Pakistan – the country I hadn’t known: Kinetic Karachi

Shahriar Feroze
Thursday, June 8th, 2017


For travellers from far across the world , the country Pakistan may be the symbol of militancy , anarchy , perils to  whatever they derive from the  international media portrayal of the country , but for a Bangladeshi the country and its people has multiple interpretations….Shahriar Feroze writes from the country ‘off the radar’ …..


Pakistan has always been ‘the one country’ about which this writer was always a bit sceptic. First of all we were a part of the same country, and then we had parted with the bitterest of memories. Then the other half gradually slipped into the hands of military dictators sporadically, and lastly given the rise of frequent militant attacks there, it soon became to be known as one of the most perilous destinations on earth.


Renowned travel books often labelled it as the ‘most difficult child of Asia’. And lastly – given Bangladesh’s current political leadership’s growing reluctance to shift from its cold-shoulder stance, the overall scenario of the two countries’ trade, tourism and bilateral ties to almost everything have come to an unprecedented all-time low. So when Nazneen apa called me to offer a place in her media delegation team for visiting Pakistan, I grabbed it without thinking twice. The unexpected but hasty offer, however, left me with little time – less than a week.


Following my editor’s green light for the visit and a briefing by the Pakistan High Commissioner at Dhaka – we a team of ten journalists from various types of media houses were all set for ‘Mission Pakistan’.


Frankly speaking, a spree of objections was hurled at us from almost all directions. Why should we go there, we will never get a visa if the Pakistan visa is anyhow stamped on our passports to the suspicion of we will be strictly monitored after we return , what will happen if we are killed in a bomb blast to etc… Etc…


Nevertheless, pushing my defiance to its limits I boarded the PIA flight to Karachi on that humid noon of 11 May. Checking inside the airport was easy, but passing through the immigration line wasn’t. The head of immigration police looked at my direction suspiciously and having explained our purpose in details he finally let us go.


Once all of us had boarded the aircraft – a queer feeling of extreme curiosity about Pakistan and its people engulfed me. Those of us who were born in the post-liberation period – have been introduced to Pakistan in a very different manner than to those who had actually lived and seen the regime.


Form our print, electronic media to text books to nearly everything that depicted the specifics of that country is still largely in the light of the atrocities that were carried out by the then military junta of general Yahiya Khan. Examples of extreme bureaucratic and financial prejudices shown by the West Pakistan leaders are nothing new to us. We also know by following hardcore evidence that the politicians of the western wing of the old Pakistan had never actually intended to share political power with the east. Undeniably, many of it is true but then again – it’s a question to many in today’s Bangladesh, including me – why should war, politics and past animosity continue to determine the present and future bi-lateral relations of the two countries?


Similar to our current government, this writer too, demands an official apology issued from the Pakistan government’s end for the genocide and war crimes. The point, however, should we turn this demand into the one key point of reference for determining all other bilateral ties with that country? Most importantly, should we continue to paint the modern Pakistan with the same brush for painting the military dictatorship of 1971?


Pondering over all these issues the plane slowly descended over the clear skies of Karachi. It’s the last 15 minutes of every flight which seems the best. As the plane kept hovering over Karachi, a sprawling but a very grey city was fast appearing below. And as soon as the wheels of PK 266 touched the grounds with a screeching sound at the Jinnah international airport, this traveller couldn’t help thinking – he had just landed in ‘enemy territories’.


Placing his feet into the shoes of agent 007, he was anticipating some unwarranted thrill. A swift flare-up of a bomb explosion would have been better, but nothing happened. A couple of protocol officers from the Ministry of Information became busy fast-tracking our check-out procedures. For me, this was the first time when a big and clean international airport had such a thin crowd.


Escorted by a jeep deployed by the anti-terror squad, we soon headed for our hotel. The two armed escorts were ahead of us clearing the route to the hotel. As per the schedule of the Ministry we were to meet the editor of the Business Recorder besides a group of other media personalities on the same evening.


Some places are great to lose yourself in, but not on this occasion since it was an official visit and within less than an hour our team hit one of the exclusive clubs at Karachi to meet up with the editor and his other members. After a brief intro with the CEO, the editor and other broadcast and print journalists it was fast becoming clear that they actually knew little about the present Bangladesh. Most of them took our journey to be more of a goodwill gesture as the third delegation team successively travelling from Bangladesh. However, one particular piece of information regarding a special supplementary issue caught my attention. For more than 30 years the Business Recorder has been publishing a supplementary – focusing on trade and business with Bangladesh every year on 26th March (our Independence Day) – and we were told, only in 2015 it was deterred from publishing it because of an instruction issued by the Bangladesh High Commission in Pakistan. Though it appeared more of a mystery, but other than that the rest of the conversation was a satisfying one.


The editor, coming out of a very renowned journalistic background appeared hospitable, whatever this type of one-off meetings usually helps little in terms of establishing one-to-one or people-to-people contacts. Nevertheless, the rest of our schedule for the next day will begin with a meeting with the governor of Sindh, meeting senior journalists at the Karachi press club following a visit to the Quaid-i-Azam Mausoleum and the Clifton beach. It would also reveal quite a bit of the city which had lost its crown to the upstart but well-organised Islamabad.


Having filled ourselves with oily parathas, eggs and halwa we headed for the governor’s residence. After a series of routine inspection and verifications of our identities, we finally entered the historical but grandly built residence. What needs be known is – the building actually stands on the original site of the old Government House in Karachi, constructed in 1843 by Sir Charles Napier when the British annexed Sindh. Rather fascinatingly, during the period of stay of the Quaid-e-Azam, it was known as the Governor General’s house and continued to be called until 26 March 1956, when Governor General Iskandar Mirza was elected as the first President of the Islamic Republic, the House thereafter began to be called as the – President’s House.


Such intriguing is the history of the old Pakistan – full of twists and turns. Reflecting back at the half an hour group conversation with governor following alternating clicking of cameras in front of dazzling aide-de-camp in full naval regalia was quite an experience. The governor’s father was a military officer and he clearly recollected his memories being in Dhaka as a child during the late 60’s. What I had liked the most in him is the blunt acknowledgement about the faults of the Pakistan military regime in 1971. This comprehensible admission would repeat many times in different words in many of the upcoming meetings in Islamabad and Lahore. Whatever, after a warm goodbye our team leader along with another female delegation member went to see the special room housing historical photos and artifacts while rest of the team retreated to the residence’s courtyard. However, the female member accompanying our team leader went as near as to the bedroom of the governor – though coincidentally, but only at the wrong time. Soon after they had returned we headed straight for the Karachi Stock exchange. Located at the Stock Exchange Building (SEB), such financial institutions involved in regulating and trading in stocks, shares and bonds never got into my thick head. However, interestingly it is one of the oldest stock exchanges in South Asia in terms of market capitalization, with the listings of many Pakistani consortium as well as overseas enterprises. Moreover, according to Bloomberg, the Pakistani benchmark stock market index has been the third-best performer in the world since 2009. However, trading was momentarily stopped for the day being Friday noon as most of the people working at the KSE took leave for Jummah prayers.


After a warm reception and a lengthy speech on the history of the KSE and the nature of trading in stocks and shares, the world of virtual finances seemed more confusing. The managing director of the firm was born in Dhaka so it was natural to reminisce of the past. The business-cum-lunch session could have been more engaging had we brought along a couple of business journalists with us.


Our next stopover through the baking heat of Karachi would be at the city’s renowned Press Club. With armed escorts’ at the rear, our microbus sped through the streets. Some commuters were curiously looking at our direction.


I don’t know why my parents had often labeled Karachi as highly cosmopolitan and fashionable, but apart from a few selective residential areas near the beach, the city blocks are full of bland and grey single storey houses. One can also spot the spree of military museums it has to offer besides a huge eccentric mosque built by the Defence Housing Authority. But it’s fairly relaxed to commute by its streets. Despite well over 20 million inhabitants there are fewer traffic congested areas. Drivers are not unnecessarily honking, and also the types and models of private cars are fewer than to Dhaka. Most of its bikes seen are in sorry state while almost two-thirds of them are covered with a curiously designed wraps. Almost none cares to wear the helmet. Rather Amusingly, Karachi, following other Pakistani cities, is perhaps the only country to have allowed the bulk of 70’s Mazda, Datsuns and Toyotas to still roam about its streets. A white rundown Datsun reminded me of my father’s one.


If you want to arrange pre-planned disorder – just pick some 500 of our countless reckless drivers in Dhaka and place them here. People would start panicking in less than 24 hours. After a half hour drive our micro entered an alley and a couple of turns later we stood in the face of a grand colonial two-storey stone-built mansion with a date tree at the rear right. With a lush green lawn on its left – it had all marked features for being a secret hideout of a Middle Eastern military dictator. The façade was covered since the mansion was going through heavy renovation works. A couple of the eminent senior journalists showed us the way up inside a small conference room. We were soon joined by a dozen of them. They were mainly retired editors and reporters.


I guess all retired, grey haired, and flabby journalists clad in light coloured Kurtas across our sub-continent have some peculiar traits in common. They are neither pessimistic, nor optimistic. They never smile, and at the most grins which comes with multiple meanings. They love being nostalgic since most of them have become somewhat detached from the present world. Most of them have knowingly accepted poverty to be an integral part of the real world journalism (including I myself), but exceptionally lucky are the very few privileged ones. Whatsoever, I have always felt there to be some type of an invisible romance between writing and remaining impoverished.


The writer is a journalist and a keen traveller


(This is the 1st part of the article, 2nd part will appear next week)

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