The recent violence in Karachi and the rest of the country reminds me of an alarming day in November 2007.
The General had declared a state of emergency in the country. There could have been a coup to oust him; a counter coup could have followed to restore him. People feared more bomb blasts, even a nuclear holocaust. I and my husband were cutting short our trip and driving down Drigh Road to the airport to leave for New York.
Memories of Drigh Road came rushing to me, competing with its traffic chaos. General Ayub Khan, Chou En Lai, Jawaharlal Nehru and Jacqueline Kennedy appeared in a flash as I passed by Gora Qabiristan. Somewhere close to it, waiting with the school children to welcome foreign dignitaries, I too had waved at them. Soon we reached the Embassy Inn. There used to be a driving school where its building stands now. As a teenager I had secretly enrolled myself for driving lessons. During those days my greatest fear was running into the car of my eldest brother against whose wishes I was learning to drive. How the dangers have multiplied.
On the morning of May 12, 2007 after a few hours of sleep, Nicholas Schmidle, a young American writer, had walked onto the roof of the Embassy Inn to have a look down over the city. Two years later he described in his book what he saw of Drigh Road, “The main road connecting the downtown area to the airport was empty… Gas stations had switched off the pumps and closed so that rioters couldn’t burn them down. Convenience stores, office buildings, and even the lobby of the Embassy Inn had draped thick curtains over the windows to prevent bricks from crashing through.” What Schmidle saw was just the beginning of trouble.
May 12 was a day of public and political unrest. A few months earlier, in March 2007, the government of General Pervez Musharraf had suspended the Chief Justice, Chaudhary Iftikhar. This had caused great resentment in the public and a countrywide Lawyer’s Movement was launched to restore the Chief Justice. The movement was gaining momentum and thousands were expected to welcome the Justice as he was scheduled to visit the city. Musharraf and his partners feared this massive crowd and hence the resistance which resulted in many deaths of the citizens. By November, things were out of control and Musharraf was left with no choice but to impose the Emergency to suppress the protests.
Thus it was ironic in those hostile moments to spot, out of all the places, the Friendship House. Located across from the Embassy Inn, during its heyday in the Cold War years, it was the House where friends of the Soviet Union were welcomed. It was also a great source of books on Russian writing, especially the Marxist-Leninist literature. Russian movies shown in its lawn were a great attraction for the intellectual class of Karachi. I remember the advertisement for a film called ‘Cranes are Flying’.
One evening I saw Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the well-known poet and his wife Alice standing at the gate of the Friendship House and receiving guests. Faiz was a recipient of the Lenin Peace Prize and I suppose an honorable member of the House. In a minute’s drive, we passed by the intersection of Shahrah-e-Quaideen and I looked for the P.E.C.H.S College from where I had graduated, it was no more visible. Once again Faiz appeared in my memory, walking in the corridors of the College. He was a regular visitor there, as Alice was an English teacher at the College. Across from the College was Khayyam Cinema that, on occasion, held students’ shows. It was at Khayyam where I saw Sophia Loren and William Holden in ‘The Key.’ I was too young to enjoy the movie but old enough to fall in love with Sophia Loren. Khayyam is no more there; the new building with the same name is now huddled with shops and offices, the roads around it crowded with trucks, taxis, and rickshaws.
At one point beyond the airport, Drigh Road converts to the highway that leads to Hyderabad and Mirpur Khas and my village, some 250 miles away from Karachi. Ah, those long journeys in the good old days when going to the village during each summer and winter vacation was a joyous occasion. Today, even reaching the airport was a punishing journey. I was tense, and so was the city. The car slowed down as we passed by Karsaz. “This is the site of the bomb blasts,” our driver informed us. It was only a month ago – a 139 people were killed and many more were injured. Benazir was one of the survivors.
At a little distance from Karsaz is the Pakistan Air Force base, or PAF as it is commonly referred to. In its previous life, it was the RAF, or the Royal Air Force of British India. In 1927 when T.E. Lawrence worked in its Engine Repair Shop he found the environs dreary. “It is a desert, very like Arabia,” he complained in a letter. He was constantly reminded of what he was trying to erase from his memory. And yet this is where Lawrence the archaeologist, more known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ from David Lean’s epic film, had come to change his career. He had chosen to be an ordinary airman, a quieter career, to help run away from his fame. In the evenings he would go out to listen to the music of camel bells along Drigh Road, but that would bring back even more memories.
Automobiles have replaced the camels since long. The road itself has gone through many changes including its name. It is now called Shahrah-e-Faisal, and the PAF base is PAF Faisal – both named after Shah Faisal of Saudi Arabia. I am still used to calling it Drigh Road, its original name and I am not the only one. Its traffic through the years has increased; its chaos has killed many people, and the dangers are multiplying. I dreaded a traffic jam, a sudden blockade of the road, the stoning and burning of the cars by angry protestors. What if we missed the flight, or worse yet, if the airport was closed and the flights cancelled. Our son and daughter made a frantic call from New York to check if we had made it to the airport. “We are almost there,” I lied.
Miraculously we did reach the airport and in another two hours, from the window of the airplane, I was gazing down at Pakistan’s troubled land. The view below was changing fast. The buildings were shrinking and the roads narrowed. On one side of the city huge clouds of black smoke floated.
But I had already drifted from the enflamed city. Writing notes for my article on Moen jo Daro, had taken me to the serene pastures of the past, when the land below bloomed with good harvest. The River running through the land had given birth to the largest civilization of the ancient world. It was also the most peaceful of civilizations, having lasted for seven centuries without a single war. The ruins of the 5000 year old metropolis have not revealed any military barracks, any prisons, or any weapons.
The story of Pakistan begins with the birth of that civilization. But where will this narrative end? I still hope for the Karachi that Sir Charles Napier had hoped for on his departure from Karachi: “Thou shalt be the Glory of the East, would that happen I could come again to see you, Kurrachee, in your grandeur.”