karachi, Uncategorized, Writing

karachi, a postcard

this city is a palimpsest. all texture. peeling into self. layer upon layer upon layer. language and skin and dust and polythene waste and political graffiti, pan stains and rickshaw poetry, chai shops and cigarette butts, aunties in flip flops, families squeezed onto motorcycles, english in urdu and urdu in angrezi, traffic uncles maddeningly ushering sluggish traffic across, “these bloody motorcycle wallay!”, “baji dupatta samhalain!”, jasmine bracelets at traffic lights, khawaja sira clapping, a perfect pyramid of yellow mangoes, fruit sellers swatting flies, jamun and cheekoo and falsay and sugarcane juice, hot tandoori naan in foreign newspapers, a gutter overflowing, kites in the sky, tangle of cables swinging above, crows in the morning, painted walls and fading walls, dusty trees, sweat sun sea, noise evening breeze. this city, the sea breeze. this city, the sound.


karachi photo zehra

Uncategorized, Writing

Written from the edgelands of my gentrifying neighbourhood, Queensborough

Everyone knows – after a sentence or two of explanation – their local version of the territories defined by this word ‘edgelands’. But few people know them well, let alone appreciate them.

– Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands

[Spring 2016]

Queensborough—with its ditches, storage containers, outlet mall, not-quite suburban and not-quite industrial aura, ongoing construction, aging homes that aren’t old enough to be heritage or new enough to be modern, an unremarkable bridge for traffic passing through, its immigrant communities that don’t quite know each other, not quite a town and not quite a neighbourhood but perhaps something in between—is a place that has become quite comfortable in how peripheral it is. Wikipedia calls it a neighbourhood of New Westminster City, so lets go with the term “neighbourhood”. Being cut off from the city by the Fraser River and situated on the eastern tip of Lulu Island, Queensborough is closer to Richmond than it is to New Westminster. It lies on the fringes—distant enough from the city to distinctly refer to itself as Queensborough and not New Westminster. Its being part of New Westminster feels like an after thought, almost arbitrary.

It’s a transitioning place. Few people stay here for very long. There are the drivers daily crossing the Queensborough Connecter overpass via High 91, who may not even know that there’s a neighbourhood underneath with a community center, a fire hall, a pub, an elementary school, a middle school, a park, a church and a gurduwara. Oh and there’s the outlet mall and the casino on the other side of where the highways cuts though. But the visitors to the Starlight Casino or the Queenborough Landing Outlet Mall aren’t likely to know much about Queensborough and I don’t blame them. This isn’t really a place where people stay for very long.

Queensborough is a place of margins and sidelines—from its tepid ditches to its mostly working class and immigrant inhabitants. People who can’t quite afford the city move here. This is the kind of neighbourhood where a new immigrant family may buy their first home before they can afford a place in the city; or working class folks may rent and commute into the city for work until they can afford to leave Queensborough. Either people are visiting or passing through. I see new faces until I stop seeing them and I, too, am waiting for the day I can leave it behind, even if with a little sadness.

But it doesn’t appear it will stay like this. The developers and construction workers are the newest occupants of Queensborough, and its most distinguishing characteristic—its ditches—are disappearing. The edgelands of Queensborough are being smoothed over with cement. Sometimes I would spot ducklings swimming in the ditches and other times rats. The insects, the birds, the rodents and weeds of Queensborough congregated along the ditches that stretched along its streets. In the winter the ditches would freeze and in the spring become green, teeming with life. Children would lose their tennis balls and soccer balls in the ditches—and there would be the odd driver who (likely a visitor) would forget to avoid the ditch on either side when backing out of a driveway and get stuck, because ditches have a way of being overlooked. Queensborough has a way of being overlooked.

There’s something about Queensborough that professes its unwantedness—or at least has in the recent past. Perhaps it’s the aging property, the narrow roads, the empty lots of weed and overgrown grass between houses, and the ditches. Since the ditches started disappearing and construction has crowded its streets and signs have sprung up declaring rezoning of areas, the property prices have risen. At the edge of Queensborough, along South Dyke Road, overlooking the water, are the new single-family homes. Unlike the older part of Queensborough where the houses are a motely crew of design, age, size and colour: the new houses all look the same, with the same patch of greenery in the front, the same white garage door: and yes, there’s even the white picket fencing. My eyes begin to gloss over the sameness and I try to spot the differences: a bike, the different models of cars in the driveways, a soccer ball in the grass—anything to betray difference. The edgeland is being taken out of its edges—it’s being welcomed to the centre—the assemblage is being smoothed over. This might have been an out-of-place place, but now, the property development seems to be giving another message: stay here a while.

Queensborough is one of those neighbourhoods that are old enough to be historically significant, but it didn’t manage to develop anything particularly important to be special in the imagination of Greater Vancouver. It is intimate with the concept of undesirability. It’s a neighbourhood of leftovers. Queensborough was originally supposed to be the name for the colonial capital of British Columbia, until Queen Victoria decided to go with New Westminster. The discarded name went to this tip of Lulu Island. New Westminster too lost the designation of colonial capital.

The neighbourhood has been home to working class immigrant communities for almost a century now. The colonizers first made it into a military reserve, and then the bridge to the city was created, connecting it to the New Westminster mainland. After the post office was made, the neigbourhood was “established”. The Italians had a significant presence here, but they too have mostly moved out and now South Asian, Middle Eastern and African families have made it their home, with the Punjabi Sikh community now having a significant presence here. At the community centre, the black and white heritage photographs of the neighbourhood are strangely unfamiliar. The neighbourhood doesn’t look like this anymore. There are few white families in Queensborough and they are mostly either single parents or working class. Most of them don’t have long ties to the place. You are not likely to find a wealthy white family in Queensborough, not yet. Queensborough falls under the territory of the Tsleil-Waututh nation, but that is a history pushed beyond the edges of the neighbourhood’s memory: the community centre makes no mention of the Tsleil-Waututh nation.

When my family moved here a decade ago, there was no Walmart. The Outlet Mall and the town homes were yet to be built. Even the Queensborough Connector overpass hadn’t been built. Drivers on the highway had to enter and cross through the neighbourhood to the other side. When Walmart came to the neighbourhood, the small grocery stores were forced to shut down. Opposite my house is the empty lot where the store Spagnols once stood. It is now being developed for condominiums.

One of the first people we befriended in the neighbourhood was a man a few blocks down from us who had built his house entirely by himself. It was a makeshift looking house—grey, small, slightly crooked, but seemingly functioning. There was a garden in the front yard where the man grew his vegetables and herbs. The city had come in for an inspection and weren’t able to find anything objectionable. This man liked to do things himself. He proudly told my father that he once butchered a goat in his backyard for meat and the RCMP dropped by announcing that it was a violation of the city bylaws. The man produced a map of Queensborough and pointed out that his street wasn’t on the map, or within the city’s limits. It was farm land. How could he be breaking city laws if he wasn’t even in the city? The police apparently let him go. His street is now on the map.

When we moved here, the one redeeming quality of the neighbourhood was its central location—in other words, how easy it was to leave it. It’s almost perfectly in the middle of Richmond, Delta, Surrey, New Westminster and Burnaby—an approximately 10-15 minute drive to either city. It’s an inbetween place. You’ll pass it when approaching the Queensborough Bridge from Highway 91.

The bridge isn’t remarkable like some of the other bridges of the Lower Mainland: Port Man, Lions Gate, Patullo or Alex Fraser Bridge—but it is perhaps the most well-known aspect of Queensborough and it, too, is on the periphery of the neighbourhood—either leaving or arriving. If you’re on the bridge, you’re likely going elsewhere. But if you pause a moment to look you might notice and admire it. It isn’t picturesque—or sublime or beautiful. The Fraser River meekly runs beneath. If you’re approaching New Westminster, to the left of the view will be the roofs of the outlet mall, and a massive parking lot full of badly damaged cars and minivans. This is the ICBC damaged vehicle lot. This is where cars come when there is no place else left for them to go—to this particular edge of the industrial Fraser River. You never really realize it’s a part of Queensborough until you spot it from the bridge.

To the right of the view is the shoreline between the Fraser River and New Westminster city. You will spot several red and blue cranes docked along the shore, warehouses just on the edge of the land, and large collections of logs floating down the river. The logs—emblematic of the Fraser River—are always there, travelling, but never really leaving. I’ve stopped noticing them—they’ve becoming natural to this rather unseemly, industrialized side of the river. I realize they are useful, but there is something aesthetically unpleasing about them. I wonder if the cranes and the logs were to disappear, would the river suddenly emerge from the edges, become more conventionally remarkable—picturesque—if people would start jogging along this edge of the shoreline, walk their dogs, and bike? I never see any people along this side of the river—just logs and freighters floating by—and the people in their vehicles passing by on top.

What exactly about the bridge makes it so easy to miss—fleeting—makes my eyes want to look forward and not down at the view? Perhaps it’s the clutter of industry. I recognize within myself a certain desire for neatness, an impulse for clear, clean curvature and softly bending lines. Why not the cranes, the warehouses, the beaten-up vehicles, the factory smoke from Annacis Island, and the long stretches of drifting logs? My eyes are pulled to the high-rise buildings of Burnaby or the reflections of the sun sparkling in the water, or the trees of Poplar Island—a small tree-filled mass of land in the middle of the channel—but they overlook, gloss over the cranes and the industrial detritus—the stuff that happens in the process of converting towering trees into high rise apartment buildings. The stuff I’ve trained myself to disregard. The stuff Wordsworth overlooked in his sonnet “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge”.

His eyes too must have glossed over the grime, the grunge, the debris, the leftovers, the castaways, the crusts and unromantic edges of the city—the stuff I notice by accident or when I command myself to notice but never quite instinctively—everything that is not splendour, majestic or beautiful—the smoke, the grit, the pollution, the excess of development, the dirt, the messiness, the stuff that doesn’t come forward to the eye right away. There is something obvious about writing a poem about “ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples”—but what about the edges in-between the city? The stuff that tends to go by unnoticed—the stuff that at first glance that isn’t entirely an object in my eye. It is the blur, the unfocussed bit, and the non-object as my eyes focus in based on the ingrained conventional relationship I have with objects. I readily offer my eyes to the island of trees, the river, the tall buildings—but must pause, focus, home in on the blur, objectify and personify the once-missed, let it emerge, come into in an existence of its own. It is then that I can appreciate it.

I will not be in Queensborough for very long. It is the place at the end and beginning of my bus rides into the city. Despite living here for almost a decade, I have always been leaving it, overlooking it, casting my vision across the bridge. I both know and don’t know it intimately. There are edges, crooks, and bends of Queensborough that will probably go on unremarked, or disappear as the neighbourhood is gentrified, but it might be worthwhile to seek them out. But they don’t really need to be sought out. They’re always there—I just have to home in and notice them.

karachi, Uncategorized, Writing

Karachi in September

Written in late September, 2017. Muharram. 

Karachi is a gift for writers. This city is brimming with detail and eccentricity. There is so much texture, so much for curious eyes to take apart. It is grimy, dirty, gritty, and resilient. It’s loud and obnoxious. It’s obnoxiousness is also perhaps the cause of its resilience.


It is morning and we are on our way to a majlis in Soldier Bazaar. The school traffic blocks the roads. Children in neatly pressed uniforms making their way to school by the busloads – in school vans, chauffeured cars, rickshaws, siblings crammed on a single motorcycle with a sleepy father at the front, school boys on motorcycles driving themselves to school.

There is a lack of traffic lights and many of the streets are narrow (further narrowed by the piles of trash on the roadsides threatening to take over the city). Vans, buses, cars, rickshaws and trucks become stuck at intersections. An uncle from the nearby chai shop walks over and begins guiding the traffic at the intersection we’re stuck at. This is always a pleasant surprise. Karachi can be violent and dangerous, but you’re always being watched and observed by passersby. People don’t mind their own business, which can be very frustrating, but there are times this comes in handy. If you’re struggling to manoeuvre your car, someone will notice and they’ll begin signalling and guiding you with hand motions and bangs on your car.

Every morning at the intersection near my house there will be a massive traffic jam, seemingly incapable of being resolved because of the numerous directions in which the endless streams of vehicles are coming and going. And every morning the traffic jam will be resolved somehow, unofficially, by a different person, jumping out of their car or popping out of their shop to direct the traffic.

In Sadar – downtown – I come a cross a traffic officer shouting directions through a loud speaker. Dressed in a clean white uniform and a black bullet-proof vest, he’s an aging pot-bellied uncle, clearly frustrated by his impossible job of controlling Downtown Karachi’s traffic. He takes turn wiping sweat off his brows, waving his arms around, and barking into the loudspeaker. One driver ignores his directions and takes a turn where he isn’t supposed to. The traffic officer swears at him on the loud speaker, clearly heard across the busy intersection: “Kumbakhat! [Imbecile!] Everyday you turn here, and everyday I yell at you not to turn here!”

We come across a school. A guard with a pistol in his hand stands outside the door of the school as children stream in. Inside, another guard with a kalashnikov slung across his chest, ushers the school children through.


At the mall there is heavy security. You must walk through a metal detecter. Your bags are checked. Everyone is checked. It’s a busy mall. The atmosphere is relaxed. But for me, metal detectors remind me of airports, of Brown and Muslim anxiety, of racial profiling, so I tense up, ready to reveal my innocence should the detector go off. But everyone looks like me and everyone is relaxed and it goes off for everyone and everyone’s bags are checked.


At the hospital, I am visiting my cousin. The entrance has a metal detector, a cheap plastic looking thing that is clearly not working. A guard with an AK-47 half-heartedly looks on for signs of danger and full-heartedly leers at women.

In the evening, on the streets of Ancholi, there are police trucks and rangers set up. Roads are blocked off, so we part our walk through the narrow streets for the evening majalises. Rangers and guards loiter around the streets, with kalashnikovs and pistols. Some in dark-blue police uniforms, others in camouflage army gear. One of the young male rangers learns toward a stall, checks out some noha CDs as his gun slings forward, hanging from his shoulder. Another sits on the back of an open truck, his legs stretched out before him, his fingers holding on to the trigger.

How the streets of my childhood memories have come militarized. A truck full of mental detectors passes by. Across the metal detectors is written DONATED BY EDHI CENTRE. And that’s when it really hits me fully: we are in the midst of a war. A decades long war. This war has been going on for so long that the militarization has become shockingly normalized. The Edhi Centre, normally known for its orphanages, shelters, and ambulance service, in an attempt prevent the loss of lives, is donating metal detectors. Guns and metal detectors are a constant reminder of danger.

As a Shia in black during Muharram, walking the streets, I thought I would be more afraid. But here, on the streets of Ancholi, a Shia locality, I am reminded of the streets of modern day Karbala, Iraq. There are vendors selling Muharram related wares, talismans and alams, noha CDs. The imambarghas are built to look like the shrines of Imam Hussain or Hazrat Abbas. There are sabeels set up giving out sharbat and refreshing drinks. Multiple majalises going on at the same time can heard from the loudspeakers on the streets. People opening their windows and doors to listen. People sitting on their porch steps and balconies, head bowed, shoulders shaking, openly weeping when the tragedy of Hussain and his family in Karbala is being narrated. Men and women, children and seniors, sitting on the streets, in their shops, in the imambarghas, listening from parked cars, crying, loudly.

And yet there isn’t a sense of fear, or at least not to the extent that I expected. This is everyday. Life goes on. Maybe something will happen, but probably it won’t, and that’s what it’s like everyday, so why be afraid?

Karachi is booming to the point of bursting. It is open for business and unable to control its own greed and urges. If you see an opening in traffic, you rush in and speed through because you might miss your chance. There’s no “you first” on the roads here.

Karachi is aware of itself but helpless at controlling its exponential growth. Its arteries are clogging up. The trash piles on, the roads get narrower, the traffic increases but keeps pushing through even when it can’t, even when there isn’t enough space. People keep adding levels and floors to their homes without permits.  Somehow, and not always, the city adjusts. It just keeps going. But for how long?




a necessary trap?

when your writing becomes not about you but about addressing the gaze that others you. there is a loss there. but there is an immediacy to it – you feel compelled. no, you are compelled. it is demanded of you. i wouldn’t call it a phase (it will always be there). perhaps a passage. a necessary trap. it needs to be done, so that perhaps your writing can move on, and you can represent yourself without looking at yourself from the outside in, without always being angry and traumatized. and finally, find true liberation in your work. when i no longer always need to write about trauma, and can write about fuzzy caterpillars and dust bunnies and why i like my egg yolks runny.