Considered to be one of the most desperate slum areas in South Asia, Lyari is also the oldest locality of Pakistan’s sprawling, unpredictable and edgy metropolis, Karachi.
In the last decade or so, Lyari has constantly been appearing in the news whenever Karachi erupts into ethnic or gang-related violence. This is not to suggest that this area was a bastion of peace before the 2000s; but it is true that the political and criminal violence emerging within and from Lyari in the last 10 years has had a bigger impact on Karachi than ever before.
Criminal gangs dealing in drugs, guns, kidnapping and land scams with some of them even enjoying patronage from assorted political outfits and groups are a common sight in the narrow, crooked and overpopulated streets of Lyari.
But all this was not a sudden phenomenon emerging in the last decade or so. Nor is this all what Lyari is about.
Lyari also has a rich political and cultural history; a history that, rather ironically, has to be understood for anyone trying to make head or tails of the constant social and political turmoil and strife this large, awkward locality has been experiencing almost on a daily basis now.
First in line
Lyari is by far the oldest locality of Karachi having begun life centuries ago as a small fishing village.
The locality always had a large Afro-Indian/Pakistani population (Sheedis).
The Sheedis are believed to be the descendants of slaves, sailors, servants and merchants from East Africa who arrived between 1200 and 1900 AD.
In what is today Pakistan, these slaves largely settled along the Markran Coast in Balochistan (they are also called Makranis) and in lower Sindh.
Linguistically, they speak variations of Balochi and Sindhi and (in Karachi) they are also known to have created a distinct dialect of Urdu referred to as ‘Makrani’ in which Urdu words are mixed with Balochi and Sindhi expressions and even popular English terms, manly picked up from British and US films and TV series, are also regularly used, mostly in a tongue-in-cheek way.
Most Sheedis in Karachi were and still are associated with the fishing business (as fishermen, sailors and small boat operators). They also constitute the largest labour force employed at the Karachi port and harbour.
Over the years, especially after the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Lyari also began to witness the influx of Pushtuns, Sindhis and Mohajirs (including Memons) and (in the last 30 years), many working-class Afghans, Bengalis and Burmese migrants have also settled here.
The area is a working-class reflection of the stunning ethnic, religious and sectarian diversity that is the hallmark of Karachi’s bulging cosmopolitanism and indigenous secularism.
But Lyari is also the area that hardly benefited from the industrial growth and economic progress that Karachi enjoyed between the 1950s and early 1980s.
In fact by the late 1960s Lyari was well on its way to becoming a modern, urban slum.
The right stuff
But all this did not just produce a locality riddled with only crime, violence and economic desperation. The equation of poverty, overpopulation, diversity, crime, radical politics and the presence of a majority having a proud African lineage also gave birth to a working-class polity, spirituality and aesthetics that have generated a unique cultural scenario.
It is this mix that has correctly painted a perception of Makranis as being open-minded, large-hearted, hard-working people who speak a distinct slang-riddled version of street-Urdu and are passionate about football, boxing and the movies.
Some of the best international level boxers in Pakistan have almost all emerged from Lyari and same is the case with football. It is also perhaps the only area in Pakistan where these two sports actually overshadow cricket!
A majority of Makranis belong to the so-called Sunni ‘Barelvi’ school of faith – an indigenous sub-continental variation of ‘folk Islam’ that emerged in the 18th century as a reaction against the rise of puritanical Islamic movements.
Barelvi Islam is not a concrete doctrine. In essence it is highly decentralised and anti-dogma. It connotes the practice in which sub-continental folk mores are fused with the ritualism of Sufi Islam and the pluralistic and ‘poor-friendly’ culture of devotional music, charity and festivity found around shrines of Sufi saints across Pakistan and India.
Most Makranis of Lyari are the devotees of the legendary 12th century Sufi saint, Pir Mangho, whose shrine in the Mangopir area of Karachi is believed to be one of the oldest in the city.