words & images taahira ayoob
Crackling, whirling, and shooting sounds from motorized rickshaws were the first things that could be heard when I exited Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport. The media create an image of Pakistan as a violent country that is full of terrorism, so I already knew that I had to park those stereotypes elsewhere upon landing: The only ammunition necessary to survive in Pakistan is a bright smile.
I flashed my teeth to an earnest rickshaw driver who beckoned me to his ride. With my poor knowledge of Urdu, we negotiated a price and then he lugged my baggage into the rickety backseat. I huddled next to my baggage and held onto the metal poles that connected the driver’s seat to mine. The highway leading from the airport passed by a garish, yellow McDonald’s sign before it gave way to wide lanes where cars, motorbikes, trucks, and rickshaws rode side by side.
Rickshaw drivers, or wallahs, as I learned to call them colloquially, were my first introduction to life springing into action in Pakistan. The men were shining examples of Pakistan’s friendliness and enthusiasm. They warmly greeted all their customers and chatted with anyone needing help. And, although they were dressed in simple, solid-colored salwar kameez, the drivers didn’t hold back on pimping their rides.
The transit gurus dressed their rickshaws in funky, luminous colors like hot pink. Sometimes, they festooned the ride with slightly sleeker colors like forest green or cobalt, which were often patterned with beautiful paisley designs. The "bling" adornments were always fancy ornaments, prayer beads, built-in speakers, and rear-view photos of their favorite actors.
I also learned that unlike buses and trains, rickshaws were the safest and most direct means of traveling in Karachi, a city where the transportation infrastructure remained a work in process.
Thus, my first friends in the city became the rickshaw wallahs. They offered me stories about areas of Pakistan I had not yet visited, teasing me with tales of the abundant orchards on the outskirts of Balochistan; the apricot oil-drizzled dishes of Hunza; and the picturesque mountains in Pakistan’s north. Most rickshaw drivers were migrants from smaller and less urbanized cities who had come to Karachi to make a living wage. I could tell that they missed the less competitive and slower environments they had left behind.
It was through rickshaw-wallahs that I slowly picked up conversational Urdu—from simple words like seetha hat (right) and ulteh hat (left) to beta (child). The sentence structures I learned soon helped me to order food at restaurants and make new friends.
However, my rickshaw wallah friendships broke down when the drivers did not come at the requested times. The men often blamed their late arrivals on three culprits: CNG vehicles, governmental inefficiency, and faulty roads. But what often caused the real delays were the rickshaw themselves, which were always breaking down, as the vehicles often languished in states of disrepair and neglect. On one occasion, I watched my rickshaw wallah painstakingly oil the motor of his vehicle with liquid dripping from a water bottle container and then wring his hands clean on his salwar kameez.
On some mornings, my rickshaw wallah friend would not appear at all. Then I would end up stranded without any means of transport to get to work. My supervisor’s advice would ring fresh in my mind: “Don’t keep taking new rickshaws. You know there are all those cases of rape and kidnapping that happen on them,” he often said.
Although I followed my supervisor’s advice, and kept my friendliness and discerning eye at bay whenever I made a new rickshaw wallah friend, I never found the danger that he warned me about. I saw rickshaw wallahs as average people who were trying to make a living in a harsh city. The more paranoia I nursed, especially about them in the crime-ridden city, the more likely I was to fear them.
Karachi appeared to be a frightening place not just to outsiders, but also to the locals living there since birth. I would frequently receive text messages telling me to stay at home to avoid danger amid looming strikes by the city’s mafia-like political party, Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM). If the strike was announced the night before, my phone would ring with a wave of concerned warnings by the next morning. Friends would instruct me not to venture anywhere—“MQM strike today. Don’t need to go to work. Stay indoors and stay safe, Taa,” the text messages would read, addressing me by my nickname.
It was only after several repeated incidents that I understood what was actually happening during these strikes. They were usually a consequence of a member of the political party being shot or struck by violence in its endless permutations. Although these scenes of terror were often happening on the fringes of the city, or in the more ghetto neighborhoods of Karachi—removed from where I lived—it was still possible to feel the anxiety and negative energy in the air in my own neighborhood the next morning. Offices, schools, and government buildings would entirely shut down. Most of the city would mourn the loss.
Some of my friends at work argued that this attitude meant that we were becoming "normalized to violence." Others said that Karachi’s interminable violence sparked resilience and strength. Perhaps, they said, this city’s inhabitants were better able to accommodate the idea of loss. When I observed how people got through the troubles that plagued them on a day-to-day level, it appeared to be more of the latter.
A common problem exacerbated by the strikes was loadshedding, a situation where the amount of electricity required to feed the lights and fans cannot be sourced from the main electrical companies to the central electrical output in homes. To save energy, the electricity in Karachi came and went in broken intervals, and was often out for at least two hours each day. But this didn’t stop people from inviting me to hang out.
In fact, the absence of electricity and subsequent darkness became a great backdrop for parties. I instantly made friends with the other apartment dwellers, as loadshedding brought us all out of our rooms to hang out on the balcony. We enjoyed the cool, spring breezes passing by the parapet of our balcony as we sang along to Pakistani music. As the clouds dispersed, moonlight radiated and danced on our faces, providing a backdrop to conversations about life and love. We also learned to cook in the dark, with only the flame of the stove-light allowing for measurements of oil, salt, and pepper. Even when our food turned out under-peppered, our candid conversations were the best condiments served with hearty plates of laughter.
Amidst the dangers of Karachi, I found an unimaginable number of friends within Pakistan’s largest city. From my loadshedding friends in the dark to the rickshaw wallahs who came—or did not come—to bring me where I needed to go, my days in Karachi were always fun, bright, and warm, and my friends became the rays of the sun themselves.