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NON-FICTION: KARACHI CONVERSATIONS

Updated August 13, 2017

A few months ago, I confided in my editor that I was perhaps growing too close to my subject — the worker of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) — and that I might be losing sight of journalistic objectivity. I argued that I was rationalising their decisions in an attempt to understand them and their viewpoint better, but in turn, I was having my moral compass skewed.

The MQM is a pervading theme across Cityscapes of Violence in Karachi: Publics and Counterpublics, a book that seeks to understand Karachi in its nuanced details. In recent years, scholarship on Karachi has seen a boom, thanks in part to the academics who have contributed to this book. Nichola Khan (also the editor of the book), Laurent Gayer and Oskar Verkaaik are established authorities on the MQM; Arif Hasan, Kamran Asdar Ali and Asif Farrukhi are veterans of cultural geographies in Karachi; Nadeem F. Paracha and Zia ur Rehman are renowned journalists; Nida Kirmani and Kausar S. Khan have a particular lens that is as incisive as it is heart-rending.

Most fascinating for the reader is the use of competing lenses to understand the city — in some cases, these have yielded contradictory results. That does not automatically mean that the results of scholarship are flawed. Rather, it hints at parallel lived realities and experiences, all of which are legitimate in their own right and bring something unique to the table. Karachi can best be understood by stringing together these varied lived experiences that in turn hint at how life is being shaped despite the violent streak of the city. But while the everyday in Karachi can seem worlds apart, this book is a conversation between the gods of scholarly writing on Karachi.

Understanding the city through the prism of ‘conflict in motion’

The anthology begins with Farrukhi locating Karachi’s many everyday forms of violence and survival in the poetry of Azra Abbas. A woman who negotiated the trials and tribulations of the city in the 1950s, Abbas searches for forms and voices that denote surviving or merely existing in a space that is seemingly as friendly as it is oppressive. The lens matters, too: a woman negotiating pain in the city has greater tones of helplessness and resistance.

Nichola Khan reveals the shared anxiety of many serious scholars and journalists working on the MQM: an initial position of trying to understand them can slip into a position of sympathy. Indeed, her position is unique: she was a daughter-in-law of a Mohajir family, living in one of the most radicalised localities of the city – Liaquatabad – a ‘no-go area’ and a neighbourhood close to the frontlines of ethnic conflict. Given the surroundings and collective psyche at play in Liaquatabad, Khan sometimes struggles to maintain neutrality in the moment, but recovers it after considered reflection.

The romance associated with the MQM includes, in part, its capacity to manufacture a narrative of its own, which may or may not be divorced from the lived reality of others. Through the decades, the MQM has preferred to establish order and disorder at will. Without a doubt, this has involved degrees of savagery and ruthlessness.

What many scholars fail to appreciate, however, is how the prolonged shadow cast by the MQM has altered the political fabric of Karachi. If the fabric is violent, then so too are the politics and counter-politics woven into it. The MQM blames the Jamaat-i-Islami for breeding a culture of violence; the PPP and the Awami National Party in turn hold the MQM responsible. Of late, the rise of sectarian politics in the city places the blame on secular politics for a militarised fabric. Notwithstanding who holds the monopoly over violence, conflict has emerged as the currency of politics in Karachi and no political actor has been spared.

But the MQM remains a pervading theme through the book, signifying the impact it has had in setting the tone of contemporary Karachi politics. This is something the contributing scholars and journalists all seem to agree upon — the party’s erstwhile attempts at cultural hegemony are punctured by a dose of nuance: how MQM’s Pakhtun worker feels marginalised despite benefitting from power (Gayer), how Mohajir representation found a voice in the Dawat-i-Islami and how Sufi traditions became appropriated and employed in Mohajir movements (Verkaaik), or even how the Pakhtun are no longer a voice on the margins (Rehman).

In fact, most chapters delve into and unveil what shapes a citizen in Karachi. What binds the perpetrator of violence and the victim? What impact does the past have on defining the present? Is peaceful protest a moment of surrender? Is politics anathema? Are neighbourhood alliances merely a way of temporary reprieve, or are they a way of constructing a peaceful future?

One of the most fascinating chapters in the book is penned by Kirmani who explores fear and loathing in Lyari, one of Karachi’s oldest and romanticised neighbourhoods and once a stronghold of the PPP. Kirmani’s largely Baloch respondents report a fear of being targeted by the MQM, and so, many relocated to and found jobs in non-MQM localities. But as they negotiate one fear, they are trapped in another as gangsters from their own communities begin holding them hostage.

But it is important to note as well the level of savagery that has seeped into Lyari’s gangsters. While Khan makes mention of a Mohajir militant who killed a pregnant woman to incite widespread fear, conversations with journalists from Lyari will also reveal the mirroring of torture techniques that were the preserve of the MQM in the 1990s. In essence, the same violent fabric producing the same kind of responses to survive and thrive.

Although Kirmani sees a protest against gangsters at the Press Club as a moment of people’s agency being executed, turf politics necessitates the larger silence or agreement — if not outright collusion — of those living on that turf. While the MQM had perfected this art of creating cooperation, the People’s Amn Committee was still in its infancy before the state cracked down on it. Remembrance of violence, however, breeds helplessness — the story of Lyari is about negotiating fear and helplessness to find some semblance of normalcy. Response to such vulnerability often comes from the media, and journalist Razeshta Sethna details the MQM’s hold over what could be printed and what couldn’t.

Meanwhile, Arif Hasan’s essay on the demise of a cosmopolitan culture in the city and its rebirth in recent times hints at the multiple fault lines on which Karachi’s society stands today. He cautions against celebrating the revival of cosmopolitanism if “social hierarchies of class and privilege” will now be reproduced in the public sphere.

The anthology concludes with Kamran Asdar Ali exploring how the citizens of Pakistan’s largest metropolis find ways of peaceful coexistence despite their differences. Everyday interactions manufacture conditions for cooperation — for instance, land grabbers associated with various political parties find ways to work together when it concerns profit and loss. This is despite the cosmetic layer of ethnic strife that these parties tend to propagate. Cutting through this illusion is the ordinary people’s will to “connect with varied modes of living.”

The reviewer is a member of staff

Cityscapes of Violence in Karachi:
Publics and Counterpublics
Edited by Nichola Khan
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199405664
274pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 13th, 2017