Al Jazeera Blogs


Asia

Blood and jazz on Karachi streets

Pakistan’s sprawling port city has been called a "City of Lights", but today it’s better known for darkness.
Last modified: 26 Feb 2013 15:23

 "Let them come, and we'll see."

These words tumbled out of the young man’s mouth, a menacing threat for a hidden enemy.

I'm in Lyari town, one of the toughest areas in the Pakistani port city of Karachi.

Mafia criminality, political violence, ethnic hatred and neighbourhood rivalries mean this mega-city, with a population of over 16 million people, regularly sees blood spilled in its streets. Last year, more than 2,000 people were killed in Karachi.

One of the local English-language newspapers keeps a daily tally of the incidents. It reads like a scorecard for death, and top of the table for violence is Lyari town. It's a neighbourhood inhabited by people from Balochistan, in Pakistan’s rugged southwest.

The young Baloch who uttered the threatening words was wearing a chain around his neck with a tiny gun hanging from it. I asked him about it.

For the most part, he didn't answer. He's young, though, and with the recklessness of youth he eventually began to brag.

"Let them come. Let then come here!" I'm not sure who the "them" are, as he never explains.

His friends backed him up, and quickly joined in. The words shot from their mouths as rapid as the gunfire that plagues these streets on nightly basis.

I hadn't caught the boy's name and before I have a chance to ask, he disappeared into the maze of houses and streets that define the urban sprawl of this district.

'Dirty' politics

Mohammed Arsalan is my guide in the area. He gave me some background on the boastful young locals.

"These boys are tough kids," Arsalan said. "They act as the security for this neighbourhood. It's no laughing matter. They watch all the comings and goings. They know everyone in the street. Strangers stand out a mile. If they sense danger, then the guns come out."

It's a fact that these young men grow up in a culture of extreme violence. They don't flinch when they hear gunshots.

Even so, they are just part of a complicated web of tension that traps Karachi, sometimes paralysing it. Most of the time, however, the city lives in an uneasy calm, knowing the spectre of violence is there but not when it will strike.

Somehow, the web survives, and thrives. Politics means money and money drives this city. With politics come dirty tricks, and with dirty tricks, dirty tactics.

Take, for example, the open secret that every political party in Karachi has an armed wing of young men.

The political parties deny this, but the evidence is clear to many who live in the city.

'City of Lights'

A few months back, I was in Karachi and caught up with a friend and longtime resident of the city.

Haider is an old man now. He sits in his apartment surrounded by memories. He has pictures of Karachi in its 1970s heyday, when jazz musicians from America would visit and play alongside Pakistani musicians late into alcohol-fuelled nights.

He has watched his city descend into what it is today.

"You go to a wedding in the wrong neighbourhood and you'll see them. Mean-looking and stick-thin like a match, they play their patriotic songs and shoot their guns," Haider said.

"When I was their age I would smoke and listen to John Coltrane. These boys smoke and kill people on behalf of their political masters."

Haider and I shot the breeze for a while as his stories grew ever wilder.

As I stood in the streets of Lyari town, I recalled his accusation that the city's violence is controlled by "political masters".

As we leave Lyari town I asked Mohammed if the charge was true.

"Of course it is. See the flags on every street? They represent which neighbourhood belongs to which party. There [are] gunmen in each place. Who do you think controls them?"

Gunmen posted up on each corner. Political bosses who decide who lives or dies. Young men caught in a downward spiral. Pick up a gun, or face death for not being connected to a gang.

This is Karachi.

It's not all like that, of course. On the day I was in Lyari town, a big fashion show was held across the city. The week before, the Karachi literary festival drew eager crowds. The Mohatta Palace museum, one of my favourite places in the whole country, recently launched an exhibition by renowned Pakistani artist Rashid Rana.

Karachi. They call it the"City of Lights".

Yet with lights that shine brightly, there has to be darkness.