From Karachi, With Love | Part I

— New Beginnings

(Part I: December 2019 – February 2020) 

Sometime towards the end of summer 2019, I entertained the idea of moving to Pakistan for 6 months. Little did I think that an unlikely plan would translate into reality. So in November 2019, I quit my full-time job at DFS Group in Hong Kong, packed up my apartment and left. I spent the month traveling with my family – first to visit our relatives and family friends across Toronto, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles; then to London, Tenerife and Muscat with my elder sister and her kids. Overall, a tiring but exciting month filled with new adventures and experiences.

Before the end of the month, my previous employer accepted my offer on continuing as a freelancer, and I had already reached out to a social entrepreneur who ran an environmental services company in Karachi for a job opportunity. So I returned to Pakistan in December and had a weekend to recuperate from a month of traveling before I started freelancing and working part-time at GarbageCAN! Sustainable Waste Management. Though the latter was just a 3-month long experience, it was very rewarding – I had the opportunity to attend events, network with like-minded people and understand the sustainability landscape while exploring parts of the city that I’d never visited before.

TCF-Clean-Up
A clean-up activity led by GarbageCAN in partnership with ENGRO Corp and The Citizens Foundation.

I had the honour of attending a meeting at the High Court of Sindh with a group of lawyers, environmentalists & social activists for an extensive discussion on Pakistan’s climate emergency. Built in 1929 entirely out of pink-hued sandstone, the building is a combination of local and Roman styles.

High Court of Sindh
High Court of Sindh, Karachi

I also started taking driving lessons and it was something I looked forward to every week. There was something so satisfying about driving through Clifton; passing by hawkers, houses in all shapes and forms, nurseries and breezy streets.

Pottery-Craftsman
A ceramicist.

When I wasn’t working, driving or occupied with family commitments, I took the liberty of being a tourist and visiting popular mosques and parks as well. Some culturally significant places like the Abdullah Shah Ghazi Mazaar, a shrine for an eighth-century Muslim mystic and Sufi, really took my breath away. Legend has it that he was able to control sea waters, and those that have faith in the saint believe that it is due to his blessings upon the city that Karachi has never been and will never be hit by a cyclone. The area also gives shelter to victims of poverty, abuse and injustice, which is why free meals are distributed in the courtyard twice a day.

Before entering the shrine, I bought a bag of fresh rose petals to sprinkle on the tomb of Abdullah Shah Ghazi. In Islam, roses are considered as the flowers of Heaven, a symbol of spirituality and divine beauty, so they are often used at weddings, funerals, and sold at religious sites.

Shah-Ghazi-4
A man selling rose petals at Abdullah Shah Ghazi, Karachi
Shah-Ghazi-7
Upper entrance to Abdullah Shah Ghazi Mazaar, Karachi

The interiors of the marble shrine were enthralling; surfaces were decorated with exquisite Sindhi tilework in turquoise and mustard-gold.

Shah-Ghazi-11

TDF Ghar, a 1930’s house, is another spot located in the heart of the city with a spectacular view of the Mazar-e-Quaid (monumental shrine of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan). It was restored by The Dawood Foundation to serve as a community space while retaining historical features of the home, like its original hand-crafted tiles. It serves as one of the only decent hangout spots in the neighbourhood where people can come and re-live the true spirit of pre-modern Karachi over light refreshments.

The Frere Hall is a building that dates back to the early British colonial-era in Sindh. It was completed in 1865 and initially served as Karachi’s town hall, but is now a library and exhibition space, surrounded by a large park.

Frere Hall
Frere Hall, Karachi
Chai Truck
A chai truck with Pakistani truck-art elements.

A few other things I had the privilege of indulging myself in included late-night Kashmiri chais (pink tea); shopping trips to Khaadi, my favourite apparel and lifestyle store; and quality time with the extended family during a weekend trip to Hyderabad.

Khaadi-Store
Vibrant colors at Khaadi, a Pakistani apparel & lifestyle store.

During our visit to Hyderabad, we paid our respects at Qadam Gah Maula Ali, which is a site that enshrines the footprints of Imam Ali (a spiritual leader of Islam). These footprints were brought from Iran to Hyderabad during the reign of Mir Fateh Ali Khan Talpur. Afterwards, we went shopping at the Reesham Gali bazaar to buy the famous Hyderabadi chudiyaan (bangles).

Hyderabad Qadam Gah
Qadam Gah, Hyderabad

The next day, a 30-minute drive past Hyderabad brought us to Bhit Shah, a small town located in the Mitiari district of Sindh. It is best known as the home of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai‘s shrine, a Sindhi Sufi mystic and poet. The 18th-century structure includes the saint’s tomb, a mosque and a large courtyard; all of which are elaborately decorated in blue & white floral tilework and Arabic calligraphy. The most enchanting part of it all was when musicians started serenading all the devotees outside the tomb with their sitars (traditional musical instrument in the Indian subcontinent).

Hyderabad Mazaar
Shah Abdul Latif Mazaar, Bhit Shah, Sindh

Moving here temporarily was, without a doubt, one of the best decisions i’ve ever made, and to say that my first three months here were highly fulfilling would be an understatement. Everyday, I think about everything I would’ve missed out on if I hadn’t done so, because the memories made here are irreplaceable.

Look out for Part II, where I’ll be sharing what life in Karachi looks like during a nationwide lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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