Visiting Pakistan for the first time in three years, Taimur Khan finds its largest city's resilience drowned out by gunshots, fear and uncertainty.
Fifteen years ago, late on a cool winter night in Karachi, the acrid air was thick and still from the smoke of countless rubbish-fed fires, burning in the city's bleary slums and makeshift encampments, keeping people warm through the chilled hours before dawn. A car carrying four men turned off of an empty road and parked in front of my uncle's house in a subdivision of an affluent suburb, within sight of the Arabian Sea. The men emerged from their vehicle carrying Kalashnikovs, and, without knocking, were led through the front gate by my family's cook, who lived in a small servant's quarter at the rear of the house next to the kennel of two guard dogs.
The men entered through a side door into the kitchen, went directly to the bedrooms where my three young female cousins slept, woke them, ordered them not to make a sound, and took them at gunpoint into their parents' room until they all stood a few feet from the king-size bed. My uncle, startled out of his sleep, lunged for the pistol he kept stowed in the bedside table. Fortunately, he was knocked unconscious by the butt of an intruder's gun before he could reach his own. After plundering the house, the thieves (and the cook) took off, laden with more cash and jewellery than they had presumably hoped for. Like many upper middle class Pakistani families, they kept large amounts of their wealth at home, fearing that in an emergency their savings might disappear from local banks.
This was the 1990s. Home invasions were not uncommon in Karachi during this period. The city had become one of the world's murder capitals and was fraying under the weight of a fierce turf war between the city's two largest politico-ethnic groups. The Muttahida Quami Movement represented the demographic majority, Urdu-speaking immigrants from partitioned India. Its militia battled the Pakistan People's Party of then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, supported largely by the native Sindhi population. Karachi was also awash in weapons, heroin and desperate refugees, and was reeling from the violence these terrible economies required.
Even though Karachi smouldered for most of the decade, the perennial narratives of Pakistan as a chaos-ridden failed state permanently on the brink of becoming Talibanistan were flawed; local resilience and toughness proved them only half true. During my visits, I saw the shrines of Sufi saints, unique to South Asian Islam and especially to Sindhi culture, teeming with worshippers; the Urdu bazaar in the old city was packed with people buying books; and when the Indian cricket team finally came to play, the city revelled for days. After September 11, the economy grew at a pace that rivalled India's, and, as in India, there was for the first time the formation of a broad middle class. Last year, an outburst of bourgeois consciousness helped force out Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler, and demanded elections that many hoped signalled a meaningful shift towards democracy and away from military-feudal rule. The West was outwardly enthralled because it seemed that Pakistan was finally on the teleological road to liberal democracy, the only modernity it cares about.
Two weeks ago I visited family in Karachi for the first time in three years. The fragile optimism I encountered in 2005 has evaporated. In the Nineties the upper middle class was comforted by the fact that no matter how bad things became in the short term, the status quo would always reassert itself: the military would always intervene to protect its interests, which overlapped with theirs. The army and intelligence agencies may have been fighting proxy wars in Afghanistan and on the border with India, but internally, the state maintained a surface equilibrium. But now the military is fighting a full-scale war on its home turf with the Pakistani Taliban. The idea that the army can maintain internal control has been revealed as fiction.
Pakistan still isn't "the most dangerous place in the world", that sensationalist mantle thrust upon it last year by the American news media. On my first night in town, my favourite barbecue restaurant was still packed. But the city's mantra - "life goes on" - was muttered, rather than spoken with its usual easy confidence. For the first time I heard relatives talk of abandoning the country for the Gulf or North America.
One day I went to a nearby barbershop to get a shave and have my hair oiled. I would have walked, but my uncle insisted I go by car with a driver - something he had never done, even after being robbed at gunpoint in his home. As we drove past neighbours' houses, where newly installed private security guards sat out front on charpais sipping tea, shotguns resting across their knees, I asked the driver, a young Sindhi from a village near the Bhutto clan's ancestral home, about the new PPP-led government and its leader, President Asif Ali Zardari. "Zardari's a thief," he said, echoing a sentiment I had heard from many Pakistanis. We rounded a corner and passed a lane congested by a maze of Baghdad-esque staggered blast walls and a cluster of paramilitaries. It led to the house of a PPP minister. "They're supposed to be protecting us," noted my driver. "But look, they are too scared to even come out of their houses in their own city." Poor, rural Sindhis have been the PPP's only reliable electoral base; things are not as predictable now as they once were.
Pashtun refugees displaced by the fighting in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Swat valley have been arriving in Karachi by the thousands, and kidnapping is now a lucrative business. A few days into my stay, a family friend was abducted as he left work. That night, when the ransom request came, the caller made no attempt to conceal his number. It had originated in Wana, a town in the south of FATA. The gang, while most likely based in one of Karachi's off-limit mohallas, knew that no investigating agency would ever send police into a district where the army was enduring heavy casualties and American drones bombed daily.
On my last night in Karachi, as I packed for an early morning flight back to Abu Dhabi, scattered gunfire sounded in the near distance. "Maybe it's just kids setting off patakas,"one of my uncles reasoned. But the staccato shots didn't stop, and were soon joined by deeper ones. Calls were made to friends around the city: did anyone know anything? Was the road to the airport safe? Everyone had a theory. The MQM and the Sunni Tehreek, a religious party, had been fighting each other almost every night for the past few weeks. Maybe their tit for tat drive-bys had finally escalated into pitched battles. Perhaps the Pashtuns' rivalry with the MQM over the control of working class neighbourhoods was spilling into other sections of the city. There was also word that Zardari was arriving from Islamabad that night; party loyalists could be to firing into the air when he came home, reminding everyone whose city it was. No one knew. Two weeks later, they still don't; the independent news channels, so lauded for their fearless coverage of last year's anti-Musharraf movement, are silent.
A couple of hours later the shooting subsided but the normal sounds of the night - the watchman's shrill whistle, the Punjabi music from a wedding on our street, the obnoxious horns of Karachi's famous buses - never returned.