By Sumaira Jajja
Ever felt like an alien in your own country? The feeling is a strange one, something very Orwellian. If you want to have your own personal experience, drive out to the Super Highway and enter the campy quarters called the Al-Asif Square.
Built in the early '80s, the flats were a low cost housing solution and scores of people queued up to get one for themselves. The first owners or tenants of property here were Muslim and Hindu families from rural Sindh or villages around Sohrab Goth. The Sohrab Goth settlements became a focus of attention as a result of emerging political conflict within Karachi. It was alleged that the bara market and the adjoining migrant communities were a source of insecurity. Some of the settlements were evicted, and many of the inhabitants – Afghans as well as Pakistani Pashtuns – moved into the newly constructed Al-Asif apartment complex in the early 1980s. Some of the people who moved into Al-Asif were obviously from among the more prosperous of segments of the former dwellers of the katchi abadis.
During the early 1980s a follower of Gulbadin Hikmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami became leader of the union, and he settled incoming Afghan refugees from a nearby camp into the complex and its suburbs. Later that decade the union came under control of a religious political party, and by 1994 the Pashtun Akakhel tribe controlled it. Investing their hard earned money, it was a shocker for them to see their dreams go down the drain when qabza groups got hold of the blocks. And thus came into being a housing quarter that stirred fear, caused distress and yet proved to be home and hearth for thousands, all through these years.
According to a case study by The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), the cross-border migration between Afghanistan and Pakistan has a long and varied history. The prevalence of political crisis and armed conflict in Afghanistan since the late 1970s resulted in the framing of cross-border migration quite largely in terms of displacement and refugee movements.
Karachi, being the proverbial pot of gold, attracted the largest number of these refugees. Sohrab Goth itself turned into one of the most concentrated areas of Afghan population. Al-Asif Square has been a home to an estimated 20,000 people; almost 60 percent are Afghans and the remainder from Pakistan's provinces. The ethnic mix here is pretty diverse, with Tajiks, Pashtuns and Uzbeks residing here.
Walking towards Al-Asif Square, be prepared to bear the quizzical expression and penetrating stares welcoming any outsider. On one corner of the block is the thriving Al-Makkah Bus Services stop. Passengers are loaded and off loaded and packed off to areas all over Pakistan in the "flying" coaches. Right next doors start a lane of food shops, offering everything from Chargha and Sajji to Chapli Kebab and other Afghani cuisine, an epicurean delight. A stroll on the road outside gives one interesting observations. You will find fruit sellers selling fruits and the hidden fruits "cannabis" in broad daylight. The new, glitzy multi national bank often has unruly men entering its premises with wads of foreign currency.
As you enter the apartment block, shops laden with naswaar are a common sight. The musky smell that hangs in the corridors turns to a nauseating one with the sight of red meat covered with flies. "Be brave, this is nothing. There's a slaughter house on the third floor here. Things there are worse," stated a shopkeeper seeing the helplessness of this scribe. But one thing that no one can miss is the fact that while the lanes of this apartment block are filled with men and children, there are hardly any women here. Those who venture outside are clad in the infamous shuttlecock burqas, reminding one of the often broadcasted images of women in the Taliban regime.
"I feel like an outside ever time I walk into this place. These people have completely taken control and most of the times, they simply defy logic," states one jilted real estate broker on condition of anonymity. Seated in his office, an apartment owner goes over the nitty gritty and then curses his luck. "I bought two flats here out of my savings but I think that was the biggest mistake of my life. Now I have rented out these flats but these tenets just drive me crazy. Why am I to pay the electricity and gas bills? I hardly get rent worth 5000 rupees for both flats. Had I invested the amount I used to buy these flats, I would have been better off." With frustration evident on his face, the flat owner simply left the shop in utter disgust.
A walk through the bazaar inside the Al-Asif Square is an eye opener. From substandard electronic items to almost real looking fake goodies, "China ka maal" is all the rage. Funky looking mp3 players and iPod look alikes cater to the needs of an average customer. Then there are music shops blaring Indian and Pushto songs. There's even a Pushto Idol album that has newbies displaying their vocal talents. The videos are nonetheless amusing. Most of them feature good looking chaps bearing a striking resemblance to one or the other Hollywood actors but it seems that Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise are the hot favourites here.
The streets are not less than a garbage dump, with the sewerage system in a mess. Even the rusty, old gas lines are leaking and one can easily bet that a serious accident might occur due to the negligence. Most of the men and boys simply loiter around while the few women that walk in and out seem to be in great hurry as they clutch their burqas and take big steps. There are many tailor shops which have women garments but somehow no ladies were visible. The beautiful Kochi bridal dresses are simply gorgeous. With ethnic motifs, gold work done on dark coloured velvet, they are striking. What however made an interesting sight were the bridal gowns that were displayed in the tailor shops. Right out of some fashion magazine, the gowns did seem a bit out of place but then the Afghans are a fashion conscious lot. When posed with the question that the gowns were a tad too revealing given that almost all the women here wore burqas, the tailor replied, "Ye in ka rivaaj hay (This is their custom). They may not be literate but for their wedding day, they look up to Hollywood actresses." In one go, this scribe counted at least four tailor shops offering expert gowns and more than five beauty parlours or Aaraish Khanas as they are called in Persian.
Continuing for almost three decades now, the saga of the Afghan Diaspora is nothing less than an epic in its self. From the refugee camps set up in and around Peshawar to the dingy flats of Al-Asif Square, for many it was a journey they do not want to talk about. "Leaving my home and then bracing a life in a tent was not an easy thing," says one. The scars of hard times in the camps have made most of the elders bitter and this has trickled down into the youth, leaving anti-Pakistan sentiments higher.
Abdul Jabbar, a 16-year-old Afghani, was born and raised in Karachi. "I have no idea what Afghanistan is like, but I would like to carry on living here or move to the US." Selling sweets and cigarettes on his stall inside the premises, this well-rounded teen has quite a few theories of his own. "Why should I go back? I am not used to the way things are in Afghanistan. I am better off here." His aged parents meanwhile differ. Having spent their lives in the suburbs of Kabul, they are still not used to the concrete jungle of Karachi. "Life there was better. This is not our home, even after the twenty years that we have spent here." On the topic of school, Abdul Jabbar says, "It's a pity that we live in one of the biggest cities of Asia, and yet I have not been to a school. All my cousins in Afghanistan have gone to schools, even my female cousins." The rampant poverty and high cost of living has forced many parents to send their children to madrasaahs instead. But what sets the community here apart is the level of kinship and brotherhood that prevails. Abdullah Jan, a butcher says, "Yag roz didi dost, degare roz didi bridar!" Loosely translated it means, the first day you meet, you are friends, the next day you meet, you are brothers. Neatly summing the Afghan and Pashtun way of friendship, this is indeed an apt saying. "Friendship and kinship are important to us. If I won't help a brother in need now, what answer will I give to Allah on the Day of Judgment?" Abdullah asks. He then proudly goes on to say that he himself has trained around 20 young lads and two of them are now working at butcher shops in Defence while quite a few have left for a better life in the UK, US and Gulf countries.
Having high hopes, dreaming about good times and hoping for the best, the Al-Asif Square is a city within a city. A trip there is an eye opener, as in the over flowing gutters and garbage dumps, humanity survives, fighting against all odds and living life to max. It's the never say die Afghan spirit that makes it all possible.
The city's roadsides provide livelihood to thousands. Playing the dhol on sidewalks, trying to attract an audience, are the colourful dholwalas of Karachi.
Kolachi takes a look
By Sabeen Jamil
In our part of the world, weddings are serious affairs that call for intense festivity. The color of henna, the aroma of ubtan and roses, funky yellow and green colors, glittery attire, and the beat of dholki and wedding songs – the charms of the celebrations are enough to get everyone wrapped up in them. The madness heightens with the beats of dholak and if the hands thrashing the drum are of a professional, the audience can't help but tap their feet, and groove on the dance floor. Such professional drumbeaters, referred to as dholwalas seem to have divine powers to rock the world. The faster they beat those drums the wilder the audience gets.
Mostly clad in yellow kurta shalwar (sometimes a yellow dhoti instead, accompanied with a turban) these dholwalas can be seen running their "business" at the roundabouts of NIPA, Hasan Square, Jail Chowrangi, Teen Hatti, Board Office, Sakhi Hasan and the KDA Chowrangi in North Nazimabad where they sit from dawn till dusk awaiting a "party" to hire them. They work in teams of four to five performers comprising the main dholwala, shehnai player, lohar or a bhangrawala and a chimtawala, charging 200-250 rupees each for one gathering.
Riaz Ahmed is an ustaad of one such group of five performers at KDA Chowrangi, who comes to work by six in the morning and spends the entire day on this roundabout to earn his living. Though the work is not financially rewarding and things get really tough for him when he has to stay up till four in the morning while performing at weddings, he is still proud to be associated with this profession, "This is an art, a way of expression and is as respectable as any form of art can be," he says. Not happy with the term 'meerasi', used to demean performers, Riaz staunchly defends his art form.
Born in Karachi, Riaz and his group are originally from Sialkot – where their fathers started working as dholwalas. "But our fathers were not commercial like we are. They never publicized themselves and remained in their houses. They would work only when people would contact them," he says while explaining how they are more professional and successful than their parents. "Since we are doing it on a commercial basis we are more professional, and along with other groups have promoted the culture of dholwalas in Karachi, which was absent two decades ago."
These dholwalas are committed and enthusiastic about their work and deem additional training important for professional growth. The older ones in the brotherhood train the young free of cost. When a teacher formally takes a student under his wings, the student arranges a feast for the teacher and some close relatives after which the teacher formally begins the training.
Chand Pardesi, a shehnai player in Riaz's group, is learning Punjabi and Indian movie tunes from Ustaad Younus Pardesi at Pahar Ganj for two years now. "I still have lots more to learn," he says. He adds that at every performance, especially weddings where his clientele belongs to varied cultures ranging from Punjabi, Siraiki, Pakhtun, Hazarwala to Urdu speaking, he has to play tunes in accordance with the ethnicities of the audience. However, as the universal law of dhol appreciation goes, Punjabi tunes entertain everyone equally regardless of language and ethnicity, "Punjabi tunes are fast and capable of making people go wild when they are dancing on the drum beats," he explains, maintaining that songs by Abrar-ul-Haq are demanded the most by his clients as they go well with Bhangra dance. Other than that, tunes like Nobat, Tin Ta'al, Phangra and Chartal Maula Ali are also much liked by people.
Though dholwalas are always in demand at festivals like Basant, stage programs and private gatherings, they are most popular at weddings. The wedding season after Eid and Moharram spins their business to thousands. At weddings some people are generous enough to give them more than the fixed money. This includes clothes, food, the money showered on the dancers and the groom by their relatives. "In terms of business, posh areas of the city such as Defence and Clifton provide us with thriving business," reveals Riaz. However, to make themselves acceptable to their clientele in terms of appearence in these areas, the dholwalas have to do a lot. This ranges from wearing a yellow attire to a glittery sequined kurta, worn specifically by a Lohar who dances Bhangra with a chimta in his hands ahead of the groom's car. "I wear this garb to attract the audience," says Arif, a Lohar pointing at the blue glittery kurta he wears, "The Kurta whirls as I dance and its glow enchants the audience," he claims.
The profession doesn't earn fortunes for Riaz who has to feed a family of six. "Even a laborer gets 4000 rupees every month", he says, "but I am not doing it for the money," he adds. " Sangeet helped me in my difficult times. It's an art as deep as the sea. The more you get in to it the more you learn."
– Photos by M Farooq Khan
Karachi hosts The All Pakistan Music Conference again this year at the magical Hindu Gymkhana
By Rahma Muhammad
On a starless Karachi evening, in the backdrop of the beautiful Hindu Gymkhana, hundreds of Karachiites sat mesmerized listening to the music of the great masters. From the hypnotic pakhavaj to the haunting flute, to Farida Khanum singing Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the opening night of this year's All Pakistan Music Festival was one out of a dream.
On white chandnis resting against gao takias, munching on sonf, it felt surreal to be in such pleasant surroundings minutes away from the maddening II Chundrigar Road and its concrete chaos. Its nights like these that make life in Karachi bearable.
The three-day music fest is back this year, providing music lovers with a fantastic chance to listen to the best in the business. Whether its instruments, ghazals, alaaps or qawali, APMC invites the best musicians and opens its gates for anyone and everyone who appreciates good music.
An initiative of concerned citizens of the city APMC's aim is to "revive teaching and learning of classical performing arts as well as revival of the culture of appreciating them in all social strata in Karachi." In its fourth year, the APMC has attracted large crowds, old and young alike. The baithak sittings and the Eastern classical does intimidate the younger lot, but they come nonetheless, if only to catch their pop gods. Mekaal Hasan Band closed the conference last year to a leaving older audience but the young ones came in droves to listen to his jazzy take on eastern music. Events like APMC are needed to educate the urban youth of this city in their art culture. The city with its growing number of underpasses and flyovers severely lacks the most important ingredient that gives a megacity its identity - a progressive art scene, which represents its distinct culture. Unlike Karachi of the '60s and '70s where book readings and theatre were a part of everyday life, Karachi today is as placid and grey a city without a creative outlet can be.
APMC is a fabulous effort to bring eastern classical music, which has been an elitist art form in sub-continental history, into the mainstream by organizing the event in the heart of the city and by keeping entry free. However, one does feel that the event was not publicized much. This word of mouth publicity beats the purpose of a free event. Nonetheless, the event was organized meticulously and due credit goes to the organizers for bringing it to this maddening city year after year.
Amidst the urban madness of this city, free events like APMC are a godsend, filling the entertainment vacuum in this megacity. Any other city of 15 million people has a happening entertainment circuit; concerts, theatre, dance. In Karachi one waits months for events like these - or for any event at all.
Whether it is Karafilm or APMC, Karachi is slowly making its way up. However as a city we still have a long way to go. Both these events are a direct result of hard work and passion of a bunch of concerned citizens - Karachi needs lots more concerned citizens like these.
By Maheen Sabeeh
17-year-old Malik Asif has lived in Karachi all his life. A waiter by profession, Malik has seen Karachi through its various phases and loves it, despite its shortcoming. Living with his parents and 5 siblings, Malik has been working at the young age of only 17. Unlike many other teenagers his age, this is a boy who struggles to make ends meet but loves this city and calls it his home. Kolachi has a chat with him...
Kolachi: Why did your family move to Karachi?
Asif: Around the time when I was born, my father had gone to a foreign country to work there. My parents got into an argument over the phone and my mother decided that we should move to Karachi. Later, my parents got back together and built a house here.
Kolachi: How many siblings do you have?
Asif: I am the oldest of all. I have 3 brothers and 2 sisters.
Kolachi: What do you do for a living?
Asif: For the last two months, I've been working as a waiter in a canteen. Before that I worked with my father as a carpenter.
Kolachi: Do you like your job?
Asif: I do but sometimes it can get difficult. If anything breaks like a cup or a plate, they deduct it from my salary. At times, things aren't clean, the food isn't and I don't like that. I continue to work here primarily because the people are kind and educated. They treat me with dignity even though I'm a poor boy.
Kolachi: Tell us about your education?
Asif: I studied till grade 7.
Kolachi: Why not further?
Asif: I had a fight with my father, he beat me up so I ran away. I went to Clifton and opened up a small stall of bun kebabs. My father found me eventually and brought me home but he said that I couldn't go to school. Personally, I didn't want to go back to studying either.
Kolachi: How did you manage to set up the bun kebab business?
Asif: I knew someone who owned a bun kebab stall so I just started working with him and in the night, I'd sleep under the stall.
Kolachi: Do your siblings study?
Asif: Yes, all of them go to school.
Kolachi: Where in Karachi do you live?
Asif: I live in the City Railway Colony. I have lived there all my life. I have friends there, most of them go to work now while the rest are studying. We don't hang anymore.
Kolachi: What places in Karachi do you like to visit?
Asif: I like going to the Museum, Polo Ground, Sea View, the Zoo and Clifton.
Kolachi: Have you been to the new parks in Clifton?
Asif: Yes, I really like them. I've been there with my friends, family and I also go there alone sometimes.
Kolachi: In your opinion, how has Karachi changed over the years?
Asif: Karachi has changed, it's developing and I like it. There is nothing about Karachi that I dislike.
Kolachi: What makes Karachi special to you?
Asif: I've lived in Karachi all my life. There is no place quite like it and that makes it special.
Kolachi: Do you want to go back to your hometown?
Asif: Sometimes when I fight with my father and we disagree on certain things I feel like going away and never coming back.
Kolachi: Are you the only bread earner in your family?
Asif: No, my father is but I do pitch in through my salary. But now I'm saving money to buy a mobile phone.
Kolachi: How much do you earn?
Asif: I work on commission basis. For every 100 rupees that I make, I get 20 rupees. And if I make 500 rupees a day then I will get 100 rupees but that doesn't happen since I work in a canteen and people usually order soft drinks and not enough food.
Kolachi: How do you spend your spare time?
Asif: I play with my brothers and sisters. Whatever game they're playing, I just play with them. But on most Sundays I go to Burns Road to work. I get odd jobs like mixing material that is needed in carpentry.
Kolachi: What is your future plan?
Asif: I will work with my father. When I was a kid, it was decided between my parents and my uncle that I will marry his daughter, so there is that to look forward to.
Kolachi; Do you want to get married?
Asif: I don't know but I do know that I want to marry her. I love her and so does she! She lives in Punjab but she came here some time back and I took her to Sea View.
Struggling constantly without complaining, fighting against all odds, dreaming of making it big, such is Karachi's character.