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Mar 21, 2009

Patrick Hazard’s Karachi Diary: Day 1

by Patrick Hazard


There was an earthquake here today. The epicentre was just off the coast, under the Arabian Sea. Apparently, there was panic in certain parts of the city.

‘Here’, is Karachi, Pakistan. Peter Fraser and myself have returned to conclude Stage 1 of a documentary film project begun last year with the support of the British High Commission, Pakistan.

It had been a rushing, weaving, lane-changing drive in from the airport through a cityscape punctuated by unfinished buildings and empty spaces where no work continues – where the money has run out. Two kids play cricket on the exposed flat roof of a skeletal tower block. The air is dotted with sea eagles. I still find the silent wheeling of these large dark birds ugly and ominous.

A raised barrier halts us a little distance from the hotel. Two armed security guards inspect under the bonnet, in the boot, and under the chassis. They wave us through. We are welcomed in the foyer with iced cinnamon tea.

From the 14th floor the view over Karachi is expansive. Pale grey, ochre and dusty greens as far as the port and the mangrove swamps. A mega-city of 16 -18 million people, birthplace of Jinnah (founder of the nation) sometimes known as the ‘City of Lights’, gently roaring behind the tightly sealed glass.

The General Manager, a Scot, shows me around the room then stands at the tall balcony window and points to a restaurant on the corner of the busy junction in front of the hotel.

‘Do you know that film with Angelina Jolie?’ He asks.

‘The one about the journalist, Daniel Pearl?’ He continues ‘The guy that got kidnapped. The American guy that got murdered?’

I nod. I know the story, not the film.

‘That’s the restaurant where they snatched him …’

I look down at the innocuous outdoor BBQ, the tables and potted trees enclosed behind a tall fence. In large letters above the doorway is written: ‘The Village’

‘I don’t suggest you go out there to eat’ he says, matter-of-factly.

With some hours to kill I sit on the bed, propped on copious pillows, and flick through the TV channels. It is the usual, relentless news programming.

The main story of the day is the restoration, after two years of protest, of Chief Justice Chaudhry and the subsequent diffusing of the tension between President Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. There is relief that the long march has come to an end without the full-scale intervention of the army. There is concern in some quarters that for the resolution to be achieved it has taken the indirect/direct intervention of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton via telephone calls to the two protagonists over the previous weekend; consternation in yet other quarters that the US position towards Sharif seems to be softening.

The project the LIDF is running here is about film-making and social change. Perhaps that should be followed by a question mark? Not so much a statement, or a project, but an interrogation. If so, it is one that we have begun to answer in affirmative ways. The first workshops held in early January 2009 emphasised the power of the word ‘change’. It’s a good word whose meaning and scope varies from place to place.

For instance, the state of permanent flux that Pakistan finds itself in determines that the word democracy doesn’t mean the same thing here as it does is the UK. For which reason it is vaguely nauseating to see David Miiliband on TV pontificating – it is the right word – about Pakistan’s ‘need’ for democracy. The students here have questioned outright the application of the concept to their country. More so when that democracy seems compromised by US foreign policy supported by Britain. The increased use of drones into Pakistan sovereign territory, the insistence on Pakistan releasing troops from the border with India in favour of activities in the tribal areas, the anti-insurgency activities on Pakistani soil are all undertaken without recourse to, or with, the support of the Pakistani electorate.

The students here have questioned outright the application of the concept to their country. Not in resignation or in a spirit of naïve anarchy, but because some of them believe the socio-politico history suggests different structural possibilities and constraints. Or that the transition to democracy will occur in phases, with other structural changes, less dramatic but necessary, to take place – land reforms, education, and that even then the exact form democracy may take can’t be predicted.  Perhaps they have lived too long with political contingencies to believe in political verities. I can’t comment, but I understand their point. They are free from a certain sort of dogma, and that is refreshing.

So, we are here to see what role film can play in social change, and when a question is appended to the sentence, the questions just keep coming. Tomorrow, no doubt, we will talk with the group about all of this again.

I know they will have something to say, and that any weariness they feel towards their political situation, any immediate condemnation will be quickly replaced by determination, and the insistence on the possible – on change. But, how will these films help them achieve that?

The majority of the students have never voted, though eligible: What is the point? They say. But this resignation does not strike me as quite the same as the lacklustre abstention found in England. It is not that they are non-political. Rather, there is an ambivalence: a rejection mixed with the understanding that comes after years of failure that despite everything the solutions must in the end be political. Only successful nations can abandon politics. For these students it must simply be a different politics. A politics tempered by, and infused with, the sort of stories they say they want to tell in these films.

I make some tea and then the phone starts to ring and ring, and texts arrive in a flood as if a communications sluice gate has been suddenly opened. London on-line.

Then the phone goes dead, and two brief power failures occur in quick succession. Eventually, I go on-line and pick up the unread mail of the last 16 hours. I scroll the pages for what is urgent or curious, for a welcome name that might leap out. I notice a message from Asha, one of the students here in Karachi. I click to find that they have written a poem that they wish to include in the film they are making. What do I think, she asks?

Look into my Eyes


Asha Panjwani



Look into my eyes
and tell me what you see

My life makes no sense to you.

I am too young but tired to catch up my desires,

my needs have begun to show on my face,

my own burden for me is too heavy to take
but the story of my survival shall not go to waste.

I am Pakistan.

Ask me how I feels to wake up everyday,
wonder what the day will bring on my way,
a new day, with endless need,
more and more mouths to feed….
does no one hear me weep?

Ones look into my eyes and try to see,
you and me equal under the skies,

So precious friend,

Hold my hands, and help me to rise…

I would like to win a breathe of a complete life.

To read Day 2, click here.

To read Day 3, click here.

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