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

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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?

 

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karachi, Uncategorized

on those who return

dear children of diaspora, i am thinking of you these days

only you could appreciate how it feels to return to the motherland and find that it will indeed embrace you, take you back, feed you, befriend you, ease away the awkwardness that has crept onto your tongue. only you could understand what it means to be surrounded by brown skin, to have your name said by those who know how it’s meant to be said, who know its meaning. only you could know the the relief that comes with not having to think about race and identity politics

i haven’t felt ‘poc’ or ‘woc’ or ‘muslim’ in the past few months. mostly just me

so, this is what privilege feels like

dear children of diaspora who escaped, when we return home, with our western passports and our western degrees, it is not the same

the motherland has been conditioned to embrace that which is english, and white, and foreign and whatever is close to that, so the motherland will embrace you. it will embrace you like it couldn’t before

and you will embrace it back. the privilege of mobility will allow you to fall in love with the motherland because you can leave it when it becomes too much. you don’t have to suffocate here

it is all so complicated, and it has so much to do with privilege, but oh does it feel good to finally feel wanted, to feel this place has been shaped to fit you in

 

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karachi, Uncategorized

Dear Karachi: It’s me. I’m back.

Memory has a way of being deceptive. Each time I am back in Karachi, I find myself taken aback. Things are not how I expect them to be. Somehow in my memory, our home in Karachi is always a little bigger, our street a little wider. Maybe it’s because I was younger, smaller, and so the spaces seemed bigger. Or maybe things really are shrinking as this city grows and becomes more crowded.

It still hasn’t truly hit me that I’m back and I’m not sure how I feel about it. My surroundings are coming to me in bleary, hazy doses as I drift in and out of sleep. The weeks leading up to the move, and the journey here were exhausting. My body is still recovering and adjusting.

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Karachi’s On the Map

One change that has altered Karachi-life is the introduction of Google Maps. My street did not used to have an “official” name. My honours thesis in university centred around this fact, on the lack of official names for streets and how people used landmarks and anecdotes to navigate the megacity and give directions. That has changed. There is a very large blue sign denoting the name of our street; i.e, the new official name. I think this probably has to do with Google Maps. The streets need to become navigable in a way that’s not just restricted to locals or dependant on local knowledge and directions. I can now look up directions on my phone to get to places in Karachi and this certainly makes the city less daunting and more accessible (although I’ve heard the traffic is atrocious). I wonder what we are losing though, with this introduction of Google Maps. An entire culture and way of navigating spaces has now changed.

The introduction of Google Maps has also allowed different ride sharing apps to thrive here. Uber has arrived.  You can order a motorcycle and the driver will arrive with an extra helmet. There’s also an app called Careem app. It kind of works like Uber, except apparently it’s safer and the drivers are all directly trained and hired by the company. I’m excited to use it and review it. I’m also curious to observe the effects of such apps and technology on local businesses and every-day life. It has a way making you feel both safer and more exposed. Nonetheless, I think the Careem app may be a way for me to see the city independently.

Neighbourhood Wildlife

The most I’ve seen of Karachi so far is the route from the airport to the house at 4 in the morning, and what I’ve observed from the roof. I’ve been getting aquatinted with the neighbourhood bird life. The racket the birds make in the morning is astounding, as if there are hundreds of birds shouting at each other. There is a rooster in our neighbourhood that crows incessantly all day and has made my jet-lagged sleep very difficult. No shortage of crows here, either. They are loud, clever and obnoxious. They have a sharpness and alertness to them that catches me off guard.

The mosquitoes and flies too have advanced survival instincts. Despite wearing full length pants, covering myself with bed sheets, and having the fan on full speed when I sleep, I still wake up with mosquito bites all over my arms, legs, stomach, back, and neck. I really don’t know how they get there. I’m determined to figure out a way to outsmart these mosquitoes.

I am looking forward to recovering from my jet lag so I can get into a routine. I really do feel different here. I feel more creative, and I can feel myself wanting to write creatively again. I have different ideas of what I want to do during my time here, but I’m a little afraid of going out and about on my own because my foreignness really sticks out like a sore thumb. Or maybe it doesn’t. I’ve lived here before. I should give myself some credit. Although it doesn’t help that I’ve been mentally converting rupees to dollars to understand how much something is. I just need to get out there and adjust. But first, I must get over this jet lag.

Stay tuned, more to come.

…It’s 12:40 AM and that rooster is crowing.

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A Journeying Reader – Personal Essay

written for my poetry workshop in the style of Nick Thran’s ‘A Working Reader’

Exploring

In second grade at Ladner Elementary School, my teacher had a bookshelf of books arranged according to reading levels. There were the simple phonetic books that had more pictures than words, and then there were the chapter books that more advanced readers were encouraged to take home to read. It was 2001 and my family had just migrated to Canada. I was in ESL and I was put in the picture-book reading group.

The Junie B Jones chapter books were all the rage back in second grade. They had colourful covers and hardly stayed on the shelf. There was so much text on the pages. They felt so grownup.

I saw one of the books on the shelf—finally available. I picked it up. Mrs. Suki swooped in and looked at the book disapprovingly. “I don’t think you’re ready for those books”, she said. I put it back on the shelf. She directed me towards a picture book, humiliatingly simple. I felt small, and confused and wondered if I should be angry.

Few days later at the school library, I check out my first Junie B Jones chapter book. I like to think of it as an act of rebellion. There was a satisfying amount of text on the pages. Within months I had finished the entire collection of Junie B Jones in the library.

Take that Mrs. Suki.

Found

The books I always return to are books in the Anne of Green Gables series. My cousin lent the first three in the series to me. The first time I read the first book, I understood perhaps half of it. Anne Shirley had a wild imagination and I liked her instantly. I was eight and still in ESL when I read them. They were a challenge, but somehow that didn’t matter. I didn’t feel like I needed to understand everything. I instantly liked the concept of kindred spirits. Lucy Maud Montgomery became a kindred spirit and her books had an almost religious appeal to me. The delicious appetite for beauty and nature in her books cultivated my own appetite and appreciation for beauty. I rejoice when I meet a kindred spirit and can recognize trees as friends. I discover that part of myself when I go back to these books. It feels like I’m surrounded by the beauty of wilderness, of the starry sky, of moonlit ocean waves, dewy forests, and branches budding with spring.

And this our life, exempt from human haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

Shakespeare

A week before my first day of university, I re-read Anne of the Island, in which Anne Shirley goes off to university. It fit.

It’s like that feeling when you’re searching for that poem that you really need to read, to satisfy this certain gnawing in your chest, and you can’t find that poem that puts it into the words you need, so you write that poem. Except, I often would find that poem. I would find that “poem” that I needed in the Anne of Green Gables series and the Emily of New Moon books.

Abandoned

I read Oliver Twist by Charles Dicken when I was eleven. It was extremely painful, yet I couldn’t put it down. It was dull and there were too many characters and the dialogue was difficult to follow. But for some reason I finished it. I think it has to do with continuing to rebel against Mrs. Suki. I eagerly took on books that looked difficult and suffered through them. I don’t remember ever abandoning books as a child, even if I didn’t like them or if didn’t understand them. I wonder why that is.

I don’t have the patience or the time to read what doesn’t interest me. This realization makes me kind of sad, but it is also a relief. I no longer feel like I have to read War and Peace. As if I have something to prove. I think I’ve already proven it.

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden is the most recent book I’ve abandoned. I intend to go back to it. I also abandoned Anna Karenina. I also intend to read it. I don’t think I ever really abandon books fully.

I abandoned Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway during my first year of university. I had him has my creative writing 200 professor. Then last summer on a coach ride from Bristol to London I finished it. It was winter and the London streets were decked with lights and holiday fervor. Took me a year to read it. I think of cellists, Sarajevo and grief when I think of pulling into Victoria station my second time in London. My partner was reading Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone, which I had given him. That look on his face as he flipped through the pages intently. The story, the characters, that world, he was discovering it for the first time. There are books I wish I could forget and read all over again for the first time.

Remembering

It’s interesting how memory can sort of meld everything together like the colours of the sun and sky burning together at sunset. Kind of like how a perfume can stir a specific memory of childhood, and you can’t really separate the childhood from the smell, and it’s all beautifully blended together, part of each other. That’s how I feel when I read Beverly Cleary to my little brother. He’s seven and he sees patterns everywhere. I want to have children and take them to the library and let them pick any book, no matter how fat and thick and pictureless it is, and watch them read it for the first time. I read Great Expectation a few weeks ago for a class. To my surprise I liked it. Robert Munsch and Roald Dahl are also kindred spirits.

I always feel like writing after reading a book or a poem. Because I have more to say. I feel like the world on the pages has blended with my world, and what I’ve read is now a part of me, and if I close the book, I won’t be separated from it. I have more to express because of this new growth in my world.

Rilke is another kindred spirit. He also gets it. Have a look at this excerpt from the Eight Elegy:

With all its eyes the natural world looks out

into the Open. Only our eyes are turned

backward, and surround plant, animal, child

like traps, as they emerge into their freedom.

We know what is really out there only from

the animal’s gaze; for we take the very young

child and force it around, so that it sees

objects—not the Open, which is so

deep on animals’ faces. Free from death.

I want to read more poems about the Open. I used to write a lot about the Open, trying to understand it, to access the thrill and mystery of it. It was easier when I was younger. I guess there’s been some sort of a movement against that type of exploration that has affected me—maybe not. But sometimes I feel embarrassed to share my fascination with spirituality—as someone who is fond of it, finds it very useful, and is not necessary critical of it. Being not critical of spiritualty feels like a fault somehow and it shouldn’t. I want to ACCEPT the Open rather than tear everything apart and criticize it and analyze it, which after two years of university education, I feel I ought to. I needn’t be suspicious of my own truths. Cynicism is exhausting and it makes me grumpy.

I like that Rilke is unflinchingly open about exploring the Open in his poetry. I would like to read more modern poets who are. I have a collection of poems called Nonexistent Poem & Songs of Love written in the style of Sufi poetry. Sometimes I find phrases that make the whole poem it for me.

Many of Kamila Shamsie’s books take place in Karachi. When I discovered her books, I felt that relief—the momentary fulfillment of hunger for stories of Karachi, of my stories. A quote from Broken Verses: 

“Don’t you know how much I hero-worshiped you when I was a kid? You were Marie Curie crossed with Emily Bronte crossed with Joan of Arc to me when I was ten. And when I told you that, you said my cultural references were the sign of a colonized mind.”

What often makes a poem great is that one line that just perfectly says it, exactly how you could never had said it and you feel so excited and relieved to have it recognized by another, and pinned down so perfectly on the page for you to marvel at. That one line can make the poem.

Reading feels like an exercise in accepting what is before me. Writing feels like a search to give it a name. Writing feels like a prayer. A prayer and a memory and words and a childhood rebellion and smell of chai in Karachi and holiday lights in London streets and eating apples as Jo March wrote her novel and Price Edward Island and looking out from Green Gables and Hafiz and Ghalib and listening to ghazals and finding kindred spirits in coffee shops and all of it melding together into one till you can’t separate them any longer.

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Maghrib

You were born of the deserts
with dates between your lips
and desert dune air brushing your lashes.

You watch the sun dip behind the minarets and domes
and let the azaan awash your skin with the pricks of divinity
when the pigeons fluttered in a rush with the haunting call
of the day’s end.

You see the end of a symphony from the
flat roof.

The butcher pulls down the store window
And your neighbour’s forgotten laundry flutters,
the sun slipping away from its embrace of the clay walls.
And the fruit seller wheels back home.
The boys and girls in creased uniforms skip home.

Closing windows and doors, and skies
shifting, as if the night sky had turned from its
slumber, taking over the watch from the sun.
Awake and crisp the night will shine soon.

The minarets are pillars upholding the sky.
His voice has reached out and touched the stars.
This moment is a welcoming and a good-bye,
a closing in and an opening out.

Tonight, you will traverse the cosmos from behind your eyes.

.

The word ‘maghrib’ has multiple meanings. It means west. It means sunset. It is also the fourth prayer of the day that Muslims perform at sunset. This particular poem was composed during maghrib time in Karachi.

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