Part I: Office Abuse, Weather Shock and Boils
I was fifth in the “non-Pakistani passport” line, but, as expected, my turn came after about eleven or twelve people. Welcome to the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, Pakistan.
The immigration officer was a dark, middle-aged man who appeared anything but efficient. His body language clearly communicated, “I’ll abuse my job to no end and there’s nothing you can do about it,” and he did. While this cocky officer cooly went about the bribing practice, a beefy man with a white beard and protruding belly (that kept nudging me) appeared next to me, pushing his way through the rest of the travelers. He refused to acknowledge that I was ahead of him in the cue and casually ignored my pleas to stand in line. And so the rest of us, angrily, helplessly and somewhat patiently, stood for about an hour awaiting our stamp of entry into Pakistan.
The minute you clear the immigration, a cluster of porters run up to you, enthusiastically offering their services, even at 4 a.m. It’s been like that for as long as I can remember. They’re dressed in traditional shalwar kameez and belong to the category of the few in the city who have an air of urgency about them. They seem different, very different, especially if you’re coming from a place like California.
By the time I cleared immigration and took possession of my suitcases it was light outside. Instantly hit by the seething temperature when I walked outside the airport, I realized I was hardly ready to experience a summer in Karachi after about seventeen years.
I was greeted by my parents who arrived a few weeks earlier. This was less a family vacation and more a desperate attempt to introduce me to potential marriage suitors. “If you don’t like anyone in the Bay Area, you must check out the guys in Pakistan because time is running out,” my mother repeated more often than often. It seemed strange but then I thought one should experience strange things once in a while. So there I was, in the sweltering heat of July in Karachi, to meet guys.
As we drove to my uncle’s house about forty-five minutes away from the airport, the city looked cleaner and somewhat calmer since my last visit in the winter of 2006. But that was, of course, because it was about 5 a.m. and Karachi has never been much of an early bird.
Too engrossed in the excitement of meeting loved ones, I conveniently forgot about the real purpose of my trip, at least the first day I spent in the city. Not to mention, what I love about Karachi the most is the food. Short on sleep, high on talk and planning food excursions, I didn’t realize that I was having some type of reaction to either the weather or the water in the form of hideous boils! The very first night I noticed unsightly swellings in a couple of areas on my face which were to mature into ugly boils the next day. These are the times when one feels grateful for makeup and, I suppose, for being a girl. However this time, unfortunately, the weather just wouldn’t allow the makeup to stay and I had no choice but to accept the boils with a laugh and I was probably more comfortable about it than my mother, who was of course worried about a marriage proposal going wrong! Sounds funny, but it’s completely true. And she remained anxious until she was told by my first suitor’s mother that he liked me after our first meeting. I’m still considering …
Part II: Marriage Mania
I hardly got a chance to get over my jetlag when my mother started obsessing about my marriage at every chance she got. Although I was staying at a different house, she would manage to catch me for most of the day and lecture me on the importance and urgency of marriage. Some of it made sense, some did not. There were laughs, tiffs and serious contemplation. And every single family member who we met, got involved in some way or another in the marriage talk. Actually I was staying with a cousin who is over 30 and still single so she wasn’t spared either. One aunt gave me a copy of the book, “Before You Say I Do,” another told me that I need to get rid of my fears, my uncle said, “follow your gut,” one cousin said, “now or never,” and the list goes on.
I guess while I was there I started believing that I may be able to pull off an arranged marriage. But again, when you’re traveling, your thought processes tend to go awry, which could be both positive or negative. I found myself at a great loss of words, even conversation, many a time during the “arranged” meetings, but I still went with the flow. And I suppose, if nothing else, I have become more comfortable with this form of introduction as per the Pakistani culture. In fact, it seems simple and easy. Parents decide if you would make a good couple, girl meets boy a couple of times, and both give a simple yes or no based on their initial chemistry. An algebraic equation simplified in no time. If only I was good at solving equations so quickly …
Part III: Miscellaneous Nights
If you want to see the true spirit of Karachi, it’s after 10 p.m. and not just on weekends. Everything seems more vivacious after dark. Whether it’s Monday or Saturday, people leave their homes after 9 p.m. and the city wholeheartedly approves. Restaurants remain open much past mid-night, plays end after 11 p.m., concerts and musical gatherings carry on till early morning. There’s a street called Tariq road that is packed till nearly 1 a.m. every single day of the week; it’s a long strip that has a dizzying number of shops selling all kinds of products, toys, shoes, clothes, jewelry, electronics, something for everyone, even for me: “Rehmat-e-Shireen,” a shop that sells and serves traditional sweets and deserts that you can devour in the privacy of your car.
Part IV: Servants
There is a fierce disparity between the rich and poor which is always heart wrenching but there are people who continue to do their best to fill the gap. There are servants in almost every household but they are at least employed and they probably work harder and earn less than the beggars on the street. But they are provided with food, sometimes shelter and occasionally money for their families by their employers. Most of my relatives treat their servants with respect and help them in a lot of ways. My uncle’s servant, for example, has a ten-year-old son whose education is being funded by him so that he can adopt a more fulfilling profession than that of his father.
Part V: Domino Effect - Plane Crash, Riots, Rains
During my last week in Karachi, a series of unfortunate incidents hit the city. First the plane crash that killed all 152 people on that flight; there were a few theories on what really went wrong. Some people said that it was a terrorist attack that was being shushed, some said that the plane entered a “no-fly zone” so the government shot it and some accepted that it was a consequence of the faulty weather.
The mourning for these passengers was barely over when a significant political leader of the MQM party was assassinated. What was more surprising though was what followed; restaurants and buses were set on fire, people were killed and the city accepted a three-day strike due to which businesses lost a ridiculous amount of money, as reported by the local newspapers. The streets were quiet, schools were closed and people were scared to leave their homes. Yet, there were still those few, including us, who refused to be threatened and defiantly stepped outside.
Businesses suffered a tremendous loss during this strike and the strike was followed by a much bigger loss, for the whole nation: the floods. The president of Pakistan was vacationing in Europe when people across the nation had started losing their homes. But before the worst of it, I had already left the country, thinking that, surprisingly, despite all the problems, the absence of law and order, the corruption, the riots and the government, there is an unbreakable spirit rooted in Karachi, perhaps the whole of Pakistan, that refuses to succumb, even to reality.