“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.
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.
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.