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‎”Most of us have a bittersweet relationship with Karachi and if our status had to be defined on Facebook it could only be “It’s complicated”. Karachi is an on-again, off-again boyfriend, Karachi is the girl who uses you, abuses you, breaks your heart and yet when she calls you, you go running back. Karachi is an enigma and if you live in Karachi you can’t imagine feeling the feelings you feel while living here (whether good or bad) anywhere else.” – (City FM 89 on Web)

Karachi – Cultured Once More

Reclaiming life

Some diehard Karachiites have taken it upon themselves to own and revitalise the city in more ways than one. This is how they go about it

Reclaiming life

Karachi’s population in the latest census may be debatable but its status as a megacity remains undisputed. Matching the size, Karachi’s problems have been equally gigantic and complicated — ethnic clashes, gang wars, conflict, governance issues, a decaying infrastructure and a population size that has the city bursting at the seams.

In all of this, Karachi’s diverse and vibrant culture seemed as if dying out. Till some diehard Karachiites took it upon themselves to own and revitalise the city in more ways than one. This has all happened in the last decade or so.

“For almost three decades, Karachi has suffered unmitigated violence,” says Ambareen Main Thompson, Executive Director Society of I AM KARACHI (IAK). “A breakdown of law and order and the brutality of political and commercial mafias meant that both public spaces were lost and the public narrative was taken over by hate, divisiveness and intolerance.”

Karachi may well have another long lease of vibrancy that it used to have till the late 1970s when its populace lived without fear and enjoyed a vivacious and dazzling cultural scene.

“There’s also this culture of disconnect with the past that some of the organisations and movements are attempting to bridge,” says Rumana Husain who has authored two books on Karachi and is one of the people on the forefront of the present cultural revitalisation.

It was almost one hundred and fifty years ago that the British made Karachi the centre of military, administration, trade and culture, she says. “The city has continued to be competitive and dynamic, and there are many-layered cultures within it, which emanate from its multi-cultural population.”

As someone who has been part of cultural initiatives like IAK, Children’s Literature Festival, Badal Do! Movement and Citizens Against Weapons, Husain acknowledges the surge in Karachi’s cultural activities. “One of the most significant initiatives in this regard was taken by the government, when General Pervez Musharraf established the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) in 2005 and appointed the legendary Zia Mohyeddin to head it. A number of actors, director and musicians have been trained by NAPA, and they have fed the burgeoning entertainment industry of Karachi.”

Thompson recalls that in 2013, when the situation in the city improved somewhat, the Karachi Youth Initiative (KYI) was launched which sought to engage the youth in more constructive and healthy activities as an alternate to violence and extremism. “It was from this that IAK was born in 2015 where civil society stalwarts like Jamil Yousuf, Amin Hashwani , Shahid Firoz, Sheema Kirmani, Ghazi Salahuddin, Rumana Hussain, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and others came together to take ownership of this platform as its founding members.”

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IAK is a city-wide collaborative movement initiated by concerned citizens and civil society organisations of Karachi. It has provided a hub to promote socio-cultural activities and uses arts, culture, sports and dialogue as tools for conflict resolution and peace-building. “IAK works to change hate narratives, to reclaim public spaces, to build peace and tolerance and, most importantly, to channel youth to alternate narratives,” says Thompson. “Its programmes are all apolitical, areligious neutral forums where excellence and personal initiative and interest are the only criteria for inclusion.”

One of IAK’s most prominent initiatives has been the Walls of Peace initiative that worked on replacing negative graffiti-covered walls with visual images and messages that illustrate positive values, such as peace, tolerance and diversity. This was done in partnership with Vasl Artists Collective. Some 2000 walls across Karachi were cleaned and painted, engaging with 30,000 children to produce artwork for the walls of 2017.

One of the initiatives that served to resuscitate Karachi’s cultural activities is, no doubt, the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) that was launched in 2010. While in the beginning, it was more limited to the literati, it is now a more mainstream event and many Karachiites see this as a positive sign. Forums like The 2nd Floor (T2F), among others, have given Karachiites spaces to talk, reflect and connect.

Read also: An ode to Lyari 

“Cultural activities, historically, required patronage of the elite — the rulers, the royalty, the nobles and the rich. Only in recent years, and especially after the industrial revolution, has culture become more democratic,” says Roland De Souza of Shehri-Citizens for a Better Environment. The organisation was formed in 1988 by concerned citizens to create a platform where Karachiites could come together and raise their voices regarding the city’s neglected living environment and ways to improve the same.

While Shehri has focused more on Karachi’s environment, its aims include creating a healthy and secure physical and social environment for the citizens. “The proliferation of cultural activities needs a certain amount of quiet and peace,” adds de Souza.

While an improvement in the general security conditions may have helped these initiatives, private initiatives can only go so far. “Despite every effort, none of the aforementioned initiatives can come close to what the government machinery can do in this regard. The funds, the resources, the (wo)man-power that the government has at its disposal isn’t comparable to any of the private initiatives,” says Husain. “Nevertheless, all those act as balm for the wounded soul of this blemished city.”

Much needs to be done despite so many efforts by the civil society. “Since green spaces are now less than 3 per cent of Karachi, community centres, such as T2F, Pakistan Chowk, the Grid and the TDF Ghar are all havens. In a city of 27 million, there is but one arts council and three theatre stages today compared to 11 in 1991. Of the parks that exist, many are locked and out of reach for the general public,” says Thompson.

Masuma Halai Khwaja of Karachi Biennale (KB) says that while the KB has had logistic support from the bureaucracy, the police and the LEAs (law enforcement agencies), they didn’t have any financial support. Also, the ‘go aheads’ are tough, she says, “sometimes due to red-tapism, and at other times because exhibiting certain art exhibits at public spaces is an expensive proposition and is not an opportunity these initiatives get for free.

“But it is very true that Karachi’s overall security situation has helped in this resurge as people are finding it safer to work on the streets.”

The KB17 programme is currently underway and Khwaja says the response from the public has been phenomenal. Seeing artists, and Karachiites in general reclaim public spaces, “I am very hopeful about the future”.

In Husain’s opinion, “if the Sindh government could inject life in the few existing libraries in the city, set up small reading rooms and lending libraries, raise a few cinema houses on the ashes of the old ones, the masses could also enjoy some cheap but quality entertainment, as the multiplexes in shopping malls are an expensive outlet, only suited for the moneyed minority.

“Karachi may well have another long lease of vibrancy that it used to have till the late 1970s when its populace lived without fear and enjoyed a vivacious and dazzling cultural scene.”

For Karachiites, that is the hope they cling on to.

http://tns.thenews.com.pk/reclaiming-life/#.Wfgx-WiCzIV

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The battle to save the Bagh

The story of Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim’s slow deterioration — the price Karachi’s green spaces have paid for development

The battle to save the Bagh

The reactions against the idea of the Bagh being taken over were mostly emotional. Yet, few noticed that the park had been dying since the last few years, bit by bit, with every fading tree and plant, and especially with the closing of the main entrance. One year ago, even the battery and UPS of the big clock in the Bagh were stolen. The number of those frequenting it dwindled over the years. Whether Bahria Town takes it over or not, the fact is that Karachiites are paying a price for the ‘development’ in the megacity with the shrinkage of public places.

Worse still is the Karachiites’ aching nostalgia that comes with it. Where once there was Playland, Aquarium, and the main entrance of the Bagh, is now a void.

A resident of this area says that he has seen the so-called development happen overnight as the entire area was well and truly encroached upon. “In the evenings, the Bagh used to be packed with youth, children and families. This park was the most well-lit part of the entire Clifton area. It used to be open almost till midnight,” he says, echoing the memories of many city-dwellers. “The weather would be cool in the evenings close to Karachi’s famous seafront. Standing in the bandstand and looking out at the sea was a fantastic experience,” he reminisces about the evenings spent at the park with his family.

Trees would provide shade to people and encourage them to flock to it even during daytime – the footfall was in the thousands. There was a mosque where visitors could go to pray, and there were foodstalls outside.

“The park had nice horticulture. Plants were shaped as animals. All of that faded. The grass used to be green; now it’s just barren sand over there,” he regrets.

Many public events, such as the centennial celebrations for the renowned poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz in 2011, were held there as the huge park grounds could accommodate large numbers of visitors.

Few noticed that the park had been dying since the last few years, bit by bit, with every fading tree and plant, and especially with the closing of the main entrance. One year ago, even the battery and UPS of the big clock in the Bagh were stolen.

The park has seen better days.

For columnist Nadeem Farooq Paracha, however, this sudden wave of emotions seems too little too late. “Many folks don’t say or do anything about a problem, but suddenly spring to action if that problem is being solved through means they do not agree with.”

He thinks the Bagh has been in doldrums for quite a while now. “Yet, none of the politicos or members of the civil society making such a hue and cry of it being handed over to Malik Riaz did anything whatsoever to better the plight of this once spectacular park”.

Qasim Bagh in the glory days.

Qasim Bagh in the glory days.

The deterioration of the park did not happen overnight. For years, its main entrance was adjacent to where the Bahria Icon Tower looms today. When the construction of the skyscraper began, the main gate of the park became the entrance point for the site office. As a result, the gate was closed down. With the construction of an underpass, the Kothari Parade access points changed as well.

The resident, disgruntled at how the limited accessibility restricted visitors, holds the alteration responsible for changing the traffic flow: “Public transport could no longer collect passengers because the Abdullah Shah Ghazi Mazaar entrance was also changed to the side.”

Karachi - Bagh-e-Ibne Qasim - 055

“Now a majority of the buses pass by the mazaar’s new entrance, which is in the side lanes,” he explains. “Once this happened, the government failed to maintain the park.”

The other entrance to the park is the one which faces the sea. There is very limited public transport on that route and since a vast majority of visitors were ordinary people travelling in buses, the numbers began to drop. Having to walk long distances, and parking problems for those using personal vehicles made it more discouraging.

One of Karachi’s most diehard chroniclers, Ghazi Salahuddin, says he had been observing the deterioration of the Bagh, and feels this was neglect with an agenda. “It’s not just about this Park; it’s about Karachi as a whole. This city’s civic life has been plundered. From public spaces to transport to garbage collection – the government is not performing its civic responsibilities,” says Ghazi, dismayed at the bad condition of places such as Qasim Bagh. “These shared spaces are so precious. Karachi’s cultural life has also been effected by neglecting them,” he says, and adds that whenever he visits Lahore, he feels Karachi is no longer the city of lights, but it is Lahore now.

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Whether this disrepair is because the inflow of visitors decreased or was it done by design is debatable, the resident thinks. “It would be silly to assume that residents of the high-rise would want a view of a park in shambles. When the entrance of the mazaar and park was changed, it warded away ordinary people. Who would want ordinary people around such prime, expensive real estate property?” he asks.

Journalist and tv show host, Zarrar Khuhro feels that Karachi does have precedents of public-private partnerships, and that is not always a bad thing. “An example is how Asim Jofa has used the Do Talwar roundabout for his advertisements, but then he has also maintained that area well and in fact improved it.”

His worry, however, is deeper than just one park. “Public spaces are shrinking in Karachi, especially for the lower and lower-middle class. A city is held together by public spaces.”

Khuhro also says that in Karachi, the rise of gated communities and the disappearance of shared spaces is resulting in social silos. “Playland, Aquarium – that’s all gone. Development should be done, but must be done responsibly, keeping the character of the city in mind.”

He also comments that the stake of Bahria properties in Karachi raises questions, “considering that regulations have been circumvented and even broken to facilitate these properties”.

If Karachiites are getting another chance at utilising this park for the benefit of citizens, then as Paracha suggests, more should be done to maintain Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim while it’s still there.

This is an updated version of the article that was published in The News on Sunday on April 09, 2017

Celebrating the life of the mind

The 8th Karachi Literary Festival saw an increased footfall and as ever became the most happening event in the city by the sea

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  • Over three days, everyone who is anyone flocked to the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) 2017. Crisp starched saris, Kolhapuri chappals, white hair and white chooridars, pure leather-bound notebooks, endless rounds of tea serving as the fuel for animated conversations about existentialism, philosophy, politics, the arts, and the role literature plays for all of these. The 8th KLF saw an increased footfall and as ever became the most happening event in the city by the sea.

“The KLF has busted many myths that existed about Karachi and its people. This festival has now successfully added ‘literary tradition’ to the list of things Karachi is known for. The literary tradition that is the legacy of our elders has been rekindled in our youth and we at the Oxford University Press (OUP) Pakistan are extremely proud to be the flag bearers of literary festivals in Pakistan,” says Saadia Mirza, Rights Manager at OUP.

The KLF was launched in March 2010, and is directed by Ameena Saiyid, founded by Ameena Saiyid and Asif Farrukhi, and produced by OUP. It is open to all and the entry is free. It features debates, discussions, talks, English poetry readings and Urdu mushaira, a book fair, book launches, readings, signings, satire, theatre, film screenings, music, and dance.

KLF has grown — from an attendance of roughly 5,000 in 2010 to 175,000 in 2016. In 2010 it had 34 sessions with 58 speakers/performers. This year, the 8th KLF featured close to 200 speakers and performers in around 76 sessions.

This year, a recurrent theme that surfaced in many talks was Pakistan’s economic challenges, and how they are affecting society and culture as a whole.

The important issue of gender was brought up in many a panel. Feminist activists and writers like Fahmida Riaz, Sheema Kirmani, Zehra Nigah and Sania Saeed were seen prominently participating. One unique book that was launched was Interpreting Islam, Modernity and Women’s Rights in Pakistan by Dr Anita Weiss, Professor at the University of Oregon. It was her second time at the KLF.

KLF has grown — from an attendance of roughly 5,000 in 2010 to 175,000 in 2016. In 2010 it had 34 sessions with 58 speakers/performers. This year, the 8th KLF featured close to 200 speakers and performers in around 76 sessions.

“The first time was in 2012. I’ve seen a few important changes. First, there is a lot more emphasis on books now. Previously there were a lot of talks, but not necessarily connected to explicit things people had written. Second, the audience now seems even more diverse than in 2012, with people coming from all walks of life,” says Dr Weiss.

However, the diversity she sees as positive is seen by some as a recession in the exclusivity of the KLF. The elite ownership and intellectual regality seems to be diluting. Some see this as a positive; others don’t. Many visitors were overheard commenting that the standard of the KLF is going down, referring to the fact that it is becoming more awaami which is resulting in a deconstruction of some of the carefully constructed social silos.

However, people like journalist and documentary filmmaker Faisal Sayani feel the opposite to be true. “The selection process seems flawed and nepotism-based, and KLF has become commercialised. But the festival is not, in essence, designed in a way that would deprive or bar masses from it. I find it to be pretty inclusive,” says Sayani.

KLF 5

He praised how many sessions dealt with important aspects of history, and praised in particular the session of screening of the documentary of slain activist Parween Rehman. But not everyone, according to him, visits the KLF for the love of the written word. “I believe hoards of people are just there socialise and take selfies with intellectual celebs.”

In a city like Karachi, a diverse crowd is but natural. “Karachi is a melting pot of so many ethnic and linguistic traditions that it is not easy to define the culture and tradition of this city — the Karachi experience is an intense experience. And that intensity is reflected in the sessions of the KLF. Any visitors will vouch for the palpable energy in the atmosphere of the KLF as writers, readers, politicians, actors, musicians, students, poets, academics and journalists all come together to celebrate the literary achievements and discuss the issues faced by Pakistan today,” says Mirza.

One of the most important sessions was about the city, titled “‘Karachi: Is Pakistan’s Boom Town still Booming?”, with a panel of people who know Karachi, especially the unparalleled Arif Hasan who knows the city better than anyone else.

KLF 1

“In 2015, 902 cars were registered daily in Karachi; during the last six months 800 motorbikes were registered daily. This city cannot accommodate it,” says Hasan. He raised brave questions about where the money being invested into Karachi’s real estate is coming from. Answering a question, he said that the main issue with Karachi is the tension that exists because it is the capital of a Sindhi-speaking province being dominated by a non-Sindhi speaking minority of the province.

The panel included stalwarts of Karachi, namely Aquila Ismail who is writer, activist and sister of Parween Rehman, Najmuddin Shaikh who is a distinguished diplomat, and Haris Gazdar who is a renowned researcher. Ismail compared Karachi to the mythical city of El Dorado, and said the gold of this city is in the hearts of its residents.

The crowd-pullers in the open air garden were more than just literary. One such popular celebrity session was the former celluloid queen Shabnam in conversation with Bushra Ansari. Shabnam brought back memories of a Pakistan before the fall of Dacca, and spoke about the best of times and the worst of times. Stand-up comedian Shafaat Ali provided the comic relief at the same venue, while the legendary Zia Mohyeddin’s reading session titled “Memories and Reflections” gave the KLF what completed it.

While many visitors observed that the number of sessions in Urdu and especially vernacular languages has decreased, Dr Weiss says that the writers were very diverse. But she adds that “There should be an effort to have greater regional distribution of authors, such as some coming from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or from Balochistan. There are important works coming out of those provinces, and effort should be made to include them.”

When asked why KLF and such festivals are important, Dr Weiss summed it up. “This is a celebration of the life of the mind.”

True to the KLF tradition, five literary prizes were awarded this year too at the festival.

These were awarded to the following winners:

· 2017 Winner of the Karachi Literature Festival Infaq Foundation Urdu Prize
Nasir Abbas Nayyar for Urdu Adab Ki Tashkeel-e-Jadeed· 2017 Winner of the Karachi Literature Festival Pepsi Prize
Yasmin Khan for The Raj at War· Winner of the 2017 The Italy Reads Pakistan Award
Omar S. Hamid for The Spinner’s Tale

· 2017 Getz Pharma Fiction Prize Winner
Omar Shahid Hamid for The Spinner’s Tale

· 2017 Karachi Literature Festival German Peace Prize Winners
Anam Zakaria for The Footprints of Partition (1st prize)
Farahnaz Ispahani for Purifying the Land of the Pure (2nd prize)
Ali Nobil Ahmad for Masculinity, Sexuality, and Illegal Migration (3rd prize)

http://tns.thenews.com.pk/celebrating-life-mind/#.WKl8tq1vrIU

Qawwal Gali after Amjad Sabri

Farahnaz Zahidi July 24, 2016

http://tns.thenews.com.pk/qawwal-gali-sabri/#.V5RfIfkrLIU

The palpable fear after Sabri’s murder in the historic neighbourhood in Karachi and much more

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Qawwal Gali is the collective name given to a group of five streets, named after five renowned Qawwals. — Photos by Faisal Sayani

The atmosphere in Qawwal Gali is uncharacteristically subdued since Amjad Farid Sabri’s life was snuffed out prematurely. “I knew him from the time when I called him Ummi and he called me Saifee, and we were just young boys, not Amjad Sabri qawwal and Saifuddin qawwal. I still cannot believe he is no more,” says Sabri’s friend, Saifuddin Qawwal, still shaken weeks after his death.
Waves of fear after Amjad Sabri’s murder in broad daylight have reverberated 9 kilometer south from the late qawwal’s residence in Liaquatabad to Qawwal Gali, the historic neighbourhood in Karachi where the clans of the famous Qawwal Bachay reside. Yet, these custodians of the Qaul refuse to shift to more affluent or safer residential localities of the city. “This is not just our area. It is our tradition. Our lifestyle.”
Karachi’s Qawwal Gali is the collective name given to a group of five streets, named after five renowned Qawwals: Munshi Raziuddin Qawwal, Moeen Niyazi Qawwal, Kallan Khan Qawwal, Jaafar Hussain Nizami Qawwal and Bahauddin Qawwal. Between 80 to a 100 families of qawwals reside in these streets near the Shoe Market area. They safeguard a tradition that travels back to almost 800 years, when their ancestor Miyan Saamat learnt this spiritual musical art form from Hazrat Ameer Khusro, the 13th century Sufi musician, poet and scholar. Popularised versions of the unforgettable and powerful poetry of Ameer Khusro, like “Chaap tilak sub cheen” and “Mun kunto maula”, have trickled down to Pakistani masses, who get a feel of spirituality through these renditions. But the hub of the original, undiluted art is the Qawwal Gali. These families have been guarding these compositions over the centuries, and their entire lifestyles are moulded to fulfill the responsibility of keeping alive a tradition they see as almost sacred.
While Sabri was not a Qawwal Bacha, a shared tradition and profession has led to lasting bonds between all networks of Karachi’s qawwals. In the wake of his death, all of them, too, are overcast by fear. The qawwal Gali in downtown Karachi, then, is ironically the one place that they feel safe in. “It is our sanctuary. Fear is nothing new to us. Staying here is our only survival,” says Saifuddin, who is an important member of the Najmuddin Saifuddin Qawwal Brothers ensemble.
When asked if he is ever tempted to leave this profession or Qawwal Gali, Toqeer’s answer is a vehement no. “This profession is our recognition; we must protect the tradition our ancestors left us with. I started learning this art at the age of seven.”

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The fear factor is not just about safety; they also fear their younger generation will get lost in the contemporary world and lose out on this art they see as a divine gift. Their offspring, with increasing exposure to the outside world, do express the desire to move out towards better areas. “But we explain to them how important it is for us to stay here,” says Saifuddin.
“Our community has a lot of unity. Our joys and sorrows are shared. There are certain cultural traditions we live by. We would not survive elsewhere and neither would our art,” says Rauf Saami, the eldest son of Ustad Naseeruddin Saami, and part of the Saami Brothers ensemble of Qawwals.
Rauf does not believe in coercing his children into this profession, but wishes that this ilm (knowledge) does not die out. “But times have changed. I’m realistic.”
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The work of qawwals is very nocturnal in nature. “Our work is at night. We leave home early evening and return around twilight. The more posh parts of Karachi are not alive during night time. Can you imagine what neighbours of Karachi’s affluent parts would think if 12 men are entering a house every day at 4am?” says Saifuddin.
The Qawwal Gali does not go to sleep. Its residents sleep during the mornings and are up and about in the evenings. The chai dhabas never close. The riyaz (musical practice) never stops. The hustle and bustle never dies out.
“While we are away, whether for performances at night or during our frequent travels outside Karachi, we are at peace that our families are safe. Here, everyone watches out for each other’s families, despite professional rivalry.”
Rauf echoes that sentiment. “We don’t only look out for other qawwals but also for our supporting members of the ensembles. We are there for each other whenever we need each other.”
The qawwali business is seasonal in nature, and the flow of money can be ad hoc. The community also supports each other in lean times when the earning is limited. In such times, they pay each other’s hospital bills and children’s school fee.
The women of Qawwal Gali are the biggest support for their men. “The women of our households do not have any complaints. They understand the demands of our profession,” says the 26 years old Toqeer Ahmed, who belongs to the Khurja Gharana’s Nohar Bani branch. Their ancestral lineage are one of the first things they learn, but their women’s names are not registered in those lists, neither are they allowed to sing. Till today, a majority of the qawwals marry within their families.
“My nikah is to be held soon,” shares Toqeer with a smile. The match was fixed within his family, “but my choice was also considered. This is a big decision. How can it be done without my choice?”
When asked if he is ever tempted to leave this profession or Qawwal Gali, Toqeer’s answer is a vehement no. “This profession is our recognition; we must protect the tradition our ancestors left us with. I started learning this art at the age of seven.”
In Toqeer’s opinion, if the Qawwals try their hand at any other profession, it would take them hundreds of years to make a mark.
“Why should we lose out on the honour and respect this profession has given me? And as for the Qawwal Gali, it is the only place in the world I feel I am me. It is my identity.”
In true Qawwal Gali-esque style, Saifuddin sums it up by reciting this couplet in Urdu:
Apnay markaz se agar door nikal jaao ge
Khaak ho jaao ge, afsaanon mein dhall jaao ge…
(If you wander away from your pivot,
You will become nothing but ashes, nothing will remain of you but tales and fables)

A common man’s obituary: The saviour of Chawkandi tombs

Published: January 21, 2016
http://tribune.com.pk/story/1031397/a-common-mans-obituary-the-saviour-of-chawkandi-tombs/
Ali Dino Mallah wanted to take this photograph against the backdrop of the oil tankers, hoping the authorities would remove them from the vicinity. PHOTOS: EXPRESS

Ali Dino Mallah wanted to take this photograph against the backdrop of the oil tankers, hoping the authorities would remove them from the vicinity. PHOTOS: EXPRESS

KARACHI: “Big money, big tomb. Small money, small tomb. No money no tomb.”

Ali Dino Mallah, the caretaker of the Chawkandi tombs on the outskirts of Karachi, uttered these words in a thick Sindhi accent in an attempt to share the few sentences of English that he had mastered over the decades. I met him in December last year, a week before he died.

Sporting an ajrak wrapped as a turban and an oversized waistcoat worn over a sweater and shalwar kameez, Ali Dino appeared much older than what I remembered of him from our last meeting more than two years ago.

He walked around the ornately carved graves inside the Chawkandi cemetery, shooing away potential vandals with his walking stick. He would stop frequently to catch his breath and take out the tiniest possible water bottle from a gigantic but otherwise empty pocket to take measured sips, a habit he said he had learnt by observing foreigners who visited the cemetery.

“I have a pacemaker in my heart you see,” he explained. “Do you want me to request people to help with your treatment or write about it?” I had asked after he told me that his family had spent thousands on his treatment even at the National Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases (NICVD), a government-run facility that supposedly treats the poor free of charge. “Don’t waste words writing about my illness. I don’t have much time left,” he told me, before urging me to write about what really mattered to him. “Write about these tombs. Please. Maybe someone will read it and expedite the restoration.”

Exploring Sindh: King of the road

Even if his faith in the restoration work was far-fetched, Ali Dino was right when he said he did not have much time left. He died on December 29 on his way to the hospital sitting behind a relative on a motorcycle. “He was the heart of Chawkandi. I have nothing left now,” wept his widow, Rehmat Bibi. The family, comprising his widow and six children, continues to live in the small quarters adjacent to the graveyard and are in need of financial help. “He was like an angel and died an easy death. Like an angel was taken away.”

The old caretaker of the tombs hailed from Khairpur district in Sindh and was a common man. This is a common man’s obituary. And the obituary of a historic, priceless heritage site of the province of Sindh that is crumbling away.

Intricately carved sandstone tombs that are masterpieces of funerary art and rich in symbolism are now mostly half broken. Blocks and bits of these tombs have been stolen by vandals over the years, and now grace the drawing rooms of affluent art collectors in Pakistan and abroad, Ali Dino had shared.

“The commissioner [Shoaib Siddiqui] had promised me that tankers would be removed from this area, security walls would be erected around the graveyard and pickets would be established,” Ali Dino recalled his conversation with the commissioner before he got distracted by the camera. “Listen, take my photo with these oil tankers in the background. And choose an angle smartly. If there is harsh sunlight in the background, the photograph will not come out well,” he said.

After more than 30 years of service as a guide and caretaker of these tombs, Ali Dino had posed with thousands of visitors to know that the play of shadow and light was key to good photography, without ever holding a decent camera in his hands. Many of these visitors were high-ranking government officials and bureaucrats who had given hope to the old man that one day, this spectacular heritage site would get the attention it deserves.  Soon after we met, the commissioner of Karachi was transferred from the post. Perhaps, his replacement will be able to remove the gravel, sand, trucks and tankers, unwanted encroachments, and put a stop to illegal burial in the centuries-old graveyard.

Ali Dino, the man who spent his life trying to safeguard our heritage and tell us tales hidden in the carvings on those tombs, was buried in the same graveyard, among the very tombs he spent his life looking after. The restoration and protection of Chawkandi tombs should be considered a dying man’s last wish. If fulfilled, he will rest in peace.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 21st, 2016.

After the heatwave: Invisible helpers continue to take care of victims’ families

Published: July 14, 2015
Volunteers hand out water bottles and juice to people outside Indus Hospital during the recent heatwave that gripped the metropolis. Over 1,200 people died of heatstroke in the city. PHOTO: FILE

Volunteers hand out water bottles and juice to people outside Indus Hospital during the recent heatwave that gripped the metropolis. Over 1,200 people died of heatstroke in the city. PHOTO: FILE

KARACHI: A few weeks ago, Imran’s mother and others like her were making headlines. Today, they have been forgotten by all except their loved ones. Officially, over 1,200 people lost their lives to the brutal heatwave that gripped Karachi. Mumtaz Bibi, Imran’s mother, was one of these victims, reduced to a mere statistic.

“We live in tiny houses with tin roofs that become cauldrons in the summer,” explains Imran, who sells fabric and lives with three siblings in their house in Korangi. “My mother could not take the heat. We rushed her to Jinnah hospital, where she succumbed to the heatstroke five days later.”

Read: The need to acknowledge climate change

The sole help Imran and his family have received has been from a group of Karachiites who mobilised volunteers and raised funds to help the heatwave victims, both in terms of relief during those sweltering days and sustained efforts to help the families of the deceased later.

Team Karachi, as it is called, was formed at the time of the earthquake in 2005. We rush to help whenever there is a disaster,” says Muhammad Zahid, head of the Shariah compliance department of Pak-Qatar Family Takaful Limited, and one of the most active members of the group.

Read: Karachi heatwave: NEPRA faults K-Electric for deaths

In the absence of any support from the government, 35 families of heatwave victims have so far been given grants of Rs30,000 to Rs50,000 with the help of donations from concerned Karachiites, Zahid discloses.

“The government and some philanthropists announced compensation but the questions of how much, when and how remain unanswered,” Team Karachi’s Saqib Zeeshan, the head of marketing at the Indus Hospital, says wryly. “It is always the people who step forward to help. I don’t have the words to describe how many people volunteered, donated and raised funds.”

However, while the support from Team Karachi has given temporary relief to the families of the heatwave victims, the future looks less promising for them.

“My father-in-law had just gone out to sell balloons as usual. He came back home, complaining about feeling hot, and later developed fever. We rushed him to the hospital, but he passed away,” weeps Farida, who lives in Yusuf Goth. Although she is grateful for the grant from Team Karachi, she says that a large chunk of that money was spent on his funeral rites. The rest was spent in paying off loans the family took at the time. “My children have no new clothes for Eid. We don’t even have enough money for a Fateha for the departed soul.”

Read: Lessons from the heat wave

Similarly, 54-years-old Suleman, a peon at a government office, left behind a widow and three children when he succumbed to the heat. “His eldest son is just 15. His widow should get compensation and his pension as a government employee,” reasons Sajid, his nephew. “But everyone says this will not be possible without a bribe of at least Rs100,000. Where will a 15-year-old boy get that sort of money?”

Zeeshan narrates that the OPDs at Indus Hospital were converted into emergency camps for the heatwave victims, with all of the hospital’s doctors deployed there on an ad hoc basis. “In four days, we treated around 2,200 patients. Handling them and keeping them hydrated was a tough task, and volunteer organisations helped us immensely,” he says, adding that people were so eager to help that the hospital decided to let them distribute supplies themselves.

Efforts have been made so that lives can be saved if a similar catastrophe hits the city in the future, with attention directed to smaller health facilities and hospitals that are usually neglected. At Landhi General Hospital, for example, Team Karachi has helped install industrial exhaust fans to cool down the emergency wards. The water and sewage lines that were mixed near the hospital have also been separated and water filters installed to provide cold water.

Read: Heat is on: Similar heatwave may scorch Pakistan in 2016

Such efforts need to continue. After all, as Zeeshan points out, “It is always only the people who step up and offer help.”

Published in The Express Tribune, July 15th, 2015.

One month later: Remembering the drowned

Published: September 5, 2014

Sixteen-year-old Omar Zaib was one of the 40 who drowned at Seaview on July 30. For his family, the pain is still fresh, even though the tragedy is no longer in the news. PHOTO: ATHAR KHAN/EXPRESS

Sixteen-year-old Omar Zaib was one of the 40 who drowned at Seaview on July 30. For his family, the pain is still fresh, even though the tragedy is no longer in the news. PHOTO: ATHAR KHAN/EXPRESSSixteen-year-old Omar Zaib was one of the 40 who drowned at Seaview on July 30. For his family, the pain is still fresh, even though the tragedy is no longer in the news. PHOTO: ATHAR KHAN/EXPRESS
KARACHI: He left home to celebrate Eidul Fitr with five of his friends. Three of them never came back.

Sixteen-year-old Omar Zaib was one of the 40 who drowned at Seaview on July 30. For his family, the pain is still fresh, even though the tragedy is no longer in the news.

“He was very talented and used to work as a skilled helper for jewellers to help support our family,” says Omar’s grieving brother Fazal Kareem, asking despairingly, “How do you console a mother who has lost a young son?”

The police are initially unwilling to share the list of the names and ages of those who drowned. But a look at this list makes the tragedy hit the reader harder. Ayaz, 13, son of Sawali Khan. Amir, son of Umar Illahi, aged 15. Fourteen-year-old Ejaz Ahmed, son of Ali Zaman. A mere glance shows you who would flock to the turbulent seas even in the high tide of the monsoon season. They were all between 13 to 27 years old. They were all young men. They were residents of Sohrab Goth, Baldia Town, Orangi Town and Bhains Colony.

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With few options for entertainment for the recreation-starved public, the trend of taking to the sea will continue. “We see high risk-taking behaviour in this age group, because they have excess energy and not many responsibilities,” says clinical psychologist Sarah Jafry, who works with adolescents at War Against Rape. “If we cannot provide them with healthy outlets, seeking thrills even at the risk of life will continue, and even after seeing bad examples, young men will not be able to resist the urge.”

While Karachi commissioner Shoaib Siddiqui says that most of the beach has now been reopened, the public trying to visit it says otherwise. Anwar Bhutto, the duty officer at Darakhshan Police Station, confirms that Section 144 had been imposed for 90 days and the beach remains off-limits. Siddiqui, however, maintains that only the area behind Dolmen Mall is closed. “This is because it is reclaimed land and we have suspicions about dredging and depression in that area,” he says, adding that there should be evaluations about how construction near the beach might enhance risks.

Most of the bodies of the drowned were found on the same day, but it took three days to recover Omar’s body. “We kept trying to console and pacify the relatives until the bodies were found,” says Anwar Kazmi of the Edhi Foundation. “Some of them were recovered from distant areas such as Manora and Keamari.”

Omar’s family, and the families of the others who drowned, still await monetary compensation. Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah promised them Rs0.2 million, while Malik Riaz pledged Rs1 million.

“I cannot comment on why Riaz has not given the money he promised,” says Siddiqui. “As for the sum promised by the CM, the cases have been sent to the Relief Commissioner and hopefully the families will get the money soon.” He added that they should call 1299 to follow up on it.

“We have always honoured our social welfare commitments,” says Bahria Town’s marketing manager Nida Zahoor, when asked about Riaz’s pledge. “We are only waiting for the list of the deceased from the Sindh Governor.”

Meanwhile, Kareem, whose family is from Buner in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and now resides in the Boulton Market area, has only this to say: “We are poor people. We could use that money to marry off our sisters. But we have no hope.”

Published in The Express Tribune, September 5th, 2014.