It’s 9 pm, and I’ve just abandoned a table of friends and my entrée at a Thai restaurant. I’m standing on the pavement, frantically pressing redial, staying close enough to the sleepy security guard to deter would-be cell phone muggers. My call finally goes through. “Five minutes,” says the man on the other end, and hangs up.
Five minutes turn to ten, and fifteen minutes later, I’m still there. People on the street are staring. I’m aware I look a bit odd, standing in six-inch heels and holding a cloth bag.
The phone rings. “I’m here.”
A white car comes to a screeching stop in front of the restaurant. My heart fills with relief. My dinner may have gone cold—but at least this won’t be a dry evening. My bootlegger, a bulky, gruff-voiced man in his mid-40s—Bilal (not his real name) has made it.
My bootlegger and I have a routine, fine-tuned through trial and error. I hand him the bag. He takes bottles from the footrest and stuffs them into it. I give him the cash and ask him if the city is calm tonight. He makes a retort about my tendency to ask too many questions. The transaction done, Bilal speeds off. I return, victorious, to my friends in the restaurant.
“I am not a criminal, extortionist or terrorist,” Uzair Jan Baloch declares. The police files on him tell a different story: as the alleged head of a vast criminal enterprise, Uzair is implicated in attacking cops, running an extortion racket, damaging property and torturing or even murdering rivals. But on this Saturday night in early March, the heads of the neighborhood police stations are partying with Uzair, along with a smattering of prominent politicians and up to 250,000 residents of Lyari, a district near the port in Karachi that has gained a reputation, unfair or not, for organized crime. Tonight, however, Lyari is not presenting itself as a gangster’s paradise. It is a stronghold of the Baloch ethnic group, and everyone has gathered here for the mashup of fireworks, camels and free food that is the three-year-old Baloch Culture Day festival.
At last, the Leather Jacket is served: an oblong of fragile white flesh sheathed in wrinkled skin. A shower of sparks erupts from the grill; billowing smoke renders the cooks as wraiths. In the darkness, lilting music drifts from tinny speakers: a lament by Abida Parveen, Pakistan’s Queen of Sufi song. Suddenly, I am gripped by an irrational certainty that—whatever the headlines might augur—Karachi is going to be okay.
Murders brought me to the city, once again. In the past six months, there has been a new spike in what are known here as “targeted killings”—drive-by shootings, usually carried out by gunmen on motorbikes, each a carefully calculated move in a blood-soaked game of Monopoly. Political parties; religious extremists; criminal gangs; Taliban militants: all are locked in a multi-sided turf war waged through murder, extortion and threats. The daily toll ebbs and flows to a mysterious rhythm; though everyone agrees that the city feels less and less safe. No-go zones expand like inkblots. Behind a facade of intoxicating bustle, Pakistan’s “city of light” is slowly turning into a city of invisible divides.
And then there is Biryani of the Seas. The outdoor restaurant sprung up a couple of years ago on a stretch of pavement at the foot of a mottled block of flats in Clifton, a wealthy district of palatial homes and high walls that is both far removed from – and encircled by – Karachi’s grittier suburbs, where life is less certain. As offices empty, a polite crowd comes here to sample some of the best seafood in the city. On good nights there’s the ghost of an Arabian sea breeze.
Syed Ali Raza Abidi, an affable scion of fish exporters, founded Biryani of The Seas in 2010, hiving off a fraction of the catch purchased each day by his family’s industrial-scale business to grill over charcoal then serve at a cluster of plastic tables. An unassuming Impresario, Abidi is to be found each evening overseeing the unhurried relaxed service, while his men work a simple kind of magic with Grouper, Barramundi, Red Snapper and Pangush.
Start with battered hoops of calamari and a buttery makhni made from white prawns – or penaeus indicus as Abidi, in aficionado mode, would insist on calling them. Sesame seeds give the dish ballast; a zing of fresh ginger ensures it hits some notes too. Scoop it up with warm garlic naan, its puffy, blistered surface seared shades of brown to black by the glowing embers.
Next comes a plate laden with Tiger prawns – charred, apostrophe-shaped monsters of serious succulence. The centrepiece, of course, is the Arabian Sea fish known as Leather Jacket – served on foil to preserve its feathery texture, and escorted by roughly chopped quarters of lemon. By rights, such an exquisite meal has no business being hawked on an unprepossessing stretch of sidewalk. For all the shadows gathering over Karachi, the unexpectedly delicate taste of a dish with a name like Leather Jacket is surely evidence for the existence of other, better-concealed charms.
A pause, and then Zafrani Shahi Tukra – the “Royal Dessert” – Pakistan’s answer to bread-and-butter pudding. One of Karachi’s widows has carved a lucrative niche for herself making the sweets for Abidi’s restaurant , and she is liberal with her saffron and almonds. Finally, mugs of sugary milk tea. There is no better fortification ahead of a journey into the Karachi underworld, and no more comforting reminder that however fast the murderous whirligig spins, all in the city will somehow be well.
When McDonald’s and KFC first opened up in Pakistan in the 1990s, there were manic scenes. Snaking queues, traffic jams for miles and kids running amok in play areas. Burger joints had existed before, but the fried chicken and ‘would you like fries with that’ phenomena swept through the country, paving the way for spinoffs in every neighbourhood and small town.
But long before the golden arches began gleaming through Pakistan, there was always the poor man’s burger: the bun kebab.
The bun kebab builds on the familiar burger formula: it’s a patty in a bun. But its flavors stretch far beyond the western world, combining Pakistanis’ love for spices and fried food, all in one go.
More from Saba Imtiaz’s Karachi dispatch: bun kebabs on Roads & Kingdoms
Shahjee Hotel in Karachi, where Naseeb Khan sugars and steeps tea for a tea-mad city. Read more from Saba Imtiaz’s report from the boiling city, including her interview with a crime syndicate boss about why men fight over seats at teahouses. On Roads & Kingdoms today.
In a city so dominated by extremism and intolerance—from hateful graffiti scrawled on walls by religious-political parties to harassment and job discrimination against the beleaguered 2% of Karachi’s residents who are Christians—the idea of Christmas spirit is understandably a bit far from the mind.
Complicating this Christmas season as well is the fact that Karachi closes down over the barest whisper of trouble. Last Friday, after the Supreme Court issued a contempt of court notice to the head of a national party called the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, armed men from the party went from marketplace to marketplace, threatening shop owners with death if they didn’t pull down the shutters in forced solidarity.
In seconds, Pakistan’s largest city turned into a ghost town, and restaurants only warily opened up on Saturday evening, after they’d been signaled that the day-long protests were over.
But look a little closer around Karachi, and it’s evident that some are celebrating. The churches, whose spires still dot the city’s skyline, have notices for carol performances tacked up on the wall—alongside banners condemning the Innocence of Muslims, the film that stoked worldwide protests, to ensure that no one takes the anger out on church property.
In a city where dozens of neighbourhoods are divided by sect of Islam, language, political affiliation or being from a ‘minority’—aka Christians and Hindus—it is easy to spot the poorer Christian neighbourhoods. Amid piles of trash and crumbling houses, there are glimpses of stars made from fairy lights, strung up on a wall. Across the city though, hotels and restaurants have put up Christmas trees to cash in on the holiday season and are advertising buffets and lunches. In Bohri Bazaar, vendors jostle for space on the sidewalk to sell plastic trees—and boxes of decorations—that are all made in China.
The New JC Misquita Bakery is gearing up for the holiday (the JC standing for Joseph Cajtien, not Jesus Christ). Misquita is famed for its hot cross buns on Easter, when people queue up in droves to buy them. I’d always heard it was a madhouse, particularly in the days before the holiday, but owner Syed Haider Abbas Zaidi is low-key. “It’s calm. People come, we serve them, and they leave.”
Despite being the most famous Christmas bakery, Misquita doesn’t not take orders for Christmas, and opening and closing times remain unchanged. Zaidi hands me a cheery flyer touting the holiday’s selections—the list includes plum cake, a ‘rich plum cake’, macroom [sic] cake, and marzipan and almond toffee, which he says is a popular choice. The bakery will only begin selling Christmas desserts on the December 22 and will wrap up around noon on Christmas Day.
While Karachi’s well-heeled crowd has been swept up in the craze of elaborately decorated cupcakes, Misquita sticks to what it knows. “We sell cupcakes too,” he says, pointing to some simple frosted cupcakes in the display case that wouldn’t pass muster with Karachi’s cupcake fans. “We haven’t changed anything. If we did, our customers would go elsewhere.”
Zaidi says sales have been on the decline for the past few holiday seasons. “Everything has become so expensive,” he says. “People can’t afford to buy things.”
A deeper problem even than recession: “So many Christians have migrated. So many of my own Christian friends have left for Canada or Australia… this is how the situation is.”
After I leave Misquita, I wander around the neighbourhood, where students from some of the city’s most prestigious schools—all run by Christians—are buying snacks from nearby shops. Older boys, following in the steps of many generations before them, chat up girls after that the school bell has rung.
Given that Karachi’s Christmas is nearly an underground affair these days, it’s fitting that the final shop I see is unmarked save for Christmas decorations in the window. Inside, though, people are busy doing the things of Christmas: buying up Christmas cards, sniffing candles and looking through holiday books. After I leave with my own purchases—a Christmas card and a poster depicting The Last Supper—the nun at the counter (this is a church shop, it turns out) hands me a 2013 calendar and smiles. There are no questions asked about my faith. Unlike mosques and madrassas, where I’ve been asked about what sect of Islam I follow and how many times I pray a day, no one cares in the shop, or in churches where I’ve attended services, about why I’m there. And after all, that’s all anyone could want for Christmas or any other day in Karachi: the right to live, in peace.
Saba Imtiaz (@Saba_Imtiaz) is a Karachi-based correspondent who contributes to Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel blog among others and is working on a book about the conflict in Karachi.
Karachi is a deeply cynical city, which gives it one advantage: it tends to quickly shrug off unrest and tragedy.
Take the example of the recent riots over the Innocence of Muslims video. In one burst, protesters burned down six movie theaters and several banks. They attacked a KFC with equal vigor, looting Pepsi syrup, frozen chicken and plastic trays before trying to set the entire store on fire. The same day, my office ordered delivery from Espresso, the city’s most popular coffee chain, and someone hit the delivery guy in the head with a rock on his way over. He was fortunate he was wearing a helmet.
But the smell of burnt plastic hadn’t even cleared from the streets before the city opened for business again. Why mourn dead fast-food stores when on a normal day some eight to ten people are killed, whether in battles between warring gangs or in targeted assassinations or in random mob violence? Life in Pakistan’s largest city never pauses for them.
And yet, there is one time a year that Karachi does stop and shroud itself in black: the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, the month of mourning.
Muharram, which started on November 15 this year, is the most significant time on the Shiite calendar. It marks the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussain ibn Ali in the Battle of Karbala in Iraq in 680 AD. Shiite groups hoist black flags over their neighborhoods, men and women clad themselves in black, and police officers brace for violence between the Shia and those extremists groups that consider their brand of Islam a heresy.
At Shiite congregations throughout the city, preachers retell the dramatic story of Karbala—a tale full of of starvation, bloody battles, child murder, and the ensuing captivity of Imam Hussain’s family in Damascus—as mourners chant ‘Ya Hussain’ and whip and cut themselves with their hands, knives and chains. By the end of the evening, bare-chested men are covered in blood, scars crisscrossing their backs, and women wander around with swollen eyes.
But after the preacher’s mic switches off and the congregation is exhausted from the exertion of their flagellation, the men and women adjourn. It is time to eat haleem.