense, tears, hope and ecstatic prayer, a romantic homage to great saints encapsulating the humanitarian values of the faith.
In a city where survival is a constant struggle, it felt like a refuge, especially from the overwhelmingly male spaces of Karachi, including the city’s mosques, which unlike most places in the world are closed to women.
The liberal/arty/middle class view of Sufism was surprisingly contemptuous (in light of said wacky cult elements perhaps) and they seemed pretty suspicious of the whole religion shebang in general (understandable in Pakistan). I did note a huge interest in Meditation, Ashrams and Indian eastern new age type thought. It was pretty strange to see brown people reconsuming their own repackaged religious traditions from the west. It’s like buying hipster coconut oil for three times the price at western boutiques when you spent your childhood trying to avoid being the kid with stinky oily coconut hair using the $5 Parachute brand that congealed and needed to be microwaved before head massaged in. You don’t need white people to tell you what’s good people. Just look at brown girl hair – it’s glorious- $5 oil always!
Ok so Clifton beach is no Coogee or Bondi. Anywhere in the world would struggle to live up to Sydney’s magnificence. But any place involving water and sand is pretty much where I need to be. Another plus is you can watch the sunset while munching samosas, riding a camel or eating fairy floss #win.