"The power of Shahid’s cartoons are acute. Take a close look if you dare. Instead of euphemisms, find direct statements; instead of evasion, find candor. The skill of illustration is matched by the acuity of vision..."
Norman SolomonREAD MORE
Nov 9, 10:25 AM
Erika, the Camel and the Handshake
There is a saying that if something can be measured then it can be built. Story also has it that a group of French engineers were hired by the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation to fix the city’s electricity problems. After a week or so of climbing electrical poles (and swatting pesky crows) they packed their bags, wiped their sweaty brows, and said that it somehow works but had absolutely no idea how. They got on the next plane out and were never to be seen again. That’s Karachi for you.
“That’s it ?” my wife exclaimed. “ I am going half way across the world, to visit the city you grew up in and that’s all you’re going to tell me.”
“Yes…and that’s all you really need to know.”
Karachi, as Erika, my Chilean wife, was to experience is exactly that. Actually, most cities in Pakistan function on the “Principle-of-Somehow”. But that is exactly what gives life its spice or as the French engineers probably said, that ”je ne se quoi.”
If a shirt is white it will stain. With that basic premise, in Karachi you can not keep a shirt clean even if you tried. The humidity will make sure of that. The summer temperature flirts with the insane and with the humidity at eighty-percent sweat never dries. If not the weather, betel-nut juice will most definitely do you in. Erika and I were negotiating the crowds trying to leave Jinnah’s mausoleum one day when a man standing in front of us chewing vigorously, turned with caked red lips, and let loose a stream of red betel-nut juice. It happened extremely fast and Erika’s white shalwar was given a healthy dose of color in one Kodak moment.
My wife’s response was surprisingly appropriate – she laughed. There is not much else you can do. Anger frustrates and if you loose the ability to laugh the city will become a most certain hell. Karachi is a city of convergence. Convergence not only brings chaos but breeds fascination. People from all backgrounds flock to this metropolis to trade and make money. As a result bazaars in Karachi are numerous, underlining their sublime importance. Bazaars have always been linked to the fortunes of the city. As Karachi grew in significance so did the bazaars, in particular the Saddar Bazaar. Saddar is the oldest of the Karachi bazaars and was originally planned as a central market. These Regimental Bazaars, as they were originally known as, were strategic urban interventions made by the British in every city they occupied. Karachi’s Saddar Bazaar dates back to 1839 and continues to be the commercial heart of the city. If there is anything you need it can be bought in Saddar. Hungry? The best “nihari” can be bought here. Sex problems? Viagara or toad sweat – take your pick – both are available. Tooth-ache? Well, there is a wide selection of dubious Chinese dentists who not only pull out teeth but will replace them with the tooth of a crocodile. The reptilian teeth are supposedly smuggled from Mangho Pir – pulled from the jaws of the sleepy beasts supposedly guarding a saint’s shrine.
I took Erika through the Saddar Bazaar Quarter in search of a “hookah”. We were told the best hookahs, or water pipes, were found in Empress Market. With its wide galleries and an imposing tower Empress Market is choked with hundreds of stores selling just about anything. Empress Market is what the Crawford Markets of Bombay used to be during the pomp of the Presidency. It is also the site where the British Army strapped native sepoys to canons before blowing them to shreds for participating in the uprising of 1857. Arabs flock here to buy peregrine falcons and I was told that the going rate for a snow leopard was thirty-thousand US dollars. We eventually found our store in the depths of the Market and spent hours haggling over a beautiful antique hookah. Made of shaped mango wood and unpolished copper I would love to believe the old Pathan that it came from the haveli of a Talpur ruler around the 18th century. Empress Market is known as much for its storytelling as it is for its goods.
Karachi, 15 million people, give or take a few million, is sprawling. There is a lot to see but even more to sift through. It has come a long way from the original fifteen thousand inhabitants to being Pakistan’s most important and largest city. Karachi or “Krokala of Alexander” is one of seven “Alexandrias” Alexander left in his wake while marching through Asia. As of late, Karachi has earned unwarranted infamy for being a lawless and dangerous city. The reality, however, is that Karachi is like any large city with its unique burdens of sin and vice. Sensationalist comments like that of author Bernard-Henri Levy stating, “Pakistan is the biggest rogue of all the rogue states of today. I assert that what is taking form there, between Islamabad and Karachi, is a black hole compared to which Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad was an obsolete weapons dump,” are ridiculous and ignorant.
Visitors should be careful and avoid certain areas as when in any large metropolis. Erika experienced her own tense situation involving a “rogue” camel. These beasts of burden have terrible dispositions and will spit and bite at anything. We were at Clifton Beach one fine afternoon, the most accessible of all Karachi beaches when it happened . This entire area was an island at one time and was used by the British as a health resort replete with a sanitarium and sprawling residences. The beach is now a hub of activity teeming with restaurants, fortune-telling-parrots, and camel rides. After negotiating a price for Erika’s ride and getting her up on the camel the hungry beast scented her “Body Shop” lavender-foot-lotion. Instead of starting on its usual route it jumped, making circles and frothing frantically, desperately attempting to take a bite off Erika’s foot. Erika, however, was made of sterner stuff and kicked the camel in the head – reminding it that her feet were not edible.
I had taken Erika to experience Karachi for the first time not only as a tourist but as a family member. Married just a few months before the trip, she had yet to meet my extended family in Karachi and Lahore. With my sister also getting married during our trip to Karachi Erika was ensured a full dose of Pakistani culture. Weddings, as in India, are Pakistan’s cultural repositories. The two countries share so much in their collective consciousness. Sitting in a movie theatre watching Monsoon Wedding a few years later Erika exclaimed “Hey, that’s just like Farheen’s wedding.” She was referring to a scene’s similarity with the dozens of diyas flickering in our garden pond during my sister’s wedding. It was color and song that paraded over the bridge that night but it took someone from half-a-world away to mention the obvious.
What is obvious is that Musharraf and Vajpayee started with a tentative handshake this year. And it is a known fact that, “More history is made by secret handshakes than by battles, bills, and proclamations.”
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