It is estimated that around 55 percent of people in the world live in urban centres and an essential service that a city must offer is mobility. Whether one can comfortably walk in a city depends on what urban planners call the “walkability” of the space. Walkability is measured by various factors, including the presence and quality of sidewalks, its connectivity, cleanliness, proximity to transit and some amenities, such as shade and streetlamps.
In understanding urban experience, factors noted less but closer to Pakistan are impacts of surveillance, the disproportionate targeting of ethnic minorities by law enforcement agencies — making their visibility in public spaces look criminal — and the suspicion around the kind of walking that seems to have no evident purpose or destination.
In 2017, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) issued a press release flaying the Punjab government for the “racial profiling” and “stereotyping” of Pakhtuns, after the population was asked to keep an eye on suspicious individuals who looked like Pakhtuns or were from the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). Military checkpoints have often been sites of horror for Pakhtuns, while police patrols often mistake Hazaras for foreigners.
In hyper-sensitive security states, where the threat to the state’s sovereignty constantly alternates with a threat to the state’s religion, surveillance and moral policing become part of routine. Under such circumstances, the concept of walking aimlessly, strolling with no destination in mind, just occupying space, then invites greater scrutiny.
In deeply capitalist urban centres this happens because purposeless loitering fails to pass the test of productively spending time — something that is, in fact, hard to pin down. In our part of the world, where being constantly productive is increasingly becoming the new language of worship, against a backdrop of ethnic profiling and looming security concerns, just being unexplained in a place is perceived as possible trouble rather than possible profundity.
To put it simply, in our shared imagination, we have forgotten that existing in spaces outside — under the sky, sitting carelessly besides trucks passing by, a stop by the petrol pump, walking past flowers and breathing in their fragrance, watching the sunrise — are acts of living without obligations, not of suspicion. We have forgotten that it is not only what we plan for which leads to results; sometimes we can also walk into miracles. And sometimes we walk, just for the sake of it.
In the context of capitalist productivity and security concerns, purposeless walking is considered an irregularity. What are we missing out by denying ourselves the freedom of loitering in our city streets?
It is in the refusal to be pinned down that the magic of wandering rests. It is hard to tell what it is or what it is not, yet what it is not is of more significance. Aimless walking is a wandering that exists in denial of any categorisation.
Part of it means for anyone to be anywhere, anytime, with or without purpose, with or without identification, with or without a plan in mind. This kind of aimlessness can very well be the opening scene of a Hollywood psychopath thriller, where the psychopath is the very antichrist of this article’s walking hero. A person without a plan, is a person up to no good. Does reimagining walkability of a city take into consideration random loitering? Not quite.
Jeff Speck, a renowned urban planner advocating for walkable cities, puts forth buzzwords such as economy, health and environment as salient benefactors of a walkable reconstruction of the city. Most walkable city projects argue that making urban spaces pedestrian-friendly is ultimately more useful.
The making of a walkable city around points of usefulness will only give centre-stage to those who actively participate in the everyday capitalist bargain, who do not look like the ethnically profiled Pakistanis, those who dress in a particular way (those who do not eat in Ramazan?) and not those who disengage from the race of conformity and roam free or without purpose.
The walkable design caters to those who idealise making each moment utilitarian, safe and convenient, echoing a unique capitalist-security psychology. One must ask, from whom are we seeking security and for who? If, and when, we have this conversation in Pakistan, will we be questioning the hegemony of powerful groups, such as the military to industrialist Malik Riaz and his likes and their nexuses, to define the urban experience? I very much hope we do.
For several groups of people, including women, ethnic and religious minorities and others who are marginalised, wandering is a dreamy rendition of a freedom that they already have minimal access to.
One may argue that the sidelining of strolling is an unintended consequence of development, and that this lazy, selfish and regressive mechanism of development can only be enabled thus. Such costs one must pay for the greater good. One may also argue that trying to make cities walkable now, in Speck’s definition of it, is a way of correcting that wrong.
But walkable cities do not automatically make them conducive to wanderings. They do not lift the suspicion off those who do not want to spend time productively. It does not forgive those who loiter. It does not stop law enforcement agents from profiling, illegally interrogating and killing unarmed citizens, citizens who just happen to be from marginalised communities; not even in the wrong place at the wrong time — just in a place at a time.
Shoshana Zuboff, in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, talks about the commodification of personal data happening through mass surveillance on the internet. Her work shows that everything on the internet is used as raw material for translation into behavioural data. In a time when a deleted photograph from our cellphones does not go unrecorded, the irregularity caused by purposeless walking does not go unnoticed, either.
The targeting of citizens occupying space, at their own leisure, is not by accident but by design. In this age, the refusal to be put in binaries of useful or useless disrupts a matrix of human predictability and behaviour. To have our feet take us places without having a place in mind, without necessary caution, without a direction, without documents, without a face that can pass off as non-threatening, can turn fatal.
This is not to say that a grand plotting is going on against random musings and walking, but that unpredictability is becoming increasingly criminalised, and this is a serious repercussion of that.
The question now is, what can be done to have pockets of a consequence-free space of being? We can, for one, think seriously about alternatives to the system that reduces human beings to data sets of predictable behaviour.
Another option could be to carry on with the rage of our own dignity. Keep occupying space, keep confusing algorithms by being fiercely unpredictable, by humming lullabies for families outside government hospitals waiting to hear better news about their loved ones, by putting flowers on graves of unknown people, by sharing a meal with those who sleep under the overhead bridges, by accompanying fellow women home from bus stations.
This is not to say that we trivialise poverty or begin unironically participating in it. This is about ending the compartmentalisation of the human worth and urban experience, based solely on material realities.
This is about remembering that, in our own history of Islam permeating South Asia, we have saints walking, embodying light, speaking truth and acting with kindness, and that allows us to profess the kalma today. It is about remembering that we are not entirely capitalist yet and we have not entirely forgotten our past, where walking, journeying, wandering, signified contemplation and sacredness.
We need urban developers to have a broader vision in conceptualising walkability. We need to demand schools teach us to be mindful as well as ambitious. We need to hold the law accountable for making free time suspicious. The list goes on.
Wandering is about a right to space and a responsibility, too. About occupying a space but not assuming the world revolves around you. It is about basking in the simplicity of complex mechanisms and being present in transient moments.
To loiter is to acknowledge that time and space are the economy, politics, poetry and a necessary void, all at the same time. We must leap forward to embrace it, dance in it.
The writer is a social justice worker and a graduate student at Harvard University She tweets @Minahil_mehdi
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 25th, 2021