Chickens roosting. But also angsty.

Darul Aman Palace, Kabul, Afghanistan.

Khwaja Abdullah Ansari shrine in Herat, Afghanistan.

Khwaja Abdullah Ansari shrine in Herat, Afghanistan.

Khwaja Abdullah Ansari shrine in Herat, Afghanistan.

The Impossible Dream by Laila Shawa.

The Impossible Dream by Laila Shawa.

Karachi: a woman I met who had come to pray at the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, the patron saint of Karachi.

Karachi: a woman I met who had come to pray at the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, the patron saint of Karachi.

Karachi: Frere Hall. The building was completed in 1865. Currently it’s a place for the arts and hosts a Sunday book bazaar as well.

Karachi: Frere Hall. The building was completed in 1865. Currently it’s a place for the arts and hosts a Sunday book bazaar as well.

Karachi: little girls feeding pigeons. People come here on a regular basis and you can get giant bags of feed. I have a paralyzing fear of birds so, for me, this was like combat photography :)

Karachi: little girls feeding pigeons. People come here on a regular basis and you can get giant bags of feed. I have a paralyzing fear of birds so, for me, this was like combat photography :)

Karachi: an old building that’s gone to ruin. The city has a wealth of stunning architecture, much of which is just crumbling away.

Karachi: an old building that’s gone to ruin. The city has a wealth of stunning architecture, much of which is just crumbling away.

Karachi Dispatch 1

This was originally emailed out June 7, 2013

It’s been just over a week since I arrived in Karachi. And it’s hot. Karachi’s air is slightly moist (thank you Arabian Sea!) and so while the relentless heat wraps around your body, the heavy air leaves the impression you’re slowly gagging on a thick soup. I’ve spent quite a few summers in this city from the time I was a child and I don’t remember the heat feeling quite so close. It was more manageable. Then again, there were games to play and mangoes to eat and who wants to let a small thing like the possibility of heat stroke get in the way? The manageable heat of the good ol’ days might be objectively true but nostalgia can play tricks with your memory too.

More than any other issue, the thing that manages to overshadow every other topic, is the lack of electricity. “When did the electricity go?” and “When will the electricity be back?” are the probably the two most asked questions in this city. Karachi faces rolling blackouts. The saving grace, I suppose, is that the blackouts tend to stick to schedule, mostly. You might be hot, sticky, and profoundly uncomfortable but at least you know when it’s likely to end. And when, in all probability, it will start again. Those who can afford generators use them to fill the energy gaps and, depending on how big the generator is, you might not even notice the grid’s been shut down. For those who are a couple rungs down, there are rechargeable batteries that can keep a couple of lights and a ceiling fan going in the interim. For some of the rest, it’s a waiting game. And for many others, well, they never had electricity in the first place.

Karachi’s enormity – officially 23.5 million people — is both a blessing and a curse. Its size means there’s always space for one more. It’s the place where people come from all over to find their fortune. But its size also works against it with Karachiites living cut off from each other’s reality. It’s possible for one part of the city to be hostage to sectarian killings and tit-for-tat gang violence with another part completely oblivious to the carnage a few neighbourhoods away.

A lot of people will tell you that Karachi is a hard place to live, even for those who have always lived here. Maybe that’s why this city and its people have a stubbornness to them. This city keeps working despite the lack of money, the lack of resources, despite the violence, and despite the very real efforts of many to rip it apart.

 I’ve spent the better part of the last week talking to people about their city, about why they think it works. They will list a million reasons why it’s the worst place to live and how they wish it was an entirely different city. But none of them has made any real effort to leave. At the end of their lament they always say the same thing: “this is my home.”

 ***

 At the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, the patron saint of Karachi, crowds of people arrive from all over, many from far-off villages. From the street, the shrine looms, reaching back into a cloudless sky. There’s security at the front gate – two suicide bombers attacked the shrine in 2010 – but who knows how effective it is. The female police officer barely glances in my bag and doesn’t even bother patting me down. Inside, steady streams of people climb the dozens of stairs to reach the saint’s grave, hoping he will intervene in some matter or another. Men, women and children touch relics and kiss their fingertips, they drop notes and coins as charity, and sprinkle rose petals on the graves of Abdullah Shah Ghazi and his companions. They drink from clay bowls full of holy water. An old woman sitting on the floor holds the hand of a young child. He’s maybe two years old. The boy had some sort of oozing skin condition. She tells me she came to the shrine to ask for help, maybe the boy would be healed: “I came to Karachi because I knew if there was going to be an answer, I would find it here.”