The City of Lights No More, Karachi

By Nabeeha Chaudhary, M.A. student.

Insight from Karachi, Pakistan.

I have been back home in Karachi for more than a month now–Ramazan passed, Pakistan’s Independence Day passed, Eid-ul-Fitr came and went, the weather got hotter and wedding season began. The only thing that remains constant every time I step out of the house is the amount of people shopping. High end malls keep opening up, people are packed into the shopping centers and buying as if they will never get the chance to do so again. Prices have soared but shops seem to have gotten fuller. A new mall is under construction in the very spot that Mid East Hospital stood a few years ago. I knew it was coming (the hospital was sold back in 2005) but it is still an unpleasant shock to see the building converted and plastered with images of shops and restaurants “coming soon.” How can you tear down a fully functioning hospital, especially in a city where there are already not enough, to build a mall? This a question I keep repeating to myself but have no answer for.

The amount of beggars on the streets also soared during Ramazan. A leading English daily carried a few features on the topic, including “Beg, and you shall receive” wherein a beggar voices his preference for traveling by air (which he did) rather than by train to come to Karachi during Ramazan to beg. Begging is a full-fledged business in the country and Ramazan is a peak time for maximizing profit. People are meant to feel for the poor when they fast and experience hunger but these days the doling out of cash to beggars probably has more to do with the guilty conscience of the wealthy who are hauling around truckloads of shopping bags. The extreme social and economic disparity, the root cause of more than half the problems the country faces today, seems to just keep growing.

The economy has been suffering for far too long; exports keep suffering setbacks that have little to do with their quality or a decrease in demand and more to do with internal factors. Pakistani textiles are something to write home about and that includes jeans. Most people in Karachi know about a place called Zainab Market but not everyone is aware that, if you know where to go, you can get the best jeans at outrageously low prices here–jeans that are exported all over the world and sold for four or five times the price abroad. The shop owner complains though, that half the market for such exports has shifted to Bangladesh in the past few years. It takes me only a second to figure out why—the ridiculously long and frequent electricity cuts in the country are making it impossible to get any work done right.

Once known as the city of lights, these past few years Karachi has seen much more darkness than light. Both literally, with the constant electricity shortage (read mismanagement and corruption), and figuratively with the death, destruction and despair that has gripped the place. The resilient city still bustles with life though. People go about their daily lives; work, fun, ceremonies, hanging out–all goes on. In some areas of the city you might not even realize that things are any different than usual in Karachi until you see the various body counts in the news every single day. The situation is grim, quite grim, but on the ground reality is not as utterly awful as the news media would have you believe; normality still exists and happy moments are interspersed in all the madness. Karachi may not be the city of lights these days but it is still a city of bustling life, of people who face their fears and refuse to stop living. Here’s hoping for the lights to come back on.


Nabeeha Chaudhary is a second year M.A. student in the South Asian Studies department at the Jackson School. She grew up in Lahore and Karachi and studied at the University of Karachi for more than two years before transferring to Miami University where she completed her B.A. in English Literature. Her current research interests revolve around Media, Education, and Gender Disparities in South Asia with a focus on Pakistan.

This blog post was written while Nabeeha was in Karachi for part of summer 2012 to visit friends and family and to collect material for her M.A. project on the representation of women in Pakistani television serials.