What I learned on a return visit to my parents’ homeland as featured in Daily Life

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It’s been ten years since I visited Pakistan, the place of my parents’ birth. My most vivid memory from my last trip to Karachi, nestled off the southern coast of the country, was going to a beauty ‘parlour’ for a facial.

As the beautician lathered the mixture on my cheeks, a sharp, stinging sensation burned across my skin. I began to yell, desperately clawing the foam off my face.

The beautician looked at me surprised.

“The facial is laced with bleach to, you know… clean up your face,” she said gesturing to my unacceptably brown skin.

“She’s from outside,” someone would finally say in these moments, taking in the bottled water and hand sanitiser clutched in my hand.


Karachi lit up at night for the Prophet's birthday on the 12th day of Rabi'ul Awaal.
Karachi lit up at night for the Prophet’s birthday on the 12th day of Rabi’ul Awaal.

Confused eyes would register recognition, my faux pas dismissed with indulgent smiles.

Getting your face nearly burned off is only one of the many challenges of being a child of diaspora migrants returning to the homeland. But there are also moments of recognition and familiarity.

It’s a strange experience walking in a street where everyone looks like you. Navigating a foreign city where I can slip in quietly and understand some of its contours is like being in a dark cinema.

I’m incognito, an observer of the world unfolding in front of me, uncontaminated by my intrusion. I get a front row seat into a world from where I have inherited a language, skin colour and culture.

Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine in Karachi.
Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine in Karachi.

Finally I understand things about family that confused me. Like the need to cover everything in plastic (it is very dusty in Pakistan); the inability of middle-aged desi women to dress for winter and their strange obsession with shawls (it never gets cold here). There’s also the staunch refusal to abide by airport luggage rules or pay full price for anything (fixed prices are always negotiable).

Most profoundly there is a renewed respect for my parents and their ability to forge a completely new reality for themselves, giving me privileges that prove both a blessing and a gulf, catapulting me into worlds they could never access.

My fluent but careful Urdu feels like a metaphor for my in-between status with this ever-present gap between what I can say and what I want to say.

I feel, as always, still an interloper, like a new guest at a party where everyone knows each other and speaks in references you could never fully understand.


To be a liberal in Karachi means being critical of a society where authoritarian power structures and radical social inequalities fuse together with right-wing religious politics, at polar ends to the spiritual soul of South Asian culture represented by slain Sufi singer Amjad Sabri.

It is a city of Adhans and jostling rickshaws, slums and celebrities where nothing works but everything can be arranged. A city where brides with red lips promising eternity, hands adorned with dark henna, step over potholes in stilettos into festooned halls, defying the latest western headlines shrieking the country has collapsed.

There’s something cheerful and irrepressible about these shaadi halls that dot the broken landscape of Karachi like gaudy baubles. The neon lights winking at you, advertising themselves for sale in a city always ready for business, to make a deal as swiftly as arrange a marriage.

With all the drama and chaos of the news, there’s a relentless energy that pulsates through the streets. A no-nonsense co-operative hive that comes with 20 million people crushed together into a forced self-sufficiency.

Drivers jump out of rickshaws to haul broken carts to clear roads.

Shopkeepers raise their eyebrows in the dance of bazaar negotiations offering you chai and a chat, a commercial deal peppered with personal interrogation. Plumes of cigarette and engine smoke link everyone together in a cloud of familial dysfunction; praying, living, surviving.

It’s different here in Australia. To be liberal in a western context for a child of diaspora migrants means asserting a re-interpreted but proud minority and faith identity, sometimes in the face of powerful forces keen to frame difference, especially of the Muslim variety, with danger. It’s a more colourful mosaic, so fragile and easily shattered by wounding words.

The degree is vastly different, but in each society the demagogues are the same. They share the same rejectionist, exclusionary worldview, they want you to be afraid of what appears different.

They tell you the woman selling chai and you are different. The man frying jalebis puffing up like golden swirls in his vat, to get his daughter a seat on a golden throne in one of those shiny shaadi halls, is different from you.

For them there is no fusion; only binary. It is us and them. But they are you. They are me. Western and Australian and Muslim and Pakistani and all fused together so that we don’t know anymore where I start and you begin.

As debates rage around race, religion, Islam and multiculturalism in a climate of global insecurity and right-wing zealotry, we engage because these words are not just platitudes but a lived reality borne of struggle and survival.

They are the smell of coconut oil on supple skin and hands worn down from kneading dough during night shifts at restaurants. They are dreams of that white collar job, shattered by a callous remark; of once friendly eyes darkened with suspicion.

For all of us in that in-between space, forced to declare allegiances or endure a trial by bleach, perhaps you don’t need to always feel aligned with your environment or even your world. There is beauty in fusion and contradiction; this confusion can be creative and critical.

Sometimes in the frustrating gaps there is a space, as fragile as a flower, to create, to dance on that tightrope of difference and embrace the exquisite tension it inspires.

Criticism is sometimes taken as disloyalty. But to criticise is not to fault, but to be passionately invested in the evolution of what you are criticising. It is to feel your stake in it with a kind of blinding ferocity that leaves you breathless.

In the rush of tangled emotions still swirling as I said goodbye to Karachi, I won’t forget the flooding relief that hit me hard in the heart as soon as I stepped into Sydney: I’m home.

It’s a home I will fight to call and name my own.

This article was originally published on Sydney Morning Herald’s Daily Life site on July 22, 2016.



Profile: Abdul Sattar Edhi as featured in The National

Cribs at creche for abandoned children at Edhi clinic in Karachi, Pakistan.
Cribs at creche for abandoned children at Edhi clinic in Karachi, Pakistan.

Charity begins at home for legendary philanthropist

Abdul Sattar Edhi may be the founder and head of Pakistan’s largest social welfare organisation, but the legendary philanthropist still lives in the back of his first medical clinic in the heart of working class Karachi.

“I’m a beggar. I’m happy to stand on the road and ask for alms,” he says.

“He is an international beggar,” his wife, Bilquis, chimes in, laughing.

Opened in the 1950s, the Mithadar clinic is today part of a sprawling network of medical centres, mortuaries, adoption and the largest volunteer ambulance service in the world  serving Pakistan’s poor and destitute, as well as refuges for unhoused men, women and children. Such services are vital in a country with effectively no state social welfare apparatus. And the Edhi Foundation, which is largely funded by public donations, also provides humanitarian relief in disaster zones around the world.

Earlier this year, Nobel laureate and Pakistani women’s rights activist Malala Yousufzai and her father Ziauddin spearheaded a campaign for Mr Edhi to be nominated for the Nobel peace prize for his decades of charity work at home and abroad. But the social activist, who estimates his age to be close to 90, insists the work itself is its own reward.

“I’ve spent my life living according to my principles, in poverty, in simplicity,” he says. “To look after and help the poor — this is my work and my purpose.”

Mr and Mrs Edhi live in rooms attached to the three-storey Mithadar clinic, which also hosts a crèche and school for abandoned children. Located near the coastal rim of Karachi, ambulance vans emblazoned with the logo of the Edhi Foundation are stationed outside, ready to navigate narrow, paths bustling with vendors hawking street food. The air is thick with smog, and the pressing rush of the city’s bursting population.

Sporting a straggly beard and dressed in a plain shalwar kameez, Mr Edhi looks and lives exactly like the poor he serves. And his refusal to accept aid or money from powerful figures seeking influence has given him kudos in a society driven by conspiracy theories and suspicious of foreign interference.

But, after decades working around the clock on a punishing schedule, Mr Edhi’s health is failing. His son Faisal, helps to run the Foundation’s day-to-day operations as his father makes hospital visits for dialysis treatment twice a week.

Mrs Edhi says her husband’s fragile health has been a blessing, forcing the powerhouse to slow down: “Because his age is advanced it’s hard for him to walk around. He gets restless. He used to walk around a lot and now he says ‘you’ve locked me in cage’.”


Abdul Sattar Edhi in Mithadar, Karachi.
Abdul Sattar Edhi in Mithadar, Karachi.

Born in the state of Gujarat, India in 1928, Mr Edhi migrated to Karachi with his family in 1947 during the partition, as Pakistan was carved out of newly independent India as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims.

Even as a young man, Mr Edhi was passionate about alleviating the poverty and suffering he saw around him, his wife says. He began his social work career equipped with an old van he used to pick up the bodies of those suffering addiction and the unhoused on the street before preparing them for burial.

Mrs Edhi was a teenager when she started working as a nurse at the Mithadar clinic and was proposed to by Mr Edhi.

“He had nothing. He had a small clinic and a broken down car,” she says. “Everyone said he was crazy, a ‘maulvi’ [religious figure or leader].”

“They said it wouldn’t last six months. It’s been over 44 years.”

The pair share an easy-going intimacy. When they work together, her banter is a counterpoint to his stern seriousness.

Mr Edhi, credits his wife for the support that has enabled the couple — both from Karachi’s most impoverished quarter — to accomplish what became their shared mission.

“I never went to school. The environment has been my teacher. I have become human by learning through my world,” he says. “I don’t even know why my wife liked me … I’m lucky my wife accepted me,” he adds, smiling wryly.


The partnership has not been without its challenges. The couple’s four children were raised by Mrs Edhi’s late mother as the pair dedicated their life to social work.

The couple’s son, Faisal, who is poised to take over as head of the Foundation, has been working alongside his father for the past 15 years. He remembers eagerly awaiting his father’s weekly visits as a child. In Ramadan, he would wait on the footpath until his father arrived to break fast, sometimes hours after sundown.

Faisal and his wife Saba live in a simple home in neighbouring Kharadar with their four children. Unlike his parents, Faisal is openly scathing of the failures of the Pakistani state.

“The biggest problem is corruption and this can only be resolved by the redistribution of wealth,” he says.

Faisal adds that his father always loved “revolutionary” people, which often pit him against those with power.

“He always thought what’s the point in praying in a mosque all day but not helping the poor?,” he says. “You praise God in the mosque but if a poor person enters, you throw him out in case he steals your shoes.”

“If there’s an unequal distribution of wealth, not only your shoes but everything will be stolen.”


Mr and Mrs Edhi have played host to the world’s most famous politicians and celebrities. Comically, however, the couple rarely recognise the identities of the famous faces that come to visit.

“He looked like a fakir [an ascetic existing on alms]!” Mrs Edhi laughs as she points to a haggard-looking Sean Penn in an album.

While Pakistani politicians also come to pay court and garner favour, the couple say their work has pit them against powerful interests.

Mr Edhi’s most vociferous critics are the religious right. He has been accused of promoting immorality for providing a refuge for abandoned children and women escaping violence. His insistence on an inclusive spirituality and serving the community regardless of caste, class or creed make him both revered and — in some quarters — reviled.

“There is no religion higher than humanity,” he says in response to the criticism.

Mrs Edhi recalls a young boy asking her opinion on religious figures who declare her husband an “infidel” and claim the pair will be locked out of heaven for taking care of “illegitimate” children.

“I said to him, ‘Give [the religious figures] my salaams and tell them wherever you people go, we don’t want to go there’.”

“If scoundrels like [them] go to heaven, we’d be happier in hell.”

The story was originally featured in The National. You can read the full piece here.


Life in K-town

Kharadar lit up at night for the Prophet’s birthday on the 12th day of Rabi’ul Awaal.

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 >


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.

Chicken biryani at Telefood in DHA Phase 2 in Karachi, Pakistan.
Chicken biryani at Telefood in DHA Phase 2 in Karachi, Pakistan.

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.


Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine in Karachi.
Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine in Karachi.

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.



culture · music · Pakistan · poetry · Uncategorized

Western dervishes whirl through Pakistan as featured in The National

Tahir Qawwal. Picture:
Tahir Qawwal. Picture:

The first thing you notice about Tahir Qawwal are is his dreadlocks – they wrap around his head to create a turban-halo effect.

Combined with his shaggy beard and Indian kurta, the 35-year-old Canadian, the lead singer of qawwali seven-piece group Fanna-Fi-­Allah, which literally translates as ‘annihilation in God’, looks the epitome of whirling-dervish chic.

The artist looks completely at ease during this small gig in western Sydney, as he belts out passionate qawwali in his western-­accented Urdu.

Qawwal’s soaring rendition, accompanied by the beating of the frenetic tabla and the harmonium piano, create a mood of ecstatic celebration as the audience chants and sways to the rhythm. The singer admits his journey to learning qawwali, the spiritual music of the subcontinent, inspired by Islam’s mystical Sufi tradition, has been an ­unlikely one.

Born Geoffrey Lyons, Qawwal left his native Canada for India as a teenager. It was there where he explored Indian classical music, renounced all his material possessions and dabbled with the idea of becoming a yogi, before converting to Islam at 17.

“I felt the deep communicative powers of music as a spiritual language and also the teaching of the Sufis and that inspiring path was also simultaneously very magnetic for me,” he says.

The journey then took Qawwal to Pakistan where he studied under Rahet Fateh Ali Khan, Pashupatinath Mishra, Sher Ali Khan and Muazzam Qawwal.

“As with anything, one step in the path leads to another and you never know where it’s going to take you,” he says. “I was really nervous and really excited to meet these people that I had idolised and have been so moved by.”

The singers took Qawwal under their wings and he spent weeks embedding himself in the spirituality and poetry of the art.

Tahir Qawwal performing in Pakistan. Picture:
Tahir Qawwal performing in Pakistan. Picture:


Describing its appeal, Qawwal – who now lives in California – says the music transcends culture, and even those who don’t understand the poetry can feel the passion of the tradition.

“It’s a music of wild abandon,” he says. “When the qawwals sing with feeling, it gets offered in a very passionate heartfelt and divine way so people feel that.”

Fani-fi-Allah ensemble. Picture:
Fani-fi-Allah ensemble. Picture:


Fanna-Fi-Allah – which has a multicultural make up, featuring three Canadians and Americans, and one Pakistani – have been together for 15 years and initially struggled to overcome their novelty status.

Judging by the quality of their debut album, Mehfil-e-saga, however, they are well on their way to challenging misconceptions. The songs have the joyous, wild enthusiasm that embodies the passion and poetry of the qawwali tradition.

Street performance. Picture:
Street performance. Picture:

Qawwal explains that the buoyant sounds reflect the hospitality he experienced during his stay in Pakistan. He hopes the music shows a different side of Pakistani culture and Islamic spirituality, often associated with extremism and violence in the western imagination.

“There’s a deep-rooted generosity there that’s connected to the culture,” he says.

Dervish stylin'. Picture:
Dervish stylin’. Picture:

As a westerner who lived in Pakistan, Qawwal explains the group were “overwhelmed by the generosity of locals” after years performing across the country.

With Mehfil-e-saga well received, Fanna-Fi-Allah are set to tour Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and South Africa.

“We’ve been invited to play in the UAE several times but it hasn’t worked out as of yet,” he says. “I would certainly love to someday.”

•Fanna-Fi-Allah’s latest album ­Mehfil-e-saga, and single, Man ­Kunto Maula, are available on iTunes

This article first appeared in the The National on October 15, 2015. 

Pakistan · Uncategorized

Mild mannered teacher by day, Burqa Avenger by night


Pakistan has a new feminist superhero. Her weapons of choice are books, pens…and a burqa. Recently I was interviewed by Melissa Wellham from Mamma Mia on my thoughts on the burqa-clad heroine.

For those not familiar with the Burqa Avenger, she is the brainchild of Pakistani popstar Haroon. The animated TV series aims to counter Taliban opposition to women’s education through its heroine- a mild mannered teacher who dons a disguise to turn into Burqa Avenger by night, battling local goons to keep her school open.

Like Kim Kardashian, Pakistan seems to have become famous for the wrong things, like the shootings of schoolgirls, acid attacks and gang rapes. But these high-profile stories have also mobilised thousands of Pakistanis protesting against the degradation of their society. This new heroine I think is part of that protest. Like I told Mamma Mia:

Burqa Avenger is a smart, powerful, subtle, strong Muslim woman.

She’s a fantasy most Pakistanis long for … We wish we had super powers that could magically neuter extremist nuts and the corrupt politicians that enable them, in a society where the right to go to school has exposed women and girls to violence.”

“By having a niqabi feminist heroine – at once both indigenous to Pakistani culture and Islam, it reclaims those forces as a source of power for Muslim women, neutralising criticisms of feminism and human rights as a western impost and cleverly repositioning Burqa Avengers’ enemies as antithetical to mainstream Islam and local values.”

Check out the first episode here:

Burka Avenger Episode 01 with English sub-titles from Unicorn Black on Vimeo.