An American in Karachi

Courtesy of Komal Broker

Courtesy of Komal Broker
Karachi is one of the most populated cities in the world and the largest city in Pakistan.

One of my most vivid memories of my trip to Karachi, Pakistan last summer, my first visit in 14 years, was simply getting out of the airport. With a whoosh of the airport’s sliding doors, my brother, grandmother and I were hit with a wave of hot, humid air, throngs of flies, cars constantly honking and a crowd of people that packed the whole entryway of the airport, talking and yelling. Looking back, this initial experience foreshadowed the rest of the trip: completely different from what I was used to, at times disorienting and aggravating, but always fascinating.
After getting out of the airport, I quickly got a taste of Karachi traffic, which was memorable for more than just packed roads. First, there was the sheer variety of things on the road. In addition to cars, people in Karachi get around on rickshaws, motorcycles-with whole families often sitting on the vehicle-ornate and colorful buses, donkeys or horse-led carts and on foot, sometimes darting between traffic.
Then there are the smaller idiosyncrasies. Even in cars, not wearing a seatbelt is a complete non-issue, especially if you sit in the back. Instead of using a turn signal, drivers honk to let the people around them know that they are moving. Beggars, stray cats and dogs roam away from the main traffic, but still close to the streets. This atmosphere, acting as the background to the variety of transportation, made for walks and car rides that were never boring.
Right from the beginning of the trip, the weather in Karachi was considerably different from that of Irvine. We had left Irvine when the weather was comfortably dry and warm and arrived in humid and much hotter Karachi. The weather remained this way for much of my visit, but cooled down towards the end when heavy storms arrived.
Compounding the heat and humidity were the commonly occurring power outages in Karachi. Out of my month-long stay, there were maybe three days at most when the power did not go out in the morning or afternoon. On some days, the power went out more than once.
Both inside and outside of my grandparents’ house, I almost always wore a shalwarkameez, which is a loose, long top over loose pants. This is the standard outfit for women in Karachi, so most women I saw wore them, sometimes covering their heads with a dupatta, which is a type of scarf. However, I also noticed many women wearing burqas as well as some wearing t-shirts and pants.
Shopping for clothes or the fabric used to make them, accessories and other things was also a new and interesting experience. In many stores, people have to haggle to get what they want, sometimes leading to stand-offs between sellers and buyers that alternated between amusing and annoying-at least from my outsider perspective. While I always saw women shopping, often with children or other women, the people running shops and selling items were always men.
Aside from shopping, my grandmother and I spent much of the time attending wedding-related events and milaads, in which women gather, read from the Qur’an and sing the Muslim equivalent of hymns about the Prophet Muhammad. Islam plays a large part in life in Karachi. In addition to milaads and other special events and a lack of casual interaction between genders, there are no obvious bars or clubs, and by car, you can pass a mosque every few minutes. Said mosques are often large and colorful, with characteristic minarets. From these minarets, which are lofty towers attached to the base of the mosque, Muslim men known as muezzins recite the azan five times a day to call people to pray. While I was there, for a short time every Friday morning, there would be visibly less traffic, as men went to mosques and did a recommended extra prayer.
Conversely, I saw signs of globalization everywhere during my visit. Fast-food restaurants, stores, signs, American and European name-brand products for sale, television programs and the many English-fluent adults and children I came across were just some indications of Westernization on everyday life in Pakistan and the hybridization of both old and new ways of life.
These brief descriptions do not come close to fully describing Karachi, but they are some of the unique accounts that stick out most in my mind. While I feel more at home in America, I’m glad to have had another opportunity to see the place where my family and many of our traditions come from, since I am old enough to appreciate the land now.