Cities where memories live - Ghazi Salahuddin - Sunday, May 01, 2011

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On an adjoining table, in a coffee house on K Street, two young women and a man seemed engaged in a serious conversation. This was just after office hours in the evening and they looked like young professionals. And then I heard that word that I would decipher from any babble. Karachi. It was my city that they were talking about in Washington DC.

It took me a few moments to realise why. The Washington Post that morning had a lead story that began with this sentence: “On Sept 11, 2001, the core of al-Qaeda was concentrated in a single city: Karachi, Pakistan”. It was a report on WikiLeaks disclosures on what the newspaper had headlined as “new revelations on al-Qaeda’s 9/11 movements”.

Similar stories, with some raising questions about the role of the ISI, had appeared in the international media. The focus generally is on Pakistan and on terrorism. What goes on in Karachi, with its endemic disorder and frequent targeted killings, is hardly seen worthy of the front pages or headlines in TV news bulletins.

Another point to note is how a newspaper can feed the thoughts of thousands of people on a daily basis. This is particularly true of The Washington Post in the city and the area of its publication. The New York Times has a bigger clout and a larger area of influence. But Washington, as a government city and the hub of national politics, has its specific pursuits that are recorded in its only major newspaper.

This was just an aside, a lament on how we in Karachi – or in Lahore or Islamabad – are devoid of any binding force in an intellectual or cultural context. News channels do excite a lot of emotion but promote no serious thinking about events and interpretations. There are not enough people sincerely inclined to deliberate on issues that ultimately impact their own lives.

Anyhow, sitting in that coffee house on a pleasant evening, though a thunderstorm had been forecast, my thoughts wandered to what we have made of Karachi, a city of so many millions who must daily endure the rigours of a life that could otherwise be so exciting and meaningful, if also very strenuous and challenging. The burden of insecurity that the citizens of Karachi have to carry is bound to suppress its potential for creativity and joy.

It is simply not possible to compare Karachi with any other large city of the developed world. The sad thing is that with all its promise and its boundless reservoir of talent and ambition, it is consistently going down and down. So much so that its present reality tends to distort and disfigures the memories of its past. As someone who has spent almost his entire life in Karachi, I feel unable to locate my early youth in its searing and forever expanding environs.

Incidentally, these thoughts are mainly prompted by my present sojourn in Washington. This is our family reunion and only for a fleeting week. Now that so many of our families are separated by long distances, the young having settled abroad, such opportunities have to be greedily seized as a precious gift of transient good fortune.

Then, Washington happens to be a specific destination in the journey of our family’s lives. My wife and I had spent an entire year in Washington, living in its Virginia suburbs thirty-five years ago. That was the Bicentennial year of the American independence, adorned with glorious celebrations. Our elder daughter then was less than two years old. We had lived in the States for another year in 1985-86, when my wife was going to school in Boston and both our daughters were with us. Reporting for my newspaper from the States, I would divide my time between Boston and Washington and the family made a number of visits to Washington, staying with a dear friend who excelled in hospitality.

Now, our elder daughter, a medical doctor, has come here from her home in Los Angeles with her two kids and we are staying with our younger daughter in her downtown apartment. She arrived in Washington over two months ago to start a new job. What is relevant here is how we have been able to relate to our memories of thirty-five years ago and some also of twenty-five years ago.

Cities must change with time but how they remain the same in some respects is my point of reference. Historic sites must necessarily be protected as they are. However, every city has its ambiance and its spirit that guarantee a kind of permanence with change. In Karachi, change wears the garb of chaos and disconnection.

It was such great fun to take our grandchildren to places where their mother had played as an infant. She, our daughter, would go ecstatic to see fountains and flowing water and so do her son and daughter. I had an occasion to walk through streets in downtown and surely there are new shops and coffee houses and a few high-rises. But it feels the same. It breeds familiarity that places in Karachi, particularly in Saddar, do not even when I have lived in the city year after year.

It is natural for people to cherish the memories of places they grew up in. There are cities – and Lahore is one – that flicker in the imagination of its native citizens when they are abroad. Their present reality does not always negate the remembrance of things past in the same way that Karachi has ruined the memory of its own past.

Since our daughters were born and were raised in Karachi, it is the most appropriate location for a family reunion. That is what we want every year but it remains hard to arrange. Karachi is where we have our friends and relatives and places that are attached to our memories, though not all of them are a source of delight.

In Karachi, it is not possible to wander freely and feel safe, particularly for women. It is home, certainly. Yet it is not a place where you always feel at home. In addition, one has to bear with stories and personal accounts that arouse fearful thoughts. Hence, a family get-together in, say, Los Angeles or Washington can be so distracting and such a lot of fun.

In the midst of this excitement, I have had little time to meet some old friends, including from the media. This has also kept me from talking about Pakistan and its foundational discontents. Washington, come to think about it, thinks a lot about Pakistan. There are so many think tanks rigorously engaged in trying to make sense of a country that is increasingly becoming a puzzle. And Karachi is one big piece that does not fit.

The writer is a staff member

Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail. com

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