In Karachi, the Delivery Man Cometh
'Food delivery websites tap into urban Pakistani’s aspirations, their desire to eat good food from restaurants considered hip and trendy, and to eat it in their pajamas.’
This was not just any border, but one whose creation in 1947 had led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, one of the largest mass migrations in human history, and more than six-decades of highly militarized contempt between what today are two nuclear powers. Since 1959, the India-Pakistan crossing at the Punjabi village of Wagah, were I was headed, has also been one of spectacle, famous for a daily ceremony known as Beating the Retreat—a show of inane yet belligerent antics in which goose-stepping Indian and Pakistani border guards, donning fan-shaped tufted hats, spend 45 minutes trying to out-kick, out-stomp, and generally out-perform the others, before lowering their respective flags and closing the border for the evening.
These theatrics have made Wagah a border crossing unlike any other since Checkpoint Charlie: the vast majority of visitors arrive not to stamp passports but to gawk at the line in the sand and its guards. For both countries, it is a 365-day-a-year national ritual, held at what is the only open road crossing along the 1,800-mile border between the two states. Although I had come in part for the entertainment, I also hoped these stomping men in silly hats might teach me something about the long-intractable India-Pakistan conflict.
The Ahmadi sect of Islam will end up the big loser in today’s vote in Pakistan—all parties agreed with restrictions that would make it illegal for them to vote unless they renounce their God. Seriously.
There are 3-4 million Ahmadiyya in Pakistan, but they’ve made a big mark overseas as well, through their missionary work. These photos, from the early Ghanaian hajjis to a handshake between the Ahmadi leader and the then-president of Ghana, Fl. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings, are from a yearbook celebrating their long history in Ghana.
Read Sonya Rehman’s take on the Ahmadi and their famous mango drink and why today’s elections in Pakistan are just another disappointment in a long and bloody history.
Murder, pogroms, heretics, and sweet sweet Shezan All Pure Mango Juice. By Sonya Rehman
When it opened, Sadiq’s small shop served only two flavors of ice cream; pista badaam (pistachio and almonds) and kulfi (an indigenous flavor that has a rich, milky taste with a grainy thickness created by ground pistachios and almonds. Also: a hint of cardamom).
These flavors are still there, still served the old way: the chilled scoops are topped with shredded blanched almonds and pistachios. Zubair Sadiq, the amicable son of the founder, stills stands behind a second-floor counter, much like his father. The counter he mans is laden with an assortment of fruits for toppings—bananas, pomegranates, apples, oranges. Waiters, children, young couples, women and families stream in and out of the slim passageway by the counter and into the bright seating area.
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
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.