IT can be a remarkable voyage when you find that familiar places have, despite the passage of years, still managed to not yield all their secrets.
So it was for me when I recently visited the F-9 park in Islamabad. Officially known as the Fatima Jinnah Park, it covers an entire sector in the heart of one of the oldest belts of the city. At 304 hectares (750 acres) — that apparently makes it just smaller than New York’s Central Park — it was inaugurated in 1992. At the time, it was a vast wilderness of pretty much nothing, meant to take shape over the years along the lines envisioned by its designer, Michael Japero. Kids used to go there for driving practice. Its vast expanse and early stages of development made it virtually impossible to police effectively, and apart from its parts near the gates, it was generally considered unsafe to go far inside.
That was then. Now, it’s a flourishing place of abundant greenery, fenced all around, criss-crossed with popular walking and cycling trails, effectively a wildlife sanctuary. The acreage presents the picture of somewhat tamed wilderness, with only a few man-made compounds. One of them is a game zone with restaurants and the opportunity of laser-tag, amongst other family-friendly pursuits. I’d been there, on occasion, over the years — to walk, to simply sit at peace and dream. The built-up areas I stayed away from, but was familiar with their exteriors. Yet, as I said, not till last week did the park disclose to me one of its secrets: the Citizen (sic; the missing apostrophe infuriates the sub in me!) Club.
The first arresting aspect was the sheer scale of its ambition. With a covered area of 265,000 square feet, it has majestically sweeping stairwells and solid-fronted balustrades done in stone cladding, vaulting towers and imposing hallways that lead into the uncompromisingly military fortress-style building. The ageing yellow stone glowing in the late afternoon sunlight, the bear pit worthy of a Spartacus-style fighting arena (though in this case thankfully covered in lush, well-mown grass), the armed-citadel feel of the complex, charmed and awed in equal measure. It might as well have borne a plaque declaiming, I thought whimsically, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”
That was till the eye started taking in the other details. If the complex had been designed with such an impressively bastion-like feel in mind, befitting of the capital city of a (self-avowedly) powerful country, what were wooden jharokay doing framing the balconies? If the complex was meant to be the architectural equivalent of the roar of the lion, was it necessary for it to reveal its soft underbelly? Would the commanders of such severe beauty really be standing at windows evocative of a fairytale castle? Hard or soft power? Military or fairytale? The architect, and those that approved this billion-plus rupee plan, were unable to decide, it would appear.
Still, enough said of Nayyar Ali Dada’s design. The confused aesthetics of the Fatima Jinnah Park Citizen Club are merely the beginning of its sorry tale.
The project was commissioned by the Capital Development Authority (CDA) in 2008. The total cost was at the time estimated at Rs1.3 billion. In 2010, when construction was nearly complete (news reports say that Rs1bn had already been spent), the Supreme Court stepped in, objecting that the building (which houses restaurants, a pool, gym, etc. on a grand scale) ought not be used as a club since that would benefit primarily the elite — much like the Islamabad Club, which is a no-go area for mortals. This structure was housed in a public park, the SC noted.
“As a huge amount has already been spent [on the club] the CDA, with the approval of the federal government, instead of abandoning the project may utilise the building and other facilities for any public welfare project like a women’s university, medical/engineering college, science, technology or IT institution,” read the 2010 SC verdict.
The project came to a halt. Work started again around six years ago, say news reports, but in the interim the cost had escalated by some Rs500 million. It was nevertheless completed, and from time to time, various proposals were floated as to how this behemoth should be used, amongst them a plan to convert it into a medical university. This idea was endorsed by the architect, but shot down by the CDA, which said that the establishment of a ‘national centre’ or ‘cultural centre’ (whatever that means) was under consideration.
Fast forward to 2021 and in late July, Prime Minister Imran Khan visited the building and formed a two-member committee, comprised of CDA chairman Amer Ali and architect Mr Dada, to propose the utility of this structure — so much at the end of his tether was he.
Currently, though, the Citizen Club does serve the people. A few of its rooms are being used as a Covid vaccination centre, which is the context in which I went looking for it.
Through its dark, cavernous halls echo the cries and complaints of the elderly who find the vaccination exercise here involves more physical mobility than they have, and in the lush green surroundings of the park, this building listens to the queries of confused citizens looking for answers.
Perhaps, after all, this is in the fittingness of things. For the people, as is said, but not by them.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2021