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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

How things change ...

It was the late 70s. Our ship docked in Beirut - a city I had loved in my early visits in the '60 and '63. Wonderful climate, beautiful places, lovely people. And, for someone in his early 20s, the added charm of visiting Kahlil Gibran's city.

But things were different.

The city had been brutalized by wars and battles too confusing to even begin to comprehend. Quickly changing alliances meant everyone was shooting at everyone else at one time or another. The lovely buildings were torn down, ripped apart, or bomb-blast rubble. All roads had blockades and tons of sandbags and morchaas where on-duty soldiers sat when they relieved their colleagues who were occupying all the modern hotels no longer capable of attracting crowds or tourists.

TV News Channels had not been as rampant then and the few news pictures in the press had barely prepared us for the real sight

Although we should have guessed how bad things were becoming in the world (not just in Beirut) from the first 2 shocks we received when entering the harbour. The pilot (for those unfamiliar, this is person who navigates the ship into closed harbours and ports after the ship's captain has brought it up to the entrance, because the pilot is more familiar with the local tides, seabed changes and movements in the harbour, to name some reasons) was taking the ship in to dock, when a mild but very definite explosion was heard on the side of the ship. All of us, except the bemused looking pilot, rushed out into the bridge-wings to see what had happened. All we could see were some very young kids in a boat. Puzzled, we turned to the pilot, who - totally nonchalantly - informed us that the kids in the boat must have been using grenades to throw into the sea, since it brought up many fish (including dead ones) ... a novel method, but practical (he said) since fishing nets and wires were often more difficult to get hold of than grenades.

No doubt this was the greater of the two shocks, at that time. But, over the years, I feel that the second one was more impactful: The wave of laughter that my fellow seafarers burst into on hearing this, while Nuzhat (who was travelling with me - as she did for 12 years at sea) and I exchanged pained and shocked glances.

The next incident in Beirut caught us totally unawares.

The city was heavily divided into Christian and Muslim sectors (even the harbour had two different gates) and it was generally unsafe for people from one community to venture out into the other. (In some other post, if it warrants, I shall describe how different the two sectors were.) The head of the shipping agency was also the leader of the leading Christian political party and, eventually became a very senior official in the government. He sent his car to escort us to the office and join him over a cup of coffee. We had armed guards with us and felt really odd in such surroundings, being used to Karachi's peace. (Yes you heard right!)

We'd just gotten off the car outside the office when there were sounds of what we assumed was motor-rickshaws backfiring. So Nuzhat and I stood and looked all around us to see what kinds of rickshaws existed in Beirut. Very slowly it dawned upon us that we were the only two people standing. Everyone else was sheltered somewhere or lying face-down on the ground. And our driver was desperately motioning us to do the same. When it was over we realized that our preconditioning had caused this problem. We had never heard gunfire up so close and motor-rickshaws, in Karachi, were an everyday sound source.

It was not much longer, later, that Karachi's Beirutization took place and every motor-rickshaw misfiring began to sound like gunfire to us. We have only Zia to curse for this because, in him, we have found an easy peg to hang this on (and a lot of justification, too). The country's politicians, the dissenting factions within the army, and a frustrated population waiting to be misled ... all contributed.

Fast-Forward to today. Despite what many of you saw on TV of May 12, the fact is that many of us in Karachi also saw it only on TV. Contrary to the kinds of questions I get asked about Karachi (not just from people from other countries wanting to visit for whatever reason, but from friends in other Pakistani cities), many of us have not been eyewitness to something like this. Yes, a hell of a lot more have had phones and cars snatched. And dacoits enter homes. But killings, no. So, when - about an hour ago - I was startled by extra-ordinarily loud gunfire and pistol shots outside my house (we live in a cul-de-sac so we hardly hear anything but cars visiting us or our neighbours), Nuzhat and I rushed out to look through the window and - very quickly - ducked back for fear of being hit by a stray bullet.

Around 20 minutes of frighteningly increasing cross-fire later, there was silence. Doc Shamim and I (our gates are opposite each other, just over 15 feet apart) came out to see - just two houses away - a horde of police vans, some still screeching in, an overturned motorcycle next to a windshield broken car, many civvies with large guns and mustaches (this scary lot belongs to some minister who has, much to our chagrin, moved nearby) and kids from everywhere nearby gathered. So far all I can report is 3 young men injured (and captured). Plus one shot dead. One unconfirmed injured policeman. No idea what kind of encounter or chase resulted in this. Keep tuned in. If I hear anything, I'll add it.

The only thing I could see staring me in the face, as in the first Beirut incident, was the utter insensitivity on the smiling faces of people who gathered, their voyeurism satiated. Who, then, can blame the kid from the gali who, in the midst of all this, went up to the police to ask if he and his friends could now go back to completing their lane cricket match which was disrupted by this 'incident'?


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

31 May, 2007 01:46

Blogger jehan said...

How terrifying and totally spine-chilling Zak!Not only the incident but the resulting reaction from the kid who just wanted to get on with his game. Is this how disconnected we are all going to become? Are we coming to a stage where seeing someone shot and killed is just going to be another "interruption" in our lives? The word "ban" has always been a 'bad' word in the dictionary of those of us who believe in freedom but you know I wish we could ban weapons of all sorts. Maybe this would not put a stop to all killings or violence but it would at least not make it so easy to take a life. It is so tragic to see Karachi which was once such a peaceful city changing into another Beirut. Is there anything any of us can do to put a stop to all this? I really feel quite helpless.

I am sitting in my hotel room in Delhi and have been watching the killing and violence in Jaipur. The highway being blocked, people killed and injured, lawyers tying and beating up a young man in a district court in Agra. Violence everywhere! I am tempted to switch to a non-news channel and block out the violence, and I must admit I often do it. Am I an escapist? Maybe I try and be one but can I block out the scenes that are already in my memory? Can I stop thinking about what the world - and my city - is turning into? No chance! Be safe ... that's all I can think of saying right now.

31 May, 2007 07:32

Anonymous Ghazala said...

Terrifying experience, Yes, but an unusual happening in DHA, NO!
A lot of ministers and other "malfunctionaries" of this state, "waderas" included, live in DHA and are host to hoardes of armed guards in civvies who fire at will.
@ Jehan - Have we and more importantly the boy in the lane wanting to get on with his cricket, become insensitive to violence? Unfortunately Yes.
How much more bloodshed do we need to encounter before we say "NO MORE" to a society of gun toting hoodlums?

31 May, 2007 09:51

Anonymous the olive ream said...

This is absolutely disturbing. I can't get used to or be indifferent about such events (like some people can)...but then again, I don't live in Karachi anymore. I assume for some if not most, it is a matter of necessity to be desensitized, in order to carry on.

I'm sure it was a frightening experience for you ZAK. It seems no area is safe in Karachi anymore.

31 May, 2007 12:51

Anonymous Jamash said...

Around a year back, a police encounter took place in the bounds of our house.
Police shot dead 3 dacoits in our house and one in a neighbors. We were watching the dacoits them form our windows moments before the police started firing at them. All three of them in their 20s, carrying guns were walking in the walls like cats, and they died abusing each other, and the police who were after them. Later in a briefing the SP of the area told us that they were also involved in a multiple rape cases during a robbery in the vicinity, they had committed 10 robberies in seven days, three rapes and two murders, the third murder they were about to commit the night they were shot. It was a friend of one of the gang members who was visiting their place and had seen the guns. He was found tied up in a bathroom of the empty house they were staying in. Their two accomplice were caught alive.

After the briefing when I saw those three young men dead in my back yard I didn’t feel sorry for them, I am glad their brute come to an end, but it is not a moment I can laugh about.

In Karachi, there are many children who are currently in the process of becoming criminals. They are living on the streets, exposed to drugs and abuse, will they too end up dead while committing a crime?

02 June, 2007 00:59

Blogger seenalif said...

holy shit zak... the desensitization in DHA? wow. we're in trouble.

really glad you've resumed blogging, despite your insistence that you have not :)

03 June, 2007 15:41

Anonymous Anonymous said...

desensitization in DHA? omg. what HAS happened to these usually gentle caring folk, seenalif?

06 June, 2007 05:56

Blogger Sidhusaaheb said...

To be absolutely honest, I too would have laughed at the kids using grenades to catch fish. Why? I can't put my finger on it. Plain instinct, perhaps.

On the other hand, I wouldn't have laughed at what happened in the street outside your house.

Then, I do agree with The Olive Ream when he says, "...for some if not most, it is a matter of necessity to be desensitized, in order to carry on."

I pray for the safety of your family and your own self and for your city to regain its lost glory at the earliest possible!

09 June, 2007 18:43

Anonymous minos said...

Perhaps we should be happy that the streets of Karachi are becoming more and more like the streets of american metropoli. I have no first hand experience of those streets, but a wealth of experience from watching Hollywood and tv-land episodes of slickly edited "gangland" street violence. If all of that really does go on in the most "advanced" nation of the world, perhaps this is, after all, what progress is all about.

I mean this seems to be the natural consequence of the path of development the world has adopted over the past few centuries, forged in the European "enlightenment" smithy, and developed (faster and faster) by the (now almost completely) universal culture of consumerism (which the dictionary defines as "the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of goods" to which one might add "and the concomitant bads")

I'm not of the Communist persuasion, but the biggest disaster of the twentieth century was it's death (by chocolate?) and the resultant unchallenged supremacy of the rampancy of the capatalist ethos. Forget the imbalance of power; the world is left with no competing ideology. Hallelujah.

And with the dog eat dog state of the so-called ummah, what are the chances that Pakistanis can hope for anything other than what we have. (Oh sorry, I forgot -- the second coming of the daughter of the beast is going to cure us of all our ills.)

10 June, 2007 18:38


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