Letter from Karachi: In a too-familiar crisis, signs of life and love

Why We Wrote This

In a crisis like COVID-19, where do you turn for help, let alone hope? Amid the pandemic, Pakistani neighbors “watch out for each other the best way we know how,” this writer reflects. And sometimes, no words are needed.

Akhtar Soomro/Reuters
A woman wears a protective face mask as she walks along a road, as the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Karachi, Pakistan on July 7, 2020.

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This summer, as Pakistan’s battle with COVID-19 continued, writer Zehra Abid found herself turning again and again to a poem.

It was the poem she’d listened to in 2014, after a Taliban attack killed almost 140 children. It was the poem that articulated her feelings after a church bombing, and a suicide attack on lawyers. Now, she listens as she drives through Karachi, wondering how the pandemic has affected each household.

The crisis has been one more reminder, she writes, of how insignificant lives can seem in a country where thousands have died in conflict since 9/11. A country where it’s easy to feel the government is more invested in glorifying deaths than preventing them.

But the pandemic is a reminder of something else, too: how people have indeed learned to survive – together. Sometimes it’s by dropping off food, a biryani or daal that bespeaks love more than words can. Sometimes it’s purchasing a fisherman’s catch of the day, whether or not the fridge is full.

“The only way I know how to protect him is to buy fish I don’t want; the only way he knows how to protect me is to give me a present of raw honey,” she writes. “We both watch out for each other in the best way we know how.”

When my city, Karachi, quiets down at night, I often go for a drive by myself, driving slowly, savoring every moment of the few minutes I have in the world outside home.

On my stereo, the same verses from South Asian poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz play each day. The poem, “Intesab,” begins with a dedication: 

to this day
and
to its sorrows
to the day’s sorrows, cross with life’s overflowing garden
this thicket of yellowing leaves
this thicket of dying leaves, that is my land
this assembly of anguish, that is my land

(as translated by Mustansir Dalvi)

I listened to this poem for days in 2014, after the attack on the Army Public School (APS) in the city of Peshawar, where almost 140 children were killed by the Taliban. It understood the grief I had no power to articulate when nearly 100 people were killed in church one Sunday; or when 70 lawyers were killed in a suicide attack, wiping out a generation of Balochistan province’s sharpest legal minds. It is the poem I now listen to when I drive through the streets of my city, wondering how many people in how many houses are mourning; how many people today will be in need of a hospital bed, of an ambulance, of a ventilator.

Akhtar Soomro/Reuters/File
A girl holds candle for the victims of the attack by Taliban gunmen on the Army Public School in Peshawar, the country's worst massacre in years, during a prayer service at Gurdwara Guru Nanak Shah in Karachi on December 19, 2014.

For weeks, Pakistan broke its own record of new coronavirus cases and deaths every other day. Now they are finally falling – but so is testing, creating an impression that the country has emerged victorious. Some restrictions remain, but worshippers congregate in mosques, markets are open, and the government has encouraged tourism. The government says cases stand at 274,000, with more than 5,800 lives lost – though these counts are little trusted.

As Pakistan climbed to join the most affected countries in the world, it felt as if the possibility of prevention had not even occurred to the government. Declining to extend the lockdown, Prime Minister Imran Khan told the people of Pakistan that there are two options: to be exposed to the virus or die hungry.

As I write this essay, I feel it could have been written 10 years ago, in different ways, on different pages of my journal. The same questions always emerge: of how we learn to live in a country that appears always willing to claim our tragedies, but not prevent them.

This pandemic is another reminder of our collective insignificance, in a land where thousands have died in conflict since 9/11. Their names are on no walls or monuments; the number of total casualties remains uncertain. In the post-2001 Pakistan, the extraordinariness attached to moments of tragedy is long gone.

Yet anyone can be branded a shaheed, a martyr, with no choice in the matter: air crash victims, health care workers, children. Victims of terrorism are barely mourned before they are officially exalted in the nationalist narrative. In April, when the government announced that doctors too would be given the title of shaheed, it was obvious there would be no place for acknowledging their deaths as a loss, but only as an honor for the nation. Soon after, the military produced a video urging people to live with the virus; reminding us to be “brave,” that “life comes and goes.”

But this pandemic is a reminder of something else, as well: how, unprotected, we have indeed learned to survive – together. My city of over 16 million runs on ambulance services that are entirely dependent on charity. Countless citizen-led initiatives collect donations for low-income workers to allow them to stay home, while some people cook food for patients, their families, and front-line workers as an act of service.

On Facebook groups, home cooks post photos of what they’ve cooked that day, asking anyone in need to message them. Food is the language of love here; it’s the best way we can express that which we do not say. I have never told anyone I love them in my own language, Urdu, and I have never been told that myself. It is, instead, communicated through biryani, through yakhni soup or daal that a loved one has taken the time and care to cook, that love felt all the more profusely when one is frail and unwell.

Caretaking works in myriad ways. A fisherman often visits my house with his occasional catch of the day. On his last visit, he insisted that I have the honey his wife had sent me from their village. The only way I know how to protect him is to buy fish I don’t want; the only way he knows how to protect me is to give me a present of raw honey. We both watch out for each other in the best way we know how.

Akhtar Soomro/Reuters
Shopkeepers wear protective masks as they sit outside their closed shops, after Pakistani authorities re-imposed lockdowns in selected areas in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Karachi, Pakistan, July 1, 2020.

Karachi, a city best known for violence and chaos, is perhaps for the very first time knowing how it feels to be loved and wanted. During summer holidays, Europe’s quaint streets usually occupy our Instagram feeds, but today Karachi is finding its due place. Images of our Arabian Sea and the city’s bougainvillea and jasmine flowers are shared with that sense of awe and wonderment that comes when an object of love is seen for the very first time.

Without a lockdown, there is no expectation here of reaching a peak or flattening a curve. I am not sure how many of us will not survive this, and in how many ways our lives will forever change. I do know that the state will tell us it could have been worse, representing tragedies as moments of triumph. But what I also know is that we will continue to find togetherness in the sharing of food and honey, and find comfort in the sights and smells of jasmine flowers, holding on dearly to signs of life that are promised in every flower that blooms. 

Zehra Abid is an independent journalist who has lived in Karachi for most of her three decades. She tweets at @ZehraAbid_.

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