CLAIRE CHAMBERS teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations, 1780-1988.
CLAIRE CHAMBERS teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations, 1780-1988.

ISLAMABAD was created during Gen Ayub Khan’s rule in the early 1960s by a team of developers led by Constantinos Doxiadis, a town planner from Greece. Doxiadis’s Greek nationality helped his appointment to Islamabad, for it placed him at one remove from the Western neo-colonisers many Pakistanis were suspicious about. In his recent book, Islamabad and the Politics of International Development in Pakistan, Markus Daechsel shows that although Pakistan’s capital is a less famous South Asian planned city than Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, its story is no less interesting. The new city was originally planned for the outskirts of Karachi, but was eventually located near Ayub Khan and the military’s stronghold of Rawalpindi.

Islamabad is a picturesque city, divided into sectors based on the letters of the alphabet. Like many bureaucratic capitals, it also has the reputation of being a boring place. As the strapline for Hammad Khan’s film Slackistan puts it, “The city that never always sleeps”. Despite its alleged tedium, Islamabad might almost be regarded as the sixth character in this film about five young, affluent, male and female friends.

Slackistan opens with a travelling shot of the backs of “a couple of random guys” walking down one of Islamabad’s tree-lined dual carriageway central reservations. In a Quentin Tarantino-inspired scene, these hipsters discuss the relative merits of a foreign fast food eatery, a local restaurant, and chicken chow mein. At the end of their conversation, the men’s upper bodies are captured in freeze-frame. A languid voiceover explains that the pair is moneyed and well-educated, but still can’t decide what to eat: “It doesn’t matter if it’s American, desi, or Chinese. If they can’t […] make up their mind and choose what they want, they’ll end up with nothing”.


There is quite a lot going on in Pakistan’s capital city, otherwise known as the place where nothing much happens


This signposts the picture’s deeper substratum about Westernised 20-somethings in Pakistan. This demographic, the film suggests, faces confusion about the direction their lives should take as the country is increasingly contorted with violence.

Hasan, whose voiceover it is, is an Isloo-wallah. He relates some of Islamabad’s history, calling (unnamed) Ayub Khan’s vision for his city a perfect “masterplan”. His confident tone dissolves into hesitancy as he says, “in theory, anyway”. A split screen flashes up with the caption “Good Sector” over a well-heeled area atop the lower screen, where the words “Bad Sector” are superimposed on a slum district. Halfway through Slackistan, Hasan makes a rare trip outside his air-conditioned milieu into F6 Colony, the home of many poor Christians. There he sees open drains and children playing on a hazardous trampoline near a rubbish tip. So much for Doxiadis’s intention that Islamabad’s grid system would contain everyday life within safe, intimate spaces.

In Sorayya Khan’s stunning recent novel City of Spies, the topic of a divided city is projected onto a 1970s backdrop. Aliya is a pre-pubescent girl who attends the American School of Islamabad and lives in a relatively “good sector” with her Dutch mother, Pakistani father, their servant Sadiq, and his small son. If Aliya feels insecure as a middle-class “half-and-half”, the racial and class-based indignities she suffers are nothing compared to Sadiq’s humiliation and pain. Each day, this manservant struggles to run errands on his bicycle along dangerous, potholed roads. He regularly has to swerve to avoid the spit-balls lobbed at him by raucous American boys aboard Aliya’s school bus. One day a white woman mows down and kills Sadiq’s son in a hit-and-run accident. In this “city of spies”, Sadiq himself begins spying on his son’s killer as his mental health unravels.

“Nothing ever happens” in Islamabad, Aliya tells her father. That is to say, until something does happen, namely the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto under the Ziaul Haq regime in 1979. In the same tumultuous year, Sorayya reminds us, Afghanistan was invaded by Russian troops, American hostages were held in Iran, and the Grand Mosque in Makkah was seized for two fraught weeks. The Grand Mosque seizure was accompanied in Pakistan by spurious rumours of the United States’ involvement. In response, the American embassy in Islamabad deflagrated. Violence and fear now reach Aliya’s hermetically sealed school.

Sorayya also took on the task of writing about her blood-spattered 1970s Islamabad home in her debut novel Noor. The novel is partly set eight years earlier than City of Spies, in 1971. Thematic concerns of hatred and love, disability and artistic genius are cast onto the Bangladesh war. Ali is an estate agent whose house is known locally as “Ali’s Sector” because its modular structure reflects that of the city. Out of guilt for his role as a West Pakistani soldier, at the end of the war of 1971 Ali adopts Sajida, the five-year-old daughter of a dead Bengali woman. Sajida marries and has two healthy sons. She then gives birth to Noor, a girl who, even during her pregnancy, her mother knows will be different.

Despite her undiagnosed mental disability, Noor has an almost preternatural gift for painting other people’s dreams and reminiscences. This disturbs Noor’s grandfather Ali, who has until now successfully repressed his memories of the atrocities in Bangladesh. After the war he takes pains to avoid the half-constructed, empty houses strewn around the city. He knows that these dwellings belonged to East Pakistanis killed in or forced to flee after the war. The ghostly domiciles sit oddly next to the exuberant urban growth and rampant corruption that exists in the capital city. A sublime view of the Margalla Hills from Ali’s Sector is, over time, impeded by construction works and the sprouting of “massive pillars and mansions” out of the scrubland.

Sophia Khan’s Dear Yasmeen is initially set in snowy New York state, and only in the second half do we get some glimpses of Islamabad. The city is a kaleidoscope of chaotically female interior spaces: “Petticoats of six different colours adorn every surface and blouses loiter adulterously over petticoats with which they don’t belong. Jewellery cases spill over on the dressing table, gold lengths a gleaming mess around stern, solid bits of stone. A clutter of half-filled perfume bottles [marches] over the bureau.”

The womanly milieu that Sophia Khan delineates here chimes with fellow Pakistani-American writer Sara Suleri’s Lahore-based Meatless Days. The memoir’s famous first line reads: “Leaving Pakistan was, of course, tantamount to giving up the company of women”. Sophia’s picture of the detritus from the women’s preparations for a wedding also recalls Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. In this 18th century poem readers behold the heroine’s accessories and cosmetics overspilling onto her dressing table: “Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux”. Just as Pope sneaks in the Christian holy book to this alliterative line, so too does Sophia allow the dangerous adverb “adulterously” entrance into her seemingly innocuous list. This is significant, as the novel soon establishes that Irenie’s mother left her family due to an extramarital affair.

The three Khans — Hammad, Sorayya, and Sophia — are perspicacious Isloowallahs. Male auteur Hammad’s panoramic Slackistan centres on men roaming around the city and going for expansive drives. By contrast, Sorayya’s and Sophia’s Islamabad novels tend to focus more on domestic spaces, interiors, and occasional, supervised trips to viewpoints like that at the Margalla Hills. All three convey truths about men and women, the home and the world in Pakistan’s youthful capital city.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 1st, 2017