I now find myself in Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan. Situated in the south of the country, facing the Arabian Sea, it has a population of over 13 million. Not only is it the largest but it’s also the fastest growing city and accounts for a fifth of Pakistan’s GDP. It is considered the economic and commercial hub of the country. I’m writing this from my hotel room on the 8th floor of the Sheraton Hotel looking down on the city as dusk begins to take hold and the hooting and police sirens become more clamourous. It feels like I’ve spent the past day and a half wrapped in cotton wool as, although I’ve managed to get out and collect all the data I’m here for, I’ve not suffered the intense heat outside nor had a chance to get out and about on my own two feet. The truth be told, I feel I haven’t really managed to get a sense of the real Karachi at all and all of its gritty daily goings on. And with 13 million people there is a lot of goings on, unfortunately not all of them trouble-free.
This lack of trouble-freeness (!) is the reason I have been driven around the city in a hired car rather than my usual preferred mode of transport – my legs. Karachi has had its fair share of violence and upheaval in recent years and many parts of the city are considered strictly no-go areas for expatriates and foreigners. The areas I have mainly been in are the relatively safe suburbs of Clifton and D.H.A. (Defence Housing Authority) towards the south of the city and the numbers of police and security present everywhere is evidence enough of the potential for danger. To be honest I haven’t seen or sensed anything threatening whilst driving around and popping in and out of the supermarkets and shopping malls, and daily life seems to be operating just fine. However, according to various reports the situation is rather different elsewhere. In the weeks leading up to my visit here I was checking the many security bulletins I receive and every day there seemed to be trouble and violence of one sort or another in neighbourhoods throughout the city. Whether the unrest is politically, economically or socially motivated I don’t know but I certainly arrived with a heightened sense of awareness and even the headlines of the various English language newspapers here were reporting on recent flare ups – one of which, in the suburb of Lyari, saw over 35 people killed only a few kilometres from my hotel.
One of the online forums I was perusing before I arrived had an expat from the USA saying that they were not allowed out of their housing compound without an armoured vehicle and guard – even to go shopping, and that travel outside of the city was forbidden. Indeed, these kinds of restrictions are reflected in ECA’s location ratings survey where out of 264 selected global cities Karachi came 262 ahead of only Baghdad and Kabul. Security is a major issue here and the police seem to be leaving no stone unturned. Even the McDonalds I ate in earlier today had its very own police car, security gate and explosives scanner for the vehicles entering the drive-thru. The trio of 5-star hotels (one of which is the Sheraton) located in the Civil Lines area have clearly been bolstered too, with the Pearl Continental even taking to planting huge ship containers along parts of its perimeter.
On a lighter note, the aspects of life I have seen are pleasingly vibrant and remind me of my first impressions of India several years ago. The local buses are a riot of colour with their garishly over-the-top embellishments and the people on the street have been all smiles when our paths have crossed – even the donkeys seemed to be grinning. There’s also something rather enchanting about being woken early in the morning by the muezzin, the call to prayer which emanates from the myriad of mosques, and makes you feel like you’re far from home.
Even with its on-going troubles Karachi is still finding the space and will to better itself and there are many areas around Clifton which are clearly looking to the future. One of these is the new Dolmen Mall (I can’t write a blog without at least mentioning one mall, can I!) which is anchored by Pakistan’s first hypermarket, Hyperstar, similar to the French chain Carrefour. Although still partly under construction and with dozens of “Coming Soon in 2012” posters from international chains such as Mango and Debenhams (making their first forays into the Pakistan market), I’d like to think that the mall is the first of many new encouraging signs for a country going through a tumultuous time at the moment.