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A Karachi ‘fault line’

March 03, 2013

A man talks on his mobile phone while standing amidst the rubble after a bomb blast in a residential area in Karachi, March 3, 2013. — Photo by Reuters

Abul Hassan Ispahani Road is a microcosm of life in Karachi. Anarchy reigns, and your daily schedule mocks at you.

There are moments when you feel you are in a normal city. Traffic flows, shops do business, and children are in school. But it could be a false dawn, for a sudden crackle of gunfire shocks you into reality. People scramble for cover, shopkeepers pull shutters down, pushcart owners cover their wares with sheets, and a street bursting with life and South Asian chaos goes dead.

Who has been murdered, you wonder — a man, an entire family, a cop on duty, an imam coming out of a mosque, a shopkeeper who had refused to pay protection money, a place of worship bombed or a procession of the faithful sprayed with bullets?

Named after a man who was one of Jinnah’s trusted lieutenants, Abul Hasan Ispahani Road (AHIR) runs from Safari Park on University Road to Sohrab Goth, the mini-Fata that demographically is more Afghan than Pakistani. It is a lawless zone – assuming that the rest of Karachi is not – and generates two kinds of tensions: political and ethnic.

Political tensions stem from the bickering between two traditional rivals, MQM and ANP. But there has been a truce of sorts since the 2011 summer, and the ANP is being mercilessly dispossessed by the Taliban of its space. Not all Pakhtoons belong to the ANP, but often MQM-ANP spats acquire an ethnic hue. Once there was a battle of the flags, with its fallout invariably on AHIR. The area is thickly populated, with more than a dozen schools on both sides, a roaring commercial centre, five marriage halls, banks, a shopping mall, an Aga Khan hospital collection centre (once burnt down), bungalows, mosques and two imambaras.

One imambara is off AHIR, the other is in Abbas Town, which falls to your left as the road crosses a bridge over a nullah and heads toward Sohrab Goath. This imambara has been attacked at least twice. But AHIR’s perpetual misery has nothing to do with Abbas Town. Each time there is an act of terror against Shias anywhere in Pakistan, armed Shia youths descend on AHIR to enforce a snap strike. Shia-baiters behave no differently, as ferocious gunmen appear within minutes from nowhere to empty their AK47s and turn the area into a ghost town. From your reading you guess Paris must be like this in summer 1940 when France fell.

Traffic has disappeared, harried parents are rushing to schools to bring children back, even though there is no public transport; women shoppers are stranded, irate drivers are using by-lanes, tension is infectious; everybody is angry, nervous, melancholic and worried – worried about the future. How long will this go on?

Every other day, gunfire at night turns the gaudily lit AHIR into one big black hole, the shrieking ambulances alone breaking the eerie silence. Suddenly, in the all-enveloping darkness, you realise you need your dose of anti-biotic. There is, fortunately, a pharmacy around, and the good salesman has left the shutter a foot above ground and kept lights on to keep business going. He switches off light and pulls the shutter all the way down to the ground if he hears shots. You cross the road in dread, fearing every shadow, for an armed political hoodlum or maybe a criminal is lurking around. He may shoot you, and a sub-head in tomorrow’s newspapers will say about you: “man killed”.