In the last week of 2012, the city of Karachi has remained, as was for most of the rest of the year, predictably doused in death and blood and strikes. An attack on one man, an announcement by another, festering hatreds, bombs and burnings, shutters down on shops, all of it the smoldering stuff that has encased the nearly 2000 deaths this year. On this dish of depravity, its flavors undeniably moldy and pungent have been sprinkled the usual condiments of appeasement; plans for de-weaponisation, proposals for “peace” imagined ideas for different ways of divvying up the tiny pie of opportunity to be divided into morsels and atoms for eighteen million people. That project, of saving Karachi belongs to others; those with gumption or guns or a famous enough last name to joust with hope in hopeless times.
If cities are like people, then Karachi is forever changed. The Karachi of 10 years ago was like a tired wedding guest encountered long after the party of Partition, still dressed in the finery that suggested a languished joyousness, but with a troubling bit of dishevelment mysterious and sinister and not quite right, swirling in silk but smelling of sweat, bejeweled but a bit begrimed Karachi then was a city on the cusp. In retrospect, we could have called out the festering disease of terror that seethed then just below the city’s pulsing surface, the incursions of new migrations silently adding pounds that would soon burst the seams of old garments. That Karachi of 2002 could have gone either way, cleaned itself up and emerged again, glorious and ready for merriment of a new celebration, a city of lights without power, aching for festivity but threatened by death.
That wedding guest never got any rest and never cleaned up and there has not been any new joyousness to celebrate. If people are like cities, then Karachi at the end of 2012 is the transvestite who begs at busy intersections. Clothed in bright pinks, blues hues brighter than any woman would bear, stubble covered in powder and lipstick, arms looped on matching purses and slippers slipping on potholed asphalt, it is this absurdity that is the personification of Karachi of today. This new vision of Karachi is not a woman and yet a woman, permitted and forbidden, and parading a matchless denial. It is a vision of Karachi where people without electricity insist that theirs is a city of lights, people without water to gush about their ocean, people without harmony sing of peace and people covered in blood clothe it in finery.
Every person at the intersection knows the truth about the transvestite, some allude to it with slights and swipes and lewd gestures, and others go along with the pretense, the perversity and pathos of it, the desire to be something else and the thinnest veneer of almost being able to do so. Karachi too is very particular in its denials, and very insistent in its questions. Is a city that goes on despite the carnage, full of people that look away, that flee and build walls and buy guns and post guards and raise gates a city of survival or a city of denial? Is the ability to go on, as Karachi dwellers do resilience or just a lavish layering of misery that makes poison palatable?
There is more than just conjecture to this, even if cities are not people or metaphors, they do as political and philosophical theorists have opined; have spirits and souls. In Ancient Philosophy, it was two city states, Athens and Sparta that formed rough models for the democratic and oligarchic systems of governance referenced in the works of Aristotle and Plato. London and Paris were the beating centers of the revolutionary throes that transformed Europe, Berlin and its divided halves were the visible margins of the Cold War. Cities then with their conglomerated spirits gathered from far corners of the polity and guided by the common aches of transience and dislocation can make statements in a way a country never can.
Whether Karachi was the tired, stale wedding guest at Pakistan’s party after Partition, or is the transvestite trussed up in the masks of urban modernity, it is a city in search of a country’s spirit. So awash with blood and so ignored, it stands today confused and exhausted at the point of believing in its own lies, the city of escape for those that arrive fleeing other demons and suffering for those who never found what they were looking for. If you are in Karachi, love Karachi, miss Karachi, hate Karachi or loathe Karachi, the end of 2012 can perhaps be a date of admission of the city’s truths; an avowal that Karachi for a long time perhaps always has been the city of slights and fights and denials, hidden away or held close, but forever there.
Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times, Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.
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