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Book review: Street Smart

Published: June 21, 2015

Rumana Husain’s Street Smart is a photo essay appreciating Karachi’s days of yore.

Rumana Husain’s Street Smart is a photo essay appreciating Karachi’s days of yore.

KARACHI: Over 20 million people in Pakistan warrant 20 million plus stories. In Karachi, the world’s third most populous city, there is never a moment of stagnation. The city grows and evolves as we talk. There is the heritage of the past with nostalgic remains in the form of colonial buildings and tales of simpler, safer times and a futuristic side to the city where buildings are being torn down and electronics replace tender connections. For instance, the quintessential 5:00pm tea with family is being replaced with fast-paced techno music on radio stations as one gets caught in heavy traffic jams during the evening rush hour. Therefore, in her new book Street Smart, Rumana Husain does what a true lover of this city must. She builds a bridge between the Karachi of yesterday and today. And for this, the artist-cum-author uses the lives of 60 people on the streets of the city as her canvas.

In Husain’s signature style, which made her previous offeringKarachiwala a favourite coffee table book among Karachiites, Street Smart is a 160-page long photo essay. The language is simple but the subjects are not. Flipping through the pages of Street Smart is like listening to the untold story of what Karachi has been through. The city has been ravaged by violence, while also facing problems every megacity faces; yet, its beautiful diversity continues to thrive.

The book’s component, which has a touch of romanticism and nostalgia, is the profiles of people in professions that have begun to fade. The roadside ear cleaner, the roaming tinsmith (kalai wala), the handcart puller (haath gari walla), the ferris wheel operator, the typist and the knives sharpener. In the future, our children may not even know they existed. Documentation of the lives of people like Khadija Bai, a poppadum hawker, and Mariam Ahmed, a female potter, is thus invaluable. The book also includes some new professions like a guard and a food delivery man, including peculiar ones like a vendor selling fried liver. However, some new street ‘workers’ have deftly been left out on purpose, such as the mobile snatcher and the stalker.

The most ironic selection would have to be that of a water carrier, also known as bahishti (person of Paradise), who has a newly-found importance in this water-starved city. It is also interesting to note how the book features some very similar, yet different street professions. These include the oil grinder and the masseur, the scavenger and the junk dealer and the peanut hawker and the dried fruit seller. A critical look, however, reveals that some of these come across as repetitive and unnecessarily take up pages. Other professions could have been included instead, such as a gajra seller, children who wash windscreens at signals or even the entertaining and engaging transgender.

Author Rumana Husain

The book’s photography captures the correct sentiments and freezes the right moments. The cover, instead of using the fortune teller with the parrot, could have perhaps featured one of the better photographs in the book, for instance the photograph of a Sindhi cap seller. But the overall impact is nevertheless delightful and moving.

Farahnaz Zahidi works as a senior subeditor at The Express Tribune. She tweets @FarahnazZahidi

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 21st, 2015.

Why Lahore is the best get away for a Karachiite

an hour ago

Karachi, for me, is perfect despite its imperfections. Yet, Lahore is not lagging far behind Karachi when I think of my choicest places in Pakistan.

I am a Karachiite to the core. I love my city’s hustle bustle. I adore the variety of culture Karachi offers, especially as it is not a unilingual city. I know its sights and sounds by heart.

Karachi, for me, is perfect despite its imperfections. Yet, Lahore is not lagging far behind Karachi when I think of my choicest places in Pakistan. In fact, in some ways, it even has an edge over Karachi.

Here are five reasons why:


The traffic at Kalma Chowk is sluggish and heavy. As we get off the Daewoo coach that got us there from Islamabad and head towards the city, Lahore is crowded as ever. I am looking around suspiciously at passers-by on motor bikes from the car’s windows as I take out my phone to text my friend that we have reached. At once Saleem, the driver, friendly in a Lahori way, sees my nervousness and says,

“O baji jee kuch naheen hota. Karo karo aap phone karo,” he reassures.

(Don’t worry, nothing will happen. You can make your call)

For someone who has suffered from attempted mugging twice in that last one month alone, this Karachiite felt relieved. I simultaneously felt a little envious seeing children riding bikes when I visited a friend in the newly populated Defence locality of Lahore. The friend, a diehard Karachiite, has recently moved to Lahore unexpectedly with his entire family. They seemed very at home in Lahore.

“You all have become total Lahoris, haan?” I said.

And they confessed that this was true. Karachiites are flocking towards Islamabad, and more towards Lahore, in search of safer pastures. It’s a better place to bring up your children who will have a less chance of growing up with safety-related phobias. Isolated incidences happen here too, but overall it is definitely a safer bet. Literally.


It’s a semi-chilly February afternoon. My friend Ayesha, who is one reason why I wish to frequent Lahore, honours my wish to take photographs, and takes me to Aitchison College.

A gurdwara in Aitchison College. Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi

The gurdwara, mandir (temples) and masjid, all are charming beyond words, due to both the red bricks and the feel of pluralism they lend. But perhaps the prettiest thing about Aitchison, and Lahore generally, is the trees.

A mosque in Aitchison College. Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi

Red bricks in Aitchison College. Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi

Lawrence Garden (now Bagh-e-Jinah), alone, has some 150 varieties of trees. Islamabad has more trees and plantation, and the air is crisper and purer. But Lahore’s trees are mostly aged and huggable; they have a certain character. They have seen the world. They are wise. They are the backdrop of the historic buildings that make Lahore what it is.

The tennis courts at Lawrence garden (Bagh-e-Jinah) are a hub for aspiring tennis stars. Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi

In the stables of Aitchison College: Beautiful horse Shehbaz being bathed by his keeper Labba. Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi


The Lebanese food at the renovated Faletti’s Hotel at Lahore reaffirmed this: While Karachi offers everything a foodie can ask for, Lahore is in no way lesser in terms of being a food haven. From the authentic experiences of the Lahori masala fish of Daarul Maahi to themithai (dessert) of Laal Khooh, and from the fancy eateries at M M Alam road to the variousfood streets (the one near Badshahi Masjid is not the only one), it is a foodie’s paradise.

Begum Shahi (Maryam Zamani) mosque. More than 400-years-old- history crumbling away. Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi

A mihraab at the Begum Shahi (Maryam Zamani) mosque. Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi

A carpet at the Begum Shahi (Maryam Zamani) mosque. Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi

A tile motif at the Begum Shahi (Maryam Zamani) mosque. Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi

Organic and healthier food alternatives are also more readily available. But I struggled with my need for a good paan after dinner. Lahore needs to import someone from Karachi to make good paans and perfect its repute of being the ultimate food hub.

It’s happening

Lahoris are zinda dil (lively), truly, as are all Pakistanis. And a safer environment makes that easier. From theatre and grabbing just the right books from “readings” to musicals at Yusuf Salli’s Haveli, it has a lot to offer for those who want to live it up.

Yusuf Salli’s Haveli courtyard. Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi

Yusuf Salli’s Haveli from the outside. Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi

For the wanderers, an added advantage is that places like Islamabad and Nathia Gali are at drivable distance. Some of the best educational institutes, with the most beautiful campuses, are here, as are places of history and culture. And Lahore doesn’t go to sleep early, just like Karachi, which makes it easier for a Karachiite to settle in.

Beautiful vines at Yusuf Salli’s Haveli. Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi

A pictures wall at Yusuf Salli’s Haveli. Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi

The people

At what was supposed to be a nashta (breakfast), I am at the third floor of a thin house in inner Lahore, visiting a family I have not met in decades. Her children, in their teens, are taking selfies with me, while their father is frying stuff for us in the kitchen. From adjacent rooftops, people are waving. On another day, a random person, himself a photographer, agrees to pose for me as I find him an interesting subject for photography. There is a certain openness in Lahore that I love. Lahoris are not afraid of emoting openly.

Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi

They laugh, cry and share readily.

While there are cons to this behaviour, there are definitely many pros. Without stereotyping, I would have to say that I end up making connections in Lahore more readily than any other city. There is a lesser bureaucratic and also a less hurried, guarded and agitated feel toLahore’s people.

Perhaps this is one of the biggest reasons why I love Lahore.

Lyari – the land of dreams

They made me nervous. So much infectious energy, courage and hope packed into each one of the 34 young people in that room was almost formidable. I was here to conduct a workshop for them about photojournalism. But what could I really add to their pool of knowledge? Photojournalism is about being a storyteller through pictures. Unlike photography that is more about nouns, photojournalism is about verbs … about an action, about being, about doing. And these young people, aged between 16 and 22 years, are doers. They are living the stories that I hope to teach them to tell through photographs. It was not they who were learning. It was I.

I conducted an exercise with them that confirmed what I have always known about Lyari — that it is culturally one of the richest neighbourhoods, boasting some of the most talented people in the country. The participants were split into groups of four. Each group had to come up with a human interest story of a real character from Lyari, and the story had to be one that could be supported by photographs. I gave them a time slot of seven to 10 minutes to come up with one idea; within three minutes, many of the groups had come up with more than one. Each story was unique and real. Facts more interesting than fiction. Of a man who sells snacks on a cart so that he can earn enough to buy musical instruments and eventually form a band. Girls who had been abducted, had returned and were stronger than ever. An old man who was once an army officer and now sold snacks to children and told them stories to promote peace. And the storytellers, these young boys and girls, were perhaps even more interesting. A girl in an abaya shared her passion for football. Another shared how once he was stuck in his house for three days during a crackdown by security personnel, and asked if it would be good photojournalism to take pictures from his balcony, to which we all said a vehement “no” because a picture is not worth a life.

Conflict zones, troubled neighbourhoods or areas that are outside comfort zones should not be recognised by the bad news coming out of them. What needs to make headlines is the triumph of the human spirit, the undying hope in the people, the resilience and the dreams that refuse to die. Young people from Lyari dare to dream big dreams. And undoubtedly, many of these dreams will be fulfilled. This is the headline news coming out of Lyari. This is what defines the neighbourhood.

Me and my DSLR – A not-so-secret love affair

Somewhere in the ’90s:
I have begun working as a journalist at a magazine. I know by now that my calling is not business studies, & my degree which I got with honours will hardly ever be utilized. I am drawn towards not just writing, but all forms of art and literature, and what interests me most is a fusion of these. I love coordinating photo shoots. I know I have a good eye for detail. I don’t just marvel at the model and her oomph, but more so at the locations where the shoots are taking place. I love best the shoots at Hindu Gymkhana and Chowkandi tombs. I pore over the films with an eye glass. Computers are still too young, too experimental. We send the x-ray like films of the magazine pages to the press after assembling them painstakingly for hours.

I meet a photographer, and she is brilliant. We embark on a series of pictorial features in which I am writing the script for her wondrous clicks….my favourite of these is a feature I title “Hands that weave dreams”……we are in kaarkhanas of men who work on hand-embroidered wedding dresses…..she clicks at their hands, at their faces, at their half-burnt stubs of cigarettes, at their needles and threads, at their laugh-lines and their brow-frowns…..I love her art. “I have to learn this”, I say to myself.

Somewhere in the 2000s:
Married. I have a daughter. I am on a hiatus from journalism for God alone Knows what reason. Complacency I suspect. I am not so happy inside. I miss writing. I have a computer now but do nothing much with it except emailing. I have a mediocre camera. I still get spellbound by good photographs. My clouded passion for photography goes into clicking my daughter endlessly, but photo rolls are not so cheap and just have 38 exposures to 1. I ignore the desire and go back to cooking aloo gosht and replenishing groceries and joining a “Committee” of ladies and making dresses that have gravitated towards embellishments like “laces” for some reason……my original style of pure cottons, plain solid colours and kolhapuri chappals is diminishing. I still read.

A few years later:
The computer has made a huge entry in my life. And writing has made a re-entry. I am so much happier. But it’s taking me time to get back into the flow. I hate some of my initial write-ups. It takes me too much time to write even a small piece and I am relying too much on the thesaurus. I am reconnecting with journalism friends and luckily have a readership soon again. Its tedious to get back into the flow, but I feel alive. Photography is slowly creeping back into my life….I have an insignificant camera, but its a digital, so I am allowed countless mistakes, unlike life. But my photography doesn’t have any zing to it. In spare time, I am online seeing photography of others and loving the good work, and my new aim in life is to get a camera that makes a certain “click” sound, and is huge, and manual, and looks all professional. I know it will be expensive. I have no clue what I will do with it. I don’t know the word DSLR as yet.

December 2009:
I announce to my family that I need no other gift for 3 years. All I want is for them to save up and buy me “one of those cool cameras”. I get a promise in return. Writing has gained momentum. Life is more than aloo gosht. I am happy.

February 2011:
I am in Tharparkar with an NGO on a work-related trip. Tharparkar has mesmerized me. I can’t stop clicking with my tiny phone camera. I feel handicapped. My colleague, a professional photographer, clicks non-stop. We talk about photography and cameras and human expressions and what it means to be able to photograph.  He guides me about lenses and kinds of cameras and that magic word – DSLR. I have an awe-struck teenager’s expression when he fits a HUGE lens over his camera. I want to capture the colours of the peacocks and the Thari women’s colourful dresses and the desert sunsets and the camels. On return, I publish my tiny camera’s pix alongwith my feature for women’s day. The pictures get encouraging feedback. I know I can do this.
Round about the same time, I meet an intriguing woman from Russia, one of the best photographers I have witnessed. We become friends. Her work is a bit off-centre, at times dark, but has a profound effect on me. Her pictures of Benaras in India leave me more in love with this art.

May 2011:
I have to travel to Ethiopia in early June. I get my long-awaited gift. I am speechless and thankful. I cannot believe once I have it in my hands. It is a beauty. I touch it in disbelief. I play with it. I trace each part of it with my fingers to get familiar with it. I carry it around in the house to get used to the weight of it in my hands. I take pictures of inanimate objects constantly……my jar of chillies, my window, my door knob. DSLR – those words are sweet! I know I will enjoy Ethiopia much more now.

July 2011:
Ethiopia was much more enjoyable thanks to my camera. But I know that I am not doing justice to this camera’s capabilities. I am mostly on auto. My indoor pictures are still awful. I know nothing except that I want to learn this, but don’t know how. I am checking out the internet for photography courses. They are not fitting into my schedule. They are either too basic or too advanced.
A friend has returned from a vacation in Europe. He puts up his pictures on Flickr. They are splendid! I enjoy his take on lights and shadows and human faces and window sills and doors and hands and feet. We talk about his work. I learn a lot. I still don’t know how to put this knowledge into action.

December 2011:
I have just returned from a trip of sunny, splendid Senegal. I have tried and captured Africa’s glory with my lens. I know I am getting better, but still not good enough. I want to support my write-ups with good photos and want to capture the wrinkles on my mother’s face with enough aesthetic beauty that satisfies me. I am still not there.
Another friend has the same camera as me. And his work keeps getting better. He tells me about his investment in a new camera, a new lens, his equipment, and keeps repeating one mantra to me: “Get to know your machine”.
I want to learn more from him. We meet up for coffee. The coffee house is a mad house, with people talking non-stop on tables too close for comfort. We yell across the table to hear each other. He has his laptop and a whole backpack full of stuff that helps his pictures get so magical. I get a full one hour plus class on a lot of details about my camera…..I never knew all this about it. The guru is telling me to remember 4 basic things: Aperture, Shutter Speed, White Balance and ISO. His eyes are glinting with excitement as he tries to teach someone who has just discovered that she knows nothing much about this stuff. He gives me an assignment to practice all this and show him my work in a months time. The coffee is cold. We gulp it down. I am excited.
I am home. I am telling my family about what all I learnt today.
My new year resolution has a new flavour this year.