Zaheer pushed the wheelchair through the muddy web of ever-tightening alleys until the huts pressed so close together the sunlight could barely find the street beneath his bare feet.
“I picked this up from a garbage dump,” the proud seven-year-old said, revolving the wheelchair around and swatting the hands of envious friends clambering to touch his new toy.
“You’ll get a turn if you push me first,” he sneered.
In the next instant, speeding silhouettes chased after the boys as they pushed Zaheer down the footpath, his hands up in the air as if he were riding a rollercoaster.
They are like kids with toys anywhere in the world, oblivious for the most part to the darker universe they inhabit here in Maskeenabad, a slum pressing on the margins of Islamabad.
Although over 3,000 Afghans were moved out of Maskeenabad between 2005-06 when the government started its drive to register foreigners living in Pakistan, the katchi abadi (informal settlement) is still called Afghan Basti – a name that has become synonymous with the stigma of being an unwanted foreigner and marked Maskeenabad for immediate eviction by authorities struggling to appear serious about purging Islamabad of terrorists. Most residents pull out their national ID cards to prove they are Pakistani citizens.
Officers in the police station across the street say the slum is riddled with crime, drugs and liquor. But they are unable to show a single record of terrorism cases registered against its inhabitants.
Shaista Sohail, the member estate at Capital Development Authority, does not have a resettlement plan. What she has instead is this: the CDA will send trucks to take the residents back to their hometowns in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas — an accidental admission, perhaps, that the slum’s inhabitants aren’t in fact all foreigners?
From the astigmatic lens of the CDA, it’s as simple as, “If you want to live in Islamabad, you have to pay rent. It’s time to clean up this mess.”
The slum is no doubt an eyesore. Thousands of tiny mud huts huddle together, holding families of fifteen people in a single room. The streets stink of sewage. Flies buzz over fruits carts and wandering goats, dogs and people.
Armed with a rainbow palette of buckets and tubs, dozens of families line up in front of a single tap from where water flows for only about two hours a day. There are no gas or electricity connections. After a few days of rain, malaria hangs in the air like bile.
Old women will tell you about the old man with gangrene whose legs ballooned into tree trunks.
Everywhere you look is a reminder of the failure of Pakistan’s leaders to make room in their cities for millions of rural migrants escaping earthquakes, floods, wars or just plain misery back home.
This is Maskeenabad, a cliché of poverty.
But stop a moment and listen: behind the din of omnipresent helplessness, you can overhear people’s resilience and their constant struggles to preserve, to consolidate — and not to become mere victims.
Like most of the slum’s residents, Maqsooda’s husband works in the vegetable and fruit bazaar across the settlement. From six in the morning till nine at night, he loads cartons off trucks and earns Rs300 at the end of the day.
“They don’t install gas and electricity connections here because they think we’ll get fed up and leave,” said Maqsooda, who made Maskeenabad her home nineteen years ago.
“But what they don’t understand is even with three hundred rupees and without power, this is home. We are at peace here.”
Indeed, in Maskeenabad, perhaps as in the mega-slums of Mumbai or Mexico City, people speak of their miseries and dream of better lives matter-of-factly, as if they were a distant relative visiting next week.
“Allah is behind us,” said local community leader Shah Fazal. “Better times are coming.”
But for now, the future only promises rents, demolitions, evictions and the loss of a make-believe security for the residents of Maskeenabad as well as 80,000 other slum dwellers in Islamabad.
But inside the slum, as outside in this unequal city of Islamabad, people soldier on.
Without video games and computers, children play with bottle tops and plastic plates. They splash about in a stream, unfazed by the garbage that is their swimming companion. Women sow together a Pakistani and an American flag rescued from an anti-US protest and hang it in place of a door.
Zaheer and his friends find a new game. They tie colourful plastic bags together with a web-like frame of sticks and the reel of a broken cassette tape. The patchwork kite is a microcosm of Maskeenabad: improvised, imperfect, enough.
The boys climb to the roof of their precarious homes. The kite leaps cheerfully in the sky. This is the delight, I imagine, of being above the world.