a partial portrait of karachi

words zara khan  |  images taahira ayoob

The short distance from Jinnah International Airport makes it so that the Golden Arches are a traveler’s first sight when arriving in Karachi, Pakistan. McDonald’s stands just ten feet away, ready to receive the newcomer, pulsing with that patented American self-assurance.

It offers its name in Urdu along with a cup of coffee, knowing how thirteen hours airborne can leave a body exhausted. It listens to a traveler’s grouching about the Seat 38J chatterbox and the hook-nosed flight attendant who refused to supply extra blankets. Most comforting is the way the menu offers McArabia and cardamom tea with a Big Mac and a McFlurry, blunting the sharp sting of Karachi against the well-worn familiar. This bastion of grease and calories understands that a trip to Karachi is like a dental appointment, preceded by fits of anxiety, undertaken usually to fill some hole.

As a Pakistani-American, Pakistan was not new to me. I had visited the South Asian country a number of times in my childhood and had even undergone quasi-immersion in Houston’s own Pakistani community.

I had learned from my mother the pronunciation of Urdu’s tricky “big R,” found in many common words from ghari (watch) to gaari (car). I knew the difference between rasgullay and rasmalai and appreciated both. My mission throughout December was to achieve a similar relationship with both halves of my given identifier, Pakistani-American. I nursed an absence of full understanding toward the place where my parents grew up, and where most of my family still lives. I figured that understanding would never be reached by frying frozen mini-samosas from the nearby Indo-Pak grocery or curlicue-ing henna over my palms. No, what I needed was to actually visit Pakistan, to speak to its people, and delight in Karachi’s unique culture and senses.

An Emerson quote, no doubt bandied around Pinterest travel boards accompanying snaps of paradisiacal beaches, recommends depth of experience over length. My trip to Karachi was for just two weeks—twelve days, adjusting for jet lag. In that time, I was able to reconnect with my astronomer grandfather, lose game after game to Uno-crazed cousins, and attempt an imitation of dancing at a wedding. I also ingested kebab rolls. Many, many, more than I should have.

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However, Emerson would have wept upon discovering how much time I spent confined within malls, swept up in a monstrous tide of Karachiites, crashing through the entrances to thousands of boutiques. I shopped long after the notion became noxious, because in Pakistan, malls mean more than slippers, silks, or silver for sale.

Even when nothing is bought, a trip to the mall brings reliable returns: air conditioning is free, and children have space to roam freely and safely—not to mention that sinks in the bathrooms spout clean water. In a country long ruined by politicians, with a police force that exists solely to escort these same politicians, a mall is an analgesic. For a few hours, worries are compressed from the monumental (will a rolling blackout spoil all the food in the fridge again?) to the minute (whether to purchase a pair of palazzo pants).

Karachi’s favorite mall is Dolmen Mall Clifton, or DMC, as it is lovingly abbreviated. DMC boasts all the appeal of Disneyworld, commanding a similar degree of reverence bordering on obsession. A food court and an arcade consume the third floor, and shops ranging from western fare—Debenhams and Nine West—to the purely Pakistani dominate the floors below.

Particularly popular is the Khaadi store, a clothing and home goods commercial outlet comprised of Khaadi, Khaadi Khaas, and Khaadi Home. Its name is taken from the Urdu for “hand-woven,” the original Khaadi store sells lawn fabrics like hotcakes; Khaadi Khaas boasts a ritzier look; Khaadi Home ensures your bed will never feel the agony of being out of style.)

I thought I had arrived in Karachi without packing my favorite outfit—the classic brow furrow, paired with lined forehead and slight frown, always trendy—but after my third DMC trip, I found myself again wearing that familiar blend of 77% consternation and 23% alarm.

Every woman seemed to navigate the streets here in Tory Burch flip-flops and a vibrant kurta, the hard-won trophy of an earlier Khaadi raid. Store catalogues from Gul Ahmed lived in all of the homes I visited, thriving underneath coffee tables, perhaps multiplying. I heard about and later witnessed the flocking of pilgrims to Agha Noor, monument to the powers of clever marketing. A clothing chain, it releases new designs weekly and stocks them for that one week, ensuring that shoppers—rather, worshipers—keep returning.

Of course, I was used to mall mania: three million square feet in Houston belong to the Galleria alone. What left me agape in Karachi were the cost calculations, the conversions from rupee to dollar. Somehow, prices in Karachi were commensurate to those in the United States. T- shirts could refuse to slide over the counter to a customer paying less than 2,000 rupees. With an average annual income of 42,000 rupees ($420), most Pakistanis can’t afford basic housing and healthcare, much less Khaadi.

For all my eagerness to fill holes, to prove that I knew rasgullay and rasmalai equally well, or whatever (which, to be honest, I don’t; all I know is that one dessert is round, the other flat), I had done Karachi a disservice. In taking its portrait, I had seen it through an exclusively upper-middle class filter, the exposure set high enough to magic-away realities like freckles and pockmarks. I had settled my viewfinder upon the easy target of the mall, when I could have aimed instead for a far more holistic photo, one that could have included the ambulance services of the Edhi Foundation, the schooling provided by The Citizen’s Foundation, or the creation of the communal arts space T2F.

My two weeks in December were the equivalent of chitchat with the dentist’s receptionist, pleasant but lacking in substance. If I am to do justice to Karachi, I will have to land at Jinnah International again.

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