Wondrous wonders and the Frere Hall Park

While doing some archival research recently, I came across a lot of Ardeshir Cowasjee’s old columns. Cowasjee was one of Karachi’s finest advocates, someone who cared about things like a building creeping onto the road, and the height of a building, and preserving the city’s skyline. I laughed out loud at some of the brilliant lines – has anyone coined anything better since the Jadoogar of Jeddah? There were columns dedicated to the tick-tock details of letters written to government officials and public interest litigation, all so that the city could be liveable.

I think about this a lot now. I think about what it means to live in Karachi, why nothing seems to even elicit mild disapproval, not even a reaction, as if the city’s destruction is just background noise, why the very simple act of taking things to court, to put them on paper, has become so difficult.

I have been thinking about all of this far more since I read this:

The Frere Hall park is one of my favorite places in Karachi. It is beautiful and open. It has no boundary walls or tickets. (A true wonder of Karachi is having to pay for entry to parks.) It is where the amazing book fair takes place every Sunday. It is a place where you can rest and walk around and have a cup of chai and sit under a tree or in the grass. It is a place where you can take a ride around the park in a Victorian carriage. It is quiet and peaceful.

For many years, Frere Hall’s park was abandoned and inaccessible. Before 2001, the park would be packed with people. After 2001, the park was essentially inaccessible because public transport was barred from the road (the US Consulate was right across the street.)

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For those of you who may follow me on Twitter, I posted a few weeks ago about this plan after I read about it in Dawn. While I was working on this post today I saw that Marvi Mazhar has an Instagram post on this, raising a hugely important point about the restoration of the building.

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I didn’t follow this story from the start, but this is the timeline as I understand it now: The Karachi mayor signed an MoU with a group that calls itself the ‘Guardians Trust’. This trust – which includes some of the regular figures of Karachi elite [full list in the gallery below] – has somehow taken on the mandate to “restore” Frere Hall. The trust will manage the park for five years, according to Dawn.

This move has been challenged by the Sindh government which says the mayor cannot sign off control of the park to another entity. (Samaa, The Express Tribune)

While this bureaucratic wrangling continues (or does it?), the Guardians Trust announced their plan for Frere Hall last month. Dawn’s reporting from the event had statements like this:

- There will be adequate parking and with time there will even be underground parking. There will be four clearly designated entryway gates to the facility.

- Mr Jilani said the Frere Hall library will be moved to the left side, to a much bigger space which will be a conditioned space. Its size will be doubled. Then there will be an amphitheatre, a souvenir shop and a cafe.

- A visitors’ centre on the ground floor is also planned, which will serve as the first interface for the tourists to the city. The bandstand, along with the fountains, will be restored. There will be several features to the gardens at the centre of which will be Jinnah Square. Cars will not be allowed to enter the central space.

- Acknowledging a member of the board Ghazi Salahuddin’s thoughts that the hall was once associated with the city’s intelligentsia and public where book fairs happened, where people got together for exchange of ideas, Mr Jilani said stalls will be put together keeping all those things in mind.

[NOTE: THERE IS A BOOK FAIR THAT TAKES PLACE EVERY SUNDAY.]

**

I believe it is our right as citizens of Karachi to ask what is being done with Frere Hall. I have very rarely exercised this right because I’ve always thought of myself as a journalist, not a resident, and because I could always get answers to things I was curious about through my work. I have also very rarely cared about something to the extent that it impacts my life — almost everything in Karachi does, but I am very good at disassociating myself from it.

But something has shifted in the way I think. I do not wish to become an activist, but I care very deeply about this park. I do not claim to have gone there as a child. I do not have any claim, perhaps even now, as an adult. But I have a right to know things as a resident. (Related: I recently watched this interview with Fran Lebowitz where she was asked whether artists have responsibilities: Fran says artists don’t have responsibilities, citizens do. That part of the conversation is really interesting for those of you who may struggle with this divide.)

I wrote to the Guardians Trust – their email is listed on a sign at Frere Hall – to ask for a copy of the plan, and I said I was writing as a resident of Karachi. They were quick to reply – they said they would have a site up and running in a fortnight that would feature the plan. (frerehallguardians.com) When the site wasn’t up in two weeks, I emailed again to follow up and was told I could get a physical copy of the plan, which I picked up from their offices last week.

**

Here is the booklet. This is not available anywhere online, or at Frere Hall, or any public place.


The language makes it seem that this is a done deal – that the “restoration” and “renovation” of Free Hall has commenced. (The only new things I have seen in Frere Hall recently are the addition of some lights – though I don’t know when these were put up, since I relocated to Karachi earlier this year – two sign boards by the Frere Hall Guardians Trust, and some benches.)

FrereHallSign

Now back to the “plan”:

Firstly, the library. What does it matter if the library is “functionally inappropriate and very small for being meaningful?” Meaningful to who? And for what? Why can the library not be cleaned, reorganised and made functional in its current space?

(If anyone is looking for a worthy cause, please turn your attention to the Liaquat National Library where archival material is literally in shreds.)

The ‘south-western end' is proposed to be “rejuvenated” by an “authentic restoration of the old Eduljee Dinshaw fountain and re-introducing the Band-stand.”

What purpose does the band stand serve in the year 2019?

I have read through this booklet several times. Their ‘plans’ include:

  • Creating a “pedestrianized and vehicle free” area called Jinnah Square, which would be home to a “very modern state of the art sunken library.”

  • It’ll also have an “impressive water feature with lots of trees and shaded pathways.”

  • Turning the existing library into a cultural centre

(There are existing libraries that could probably use some of this “modern state of the art” magic.)

Then they point out the “utter neglect” and “disuse” of the Hall. (If people couldn’t visit for years, how could they have used it?) This utter neglect is thanks to the government and whoever was in charge of “restoring” and “rejuvenating” the building in the past during which a weather vane was stolen.

The 16-page booklet then goes on to say that they “seek saviours of our future.” In exchange for a contribution, their names will be marked on a “Great Wall of Giving” and one can do dedications on lamp posts, benches and trees.

This publication contains no other details: how will this be funded, the qualifications of anyone involved to undertake this project, the legalities of a “trust” taking over a park, and whether any of the individuals involved has spent more than five minutes in the park [without being there for a ticketed/invite-only event] in the last 5 years.

The larger issue I have about the “rejuvenation”, “restoration”, “revival” and “intervention” of and in public spaces in Karachi is: who are you “rejuvenating” this for, and why? These spaces are already “revived” – they are alive and people visit and relax and sleep in its gardens and play in the empty fountain and take six million selfies against the backdrop of the facade. So who is this being restored for? Do the people who use this park, who work in this park, and to whom this park is an open, non-ticketed, not-cordoned-off space get to decide whether they would like to see it “rejuvenated” and in what form? (I have not yet heard of anyone being consulted.) Maybe we need a public space to do so… perhaps, say, a park?

I have a lot of questions. This booklet does not answer anything.

Here are some photos of this park – “revived” without fanfare and a booklet and a press conference.

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Rush hour, Karachi.

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This last photo is a view of rush hour in Karachi from the park. This is one of the few — perhaps only? - parks that do not have boundary walls, where you can see the city go by. Boundary walls coming up around Frere Hall will mark the end of a truly public place.

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This is not to say that I think Frere Hall should be left as it is: the gallery needs work, and there should be architectural repairs. But when that does happen, can we also have some answers about the architectural repairs of the past and the weather vane being stolen? Can we hear from the people who signed on to do this work in the past? Or the people who presided over the park being used as a rental ground? Why does the park – finally alive, finally open to people – now need to be a construction site again? Why does Karachi need a band stand in 2019? The people of Karachi – those who actually use this park, not those who visited one time for Karachi Eat – should not be shut out, again, from the one park that is accessible and beautiful and alive.

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Of note, particularly, is how there has been little reaction to this at all, save for Marvi Mazhar’s post today and a mention in Kevin Shi’s article on shade in Karachi for Himalistan.

There have been two identical congratulatory letters though – by two different people – published in Dawn and The Friday Times. “Saba Khan” and “M. Haris” were truly and really “moved”.

And what of artists?

Well:

KBT.png

**

It is, as Cowasjee once wrote, “another wonderful wonder of wondrous Pakistan.”

Welcome to Karachi

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.

Walk What Way? (Or why everyone should read Jessica Valenti's memoir Sex Object)

I went out for a walk on Monday evening. I ended up going in the opposite direction to where I'd planned to go, and I only figured it out thirty minutes in. By the time I walked back home, I wished multiple times over that the earth would swallow me up. From the creepy dude who drove around twice to offer me a lift - the euphemism for 'hop in to be raped' - to being leered at by male motorists whose heads do a full 180 degree turn when they see a woman without slowing down their vehicles, it was less of a walk and more of scene from The Exorcist on Wheels.

This is not a rare occasion. This is every day of my life. It has been every day of my life for so long that I can't seem to remember a time when someone didn't say something creepy or stare.

I don't think I've ever been able to, or ever will be able to articulate this. Which is why reading Jessica Valenti's Sex Object has been such a relief, as if someone finally put into words the exact sensation of when your brain switches over from 'hmm it's nice weather' to 'walk really fast, walkreallyfast, walkreallyreallyfast.'

Valenti describes just how it feels to be a perpetual subject of harassment, how it changes and shapes the way you act and think and perceive people and situations and relationships. It's an incredible book; one that I hope everyone reads.

This is the excerpt that I read before the book, which sums up so much of how I've felt over the years:

We know that direct violence causes trauma; we have shelters, counsellors, services. We know that children who live in violent neighbourhoods are more likely to develop PTSD. Yet we still have no name for what happens to women living in a culture that hates them.
When you catch a cold or a virus, your body has ways of letting you know that you are sick. But what diagnosis do you give to the shaking hands you get after a stranger whispers “pussy” in your ear on your way to work? What medicine can you take to stop being afraid that the cab driver is not actually taking you home? And what about those of us who walk through all this without feeling any of it – what does it say about the hoops our brain had to jump through to get to ambivalence? I don’t believe any of us walk away unscathed.

In Sugar They Trust: Scenes from my local Dunkin Donuts

I've spent a lot of time at my local Dunkin Donuts over the past few months. It's open early and closes late, it's cheaper than other coffee shops in the neighbourhood, and you don't have to stand around someone's table and talk loudly about how some people just won't clear out even when they've paid the bill to get a seat.

Even though I spent a lot of time at Dunkin in the past, I'd kind of forgotten how nice it can be to just sit there. A few months ago I was between appointments on Shahrah-e-Faisal, and so I ended up working out of the Dunkin there. Then I ended up at the branch in my neighborhood one evening and now I sometimes write there. Mostly I sit back, think about eating doughnuts, occasionally eat a stale doughnut and regret it, and people watch. I have learned many things during my unoffficial residency and by using an entirely unscientific approach.

- People still buy doughnuts. I'd sort of assumed that in this day and age of customised cupcakes, red velvet-everything and fro-yo (a trend that is finally over, AMEN) that people didn't buy doughnuts anymore.

- I was wrong.

- People buy a lot of doughnuts. Like a lot. After 10 pm, Dunkin is almost like an emergency room: wailing kids, guys who look like they ran out of the house in their PJs and drove at a 100mph, entire families. They all want doughnuts. They get mad when there are no doughnuts. No seriously, they're legitimately indignant when the manager informs them that the branch has run out of their favourite flavour. There are some people who ask if the other branch will still have them. There is an acute sense of desperation in their voices.

- I might have a career as a doughnut scalper if nothing else works out.

- (Why do people need doughnuts so desperately?)

- Sickly icing sells.

- At 11 pm, pretty much everything sells. People drop their demands and standards. 'Just put six of whatever's left in the box.'

- (Maybe they're all having surprise birthday parties?) 

- Lots of people send their kids in unaccompanied to buy doughnuts. In Sugar They Trust.

- Some kids are literally bouncing off the walls before they've even had a doughnt. These kids may not need a truckful of munchkins.

- Lots of people send their domestic staff in to buy doughnuts. Or they send over someone who then dials home and connects the person who is craving doughnuts (but can't leave the house) to the salesperson. These are the people who should memorise the Dunkin Donuts delivery # by heart. And also add on a doughnut for the person they've sent out to forage for food.