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Karachi’s three cultures

September 14, 2011

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Karachi justifies its claim to be a post-feudal city. Its dominant culture is defined by an urge to create/produce something that can be marketed. – Photo courtesy of ‘Anathema’/Karachi Metblogs

THE debate on targeted killings and extortion in Karachi is not only bringing a bad name to the metropolis, it is also administering an unwarranted insult to its great inhabitants. To be fair to them the present crisis must be examined in the context of Karachi’s three cultures.

Karachi justifies in many ways its claim to be a post-feudal city. Its dominant culture, to which a preponderant majority of the population subscribes, is defined by an urge to create/produce something that can be marketed. Everybody, from a coolie to an industrial baron, is engaged in utilising all his time to do something, to produce something that will enable him to maintain his family, augment his resources and climb higher in society. It is this urge that has enabled a large number of people, coming from various stocks and professing different faiths, to raise Karachi to what it today is. And this largely by the dint of their hard work, often in spite of the powers that be.

The essence of this culture is the high value attached to time — much higher than perhaps in Lahore (still wallowing in feudal habits) and surely higher than in Islamabad (the city of opium-eaters where time has little value). The public dismay at any enforced suspension of work — caused by a call for hartal or disruption of power supply — is to be seen to be believed.

Whenever a strike is called, workplaces have to be closed and vehicles kept off the road to avoid heavy losses. But everyone remains keen to break the ban. As the evening approaches and the vigilantes retire to report success to their superiors, the vendors rush to their posts, shops reopen and streets come alive with fast-moving, noisy traffic.

In this culture, until some years ago, people were producers and consumers, sellers and buyers, service providers and customers, employers and employees. Their relations depended on the quality of goods and services and the level of job performance. The ethnic/linguistic identity of the other party did not matter. Then a virus entered this culture according to which good partnership was possible with only one of ‘us’ and not with ‘them’. This virus has surely affected a sizeable part of the population but it is not strong enough to destroy the city’s overall tradition of productive activity.

Karachi’s second culture, the most sublime of the three, is identified by its huge strides in the area of philanthropy and social service. Even before independence, Karachi was known for its public-spirited individuals — men like Shahanis, Jamshed Nusserwanjee Mehta and Abdullah Haroon — and it had more institutions of public service than any other town in Pakistan.

Despite everything that has happened in the country, Karachi still leads in this field. The Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplant, the Edhi Foundation, the Citizens Foundation, the Aga Khan University Hospital and the Urban Resource Centre, to name only a few, are institutions any country should be proud of. And there are scores of other associations and organisations that are offering help and relief to the needy.

Since Karachi is facing threats to its multicultural identity, perhaps the most relevant example of its culture of social service is the Orangi Pilot Project. The months-old lawlessness has tested the mettle of Akhtar Hameed Khan’s successors in all the areas of their work — schools, health, micro-credit and urban facilities (water supply, drainage, etc) and they have come out with flying colours. They are helping provincial and local governments with surveys, maps and technical assistance in remodelling urban settlements and designing new ones. Above all, they have offered models of multicultural settlements. Everyday many of their workers travel from one ‘ethnic zone’ to another on their way to office. They do not claim to be free from fear, only their commitment to their mission is stronger. Here is a framework for restoring peace and order in Karachi. (Other cities are not barred from profiting from this model.)

The third culture of Karachi has once again been brought into focus during the recent rains. There were traffic jams on main Sharea Faisal. Many vehicles had to be abandoned by the roadside. The young ones out to collect booty removed radios and other valuable parts from many of these vehicles. Worse, there were reports that trained hawks swooped down upon stranded carriers and deprived helpless travellers of cellphones and jewellery. This is the culture that inspires every evil that is being discussed today — extortion, protection money, ethnic hatred and wanton killing.

Everybody knows how the seeds of this obnoxious culture have been sown. When a boy in his teens is asked to knock at every door and ask for contribution to a fund needed to buy bullets, or when he is told to collect bhatta from a shopkeeper, he loses all capacity to differentiate between good and bad. And when a gun is put in his hands this marks the beginning of his transformation into a serial killer.

If one can get a degree without attending a course or a monthly salary without doing any work you will soon get a crop of criminal-minded young men whose lust for plunder grows as they advance in age and need more resources to meet their more expensive lifestyle. There is little point in trying to discover who the original culprits were because now a free-for-all situation cannot be denied.

Two other facts also cannot be denied. First, those already afflicted by the culture of thuggery cannot easily be reclaimed, because they do not know anything else. Time alone will rid society of these thoroughly ruined beings. Secondly, this culture will continue to receive recruits so long as their employers can enjoy the fruits of their brigandage.

The future not only of Karachi but Pakistan as a whole will be shaped by the success of Karachi’s two traditional cultural strands to extirpate the virus of the third culture. Or by their failure.

Tailpiece: Pakistanis do not lose their sense of humour whatever the circumstances. A TV channel ran a strip quoting the chief justice that by holding its session in Karachi the Supreme Court had reactivated the government agencies. The accompanying visual showed several security vehicles escorting the CJ’s car. And the following exchange between two passengers was overheard in a bus. First passenger: “Altaf Hussain says if the army, ISI and MQM join hands there will be no reason to be afraid of even a superpower.” Second passenger: “But who will protect us?”