It’s a beautiful evening in Karachi. I am crossing a road. My handbag is slung across my body. My clothes, however, are covered in flaking cement. I am carrying one end of a commode that smells – well it decidedly does not smell of the ‘clean’ water the plumbers had promised it was just a few minutes ago. The toilet seat is hanging off and at one point I have to grab it off the street while not putting the commode down. I can feel my hands being scraped raw and my clothes also decidedly not smelling of ‘clean’ water. The other end of the commode is being held aloft by a guy I am paying three hundred rupees to help me take it to the dumpster.
It’s a lovely evening, not-spring, not-yet-ORS-weather. People are out shopping. No one offers to help. No one asks questions either, as if it is totally normal to see two people walk a commode down the street in this upmarket neighbourhood.
We put the commode down in an empty plot. The toilet seat falls off. There is a Hilux parked nearby with guards in the back who stare at us.
I insist that we should make a final push to the dumpster a couple of plots away.
I try to wrap my head around how I have gone from crowing over this city’s sea breeze to being covered in the contents of a commode.
In her memoir, My Paris Dream, the writer Kate Betts says she became a Parisian when she had a boulangerie and an electric bill. This month, I became a Karachiite again. I have an electric bill that for now is in triple digits because it is not-AC-weather. I have the number for a guy who, within a minute of our meeting, offered to hook me up with black magic — or a taveez in case I wanted to ‘set my boss straight’. (I’m not sure what it is about me that screamed potential customer, though I’d chalk it up to my awful appearance and dead eyes.) I have a number for a guy who’ll take away empty boxes and give you a hundred rupees for them. (He laments that I tossed out a toilet because he can sell anything. )
The only person who’s shown me any sympathy in the past few weeks is the guy who runs an appliances store on the street, who remarked one day that I seemed… busy. He was meant to have a customer deciding between a tacky gold fridge or a silver one. Instead, he got a mad-haired woman who had taken up residence in his shop and was mid-rant. (For the record, this was the first chair I’d sat in all day)
So how did I end up here?
In 2009, Mohammed Hanif wrote an essay about returning to Karachi after over a decade abroad. While the ‘why I left New York’ essay has now been stereotyped and parodied and beyond; the ‘why I left Pakistan’ essays are almost entirely about being hounded out, exile, and torture. The ‘returning to Pakistan’ essays are often marked with a sense of naivety and wonder and relief at being “home” – a life where things are easy.
Anyway, so Hanif’s essay is wry, not marked by the weariness and raw emotion and the brutality of his subjects in recent years. Instead, he wrote of Karachi’s “oddities and surprises.”
“It is the only city in the world where Pakistani cricket legend-turned-politician Imran Khan is banned. In an election where voters were British celebrity magazine editors, Khan could easily have become mayor of somewhere. However, Hello! has limited influence over public opinion in Karachi.”
It is 2019, and Imran Khan is now the prime minister. Hanif, I’d like a word.
I read that piece after I’d spent a year living in Jordan. I’d made the decision to return to Pakistan because I had no job, and no money, and could see no life for myself. Almost as soon as I came back, I regretted it. I searched for jobs obsessively. Somewhere, my resume is on the database of every major news organisation in the world. (I have only ever had one person write back, and then never write to me again.)
Sometimes things work out. In Karachi I became a full-time reporter, I worked incessantly, I didn’t work at all, I wrote a book.
In 2016, I went to Jordan again and started reporting stories based in the Middle East. I could see no life for myself in Pakistan: work had dried up, but mostly, I felt exhausted, like I had no connection to Karachi. I saw dead ends everywhere. But I believed that I could spend my entire life being a writer, that I could pick up and freelance anywhere.
I am now back in Karachi, with 20-something boxes and copies of magazines with the pieces that sometimes took days and months of rewrites and days and months of tears, and notebooks of pitch ideas I never wrote up.
This time though, I feel none of the regret or anxiety at having left a beautiful city, or the life of living out of a suitcase. I am not itching to leave again. I am here because I have made a choice; that I want to be in Karachi, that it is a privilege to live in such a massive city, and that I will always be a writer even if I am not writing full-time, that now I know I can always go somewhere else and write there.
But when I told people I was moving back to Karachi, the response was overwhelming concern that something awful had befallen me, that I was returning to Karachi broken, the underlying assumption, I guess, that I was returning because I had no choice.
I didn’t have any choices, and maybe I also did. Sure – I could have continued to spend money on visas, because unlike other freelance journalists, I do not have a passport that allows me to extend visas at will or pitch up anywhere. Instead, I was always travelling to stay within visa limits, spending 24 hours in an airport hotel, on the streets of another city, never really the tourist, always the person in transit. I pitched pieces that would invariably get accepted as my visa was expiring. I had story ideas that I could never see myself bringing to fruition: would I be anywhere long enough? Could I even travel to x country or y? Would I be able to do an interview, to come back again, to do another interview? This great piece from Africa is a Country is seared into my brain:
Western visa regimes, conceived at the deathbed of empire—the British Empire at its peak allowed for varying degrees of free movement within the colonies—have long been about fortification, limiting freedom of movement, of privileging westerners at every conceivable economic, social, and political opportunity.
It’s why there are almost no Nigerian or Indian freelance journalists condemning corruption and investigating the monarchy in London, but freelancers with British, EU and American passports can be found in numbers building their careers overseas.
So now I am back in Karachi. I spent the first week looking for apartments. Every apartment in Karachi, it seems, when it is locked up for an hour, is taken over by pigeons operating like a land mafia, an avian qabza group. I couldn’t enter balconies or bathrooms because the pigeons had seized control through open windows. I opened the door to the balcony at one flat and a startled pigeon fluttered up from its perch atop a water tank. In another flat, the floor was covered in pigeon feathers, as if the pigeons had turned it into a fighting pit (or perhaps there was a cat in the flat too?)
Every time I told real estate agents my budget they looked at me with a kind of derision and pity: how could I possibly hope to find a clean, functioning apartment for this much money? How could I have standards? The math of house rents makes no sense – it is based on some sort of logic that even real estate agents don’t know. The rent would decrease inversely to the floor: apparently, the cost of a flight of stairs is around seven thousand rupees. As a prospective tenant, I fielded questions about my life, my family, my profession. One real estate agent asked me if I could find a reference from another ethnic group’s association of traders – I’d be a more trustworthy potential tenant.
And yet, no one said aloud that it was strange I was the one looking for a place, not a man. It was not until the afternoon where I was in an apartment with two other real estate agents, all of us taking photos that would invariably look much better on the phone than they do in person, when someone casually closed the main door and I had to ask that they open it and leave it that way. They all looked a bit surprised at how emphatic I was. Men never see the fears that grip our hearts, the calculations we make before entering a space, the inevitability that violence is around the corner.
Men often insist that I am like their daughter or sister. They all have my interests at heart until it is time to pay up. Then I am no one’s sister. Then they would very much like a pound of flesh, or two, and surely, I must be a human ATM. I have paid everyone I had to: the real estate agents, the landlord, the movers. I have bargained with street cleaners to remove years-old(?) debris outside my flat because in Karachi no one quite knows whose job it is to remove mounds of mud and debris because you can literally leave your crap anywhere. As we bargain over the cost, I insist they’re asking for too much money. They insist its a four-man job. Later on, I see only one guy doing it.
I respect their hustle though. Everyone is a hustler in Karachi, even the cat who has taken up residence on a nearby cafe’s fake grass and is literally hustling for food because she makes for such a cute Instagram photo.
So how had I ended up - not just here, but crossing the road with a commode?
I'd called my plumber over for a couple of routine things: well, it was really just one thing: to put in stronger drain covers, because in one of my old apartments a rat had gotten through one – an experience that I will never ever be able to describe in its full horror – and we noticed one of the toilets was leaking. So I called the landlord’s #2 guy, and the landlord, and they sent some plumbers. Now they'd sent another plumber before, a very professional, very nice guy. These two also seemed quite nice. But once they’d replaced the toilet, they placed it on the floor of the room that I had scrubbed clean just a day before, where it was now steadily leaking water. It’s clean, they assured me. I assumed they’d take it away with them. They asked me to call the landlord’s number 2 guy, who said we should toss it out.
I asked the plumbers if one of them could give me a hand and I’d take it to the dumpster with them. No can do, they said. Their clothes were clean for prayers, so I should call a “sweeper” to do it.
I have lived in Karachi long enough to know there is no arguing with this. I said I understood. And I do. Sweeper, in Karachi-speak, means a cleaner who is not Muslim: because custodial work is relegated to non-Muslims. How the plumbers had managed to be in a loo, or why they were working as plumbers when they couldn’t soil their clothes is beyond me, or why they had lied about the “clean toilet” is beyond me, but I literally don't make the rules. We had been reduced to swinerry’s lament: y I am haram? Me, for a few minutes, with my privilege and religious qualifier that allows me to go through life with ease, and the cleaner, forever, who did not question what I needed picking up or why or whether his clothes would be unclean.
There was no time to process the full-on immersion into Karachi's racist and xenophobic culture. Off I went, to find the “sweepers.” Who I discovered, were in the neighbourhood mosque, where they work as subcontractors. Within seconds, I had a guy who would help me with the toilet, and this is also where I somehow ended up listening to a spiel for black magic services.
We got the commode in the dumpster.
I came back home, and I realised I’d been too preoccupied with the leaking monstrosity to see what had happened. The once-pristine, empty room was covered with bits of plaster, cotton (?!), nails – it’s always nails – and the wooden frame of the new toilet studded with more rusty, twisted nails. The bathroom was even worse: covered in cement, more screws and nails and plastic and water. I had a brief moment of longing for every single person who had only left nails and bits of wire, and not taken the time to design a set for a horror film.
I took photos. (Clearly the apartment hunt and taking photos of closets and bathrooms have hardwired me to whip out a phone every time I see a room.) I went out again and tossed the frame, nails and all, in the dumpster, and then I did something I’ve never done before: I called the plumbers’ shop, and asked them to never send this duo to anyone's house again if they were planning to leave a bigger mess behind. (I offered to send the photos to everyone involved. No one has taken me up on the offer.)
I miss Amman sometimes. Who wouldn’t? It’s a great city, and I will always love it. But I am home now. My arm is sore from a tetanus shot I had to get after I scratched my leg on a rusty bike parked on the street, and my feet are so black from dirt that when I clean the floor I have to soak my feet in the same cleaning solution, and I’ve gotten disinfectant in my eyes — mid-video call. My feet ache from wearing bad flip flops because every person who does any work in the house leaves behind a bed of nails and screws. Santa Claus leaves gifts, Karachiites manage to leave nails everywhere even when they’re not working with nails.
Though at least it’s just nails: during the move, I took my only loo break in the day and heard a loud crashing noise in the house.
I rushed out to discover the guy assisting with the AC installation had decided to turn over a gas cylinder and use it as … a chair.
It’s a miracle we’re all still here.
And in other Karachi miracles: later that evening, I went back out. The toilet had DISAPPEARED. In less than half an hour. How the fuck did it get taken away so quickly, while no one knows how to remove building debris? Who took it? How does this city function? Who the hell knows?
In any case, welcome to Karachi, I guess.