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Double click: Schizophrenic Karachi

June 03, 2012

Returning after a blissful retreat to my native land and still raw from the hurt of separation from my parents, I opened the newspaper last week to read, ‘Pakistan turning into the next Afghanistan.’ An opinion piece written by one of the leading columnists in Toronto Star — Haroon Siddiqui — it gave an account of incidents of assault, daylight robbery and kidnapping as narrated by a Canadian family visiting Karachi to columnist Siddiqui.

With these brutish examples as his tagline, Siddiqui described in detail how Pakistan’s largest city has become, “more Talibanised than Quetta, Abbottabad or Peshawar,” the known centres of Taliban leaders and Afghan refugees. Asserting that more people are being kidnapped and killed in Karachi than in Afghanistan border areas and that it is a city where, “pistol-waving youth go car-jacking and holding up people” and where, “armed political and criminal gangs engaged in turf wars, bank heists and other robberies.”

Having just returned from this city with which I have had a love-hate relationship since birth I have a very territorial attitude towards it which means that while I can abuse its ills, I cannot bear its criticism from others. In my writings in the past I have abused Karachi’s governance and inept organisations — from KESC to the Water Board to the May 12 mayhem — but I still cannot accept outside condemnation of its soil, no matter how muddy may its waters become.

It is where my best memories reside and where my amazing parents gave me the most stable home possible. So Siddiqui’s cold and clear synopsis came as an extremely unkind cut and my first instinct was to write a letter to the Star’s editor chastising the writer for passing generalised statements based on just a few examples. I wanted to yell and tell him that Karachi is a vibrant city where many honest people are working hard to make a living and to liven it.

When you see the gun-toting youth trying to defile the social structure, there will also be a few good men elsewhere, working for a pittance to make a clean living and perhaps even helping a few along the way. In one of the Nadra offices that I chanced to visit this time, it was pleasing to see young, Urdu speaking boys efficiently doing their job and going out of their way to help the applicants many of whom had limited learning. In another office of a housing scheme operating out of a dilapidated building near Nazimabad, I was yet again surprised by the conscientiousness and efficiency shown by a young chap who was heading the corporation and who neither asked nor hinted at any under the table offering for what was quite a difficult documentation process. There may be numerous other such examples that can be found for every gun-toting youth or the corrupt government official acting as the extended arm of the ‘10 per cent women’ that I heard so much about this time.

I wanted to tell Mr Siddiqui all this and explain why there is no other place like Karachi despite its ills and privations. But I realised the ineffectualness of my arguments and how my emotional reasoning would not withstand against factual accounts of ghundagardi (terrorism) that end up claiming lives every now and then. What could I say to refute his statement about how, “Karachi municipality is controlled by the MQM, using guns and goondas?” How can I deny that Pakistan has been, “duplicitous, allied with the US but also supporting the Taliban.”

There was one assertion though in Siddiqui’s article with which I fully agreed. “The future of Karachi is the future of Pakistan,” he wrote, quoting Shuja Nawaz, a South Asian expert at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “You get Karachi right, you can get Pakistan right.”

Truth is, there aren’t any arguments any of us can give to outsiders who see the black strokes more vividly in Karachi’s visage rather than the grey which we see with love tinted glasses. The ‘good’ that exists lies buried under heaps of filth.

There is no immediate way of changing any of the ills besetting Karachi and on a larger scale Pakistan (at least not without mortal danger to life and limb) but at least we can become less complacent of the evil doings. If those who want the change become less accepting of the criminal element at least they won’t appear as a party to it to foreigners who bunch the good, the bad and the ugly together whenever they look at Pakistan.

Summing up Pakistan’s “dizzying array of problems”, there is a warning at the end of Mr Siddiqui’s piece; “a failed Pakistan would threaten the stability of Afghanistan and the entire region.” An eventuality which Canada should be prepared for.