Culture cousins: Beirut and Karachi

Published: July 13, 2012

In Beirut, people from all walks of life enjoy walking on the corniche. PHOTO: YASMINE IBRAHIM

The population is made up of people from diverse religious, linguistic, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds. Political parties are based on ethnic and sectarian lines which go hand in hand with political identities. Unity is relatively rare among the political leadership and the population in general.

The masses blindly follow the incompetent and corrupt leaders and unfortunately some have no other choice as their livelihood depends on it. The same faces and names remain in power for years on end considering the main qualification for holding office is that you belong to a specific family.

The blame game never ends (external or internal sources) in terms of who is responsible for the violence, instability or other issues facing the country. Targeted killings (religious or political leaders, journalists, etc.), burning tires, street protests, political violence/militias are all common realties which are more prevalent at times and less at others.

So, which city am I describing? Take a wild guess. Karachi? Beirut? Nope, it is actually both.

Will Karachi become the next Beirut? A common question and comparison we have heard on numerous occasions throughout the years and rightly so. However, I find that there are many aspects of the two that are comparable ─ beyond the political violence and instability─ especially since I have a firsthand experience of living in both cities. Yes, there are many similarities with regards to the geopolitical landscape of the two, yet violence does not define either city.

Both are situated along the Mediterranean (Beirut) and Arabian Sea (Karachi), which adds character and life to each. In Beirut, people from all walks of life enjoy walking on the corniche, where you can also find street vendors selling fresh juice, corn on the cob, and many other street snacks. Also, there are several beautiful beaches found within the city and on the outskirts, however, those from more affluent backgrounds prefer to go to the ones outside the city; private beaches which are more exclusive.

Likewise, in Karachi people enjoy the main Sea View where they spend time, ride camels and horses on the beach and eat various food and snacks. Yet, unfortunately since it is not kept well, again those from more affluent backgrounds go to private beach huts which are outside of the main city limits. The sea generally serves as a major source of entertainment for people in both cities and from all socio-economic backgrounds.

Both cities are very vibrant with crazy energy, hustle and bustle and a resilient population. The roads are generally quite busy and chaotic, and if you can drive in either city then you can surely drive anywhere else in the world!

In Karachi, certain parts of the city are still very alive till the early hours of the morning. People are out having food, lounging at sheesha places, hanging out at the beach, etc. Generally, I find that Pakistanis from all walks of life, long for various forms of entertainment and lack enough outlets to enjoy themselves, especially those that do not revolve entirely around food.

The options are limited for most people: go out to eat (countless food places which range from street food to high end restaurants), go shopping (if you visit the mall on a Sunday you will be amazed by the number of people you find there!), go to the movies (there are only a few theatres in a city of 18million people, so getting tickets is usually quite the challenge!), visit the beach, etc.

Entertainment options do vary also based on socio-economic backgrounds. For example, it is more common than you think to find private parties being organised for people who belong within a certain circle of society. Pakistanis and Karachiites like having fun just as much as anyone else, yet, unfortunately, the options are somewhat limited.

On the other hand, the night-life and entertainment options in Beirut are more diverse. The main difference between Karachi and Beirut in terms of entertainment options is definitely the happening nightlife.  No matter what day of the week it is, you will find many people out and about in select locations within the city; Hamra, Gemayzeh, Downtown, etc. There are an endless number of nightclubs, pubs and lounges to choose from and new ones pop up fairly often. Beirut’s nightlife is quite well-known, especially in the region.

Karachi does not have such options for entertainment and lacks many alternatives but people definitely crave various forms of entertainment and fun. Beirut is also full of places to go eat (ranging from street food to high end restaurants), cafes (local and western), live music and karaoke, and it is generally more pedestrian friendly than Karachi; thus you can walk around in several major locations within the city.

In my opinion, Beirut is more aesthetically pleasing than Karachi and is better maintained. Karachi is beautiful in its own way and could be more so if it was better maintained, yet there are other factors which hinder this.

Beirut is less conservative than Karachi however, I want to emphasise that wearing a short skirt in public does not necessarily make you more open-minded or empowered.  Yes, certain activities─ like openly consuming alcohol and the general dress code ─ is more restricted in Karachi, but should not automatically equate Pakistanis as being backwards.

Contrary to popular belief, some would be surprised to know that people from certain backgrounds and in private venues will easily be found dressed in less modest attire. No doubt, there are cultural sensitivities that must be considered in both places. Beirut is quite interesting, in that you can see someone who is fully covered from head to toe, walking right next to someone wearing a revealing dress.

Something to note is that in Lebanon, many media outlets are politically controlled by a particular party or ideology, and in Pakistan the outlets are portrayed as more independent ─ some argue otherwise.

The media in Pakistan is quite impressive considering in certain parts of the world media is more restricted, controlled and outwardly biased. Not to say it is perfect here, but it is definitely better than others within the region. I am amazed by how informed people are in both countries. You will find that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are also quite well-informed, regardless of their formal education.

Generally, politics and other issues are always being discussed among people and serve as the hot topics as the political landscape is so volatile and sometimes serves as a form of entertainment and debate. For example, in Beirut you can ride a taxi (which is usually a very old Mercedes that still somehow manages to run) and you will hear the taxi driver going on about his frustrations, the recent political happenings, and so forth.

Lebanon and Karachi have beautiful cultures, but I find that in Lebanon, people are failing to embrace it and instead try very hard to westernise themselves; more commonly in Beirut. It bothers me to hear that people grow up in Lebanon and can barely speak Arabic or are unable to read/write their native language. With regards to this aspect, Pakistanis are more embracing of their culture and carry it off with more pride, however I know some Pakistanis who would argue that an eagerness to westernise exists in some of the youth here as well.

The hospitality in both countries is matchless!

In Lebanon, it is impossible to visit someone’s home and leave hungry. You always feel like someone is looking out for you, and depending on where you live, there is a sense of community.

My personal experience in Pakistan has shown me how generous and hospitable people are here as well; to the point that I am treated like a member of the family within a short span of time. Family dynamics are quite similar in both places. The immediate and extended family are generally very close knit, involved, and are one’s support system. To this day, it is still quite uncommon for children to leave their parents’ home until they get married. In Pakistan, it is more common for even a married couple to remain in their parents houses.

I find that my personal upbringing has made it much easier for me to adjust to life and the culture in Karachi, as Lebanese traditions, culture and ways of life are so similar to those in Pakistan.

Karachi and Beirut have both become a part of me and I will always love them. Karachi has become my new home and I am here to stay. My roots may be in Lebanon but my heart is in Karachi.

Read more by Yasmine here. 

yasmine.ibrahim

Yasmine Ibrahim

A Lebanese American living in Pakistan who is a masters graduate from Purdue University.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Sane
  • Zahid Baloch

    Dear,
    Yasmine Ibrahim i read yours views Culture cousins: Beirut and Karachi….
    So nice, must write on Lyari….

    Regards…….
    ZahidRecommend

  • Anon

    Excellent!Recommend

  • Pakistani Agnostic

    There is no way in hell Beirut even comes close to Karachi. Probably Lahore or IslamabadRecommend

  • Dr Shankar Vankwani

    very nice analysisRecommend

  • AMK

    Really good analysis..Recommend

  • jahandad

    no killings or very less killings in Beirut than in Karachi,,,,,,, no gangs[political ] with extreme brutalities exists in Beirut compared to Karachi,,,,,, Beirut is 100 times ahead of Karachi,,,,,,,,and 100 times behind Islamabad or Lahore,,,,Recommend

  • Ali

    dear author, karachi is so much more, in positive ways, than what you have described.
    but anyway, i appreciate your love for my beautiful city.
    a warm welcome to karachi! :)Recommend

  • Zeeshan

    Yasmeen,

    How do you know people of Karachi crave “nightclubs”? Isn’t this very patronizing? Pakistanis do a lot of things for fun. Please broaden your horizon. Recommend

  • VJS

    Too vague and too many redundant words. Also, this article would have made much more sense if you had compared Karachi with Mumbai. Comparing Beirut and Karachi was like comparing apples to oranges.Recommend

  • Kashif

    Hell of difference in both cities. The things mentioned to match both cities are found in any other coastal metropolitan of word, like Mumbai. Childish article.Recommend

  • Polo

    That’s the most pointless article I’ve ever read. Recommend

  • Parvez

    Beautifully written and more so because you convey that you actually believe what you are saying. Made me a little nostalgic for the Karachi of the 60′s and 70′s when things were very different.Recommend

  • Wadeira ka Beta

    @Zeeshan:

    Zeeshan man are you kidding me? look at the population when they go outside of the country. A good portion do enjoy that style of night life and and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. I’m no fan of it but that’s my personal viewpoint. Recommend

  • Awans

    I have met Lebanese and they are of another league and sorry Beirut can never be compared to Karachi. Beirut’s past due to some political conflicts could be compared to the situation in Karachi but otherwise there is no match between the two. In my view Lahore takes the lead from Karachi in this case and apart from one Dominant ethnicity and less diversity Lahore is the best place in my view in Pakistan as there are no Ethnic rifes and no Political tensions and you can roam around in the whole city while I visited Karachi and i was told that I should not wear Shalwar Kameer in some part while i have to wear Shalwar Kameer in some regions and It was more like a horrendous experience which you can never have in a city like Beirut. Recommend

  • Mim

    @jahandad: Just came back from my trip to Lahore, I could not agree less that its way better than Karachi ( which i have visited 5 x at least in the past year ). It is such a nice thing for someone to be so patriotic to his/her city, but i would appreciate if you cud visit Beirut, or let me say Lebanon – cause every city, village, corner in this Country is a piece of beauty – before judging that Lahore and Islamabad is better than Beirut…..Recommend

  • http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/12364/culture-cousins-beirut-and-karachi/ Asad

    While both Beirut and Karachi might share a lot, in the sense that both cities and their citizens have always made a positive come back every time there is an attempt to murder to the soul that makes them their characters, but Karachi is big, and extremely diverse. From the hills of Manghopir where people still go to feed crocodiles based upon an ancient tradition to I I Chundrigar Road where nearly 75% of Pakistan’s cashflows take place .. But yes, you are right about the beaches, Sea View and the Corniche are two places where the diversity gets absorbed into an array of colours splattered over a painting, that dazzles you and at the same time leaves you mesmerized with its beauty ..

    And for those of you comparing Karachi with Islamabad and Lahore, trust me .. Islamabad does not have a character .. it is more of a small town or village, where every thing has been made from the blood and tears of Karachi .. it is all about corrupt Bureaucrats, Feudal Lords and Pakistan’s elite, and their escape from the reality. As far as Lahore is concerned, it is a very homogeneous city where just one ethnic group is dominant .. the only thing colourful about Lahore is the legacy of the Mughal Empire, whose descendants and remnants are now commonly found in Karachi itself .. Recommend

  • Balti Khan

    Lahore and Islamabad don’t hold a candle to Karachi. Lahore is full of pot-heads. Islamabad is plain old boring.Recommend

  • Nadeem

    Lived in Beirut for 3 years as a child before the civil war. Beautiful city and very nice people, my parents and elder sister just loved the place. Remember eating ice cream near pidgeon rock, swimming lessons in Carlton hotel, walking in Hamra street, weekend picnics in the mountains. Would love to go back again, although I hear it is now very expensive (at that time $1 = 3 Liras)Recommend

  • saad aziz

    sooner imran comes,better for pakistan
    ps Nice article,you always write beautifully,kudos to youRecommend

  • BRUISED INDIAN

    @ The Author: Ms. Ibrahim; pardon me but the “all walks of life enjoying the corniche” is nothing but a crock of bull! Beiruts beaches and swimming pools has the worst record for racial discrimination. Read blogbaladi.com for further details.

    Cultural? The Beiruti’s can swing late in the night at the Skybar, drink Arak, eat Pleet and Fatouch and say ‘hi kefak ca va’ in the same breath doesnt actually give you a sense of culture. Recommend

  • malik

    Another thing common between Pakistanis and Lebanese is that…both of them hate Indians so much that every now and then they bash up the weak Indians in Australia !! Recommend

  • BRUISED INDIAN

    @malik: True that, but then no wonder the respect met out to Indians always makes the Pakistanis pose as Indians in Europe or any part of the world for that matter. Recommend

  • Massood

    @malik
    Speak for yourself. The Lebanese I have come across in Australia are psychopathic. They will pick a fight at the mildest provocation. I much prefer to be among Indians with whom I share many things like Bollywood and Sport.Recommend

  • Massood

    @malik
    One more thing a friend owns a house repair business. He refuses to go Lebanese houses because drive him nuts with their requests and changes. They extract maximum value. Recommend

  • http://tribune.com.pk p r sharma

    purposeless article.Recommend

  • Yasir Mehmood

    You missed one big one, Karachi has a Telephonic leader: Altaf Bhai!Recommend

  • Bilawal Tunio

    Karachi is actually forced to be conservative by the conservative Punjabi and Pakhtoon demographic majority in Pakistan, were Karachi a province with its own laws, it’s assembly would have definitely allowed nightclubs, alcohol etc to be legalized. Immigrants from upcountry get a culture shock even now when they migrate to Karachi.Recommend

  • Name

    If they just legalise alcohol and nightclubs it would be so much better for the entire cityRecommend

  • yusra javaid

    @p r sharma:
    @Zeeshan:

    I agree.Recommend

  • observer

    The population is made up of people from diverse religious, linguistic, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds.

    Really?

    Karachi has ‘diverse religious groups’ like Beirut?

    Here is one estimate of the ‘religious composition’ of the population of Beirut. Please note that a full 41% are non-Muslims including Jews.

    (45%) Sunni Muslims, (14%) Shia Muslims, (11%) Armenian Orthodox, (10%) Greek Orthodox, (6%) Maronite Catholics, (4%) Greek Catholics, (2%) Armenian Catholics, (1%) Protestants, (1%) Jews, (1%) Druze and others..

    What are the stats for Karachi?Recommend

  • Ahmedullah

    Karachi versus Beirut. What a great choice!!! Reminds me of other great choices in life. Suicide bomber or aerial bombardment? Random killings or systematic elimination? Bearded Islamists or shaven religous militia? Frying pan or fire? Very thought provoking…Recommend

  • Ishaq_Zaidi

    *Very nice- @yasmine Ibrahim
    You highlight this topic’ in different way “Appreciated” :) *
    Recommend

  • Ahmad

    Comparing Karachi to Beirut makes no sense whatsoever. It’s like comparing Jakarta to Rome because both have been inflicted by earthquakes. Beirut is a Mediterranean city par excellence, culturally linked to Europe for over two millenniums and with a population that is both Christian and Muslim while Karachi is a city with a pure Indian-Subcontinental Muslim culture. This article verges on the absurd.Recommend

  • syed Azeem

    merci kteer yasmine

    Lebanon is a beautiful country too i have visited twice

    God bless you for this article

    Hope you have a great stay in Pakistan and write more about the commonalities between the two cultures and the differences during your stay Recommend

  • Yasmine Ibrahim

    Thank you all for your comments and observations. I would first like to clarify that the title of this article was meant to be beirut vs. Karachi and the et changed it before publishing the blog. The comparison shows the similarities and differences between the two and was not meant to imply that the two are identical.

    Considering some of the comments it seems some of you did not read it very carefully or misunderstood some aspects of the article. First off, in regards to nightlife i did not state that pakistanis want nightclubs i was stating that this type of activity is lacking here but similar activity is still going on behind the scenes and many are very much interested in it whether you want to admit it to yourself or not.

    Also, i have always heard people comparing the two cities in regards to the political landscape and instability and have first hand experience that there is much more to the two cities that can be compared. I never felt like an outsider here because the cultural traditions and norms are fairly similar. Beirut might be more beautiful to the eye and has a better image but there are many similar problems which people may not be aware of if they have not lived there (such as electricity, water, corruption, discrimination, etc.).

    @ bruised indian: the corniche is open to everyone as it is simply a walkway by the sea…your point about discrimination is irrelevant here but i am well aware and will not deny that migrant/domestic workers are extremely dehumanized and treated poorly. But, this happens in pakistan as well. Just today i went to a mall and there were security guards literally screening people based on their appearance/social class because they did not want those who looked like lower class to enter the mall. Additionally, i made a clear point that many lebanese are losing their sense of identity because of the westernization!!! This is not across the board but is happening with a certain part of the population.

    @observer: yes, beirut is more diverse (in numbers) in terms of religious diversity but it was meaningless for you to point this out because religious diversity exists in karachi (regardless of percentages) and linguistic, ethnic, ses diversity is very much present in both!!

    Overall, the two cities have more in common than one might think. They also have differences (karachi is more than 3 times the size of all of lebanon and the levels of poverty are not as comparable for example) . However, i wanted to make the point that there are many other aspects that can be compared beyond the political landscape.

    THANK YOU ALL FOR YOUR COMMENTS!!!
    Recommend

  • Catherine

    @Polo:

    I totally agree with you.

    Pointless and very shallow. Recommend

  • BRUISED INDIAN

    @ Yasmin Ibrahim: You’re right; am wrong! Yes the similarities even extend to the screening and insensitivity towards he color of skin or should I say the color of the shalwar!

    On the westernization part; are you pointing to the Maronites, Orthodox Christians or the Druze community? Or maybe the ‘ultra’ supporters who chant death to the western world but cant resist to buy a pair of Jimmy Choo’s at ABC Achrafiyeh?
    Lets agree to disagree!

    Thank you for replying. Enjoy your stay in Pakistan. (honestly, no sarcasm). Recommend

  • usmanx

    if compare pakistan to middle eastern city, indians get mad..
    If we compare pakistan to india, indians say we are claiming to be them.
    if we talk about yourselves, indians say we have no history.

    what will make you people happy?Recommend

  • usmanx

    Just look at the author herself, she looks more like a lebanese not indian.Recommend

  • Kumail

    a lovely written article Yasmeen ! you described both cities in a wonderful way certainly creating a very strong link between the twoRecommend

  • http://ameermirza.wordpress.com Ameer Mirza

    A wonderful comparison. We should only hope that the people in power be wise enough to look into the matter deeply and try to stop every type of lawlessness in Karachi as well as the whole country. May Allah help us and save us from every calamity, Ameen.
    Ameer Mirza
    http://ameermirza.wordpress.comRecommend

  • Javid

    Brings back memories of my beautiful Lebanese girlfirendRecommend

  • http://Karachi Anwar Hasan

    Beirut is way way ahead of Karachi. It is a beautiful and vibrant city bustling with life. You see foreigners and locals strolling the city. There is so much to see and do there.

    Karachi is a dirty filthy city with daily violence and killing a way of life. You will never see any foreigners anywhere in the city. There is no electricity, no water no law and order in the city. It is truly a city in the dumpsRecommend

  • From Aus

    One place where Karachi scores better than Beirut…..

    Karachi guys are far far better and well-behaved than guys from Beirut….the Lebanese guys are no better than thugs…uncultured, hot-headed bullies always looking for a fight….if you see them, avoid them !!Recommend

  • Asad

    @Zeeshan:
    really !! there’s not much left after you’ve shopped and eaten. Where do you go in a city like karachi for one night of random entertainment, i’m not talking about club memberships or fun filled programs or classes you’re enrolled in, where do you go for a nice outing?? hmmm… the BEACH… and thats it.Recommend