INGULFED

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Cool off the Press: Mixed Blessings — سلم مشكلة

For the original, from the Sunday Magazine of The Express Tribune in Karachi, Pakistan: click here.


I wanted to peek through the locked gates, to look into the sanctuary and enter the house of the dead. I read the engraving by the walkway — UNEQUAL IN LIFE, ALL LIE EQUAL IN DEATH — while birds flitted about the cornice. I wasn’t sure if I smelled something, faint, pungent, unrecognisable. But it was time to go. Sacred Zoroastrian Towers of Silence were not built to be ogled.

There are two such structures in central Karachi, dating back to over a hundred years ago. The small Tower known as the “Ghadialy Dokhma,” along a ridge studded with green trees, was consecrated in 1847 and the bigger Tower, known as the “Anjuman Dokhma” was consecrated in 1875. The Tower of Silence or dokhma is a perfectly white cylinder with a flat top but for a rounded lip that juts up above the entrance. Inside, bodies are laid out under the open roof to decompose by the powers of nature.

Bones fall through a grate into a well below. “People don’t like to build houses here.” A Parsi friend indicated the barren plot below the ridge. “The smell.”

Until 1999, there were vultures on the Indian subcontinent. But in the next ten years, as a result of feeding on cattle treated with a particular chemical called diclofenac, they were nearly completely annihilated. In India, some form of solar contraption is now used to “evaporate the body,” as our guide said — some reports say they are mirrors that focus the sunlight, others whisper of something more complex. No one is allowed inside the Towers of Silence but those trusted with its upkeep, so there’s no way of knowing what lies beyond those raised white walls. The birds, it seems, are there just to look.

The term ‘Parsi’ is today used interchangeably with “Zoroastrian”, though it traces its roots to the Fars or Pars Province in south-west Iran but today only those who fled to the Indian subcontinent in the seventh and eight centuries are referred to as Parsis. Numbering only in the low thousands, the Parsi community is nonetheless thriving and prominent, distinctly less affected by extremist attacks than other religious minorities in Pakistan.

In Karachi, Parsi, Hindu, Sikh, and Christian are all within striking distance — er, short drives — of each other. Though its inhabitants are almost entirely Muslim, Karachi’s demography reflects the gravitation of myriad immigrant populations to this Sindhi city by the sea, now one of the world’s top five most populous. This genealogy extends back through nations and empires, including the country’s own provinces, that existed long before Pakistan — and it is by no means forgotten. In one corner of a house, the cook speaks Sindhi to the maid. Downstairs, the driver jokes with a guard in Pashto. An obstacle to Pakistani unity, then — though by no means to its heart and spirit — is perhaps that too much is remembered.

The monumental mausoleum of Abdullah Shah Ghazi looks out over Clifton beach from its hilltop on Khayaban-e-Firdousi street. Crowned by two solid green flags, the exterior is entirely navy-blue tile and patterns of thick, white zigzags. In 2010, a double suicide bombing claimed several lives. Still, all day and night, past the defunct metal detector and cursory pat-downs, crowds leave their shoes below and climb to the shrine to pray to the eighth century mystic saint, under whose aegis, many believe, tropical disasters have spared Karachi for more than a millennium. My friend, a born and raised Karachiite, seemed nervous. “Don’t tell my dad we went here.”

One Hindu mandir, hides quietly down a small street near Jail Roundabout, albeit marked with colorful paint and a white dome peeking up over the mute blue walls. The gatekeeper wrenched open the latch and followed us with watchful eyes as we shuffled in. We took off our shoes and walked past the glittery, foil swastikas on the walls into a small shrine, dim and crowded with the stems and smells of leftover offerings.

Twenty minutes away through the city’s infamous traffic are the gates to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. A catholic man with a dark, happy face guarded the entrance with a dog that looked delighted to nap with its head on its paws. The man’s name was Diego Rodriguez and he welcomed us onto the impressive grounds of the gothic church, in front of which rise the stately staircases of a white marble monument. We couldn’t go in, though — the church is closed except for Sunday mass because of two recent attacks. “It is sad,” said Diego.

Rumours were that a synagogue would be near the Bhimpura Old Town, but we never found it. Wikipedia says it may have survived until the 1980s. Diversity, too, has its bounds.

I remembered the plaque that stood at the foot of the newest Tower of Silence. Unequal in life. There is a kind of inequality stitched to the heart of this city, a hand extended to some, and withdrawn from the grasp of others. But there was more written on that marble slab, in letters accented with black ink: NO SPECIAL PLACE FOR ANYONE. NO MINE, NO THINE, NO HIS, NO HERS, ALL INSEPARABLE AND INDISTINGUISHABLE, SLEEP SIDE BY SIDE, PARTNERS AND EQUALS. Sure, these words honoured the idyll of death, but men in Karachi also stand side by side.

We walked back onto the street, a Jewish tourist and his Muslim host. We nodded to pedestrians in passing, Baloch, Sindhis, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs. At least, they might have been — I had no idea. Perhaps they didn’t either.

Originally published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 14th, 2011.


Pictures from Pakistan here.

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Empress Market — سوق الإمبراطورة

Faces at the Empress Market
Karachi, Pakistan

The Apian [sic] Way — طريق النحل

International fliers are expected at the Islamabad airport three hours early. In 2007, a botched suicide bombing attempt was foiled by security guards; in 2001, a ticking time bomb was discovered and taken to an airport parking lot to explode impotently. Security is tight, and we were three hours away. In the end, I’d arrive at the first pat-down only 75 minutes before the flight, but plop down in the massage chair of the business class lounge (entry: $8) with an hour to spare. See, thirty kilometers from Abbottabad in the wrong direction, there was something even more beautiful than two extra hours with airport security.

The famous Karakoram Highway (the KKH) connects Pakistan and China at the 15,397-foot-high Khunjerab Pass, earning its title as “the highest paved road in the world”. It begins in Abbottabad and ends 800 miles later in Kashgar, a Uyghur city in China’s Xianjang region. The road wound up into the ridge and looked down on Abbottabad in the valley, where less than six week earlier, a couple American helicopters had dropped by to kill the world’s most wanted terrorist.

We branched off just outside of town and climbed up into the foothills towards Thandiani, the first hill station — a rest stop and camping site for vacationing locals to eat and hang out. It was June, and Lahore was 110 degrees with hardly any trees for protection. Over the Salt Range and up onto the Potohar Plateau, Islamabad was no better. At 4,000-feet, Abbottabad was already a glorious 92, but the best was yet to come. Thandiani, in the local Hindko, means “cold wind.”[1]
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My Day at Osama Bin Laden’s House — رحلتي الى بيت أسامة بن لادن

Very long story short: it seemed like the right time to go. Once, in the romantic glory days when Osama had just been killed and we all saw the world through rose-colored sniper scopes, daytrippers from the capital or from Lahore would come in to Abbottabad (EPP-ta-bad) to pose for pictures in front of the ex-warlord’s house. It is not as big as it looks on TV. Now, men in camouflage weave through the grass holding rifles and eyeballing everything that moves. Dozens of cellphones have been smashed, and, on the first day I was supposed to drive north to Abbottabad, five “CIA Informants” were arrested by the Pakistani government for cooperating with Americans. Still, it’s a very pretty town. Nice hills.

[My apologies, this story has been submitted elsewhere and cannot honorably be published here. Until we can give up on “honor”, I can offer only the poor summary above. To read the full story about my tea party with Osama and the long games of bridge we played while I waited for Seal Team 6 to do the honors (maybe — you’ll have to find out!): send an email with a sentence including the words “Boca”, “curry”, and “fuckface” to INGULFED at GMAIL dot COM]

The Karakorum Highway starts here.

Abbottabad Hills.

Cricket in Abbottabad.

Country home.

Pakistani Suburbia.

More pictures from pakistan here.

A Day in Lahore — يوم في لاهور

Lahore was blisteringly hot.

In a white shalwar kameez, I adopted the look of the bluer collar, while two men escorted me across the city. The driver wore traditional clothes too, but the man in the back joking loudly in Punjabi had on slacks and a neat collared shirt. He worked for the father of a friend of a friend of a friend, the president of the oldest and largest university in Pakistan. In Pakistan, with the right start, hospitality is easier found than Kevin Bacon. (Bacon, however, isn’t served anywhere.)

You can’t get far without hearing Lahore nahin dekha tou kuch nahin dekha, “If you haven’t seen Lahore, you haven’t yet seen the world.” The city is peppered with gardens and architecture left by the Mughal Empire and parallel kingdoms. The Shalimar gardens are green even in June, and families picnic and sit by the fountains. A couple of couples nap in piles. Through the Masti Gate in the north of Lahore’s Walled City, the Begum Shah Mosque is mostly hidden behind market walls and a rind of scaffolding. Like most of Lahore’s antique facade, the seventeenth century walls are baked red with delicate patterns painted in yellow and green and bright colors. The Begum Shah (which I translate poorly as “Mrs. King”) was Mariam uz-Zamani, mother of Emperor Jangehir, (“conqueror of the world”).

Shalimar Gardens

At night, this Shahi Mohalla (“Royal Neighborhood”) is better known as Heera Mandi, “the Diamond Market”. You might say it’s why Lahore is called that — it’s the city’s longtime red-light district, thinly guised with music and dance. But recent crackdowns have imposed stricter laws on the dancing, and lady’s of the night have become lady’s of the early evening. What once began only after midnight now ends at eleven p.m., and at dinner at a rooftop cafe down the street, we heard only the sounds of sitar wafting up from below. Some things had modernized in the name of convenience. “It’s all delivery now,” my host said.

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Prologue — فاتحة

First they said two hours, then four days, then six weeks. It wasn’t going to be easy to get a visa to Pakistan. Reciprocity, they relayed with a shrug. It isn’t easy for us to go to your country either.

Two months later, I let myself hope there would be a visa in my name, just waiting to be glued into my passport. They said they would call. Calls to the embassy switchboard would almost never go through, certainly not long enough to survive the transfer to the “visa office”, and my one contact — the sole officer responsible for my application — had ceased answering his phone, quit, and returned to Pakistan.

The embassy is only open for business before lunch. At 9 a.m. a crowd of a couple hundred men spills out the door in lines down the steps and pools around the snacks and tea stand; others mill about idly waiting their turn to be ignored. But having other business, I pushed through the infernally dim, musky floor to the much smaller room I remembered from months ago: VISAS / ATTESTATION.
Abandon hope.

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كريكت — Cricket

[New video down below]

Since time immemorial, men and boys have long relished hitting balls with sticks. Satisfaction and accomplishment have no exemplar more pure than the moment of contact between ball and stick. With his first alphabet, man drafted rulebooks to institutionalize stick ball-hitting in rites like Rounders, which left the Queen’s isles on a boat to make its fame in the New World as Baseball. But before all of this, there was Cricket.

With this in mind, I set out for my first ever cricket match, a benefit for the victims of the floods in Pakistan and contested between the struggling Pakistani national team and the physically much larger squad from South Africa. It was green against light green.

Somehow, in my years of curiosity about “the sport Baseball made more interesting,” I had never been able to learn the rules. But there at the pitch, tutored by a well-traveled American, I had it down in five minutes. And immediately, I knew what was wrong.

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