Letter from Karachi

by Zehra Nabi

I was supposed to write this a long time ago. In the summer of 2015, I’ll admit. A letter from Karachi. Nothing too demanding for a Karachiite to write, you’d think. That’s what I’d thought, too, back then. Except, in June last year when I stepped out of Jinnah International Airport I didn’t realize that I was entering a summer of malaise—malaise that was physical and psychological and even sociological.

I spent six weeks in Karachi that summer. The first month was spent almost entirely in bed. It was Ramazan, when the entire country observes a period of fasting. I would wake up with my family before sunrise to have a breakfast comprising parathas and fried eggs. While the rest of my family would go to work in a few hours, I’d go to bed and then wake up right before sunset for Iftar, which featured samosas (deep-fried), jalebis (deep-fried), pakoras (deep-fried), kachoris (deep- fried), and occasionally chaat (in which, mercifully enough, only a few of the ingredients are deep-fried). Then I’d stay awake all night, lying in bed watching YouTube videos, which miraculously streamed on my laptop despite the nationwide ban on the website, or slowly making my way through The Tin Drum—an insane novel to read in an insane summer. Restraint and indulgence; night and day; work and play; the binaries didn’t quite align. Restraint turned out to be a guise for indulgence. Night and day encroached on each other. And work and play both were annihilated as I fell into a soporific state of being.

On top of that, it was hot in Karachi. Indescribably hot. When I’m reading fiction and come across a description of heat, I study it carefully because when it comes to my own attempts at writing, I am often, if not always, confounded by my inability to render Karachi’s hot weather in words. Therefore, years ago, when I read A Passage to India, I underlined the following with a red felt pen:

The heat accelerated its advance after Mrs. Moore’s departure, until existence had to be endured and crime punished with the thermometer at a hundred and twelve. Electric fans hummed and spat, water splashed onto screens, ice clinked, and outside these defences, between a grayish sky and a yellowish earth, clouds of dust moved hesitatingly. In Europe life retreats out of the cold, and exquisite fireside myths have resulted—Balder, Persephone—but here the retreat is from the source of life, the treacherous sun, and no poetry adorns it, because disillusionment cannot be beautiful.

In Karachi, too, the heat accelerated its advance until existence had to be endured. Except, unlike the British of the Raj-era who fled to Simla and elsewhere, we Karachiites had no place to retreat. In the summer of 2015, the sun blazed (what a cliché), and the air became heavy with humidity (not only a cliché but also scientifically incor- rect). I like to think that even Forster would have struggled to describe that summer, when a historic heat wave swept across several cities in my province, when temperatures rose as high as 120° F, and when nearly 2,000 people died from heatstroke and dehydration. On the rare chance I would be awake during the day back then, I would open my laptop, open a notebook, open anything that would set me on the path towards productivity, but the heat would push down on me until I was lying half-awake, half-asleep, in my bed with the air conditioner hacking at the heat but in vain. “I’d go out to do some research for the letter from Karachi if it weren’t so hot,” I would tell myself. “I’d look up articles and draft an outline if I weren’t so low on energy from fasting.” Through my bedroom window, I could see a house being constructed right next to ours, and the laborers carried bricks and bags of cement on their bare backs in the midday sun. I would get up and draw the curtains. “It’s for my own privacy,” I would tell myself as I settled back into bed.

The heat and the religious duty to fast were out of my hands. But back in Baltimore, in the cool of a centrally air-conditioned office, I had promised my editor I’d write the letter from Karachi. I had mentioned Sabeen Mahmud’s death to him, and how everybody—The Guardian, The New York Times, The New Yorker—were writing about her. I had worked as a journalist for three years before coming to Johns Hopkins, and I had imagined that once in Karachi I’d do some research, conduct a few interviews, and write a sensible piece describing how culture is shaped by violence, or something else along those lines that sounded superficially smart at least to my ears, if not to those of others.

In Karachi, I didn’t even need to leave home to come face to face with her death. When I occasionally watched television with my parents in the living room, her name frequently came up on talk shows. People I followed on Twitter shared op-eds and news updates regarding her murder. People kept posting pictures of her on Facebook, accompanied by notes describing how deeply they felt her absence. Sabeen—her boyish hair flecked with grey, the lens of her rectangular glasses catching the light of the flash—was everywhere.

A former colleague from Newsline magazine posted a photograph on Facebook of a qawwali performance held to commemorate her at The Second Floor. Popularly known as T2F, Mahmud founded and ran this humble café where a diverse range of events were held including dramatic readings of works by renowned Urdu writers such as Manto and Ismat Chughtai, tabla classes, live music shows featuring everyone from percussive guitarists to traditional qawals, discussions on Shakespeare, and various seminars. This variety was on full display in April 2015. In the last week of that month, following a panel talk on the “disappearance” of Baloch political activists, Sabeen got into her car with her mother and was on her way home when she was fatally shot by a gunman on a motorbike.

Her death was shocking, but not shocking in the sense of resulting in a state of surprise. This is, after all, the same country where a governor was assassinated by his own armed guard for opposing Pakistan’s highly controversial laws on blasphemy; where a Taliban gunman shot a fifteen-year-old girl in the face because she spoke on behalf of the right of young girls to attend school; where a social activist dedicated to solving housing and sanitation problems in the poorest parts of the city was killed for her open criticism of Karachi’s land mafia; and where a former premier was assassinated in the middle of a political rally for reasons as complicated and inexplicable as Pakistan’s overall political landscape. So no, Sabeen’s death was not surprising. Instead, it was shocking in the sense the word is used in geology. Like a tremor, her death was a jolt to the many people in Karachi and elsewhere who knew of her. The violence of her death was felt, as opposed to observed.


T2F wasn’t some exclusive cafe where you had to know someone who knew someone to feel you could be part of its culture. Sure it was located in the relatively elite Defence neighborhood, but the tea and snacks on the menu were cheap; there was seldom a cover for events, and it drew the free-spirited more than the rich “burgers” (a local pejorative referring to westernized Pakistanis who prefer the meaty burger over the desi bun kebab).

So, no, Sabeen’s death wasn’t quite surprising, but there is the unignorable contradiction that she didn’t quite fit the bill of victims of similar attacks either: Sabeen was an activist, but she wasn’t attacking a blasphemy law in the manner of Salmaan Taseer or facing off against the Taliban like Malala, who fortunately survived her attack but lives in self-exile in England with her family for safety reasons. In her Twitter bio, Sabeen described herself as a “Post Modern Flower Child,” “Tetris Addict,” and “West Wing and House MD Fanatic.” She participated in an anti-censorship campaign video which had a man sporting a YouTube logo over his head going around Karachi giving people hugs (one young man in particular looks into the camera and pleads “Oh Allah, please let YouTube come back. We have videos we need to watch”) while Michael Jackson’s “I Want You Back” blares in the background. And when religious groups demanded a ban on Valentine’s Day in Pakistan, she started her own campaign and bandied about the slogan “Pyaar hone do” (let there be love). I interacted with her only once, over email, when I interviewed her in August 2013 for Newsline. We were interviewing a group of young Pakistanis for an independence day special, asking them what change they would like to see in Pakistan. Sabeen’s answer had struck the cynic in me as some sort of hippie pipe dream. She had proposed a school system in which students could focus on subjects of their own choosing and not be burdened by grades. But I shrugged it off. The whole idea of young Pakistanis proposing dreams that would never be implemented in an English-language, liberal-leaning magazine that would barely be read was something of a hippie pipe dream in and of itself.

But when Sabeen was killed, the reason for her death seemed clear enough. At least at that time it had. The talk about missing Baloch activists was one of the more controversial events T2F had hosted. “Missing” and “disappeared” are euphemisms for the alleged abduction of ethnic nationalists. The reason the euphemism is used is because the alleged abductors are, naturally, the country’s very own security and law agencies. It’s a dangerous topic to broach, and even though the T2F is a small café, even though the event couldn’t have hosted more than forty people, even though it lacked any threat to the establishment, it was still something one could be killed over.

Considering who the perpetrators were in the public’s imagination, nobody thought the case would be investigated, or that the culprit would be caught. But, miraculously, by the time I reached Karachi in June 2015, Sabeen’s murderer, the gunman on the motorcycle who shot her at least four times and her mother at least twice, was caught. Now, that was surprising.


At three or four in the morning in Karachi, lying in bed, trying to figure out what to write, how to write, I read article after article on Sabeen’s murderer. In a country where a former prime minister’s assassins have been at large for more than eight years, where the armed guard who murdered a governor was showered with rose petals after being caught, how was this case resolved so easily? The murderer was a young man named Saad Aziz. He was a graduate of the Institute of Business Administration, a prestigious business school in the country. Prior to that, he studied at Lyceum and Beaconhouse—schools my own cousins and friends have attended. Local newspapers interviewed his friends from college, who described Aziz as a former burger who used to go out on dates and smoke hookah but later became involved in a campus-based religious organization, stopped talking to girls, and grew a beard. He began working for a religious publication during college, but there was nothing to suggest he was capable of violence, of murder. After graduation, he got married and had two children. He ran a small Mexican-themed restaurant called The Cactus. And in May 2015, he confessed to murdering Sabeen. And his reason had nothing to do with the talk on missing Baloch activists. It was her pro-Valentine’s Day campaign that provoked him.

There are photos of Aziz and the motorcycle driver, Aliur Rehman, sitting in the audience at T2F. Both sport beards, but the trim kind that, in Pakistan at least, wouldn’t necessarily be confused for symbols of religiosity. Aziz wears a black t-shirt, Rehman a white button-down. These men killed Sabeen. But looking at them, you’d think they’re the kind of men the Taliban would round up for not having fist-length beards, for wearing jeans, for running Mexican-themed restaurants, for being burgers. The binaries didn’t align.


I didn’t write anything that summer. But before returning to Baltimore, I made a visit to T2F. They were hosting a used book sale. On the exterior wall of the building, someone had stencil painted Sabeen’s portrait on the white wall. There she was with her short hair, the glasses. Below the portrait there was a caption that read #unsilencePakistan. Inside, the book sale was a low-key affair. Books were piled high on the ground instead of being placed on a table, but then again T2F always had had a relaxed atmosphere. I bought a couple of dusty paperbacks: a Beryl Bainbridge novel and an anthology of British short stories. I went home. In a few days I got on the plane.

While I was in Baltimore, I noticed on Facebook that the events schedule at T2F started to fill again. But instead of Sabeen, it was a foundation launched by her mother that now organized the events. While I was in Baltimore, a key witness in Sabeen’s murder was shot dead.

In December, when I returned to Karachi for a few weeks, I didn’t even bother looking up anything regarding her murder or T2F. Things felt sullied. Thankfully there was no heat wave in December, and there was no fasting. I practiced strict control on my sleep schedule. I sought order.

My parents took me to see a play. It was an Urdu adaptation of Tom Wright’s Lorelei held not at T2F but at the Arts Council. My family arrived early, too early, and we waited in the dimly lit lobby. There was a canteen there. I bought a can of Coke. Behind the counter were three men and a boy. The boy could have been a stubby eleven-year-old or a tall, chubby eight-year-old. The men were teasing him for being overweight.

When the doors finally opened, I went with my family and sat inside. A few minutes after we were seated I saw the boy walk into the auditorium. It was chilly, at least for Karachi, and his stomach bulged through his maroon sweater vest that was zipped up all the way to his chin. He walked in alone, obviously ticketless, and made his way up and down the aisle. I kept staring at his stomach. It was protruding too much.

“I think he’s hidden snacks in his clothes,” I whispered to my sister.

She and I stared at him as he took his seat next to a young couple comprising a slim woman and an overweight man, someone the ushers could easily mistake for his father. Sure enough, as soon as he sat down, he reached inside his sweater and took out two bars of chocolate. He held one in each hand as we waited for the play to begin. Before the curtains rose there was this nonsense where the ushers polled the audience on whether or not people with developmental disabilities should be given death sentences. There were “yes” and “no” cards in our program that the ushers collected in a hat to ensure anonymity, but who in this crowd would say yes?

The play started, and it was brutally emotional. It begins with a woman grieving the murder of her son by a pedophile. There’s no word for pedophilia in Urdu, or if there is it wasn’t employed since it would have been too obscure for the audience. During the hour or so of its duration, veteran actor Sania Saeed describes how her son went missing, how his body was described, how she began taking drugs, and how she learned about the very tragic life of the murderer, sparing no detail to the audience. The canteen boy who snuck into the auditorium with candy bars stuffed inside his sweater vest picked the wrong play. After the play ended, after the standing ovation, I watched him walk back up the aisle. His vest was unzipped. He held an oversized pack of chips in his hand. Earlier when I had seen him at the canteen and then entering the auditorium he had a mischievous expression on his face. Now, he betrayed nothing.

Many months and many more terrorist attacks later, I still can’t shake off that incident. Even as it unfolded I knew I had to write about it somewhere, anywhere. Sure, I should tie this incident with the things I wrote about earlier: my summer of malaise, deadly heat waves, Sabeen’s death, the discovery of her murderer. I could force some con- nection, something sentimental and clichéd about how even in lawless Pakistan there are little joys such as watching a boy sneak into a theatre with snacks hidden on his person. But what joy did the poor boy get out of that sad, sad play in which the audience was assaulted with one tragedy after another? Sometimes the binaries just don’t align.