Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Karachi: Chronicles of a Mad Man

The Girl Who Never Smiled
True story set through the eyes of a fictitous character

Each night starts off the same way. Something is happening. I can feel it. Someone is calling my name. I have no choice. I have no say in this. I must respond. The echoes of the screams bounce off of every wall in this city as they make their way towards me.

Where will it be tonight? Where will I finally see my own reflection? These streets haunt me. The electric energy of 15 million people all radiate through one light bulb. It is hauntingly beautiful. The very light it radiates not only throws me into a sea of confusion, but also attracts me like a moth to a flame.

I go out every night looking for her. She is out there somewhere. I just don’t know what she is. Is she a beautiful lost soul looking for me as well? Is she a mother looking for her lost child? Is she a little boy on the verge of discovering something incredible? What if she is a street alley that swallows people up and spits out their corpses? What if she’s a painting that puts all of this to reason? Perhaps, she is a man who has just written the perfect song. I need to find that song. I have to find this song.

I drive through this city looking for my next prey. I don’t know which way I’m going but the scent keeps on getting stronger. I pass the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine, and can see its impact on the eyes of people swarming around it in hopes of getting a better grip on their reality. What are they hoping for? Will they get what they came for? Tired eyes continue to drop tears of hope to the tune of a beat being played by a hashish stoned drums playing duo on the side of the shrine. I understand the stoned duo. I know what they are doing and why they are doing it. It is the only constant noise in this city of madness. It beats with a rhythm of a perfect heartbeat. It reminds me how alive everything is. Karachi has been given her own musical composition as I drive through the sea of people looking out from my car window. Is this all real? The colors of everything through my window are so rich and scary. People are reaching into my heart and yet still perfectly placed on the other side of my screen. This must be High Definition TV.

I make my way towards Boat Basin. My hands, suddenly and on impulse, turn the steering wheel towards the side of the road. I stop the car. There she is. Right in front of me, and yet she doesn’t see me. How can she see me? We are situated less than ten feet away from each other and yet are living in completely different worlds. To her, me in my car is a reality she is far away from. I am just a blur in her eyes with no face and no structure. But I see her. I instantly know that she is my story tonight.

She is now you, and you will be given a name for my records. Your name is Safia. I can tell of the heartache you have lived through. Beaten down skin and aged feet reveal your age to be about 45 years old. However, on closer inspection, your eyes scream a bitter truth: you are no older than 20. You are wearing your best dress tonight. Why wouldn’t you, it is a beautiful night littered with stars all over the sky. Sadly, it is also your only dress. I see the stains and tears of your clothes do not impact your confidence of being in them. I can tell that you can still see the beauty of the colorful yellow flower design going up and down your clothes. Have I ever seen a more beautiful dress? Perhaps the many stains on this print each tell a different story of your life and now you have simply given up trying to rid yourself of these stains. I can understand why. What good is it removing the physical stains if the memories are permanently tattooed on you?

You start walking past people in a quicker pace than normal. I make my way out of my car and into your world. However, I am still protected with a layer of invisibility in your eyes because, you see, I am wearing clothes that cannot register with your mind. My clothes are far too clean and expensive, and ironed for you to see past your blur. I am relieved at the power of my invisibility so that I can continue to follow you.

You make your way past people munching away into their chicken tikkas and plates of samosas. I swiftly follow you. I can see you walk up to a group of people smoking a sheesha. You talk without smiling. You are a hardened woman. I see eyes, a mouth, nose, ears, and a body, but your skin has become as hard as rubber. There is no smile. The people nonchalantly brush you away, and you, without losing face, simply turn and walk to the next group. I know you need money. I just don’t know why you are walking and they are sitting. I know you are thinking the same thing.
Eventually, I see you approach an older man, probably in his fifties. You stand in front of him and start to talk again. Again, there is no smile. I wish I could see you smile. Someone, somewhere has, and I find satisfaction in that thought. I invisibly walk right next to you so I can hear you. You continue to speak. You tell this man you want him to buy you some milk for your two year old boy. You insist you don’t care if he doesn’t give you money, but need the milk. The man stares at you. You have a poker face. All the stares in the world cannot change that poker face of yours. The man takes out his wallet and proceeds to give you a hundred rupee’s. I feel a rush of excitement come over me. I look at the man who has just started to smile as he hands the money over. I recognize that smile. He is pouring all of his guilt into that note and depleting himself of any further mental stress for the night. It’s all he can do, and he has done it well. You take the money, still without smiling, and walk away. Surely, a little smile now wouldn’t hurt, would it Safia?

You continue onwards. I don’t take you for a married woman. There is too much awareness and knowledge in your eyes of the grim reality of your situation for anyone else to be a part of it. I conclude you are the parent of a bastard child. I feel comforted with the fact that you will feed him tonight. You make your way to the little store nearby and pick up a carton of milk. You pay the money, get some change, put it in your pocket and make your way into the night. But you can’t shake me off so easily. I am right behind you. You cross the street, and walk towards the entrance of the park right opposite Boat Basin. I don’t see your child. In fact, I don’t see anyone else around you. Where is your child? What have you done to your child Safia? As I make my way closer to you, I suddenly see the great mystery of the night resolve itself right in front of me. You have no child my dear. You lied.

As you sit down and open the carton, I see in front of you, three incredibly small, baby kittens hidden behind the rock you have just sat on. There is a metallic small bowl right next to them which you have just filled up. Without wasting a moment, the three kittens dive their tongues into the bowl and start slurping away. They aren’t scared of you. They aren’t scared of anything. They are just grateful that they are being fed. You sit on your rock and turn back around to face the might of the Boat Basin market in front of you. Of course, you don’t see me on the other side as I continue to stare. You take out a cigarette and light it up. You take a drag, and look back at the kittens. You turn back around again, and for the first time in the night, I am proven wrong in my mind. You start to smile. You smile for a few seconds as you continue smoking your cigarette. I realize that perhaps I have never seen a more justifiably earned smile before. I try to imagine what kind of a cruel reality you are a part of where you have to lie about a starving kid to feed a bunch of homeless kittens. I know you conjured up a kid because if you did not, those kittens would not live through the night. You continue to smile. I also realize that that is my cue. I smile back at you, of course you not seeing it, and make my way back into my car.

As I leave Boat Basin and make my way back into the night, I pass yet again the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine. The beat emerges back amongst the many other sounds of the night. I drive through taking in all these sounds. There are some sounds that I know are of sadness and pain. However, on this starry night in Karachi, I can also very clearly hear the sounds of three kittens meowing away merrily. And I know somewhere, Safia has smiled yet once again.

This is my Karachi. I am a superhero. I am invisible to millions. I am no one. I am you.

Friday, September 17, 2010

We Interrupt this Breaking News for some more Breaking News: Media in Pakistan

Did you see the news today? Tell me you heard about the fires in Lahore. The killings in Pindi? Surely you must have heard about the beatings in Quetta? I know you must have at least read up on the shootings in Karachi? I see. You did. All of them did you? Wow, I’m very impressed. How incredibly up to speed you are?! What’s that you say? Oh, I see, the news is on your television set the entire time it is on. Well I am in the company of a seriously well informed individual. To be educated is one thing, but to be up to speed with the news is a different cookie all together. By any chance, did you also hear about the latest archaeological discovery just outside of Cairo? Or, how about that new art exhibition at The Canvas Gallery in Karachi? I hear that pianos are making a big comeback with the youth, and stores selling them are popping up all over Lahore? Oh, you didn’t hear any of those things? No worries. That’s just trivial stuff anyways. You got the important news down, and that’s all that matters. What happens beyond the corridors of the Breaking News section matters only to those who can’t play in the big boy’s league. I wouldn’t dare take you for someone foolish enough to focus your precious time on such insignificant matters of life. No sir, you carry the honorable characteristics of someone who can recite the entire news bulletin back to me from memory. Congratulations on your merit. Now, there only remains the small task of attaining one more thing: getting a life.

If you have thick skin, you will hopefully understand what I mean. If you have soft skin, go and eat a samosa or something. My friends, you and I are the subjects of possibly the largest propaganda output since the time of Hitler and the might of the German press. The sad part of it is, however, we are doing it to ourselves with no goal in sight. I have gone through an unplanned exercise in analyzing media in Pakistan compared to that of all the places I have travelled in this great world. This wasn’t any huge goal of mine or a difficult task. It just involved flicking on the news wherever I went. The results are shockingly scary. It has disturbed me since the day I set foot in Pakistan, and still haunts me every time I see people in front of the news. What are we doing to ourselves? Please. Do you understand what I am saying?

Most recently, on a trip to Jordan for a week, I was blown away by the incredible amount of knowledge I took away from just reading the paper or watching the local television. I learnt about the growing trend of Jordanian fashion designers making their entry into the international market. I watched a documentary on following the lives and culture of the Bedouins of the desert region of the country. I saw art inspired by the sunsets of the glorious Wadi Ram valley in south Jordan. I read up on a festival of poetry and song that was to happen the following week which was coupling new artists together with established artists. In short, I felt like Jordan introduced herself to me, took me into her garden, showed me her beautiful flowers, and offered me an iced tea under the beautiful afternoon sun. I left taking a piece of it with me, and knowing that I had just become a little bit more knowledgeable about life. Mind you, this is Jordan I’m talking about. Jordan: a heavily aid dependant country that has little to no exports, an entire population that equates to less than the population of Karachi, a people whom which the majority of hail from Palestine, a country which neighbors Israel with whom they have a fragile diplomatic relationship, and a government that has never seen democracy. This is no Utopia itself. I also managed to catch all the political and social news in the process. Now, enter Pakistan.

Bombs, talibanization, terror, murder, corruption, dirty games, fraud, bombs, suicide attacks, bombs, proxy wars, terror, religious wars, bombs, etc, etc. 50 channels of news all reporting the same exhausting stories of doom and gloom with death literally showing her face, newscasters all trying to outdo each other with venomous attacks of horror and disbelief, news studios editing segments with full accompanying soundtracks of people decaying away and politicians lying to the masses, clips of masses striking and protesting on a daily basis: OKAY, OKAY!! WE GET THE DAMN PICTURE! How about a little relief? How about some fresh air? What about a little clip of an artist at a show? A little story of hope? How about a fricking story on something we can actually gain some knowledge from? It’s not there. You can search for it. I have. It’s not there. It’s just not there. This is probably one of the only countries in the world where the highest costing advertising slots are during political news shows. Prime Time television is ALL news and nothing else. Had it not been for the miracles of development in the world of technology, I would say that we would eventually succumb to this soul grinding machine of deafening media. But alas, all is not lost.

We have the world at our fingertips. If you are reading this, than you already have more windows to look out from than the entire worlds’ population did not even 20 years ago. You can be in Karachi and Sarajevo at the same time. You can be at a Depeche Mode and Aziz Mian concert at the same time, even if one of them is dead. You can put up a piece of art sitting in Gujranwala, and get instant critique from a Norwegian art collector sitting in Oslo. You can write your own personal ode to your hero Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and get tears of agreement from other fans around the world. You can do all of this. And you can learn so much more.

We are being herded like sheep into a police governed, panic driven, doom accepting, failure assuming bunch of people and are not expanding our minds the way the rest of the world is. We have to look beyond this. We are NONE of these things. We are a nation filled with all the attributes of a successful society of people, including poets, artists, politicians, journalists, musicians, architects, photographers, actors, activists, doctors, humanitarians, animal keepers, mathematicians, engineers, athletes, etc. Where is our outlet? Where can we learn about each other? Where can we share our stories with each other? We must not drink this kool aid that is being shoved down our throats. It is very simple. The media is using shock and awe to get our attention so they can make money. Money. That is it. The collateral damage of that however, is that we are getting dumber by the day. We have to see through this. We have to fight back with a vengeance. The best way to fight is simply by learning something new and sharing it with others. Pick up a book and read it. Rent a foreign movie from a country you know very little about and watch it. Pick up an instrument and learn to play it. Make a new friend and learn about each other. Travel the world, if not physically, than through the Internet. Dare to radiate something unique to those around you. If we want to change what is projected on us, we have to change what we project back on to others. The world is asking us where our moderate voice is. The best way to respond is by enjoying our life. Enjoy it. Stop taking life so seriously. Enjoy, learn, and share, enjoy, learn, and share. Enjoy the hell out of your life, because it is the only one you will ever have in this world. It is only when we radiate how much color we bring to life that others will actually start to feel the glow.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

'You're not a star until they can spell your name in Karachi'-Humphrey Bogart

Hello Pakistan. I have to tell you something. You are the craziest place on the planet. You talk too loudly, have no patience for anything, rush past people, always look to make a quick buck, stay up all night, fight for love, love to fight, and your kitchen is running non-stop. You are always late for something, one can hardly hear themselves think from all the noise you make, your almost always about to get into an accident, and you tease with your offering of electricity. You always rely on me to defend you, and you always ask me to take the fall for you. I have to tell you something else though. I love you. I absolutely, completely love you. The neurosis of your heart and the beat that it drums to rocks me to the core and completes me as a person. To my dear current city of Karachi, the perfect mess of complicated grids, amazing people, sights and smells, bustling markets, and unlimited abnormalities you present, can intoxicate anyone who dares to embrace you, and is more addictive then the best Afghan heroin money can buy. You may have recently been scratched and bumped a few times, but your heart is pure and the engine continues to run. And as long as it runs, you will always have me on your side. So Mr. Bogart, while you may have referenced Karachi to accentuate the incredible distance between it and Hollywood, you’ll be happy to know, that according to your own measure, you were the most fabulous of stars.

I have received so many incredible messages from all of you, and some of them have been far too kind. Let me set the record straight: I have cheated my way into earning your respect. All I’m doing is penning down the stories of people I meet and what I have seen on the ground. You can find plenty of other smarter people who ‘know’ what’s wrong with us and how to fix it. I will hopefully always just talk to you about simpler things. Simpler things like my dear friend, family driver, and mentor: Ismail.

As far back as I can remember, there were always two constants in my life when growing up in Islamabad. The first one was, I was always finding myself getting into some sort of trouble. The second one was that Ismail was always there to protect me. It really was as basic as that. In hindsight, I am very proud of the fact that like most children should be, I never took life seriously. All that mattered was that I enjoyed the hell out of it, and that tomorrow only meant anything if today was filled with laughter and fun. Yes, there was the usual studying bit, the homework, the punishments, the having to go to the old boring Auntie who kissed you far too much to compensate for the crappy food, etc etc. Those were all there, but never really mattered to me as much. Curiosity was the theme of the day for me. Ismail was only in his mid 20’s when I first met him.

Most people that met Ismail away from his duty as a driver could easily mistake him for an actor. With incredibly good looks, he was always dressed very sharply, and could hardly ever be seen without a big smile on his face. I was only in secondary school at the time, and will honestly say that in many ways, I took him for granted. I took him for granted in the sense that I imagined all drivers would have to be as charming and kind as him, and that they all had the same passionate dedication to work that he did. At the time, I didn’t know how wrong I was. Like many people from the lower end of the economic scale in Pakistan, Ismail did not have a formal education of note. He was our family driver, and because of the close proximity of time spent with all of us, he very quickly became a member of the family.

Ismail was married at an early age and he already had a young family at the time. I remember that when he was finished with his work, he never rushed home. He wanted to sit with all of us, and you could tell in his eyes that he was soaking up every little detail of what he saw. He was growing as a person, faster than any of us could imagine.

I spent those years in the shadow of Ismail and eventually reached that fateful day when I had to leave for college to the US. We had become very close by then. However, we both knew that things would never be the same again. We hid our emotions behind our manly laughs and hugs, because that was just what we did. I knew, however, that the Ismail of my innocent youth would eventually grow up, as our fragmented society would demand, into an old man gunned down by the rocks of his everyday life. I was sad because I knew that a flower had bud, but that the flower would never get enough sunshine to grow. I knew of that because apart from his handicap of being a poor, uneducated man, he was also cursed with that most brutal of diseases: he was incredibly honest.

Years passed us by, but we always kept in touch. He stopped working for us several years back, but he never lost communication. Whenever I came back to town, amongst the first people to come and meet me was my dear friend Ismail. Like anyone else in this world, the ticking clock was starting to show signs on him as well. His boyish innocent looks started to fade. His eyes began to show age. His body was no longer immune to health issues. His smile was now accompanied with wrinkles. Yet his mind continued to get sharper. My friends, I have to share with you what has happened to this young flower destined to cripple away in the dark.

Ismail has grown into a respected man who no longer drives a car by profession. He is the vice president of a union for one of the biggest companies in Pakistan where he sits in an office behind a desk. He has people come and visit him daily expressing their problems in hope of him helping them. He is out on the road with his team driving through the highs and lows of Pakistan meeting his union members whenever they need him. He is an important man. Indeed, he is a man that matters. Ismail also has a young son, Aqeel, who is now a fully qualified software engineer working with a reputable organization in Islamabad. I can speak to Aqeel in Urdu or English with the same level of fluency as I would to any of my western educated friends. Ismail has in short, beat the hand that was dealt to him. He never lost hope. He is my hero.

When I sit with Ismail, the most engaging conversations usually occur. I must admit, however, that there are times that he is talking and I suddenly get lost in thought staring at his face. I try to imagine what all this man has seen in his life. Could I ever even slightly comprehend the journey he has taken? Does he know what all he has actually accomplished in his life? Does he know how big a man he actually is? He has forever changed the destiny of all the generations of his family that are to come in the future. Many years on, when his great grandchildren are grown up, all they will remember of their great grandfather is what they see in pictures. They won’t know of the mountain he climbed to get them to where they are. They won’t know what I know. How is that fair? How is it fair, I ask?

I ask him questions about his life. I’ve asked him point blank how he did it. His response was short and piercing: ‘I never stopped wanting’. Ismail’s love for Pakistan radiates through every single pore of his body. If you want to truly enrage him, the best thing to do is tell him the country has nothing to offer. He will tell you that the very country that slapped his father down is also the country that lifted him up. He will tell you that he had a dream, and it was his country that allowed him to achieve that dream. Bizarrely enough, he now feels it is his responsibility to give back to his homeland. Let me tell you how disturbingly honest this man is. His job requires him to travel all over Pakistan to meet with his union members. Because of that requirement, he is allowed to fly on company expense. With my hand on my heart, I will tell you that he REFUSES to accept a penny for his flights and instead, incurs the costs from his own salary. Mind you, while he has completely changed the course of his and his family’s life, he still lives a very modest means. Why doesn't he accept compensation for his flights? ‘It’s a national organization, not a private one, and that is the equivalent of me taking money from the people’. This is your fellow Pakistani. This is not fiction.

They are out there. They are in your house. They are in your streets. They are in your family. They are in your city. Good people. Great Pakistanis. Honorable human beings. There are millions of Ismails all over this great land. We must tell their stories. We must celebrate them. We must be proud of our strengths in spite of our weaknesses. After all, it can’t rain all the time.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

'The ambulance is more Muslim than you': Abdul Sattar Edhi

That was the answer Abdul Sattar Edhi gave to a question when once asked 'why must you pick up Christians and Hindus in your ambulance?' By any stretch of imagination, Abdul Sattar Edhi is an enigma to most people. None of us truly understand him. I often think that Edhi walks a fine line between passion and lunacy. I am not able to comprehend why this man insists on doing what he does, in the capacity that he does it, for as long as he has done it for. The heart wants to register it, but the mind questions the motive. Motive. What the hell is his motive? Please, someone tell me what this man’s motive is.
Through no easy deduction, I submit that I have discovered the answer to my question. It has taken every critical bone in my body to genuinely understand the answer, but folks, I can safely say that I have finally reached a verdict: there is no motive. There is. No. Motive. Edhi has destroyed my carefully built assessment of Man over the years. He has ruined my calculated analysis of the weaknesses of people. That he has negated all my years of hard earned views on Man single handedly almost leaves me infuriated with him. He has forced me to start over from scratch. For that, I cannot forgive him.
This is a man that I cannot imagine my own life without. Mind you, I have never met him. I don't want to. There isn't a single day in my life that has collectively added up in honor to justify me being able to sit opposite Edhi. I have at best, been able to find the courage to go and drop off some extremely basic things at one of his many, many, charity centers the world over. While there, I stay for just long enough to try to fathom what all this man has done for my country. Being an impossible task, I soon give up trying to reach to the bottom of that barrel and leave very quietly. I imagine it is pretty much what anyone what do.
For those unaware of who this man is, let me put it in a very simple way: Hollywood has Batman, Superman, The Hulk, and Spiderman. Pakistan has Edhi.
What has inspired me to write about Edhi? He certainly doesn't need any more press validating his incredible efforts or work done. He already has, safely locked away, the hearts of some 170 million people. But yesterday, I was brought to my knees by an action I witnessed that for lack of any other descriptive word, I can only describe as 'Edhi'.
I was in a market in Karachi buying some movies. As I turned to leave for my car, I was fully ready and in anticipation of the small army of beggars I would confront before actually reaching my car. The well trained and relatively well meaning average person already has a few small notes ready in pocket to quickly disperse so as to satisfy some of the beggars, yet be quick enough to plot for a speedy getaway. I too was ready.
As I made my way, a few kids and some adults quickly made their way towards me. I took out three 20 rupee bills and handed them to the three that looked most dressed for the part. 60 rupees and a satisfied conscience later, I reached my car, and quickly got into it. Of course, I still had to wait for a friend who was still in the store. While waiting, a young man no older than 18 years came to my window. He spoke through the raised window with just a loud enough voice that I could make out what he was saying. It started off relatively standard. He told me that he isn't a beggar, but that he is genuinely very hungry and hasn't eaten anything all day. He went on to say that he does get daily wages for work he does on a construction site, and that today had just been a bad day for him of no work, and hence no money. He was good. Very good. I was sold. In fact, I was more then sold. I was suddenly very sad. I concluded that I had to help him however I could. The irony is, I am the farthest thing from being a ‘good’ man. This is no reverse psychology. I am truly, incredibly average. I went into my pocket, however, to take out some change, and the only thing I had left was a 500 rupee note. By anyone's measure, that is a lot of money to give to any beggar. As I mentioned, I’m not a noble man, and I don't pretend to make a habit of it. I guess he was just good enough at the moment, and I was weak enough at the moment to give the whole 500 to him. His eyes practically popped out of his sockets when he saw the note, and in excitement, he accepted it and showered the usual blessings on me. He went away to the little hotel right next to where we were. I could see him get a bun kebab sandwich and a drink that must have together cost about 85 rupees.
While I was waiting for my friend, I saw him walk to the next store, where outside there was a collection stand for Edhi. You have already anticipated what I'm going to say. That young hungry man put the remaining money he had into Edhi's drop box for the Flood Relief fund. I couldn't believe what I saw. I quickly got out of the car, and called the young man over to me.
I asked him why he just did what he did. I also told him that I had given him that money because he himself was poor and he didn't need to do that. He told me, burger and drink in hand, that his countrymen were under water, and that the only man that could help them was Edhi. He said his hunger was now satisfied, and that he was confident of having paid work the next day, and so he was ok. He went on to say that he was a dumb and helpless person, who couldn't help anyone even if he knew how, but that Edhi would find a way. He smiled at me, chomped on his burger, and walked away.
I was destroyed. I can't remember the last time I felt the way I did. I just sat back in my car.
My friend came back, got in the car, looked at me, put on some music, and we drove away. I didn't mention what I just saw. It was pointless. It was just the moment in itself and it didn't need rewinding.
As I left the market, I couldn't get Edhi out of my mind. What level of reliable kindness does it take for an incredibly poor and hungry soul to give away his lion’s share of money and put it into the care of a man he's never met? More importantly, how powerful a name does one have to have, in a country where names are easily trampled on, that an unprotected drop box miles away from Edhi himself satisfied this young man's trust enough to blindly drop that money into it. Such is the power of this thin, fragile, 80 year old man who lives with his equally kind hearted wife in one tiny room of one of his charity centers. With a body that can hardly move a small table, this man has moved an entire nation. I would thank Edhi for all that he has done if thanking him was enough. I would recommend the Nobel prize for Edhi if that could sum it up. I would do this if I could. I would do that if I could. In truth however, none of it would matter to him. None whatsoever. And that is what makes him so great. So, so, great.

UPDATE: Please read my latest post when you get a chance, 'There is a Light that Never Goes Out: Governor Salmaan Taseer'