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Stop Calling Karachi ‘Resilient’

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Being a Karachiite is exhausting. Everyone wants to tell us who we are; who we ought to be. But we can only be who we are; who we can possibly be. In that eternal contradiction lies everything that is wrong with one’s life in Karachi. In dodging the titles thrown our way, in embracing what we are told we must not, in seeing ourselves for who we truly are, we find our first battle of identity, in the greater war of self determination.

A man from Islamabad comes to town, and speaking to a crowd of urban donkeys, proclaims Karachi a resilient city, sings praises for her citizen’s bravery, and foresees a Dubai-like future. Effectively stamping the city with these identities. The escapists in attendance rejoice, and the assured man counts his pawns by the thousands. Next morning, the man’s sipping tea seated in a five-star lounge, and the donkeys are on the streets; carrying weight far beyond their strength. The ‘resilient’ drag themselves to a tasteless dinner and drugged-up sleep, as to-be Dubai lives to see another day, but for what?

One fine day in grade 4, my friend and I were criminally uninterested in an Islamiyat class. ‘Are these new?’, my friend asked, shuffling through my Pokémon cards under his desk. ‘Keep them low,’ I said cautiously, afraid the teacher might confiscate, what was indeed, a new deck. It was a pretty average day. But then, suddenly, boom! We heard a deafening explosion. The windows rattled, the fans swung, the bells rang, the classmates screamed, and I noticed: my Pokémon cards were on the floor, stepped on. It hurt. We later got the news that there had been a bomb blast nearby. I didn’t want to go to school for the two days that followed. So, at age 9, I guess it takes three days for resilience to kick in after a traumatic experience.

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One morning in grade 9, I woke up to the news reporting that there were to be some city-wide strike that day. ‘The school will remain open today,’ read an upsetting text message on my dad’s phone, received at 6 AM. 11 AM, I was in class, and the emergency bell went off. The school had received threats, to be realized if it did not immediately call it a day. Students were told to head home. My friend offered me a ride, but there was only room for one, and I had a younger sister I couldn’t leave behind.

I ran around the school, asking people I had never spoken to before, and managed to hitch a ride. I was welcomed home answerable to a fuming father, and a wailing mother. They were right; I should’ve called home. To be honest though, as odd as it may sound, it just didn’t occur to me. Perhaps the urgency embedded in the looming fear of uncertainty overwhelmed me. Or I guess at age 14, resilience becomes internalized.

This year, a horrifying spell of monsoon rainfall wreaked havoc on an impotent Karachi. Our roads became flowing rivers, and four tonne containers turned into ironic marine life. An old man, stuck in a traffic jam, died gasping for air, crying for help, watching his car drown in an ocean of his fears. I sat at home, in the dark, and watched my streets flood for three days.

Social media flooded as well, with heartbreaking stories – of loss and of despair – emerging from across the city. I shed a tear, smoked a cigarette, scrolled ahead. At age 23, I guess the curtain falls; from behind the apparent resilience, emerges the ugly face of one’s reality. Bravery fades into helplessness, and resilience into vulnerability.

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Through the course of our lives we constantly adopt and abandon identities, often many at the same time, and each with its own burdens on, and desires from life. This identification happens on two levels: first, on an individual level and second, on a group level. While contemporary Karachi – as a diverse, hustling and bustling metropolis – forces the individual to choose his/her own individual identity, it comes with an inherent contradiction, where the group identity is dictated by those that rule upon us, in both, the literal and the metaphorical sense. And those that rule upon us, are not from among us.

They don’t know us; they don’t understand us.

As fall comes, the comforting lies have begun to shed like leaves. Seeking shade under a bare tree in a desert, I must now learn to see myself as part of the scene. Every ray of sunlight burning my skin reminds me of the protection from above, or lack thereof. Perhaps its time I raise my own hand, shade my own eyes.

Karachi finds itself at a crossroad, where the truth lays naked before us. It was once called the city of lights, then the city of chaos, and now the city in ruins. The reality is, it’s just a city in pain; and has been for decades now. I think it’s time we identify ourselves as part of the scene. It’s time for us to decide for ourselves, what we want and how must we get it. It’s time for Karachi’s self-determination.

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1 Comment

  1. Nabeeha Mahmood September 9, 2020

    I really enjoyed reading this article, Subboh! The personal stories really punctuate the experience of most citizens who love the city but are helplessly watching her fall more and more apart every year. I agree, Karachi is a city in pain.

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