Highlighting the markets of Karachi
Compared to Pakistan’s other cities, Karachi has always been treated like a lesser sister. Unadorned by the jewels of any bygone empire, nor bestowed by the historical monuments of a glorious history, it paled next to the glamor of Lahore. There are no palaces here, no forts or citadel gates and the footsteps of kings cannot be traced — only the footsteps of common people.
But common people have history too, and a great deal of it. Recently, the task of chronicling the life and past of this city has become an endeavor embraced by a group of volunteers. A research project initiated by two teams at the Pakistan Chowk Community Center, ‘The Markets of Karachi,’ is a scintillating account of the present and past of the city. Like the heritage walks inaugurated by Marvi Mazhar, who is also associated with the center’s work, the report makes a definitive push to revive interest in Karachi’s past.
The contents are compelling; as someone born and raised in Karachi, I had never heard of some of the markets that receive mention.
Bottle Gali (bottle lane) and Shikarpuri cloth market, Murshid bazar and Panorama market are places with stories that began long before Pakistan and continue to live today. Other markets like Zainab Market are well known and long frequented by anyone who has lived or even visited Karachi.
In between intervals devoted to descriptions and maps of the various markets are the stories of the regions where they are located. The Serai Quarter, many will be surprised to learn, existed long before the 1800’s as a ‘kafila serai,’ or roadside inn for passing traders who were, for instance, carrying goods from Afghanistan to other parts of the British Empire.
Similarly, the ‘Garden Quarter,’ was a deliberately planned quarter set up by the British as a space where fruits and vegetables were to be grown for troops. Soldier Bazaar was then a swanky part of town, where British soldiers lived and where the most expensive residences were located. Most of that is lost now, as the report documents most of the colonial era buildings are destroyed and most portions of the market shuttered up. Looking for history in Karachi, inevitably involves lamenting the destruction of history, often for yet another grim high-rise.
An effort like this report is particularly welcome in this moment in the life of Karachi. Less than a month ago, the Intelligence Unit of the Economist which ranks the large cities of the world based on variables such as security, air quality, public transport etc. released its rankings and alarmingly, out of 140 cities, Karachi ranked fourth from last.
An effort like this report is particularly welcome in this moment in the life of Karachi.
Recent rainstorms, inadequate waste disposal, and fighting within various city administrations in Karachi has made an already existing mess into a near cataclysm. Worse still, it seems difficult to work out where or how the city can be saved. So long have the fights within city government and service provision persisted that no one knows how to untangle the mess.
The ‘Markets of Karachi’ is one small ray of hope within this otherwise miserable state of affairs. In the painstaking collection of maps, the story of the planning of various quarters of the city is the story of a city which did not (as many believe) just “grow” but was carefully planned out to meet the needs of its one-time inhabitants.
The maps, diagrams and photographs in the report tell the story of the city, and stories, as the saying goes, is what we all tell ourselves in order to live. Karachi too must tell its story.
In the past several decades, plan after plan has been created to improve Karachi and solve its many problems. Most such plans are announced but produce little other than committees whose members fatten their own pockets with resources allotted to them. None of these many plans have been made easily accessible to the public so that they may assess the difference between what was intended and what exists.
A chronicle of the city’s markets also illustrates one of the saddest and ugliest truths about Karachi. Even while the city has so many bustling, burgeoning and colorful old markets, most of the city’s wealthy never wander near them.
In this sense, the class striations of the city endure in how the city buys and sells and where it buys and sells. Some of the markets have been lost with time, but many that still exist today are lost before their time because those who have the most money to spend do not choose to spend it there. Added to this are the distinctions of gender, the crowded nature of the markets and the lack of security that deters many women from venturing there for fear of experiencing sexual harassment. Like so many other public spaces in Pakistan’s largest city, markets can be dangerous places for half its population.
The irony of these gendered restrictions becomes most apparent when one considers the authors of the report, a group consisting almost entirely of women. If they can believe in the city, in its history, in its possibilities, then so should the rest of us.
– Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” and “Veil.” She writes regularly for The Guardian, the Boston Review, the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications.