Karachi: The city with a memory

Published: May 28, 2011

Karachi has the sea, colonial buildings, Empress Market, the sea, Frère Hall, the sea, Bohri Bazaar, the sea.

Karachi would be a tour guide’s nightmare assignment. Imagine a horde of overeager Japanese or European tourists, thirsting for scenic, history-laden wonders, wanting to take that perfect Facebook profile picture next to a monument where the fate of the world as we know it today was defined. What do you have? Nothing.

The sea, one might argue. Or those lovely dilapidated colonial buildings, Empress Market, the sea, Frère Hall, the sea, Bohri Bazaar, the sea. Add to this, a lacklustre assortment of non-attractions, a cacophony of cars blaring through traffic-choked streets, wilting trees, hordes of beggars at every signal that may or may not be doubling as people wanting to mug and shoot you.

Then there is the claim to modernity. An array of upscale cafes and restaurants where you will inadvertently run into the six and a half people that you will run into everywhere else, the Thai restaurant, the French one, the Italian one and the exhibition and the festival. Oh and the malls, how can we forget the monstrous steel-and-glass demi structures that house non-brands halfheartedly.

Recently I had one of those clichéd Lahore vs Karachi arguments with a friend, who asserted that Karachi cannot be a tourist attraction. He was right. It’s not a tourist attraction, it doesn’t have that immediate allure of history or mind-numbing scenic vistas. It’s grit and steel at first impressions. Smoke and lead at second.

However, it’s better than an attraction, it’s a discovery.

It unfolds. In layers. The steel and grit gives way to a salty tang that will facilitate conversations that lead to world-changing ideas. That beggar on the street might have a story that will redefine your world-view. The smoke and lead will blur the ugliness and make for breathtaking sunsets. You move on from attractions but you keep on coming back to discoveries.

What the city lacks in history, it makes up for in the memory that it has, a collective of a million eccentric narratives. It survives, and that survival gives it a generosity to make room for all kinds of people. Who mostly hate and kill each other but can still somehow manage to live on the same street at the end of the day. That’s where the city’s USP lies, a city with a memory, that has stories to tell.

Amna Iqbal

Amna Iqbal

Publications designer at The Express Tribune, she tweets @amna_iqb (twitter.com/amna_iqb)

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

  • Siraj Ahsan

    My wife is a foreigner… when I brought her to Karachi for the first time I found out about Karachi more than we credit this place. It is awesome. It is a city that on the face of it doesnt offer anything but in reality has alot to offer… from eating out to visting building of colonial times to boating and then the glorious beaches and turtles…
    I think if we were 1% saner than what we are the place could have been haven for tourist coming to enjoy the weather during winter.Recommend

  • parvez

    That was such a load of hoooeey. Recommend

  • Maria

    I am a Karachite, but still “Lahore Lahore Ae”..Recommend

  • Sir Major-General Charles James Napier

    @Maria:
    I am a Karachite, but still “Karachi uska Shohar Ae”Recommend

  • Ahsan

    Great article. Fantastic narrative. Written with loveRecommend

  • Jabeen Mushtaq

    AMAZING .. WE LOVE KARACHI !!!!! well written :)Recommend

  • Waqas

    Its ironic people from all over the country come to karachi yet they still believe karachi is not a tourist attractionRecommend

  • Henna

    Karachi is my jaan, the love of my life, the apple of my eye!Recommend

  • Humera

    So Karachi is Lahore’s ‘shohar’, well then the bride has to be more glamorous. No? Recommend

  • sajjad ali

    @Maria:
    Main aap ki baat ki 100% taeed kerta houn.Recommend

  • sajjad ali

    @Sir Major-General Charles James Napier:
    Shohar sirf Khercha he berdasht ker rha hai bs, werna rung, khushbu or adaa to begum he ke marhoon e minnat hai…Recommend

  • sajjad ali

    Just Superb Job Amna Iqbal.

    By the way i am also ‘karachwi’, but the thing is, when it come to Karachi Vs Lahore “There’s no comparison “Its Tapal Danedar (read:Lahore) ” this line pops up.Recommend

  • Sir Major-General Charles James Napier

    @sajjad ali:
    Shohar ke khercha bardash kaney ki waja hi sey to begum ka rang roop hota heRecommend

  • Shahzad, Saiyed

    @ Maria/Maj Sahab/Sajjad – as all know that we are Pakistani only during cricket match, however if we have a comparison that it should be for similar merit. No comparison of Karachi with any other city of Pakistan (that is for sure and majority should agree) this is mainly because of the people of Karachi (irrespective of any race) and the Sea Port. The only comparison of Karachi is with the other Major city(s) of the world (no offense to anyone).Recommend

  • Mohseen

    I live in Vancouver and have to say that Karachi has the potential to become an incredibly beautiful city. Not just a tourist destination. But a truly beautiful city. But it is not going to get there without its millions of people … most of them poor and hard on luck and lacking a decent job and a safe roof or a full stomach. And potential is just that … unless it is harnessed and set into motion in the right direction. I have had so many people tell me … that Port Grand is a revival of sorts … a shot in the arm. I humbly differ. Yes, it is a big ‘tamasha’ spot … but that is not the only kind of development that Karachi needs.
    .
    There are many gothic and British buildings … including those left by the old Hindu / Jain inhabitants who left after 1947 that need to be preserved if the city wants to preserve its character. I have been to Mumbai and the twenty odd blocks in downtown Mumbai next to the Gateway of India … has the similar potential … and in some sense mirrors the character of Karachi. However, there is a concentrated effort there by city planners and groups like INTACH to educate people about the value of preserving their history and heritage.
    .
    A city like Karachi … the financial and industrial capital of Pakistan, no less; needs a world class transportation system. Now rather than go in and invest thousands of crores in an expensive solution like a metro system (which are incredibly expensive to maintain), Karachi can with very little cost implement a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT) like Curitiba, Brazil where existing roads and bus lanes are regimented and run on the lines of the metro system with punctual service.
    .
    A friend in the Pak Army told me and showed me a YouTube video about plans to develop a Shanghai like skyline on the waterfront for Karachi. But it seemed to me an expensive folly. Because the people were not invested in it. Only the Pakistani establishment was vested in it. It was in short, not an inclusive vision but a military-industrial enterprise. Such development often results in a very limited and shallow type of urban expression. Which means, the skyline might look like Shanghai … but without the dynamism of a creative class like the one in New York and London.
    .
    Recycling is another very simple low cost idea that in itself can change the look and feel of the streets of Karachi … as is street furniture. Again, these are not very expensive investments but do gain a lot of attention from the ordinary visitors to the city from near and abroad. Simple colourcoded boxes for disposal of paper, food, plastic, metals etc. and with a fine system in place (to aid in the cost of maintaining a clean city), itself would be a welcome change.
    .
    My cousins in Karachi don’t stop raving about the beach. But boy, was it dirty. If the beach is the one place people in the city can escape to … shouldn’t it be better preserved in all its natural beauty? It was a tad bid better than Mumbai’s Juhu, which is the other extreme. It has so many stalls, that it overwhelms the senses. However, the clustering of those stalls in limited zones, does allow the crowd’s activities to be contained. Karachi can do incredibly well, but for that it is the college students and the intelligentsia that need to come together in a forum to force policy changes and with a no-compromise agenda. All else … is just potential. Recommend