The people of Karachi can see doors outisde their personal prisons, but none lead anywhere, or to any hope. —Photo by Reuters
Suffering does not always entail visible pain.
In Jean Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit”, the characters are condemned not to the fire and brimstone of an expected hell, but rather to the company of each other.
Two women and one man are condemned to spend eternity in a living room, a hot and stifling one, where there are no mirrors and no means of ever escaping. To see themselves they have only their reflection in the eyes of the others.
Their terror is not physical but existential, and it's crushing; it grits the reader’s teeth and presents to them, the unseen barriers of a prison with no bars. Isolation and the dependence it necessitates toward those closest can be its own frightening curse.
It is just such a thrall that has descended upon Karachi.
Unlike the condemned of Sartre’s No Exit; the city’s new terror is also existential. The lanes and alleys of the city are bursting over with its literal carnage, its falling corpses and ubiquitous guns, its showering bullets and rising smoke — all a dismal parade of peril.
Much like the only escape in 'No Exit' opens into a hallway of more doors and dead ends, the metropolis is stuck in a damning political isolation, its variety of woes not able to move the hearts and minds of those doling out resources in Islamabad.
For the people of Karachi, it is an unwanted sentencing of seclusion; they can see terror burning in the eyes of those around them but can never escape it.
Of course, all of this can be ignored by the terror-hardened, by the experts of averting eyes, shifting glances, distracting themselves by a retreat into an ever narrower realm. In the play and in our very own city, the architecture of existential terror comes from an interplay of the seen and unseen. What cannot be seen, what exists behind doors and inside hearts is a far more threatening chokehold.
With an attack on an airport the analogy is complete. The visible doors are all lined up in the corridors that the people of Karachi can see outside their personal prisons; but none of them lead anywhere, or provide any hope.
With two attacks in just as many days on the city’s gateway to the world; the metaphorical has become literal. With such dangling threats as six-hour sieges by massively armed gunmen now actualities; the number of airlines willing to fly their planes into an avowedly deadly city is likely to dwindle to a trickle.
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The possibility of leaving makes staying a choice, and choices are always better loved than impositions.
Already, the citizens of Pakistan are condemned by the world to having one of the worst passports, one that permits them entry into less than 35 countries without “special processing”. The borders have become constrictions, whose exactions will go beyond the present and strangle what is left of an already dimly lit life.
Coming and going, earning and sending, have formed the economic backbone of the city. But the vertebrae have now cracked under the pressures of global taint, local inaction and existential hell.
The last attack, the burnt men found in a cold storage plant, the date-eating attackers driven to kill thousands showed the feebleness of its fortifications.
Inside sit the condemned, needled by the constant power outages, tortured by the uncertainty, in a darkness that in the moment bears little promise of dissipating.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.
She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria
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