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NON-FICTION: CHARTED TERRITORIES

Updated July 15, 2018

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After the first volume, which was a collection of maps and essays about Karachi, comes the second volume of Exhausted Geographies. Put together by artists and educators Shahana Rajani and Zahra Malkani and photographer/designer Abeera Kamran, and published with the support of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, US, this little package of four sets of two booklets each focuses on Karachi’s emerging urban issues and the representation of urban realities, fictive imaginaries of the urban and the discursive production of urban lifeworld. The material combines academic text and artistic imagery with maps, screenshots and other visual media.

The first set of booklets, ‘Jinnah Avenue’, looks at the 18-lane central artery running through Bahria Town. The region of Gadap is being rebranded as a real estate destination in the form of Bahria Town and DHA City: an encroachment, not on unoccupied land, but by deliberate displacement of communities from the several goths [villages] already settled there.

As such, Jinnah Avenue becomes not merely a connecting, but an erasing link. Roads such as this are produced as a precondition to urban existence, unlike the natural paths traced out over time as imprints on the land by vernacular occupiers. Roads represent a pre-formulated vision of social existence, what French urban theorist Henri Lefebvre categorised as conceived space. This, as the authors of Exhausted Geographies point out, is in stark contrast to lived space as manifested in Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai’s account of Sassui, who wandered through the untamed Gadap wildlands, tracing out her own path, conversing with the rocks, constructing meaning by merely existing and occupying the desert. The morphological dichotomy between vernacular paths and the developer’s road plans thus represent the perpetual tension between planned urban structure, form and regulatory frameworks, and the lover’s and dreamer’s constant existential struggle to navigate these unfamiliar features through finding meaning and making sense of individual existence within such alien(ating) geographies.

Exploring the loss of Karachi’s final frontiers to urban development

Set 2, ‘Rakshas [Demon] Railways and Unruly Lines’ describes the role of railways in colonising the subcontinent and how the imperial rail network was branded as the harbinger of ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’ to the wild, untamed and inaccessible settlements within the Indian heartlands — “We are told they made India into a nation.”

The authors critique the railway tracks as a mechanism for geographical acquisition and societal control which sought to expand the colonial agenda. As the tracks seeped ever further into the remotest villages, forests, deserts and unclaimed vastness of the subcontinent, they categorised the distinct masses, cultures, spaces and temporalities of the landmass, making them comprehensible, chartable and hence, controllable. This process was as much emotional as it was material and the railways served as the sites and instances of repression and humiliation. Naturally, they also became sites of resistance: they were challenged as icons of progress by being sabotaged by activists, who attempted to halt the colonial desire to access, map and exploit the land, and wanted to return it to its former opacity, to conceal the sacrality of land and resources. The authors hint at the Bahria Town project as yet another colonisation process, sharing many of the imperial aims of the European colonisers.

Both processes begin with what German sociologist Jurgen Habermas termed as the systemic colonisation of the lifeworld: an imposition of norms, images and categories that define the proposed future urban experience, followed by the physical and material manifestations of that colonisation. Hence, the branding processes used in informational brochures, YouTube videos and across electronic media create a picture of the suburban community as the ideal living experience, blinding consumers to the fact that pre-existing communities, realities and lifeworlds are being systematically wiped out to provide for a more superior and securitised experience of urban consumption.

Another similar process is occurring as the new nation-state apparatus drives forward the notions of ‘development’ in the remotest areas of Sindh and Balochistan under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor programme: the ‘necessity’ of development, for these areas to be ‘integrated’ into the national grand narrative, as the project dissects and colonises rural tribal landscapes as part of a grander, more rational ‘national’ project, coupled with the continued disappearances of civilians and communities — an example of the nation-state as constituted necessarily by acts of material and symbolic violence, as per British sociologist Anthony Giddens.

The text of Exhausted Geographies is rather poetic: without valorising terrorist or separatist activities it tries to bring to light the commonalities with imperial colonisation that are being replicated by the Pakistani state itself. The authors reiterate the notion of resistance and the various forms it takes in an urban milieu. As Spanish urban sociologist Manuel Castells pointed out, wherever there is an imposed urban plan or political decision, there exist various grassroots or social movements which actively resist and propose alternate meanings and functionalities for the same urban space.

Set 3, ‘Churawaro’ details how the mountain of that name was levelled so that new maps could be drawn on appropriated topography. Through small, riveting paragraphs of text with provocative titles, the booklet presents how new narratives for Gadap have evolved over the last few years, a process which French social theorist Michel Foucault categorised as the creation of a new “regime of truth” based on particular visions of physical transformation masquerading under a generic notion of urban development.

Set 4, ‘Borders’, looks at how the city’s spatialities are reconfigured, transforming formerly undisputed accessibilities into new exclusivities through increasingly indiscreet surveillance and policing measures. It examines the gradually expanding jurisdiction of the Rangers in Karachi, and how the force is engaged in various instances of furthering the financialised securitisation of the new state vision. The set critiques the Karachi Operation from an urban point of view, one of security and notions of inclusive urban citizenship.

The booklets making up Exhausted Geographies are enlightening. They explore, in a scientific as well as humanistic vein, the metalinguistic appropriation of a little-known but significant frontier of Karachi’s new urban developments and the multiple motives behind it. They attempt to deconstruct the imagery propagated by proponents of such urban projects, to bring to light alternate systems and institutionalisations of meaning and utility within the urban milieu. They make a brilliant contribution to the scarce pool of academic writing on the accelerating urbanisation processes in one of the most significant cities of the global south.

The reviewer is an architect currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the Middle East Technical University, Turkey

Exhausted Geographies
By Shahana Rajani,
Zahra Malkani and
Abeera Kamran

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 15th, 2018