Swimming with Crocodiles

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The hipster bible VICE magazine claims to have put out a ‘subversivne’ guide to Karachi. But have they just recycled cliches, asks Ahmad Rafay Alam

Sensational The flyer for The VICE Guide to Karachi
Photo Courtesy: Vice Magazine

MANGHOPIR IS one of Karachi’s little secrets. The place people who grew up in Karachi remember going to when growing up in Karachi. Near the Sufi shrine are some hot sulphur springs and a pond with 100 crocodiles. Legend has it that Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar miraculously made the hot spring and date palms appear. Bizarrely, he gave the lice in his hair to Pir Mangho, the dacoit-turned-Sufi saint, who put them in the pond and they turned into crocodiles.

Apparently, the crocodiles have never harmed a human. Not since the 12th century. Local tour guides often leap into the pond just to prove the point. For residents, the pond is a distraction from the city’s violence.

That Karachi is a violent city is hardly a secret. But you cannot accuse the brave VICE magazine reporters of shying away from the obvious in their five-part documentary, The VICE Guide to Karachi. Instead they revel in it. The film, slightly over 40 minutes, is presented by a VICE founder, Suroosh Alvi, and Basim Usmani, bassist with Taqwacore punk band The Kominas. Both are of Pakistani origin but that doesn’t result in a less sensationalist documentary. Alvi is particularly eager to emphasise the personal risk he’s taking just setting foot in Karachi.

Typically, when the duo stops by at Manghopir — as relief from their squalid visit to Jam Chakro, Karachi’s vast open-air garbage dump, and watching junkies inject heroin into their veins — their only response is to snigger. “They’re the only crawcadials in the world,” drawls Usmani, referring to their penchant for gulab jamuns and halwa, “that eat desserts”. “That’s random,” says Alvi, who then asks: “Why is there, like, a crocodile farm museum here?” Following footage of people enjoying themselves in their city, Alvi says, “After that weird interlude, we headed back to the hotel for one of the scariest appointments we’d ever made: a meeting with a target killer!” This is the way of this documentary, to not only ignore ordinary Karachi life but to be almost outraged by it.

Despite Alvi’s focus on the city’s badlands, the fact is that more people die in Karachi due to impure drinking water than violence

VICE, which has editions in dozens of countries, prides itself for its irreverence, its willingness to challenge the prevailing narrative and find one out for itself. Strange, then, that The VICE Guide to Karachi borrows wholesale the tropes and clichés of the mainstream. “Pakistan is a powder keg and Karachi is the detonator that could set it all off,” is Alvi’s signal observation, propagated in the documentary and in interviews with such edgy, alternative outlets as CNN and The Huffington Post.

Let’s get one thing straight. Karachi is one of the craziest places on earth. It’s a 1,362 square mile, 18-million person megalopolis. Any city whose population grows from 1,05,000 at the end of the 19th century to over 10 million a century later would be crazy. But Karachi is made even more complex by its migrant population. Ethnic Sindhis and Baluchis mix with Muhajirs — Pathans displaced by decades of war, Gujratis displaced by Partition, and Punjabis and Kashmiris looking to make it big in Pakistan’s business capital. Ethnic rivalries are rife.

Alvi and Usmani begin their documentary in Lyari, “Karachi’s most densely populated slum” (which it is), where they meet Uzair Baluch, leader of the outlawed People’s Aman Committee. Baluch, who lives in a wellguarded, Scarface-style compound, provides clean water and recreat ion to the residents of the slum (Lyari is football crazy, and the last World Cup saw a drop in violence in the area). They also meet Nabil Gabol, the Member of the National Assembly representing the constituency, who clutches his Kalashnikov to his bosom. But Alvi and Usmani miss the fact that both the Aman Committee and Gabol share a tangled history with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Nothing is as it seems in Karachi.

Sin city Scenes from the documentary

The PPP is the majority coalition party in the Pakistani government. Its other coalition partners include the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a political party that has its roots in the military’s support for an alternative to the PPP’s dominance of Sindhi urban areas in the ’80s. Karachi’s turf battles, fought on the city’s streets, are to preserve a delicate balance of power in a coalition precariously held together. The interests of the Aman Committee’s drug and gambling empire often overlap with those of the MQM. Violence ensues and the PPP often disowns the Aman Committee for the sake of diplomatic appearances. When the balance shifts, Karachi resounds to the rattle of gunfire.

Occasionally, The VICE Guide to Karachi does stumble onto a truth about the city. Alvi is correct to infer that much of the violence in the city, where over 50 percent of the population lives in slums, has to do with control of property. During a short trip to Katti Pahari, where the Awami National Party (ANP) and MQM factions are separated by a road divider, Alvi notes in his reductive style that both parties “have a lot of beef with each other”. A few years ago, when a military operation in Pakistan’s Northern Areas displaced thousands of Pathans, many of whom migrated to Karachi in search of work, there was a four-day bout of violence between groups competing for land during which even the police and Rangers were unable to enter the area. Still, despite Alvi’s relentless focus on the city’s badlands, on assault rifles and hand grenades, the fact is that more people die in Karachi because of impure drinking water than violence.

I DON’T DENY that Alvi’s brief encounter with a target killer is chilling, or a reason to watch The VICE Guide on YouTube. The reason immersive journalism compels is because its unscripted moments are so illuminating. But Alvi is mostly just ill at ease in Karachi. Who wouldn’t be in the middle of a riot in a dangerous neighbourhood? Still, what is most dispiriting about his half-baked documentary is the impression that what he most craves in Karachi is cheap thrills, the kind his hipster audience can enjoy vicariously. VICE, it turns out, is not revolutionary or renegade or even particularly intelligent. Instead, like every mainstream publication it scorns, it’s eager to uphold the status quo. Those guys out there, appears to be its only thought, are craaazy!

Alam is a Pakistani lawyer and an academic

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