Rafia Zakaria

I was not in Kabul in 1996.  That was the last time the Taliban marched into a city, the last time the world was not watching, the last time one country in one forgotten corner of the world experienced dramatic change. If I had been in the lanes and alleys of that city before those days, perhaps the clamor would have offered clues, signs of what happens in the moments before, in spaces and silences, when bits and pieces of past lives still enduring realized that it—change—would not come.

Karachi ©Rafia Zakaria

I am in Karachi in 2014, and it is a city suspended between the expectation of change, vast and drastic and momentous, and the hope that the present will persevere, straggle, and stumble along in the way it has, like earlier auguries of the coming of the Taliban. This suspension is perhaps characteristic of cities in thrall. Before change is real, before it graduates from lurking to looming to being and breathing, there exists a division between those who believe in its inevitability and others who hope for its impossibility. That is where Karachi is poised.

The transformations of public spaces and the spheres of discourse and interaction that exist within them tell stories. In these stories, I believe, lie clues of things to come, logistics of rearrangements that are perhaps already in place. Unlike Habermas’s expansive thesis, my examination is limited to the transformation of Karachi’s public spaces by the vagaries of revisionist history, imperialist interventions, and aspirations to a post-colonial and religiously-wrought purity that the Tehreek-e-Taliban seek to impose. In looking closely at parks, buildings, hotels, shrines, marking the changes from past uses to current incarnations, I hope to reveal to readers the details of a city’s changing character and to consider whether the logistics of the emerging constrictions of public associations are in fact already in place.

Some of the places that I will examine in "Tales of Space and Surrender" are ones that have existed in various incarnations since before Pakistan was a country. The close study of these individual spaces, a micro analysis of their ambiguities and inclinations, also serves the purpose of introducing readers to a city that is not open to the traveler. In this sense, capturing Karachi and a handful of its public spaces as they exist in 2014 is one attempt to save for posterity the story of the city of now, its confusions and predilections. Perhaps there will be no march of the Taliban into the city; perhaps the Karachi of 2014 will not be Kabul in 1996; hopefully, there will be no ultimate surrender, no deliberate enforcement of an anti-enlightenment, a retrogression to an imagined pure past.

Frere Hall

The year was 1986. In the silent darkness of a nearly abandoned building, an artist labored over a gigantic mural. He was living there in the building, surrounded by paints, canvases and brushes. His days and nights merged together as he worked on what would be his last creation, a mural entitled “Heaven and Earth” for the ceiling of the building in which he worked. The artist was Sadequain, renowned even then as having generated the renaissance of Islamic calligraphy, a self-taught, self-made artist, and reclusive man. With this mural, he hoped, he could also breathe life into the building where it would stay. 

Frere Hall outside ©Rafia Zakaria

The venue of Sadequain’s mural was Frere Hall. Named after Sir Bartle Frere, the building’s tall spires and arches are in the Gothic Italianate style. Its tallest spire, a rumored 144 feet in height, was, at its inauguration in 1860, the tallest structure in the city. Its color was a tawny golden yellow, the color of limestone mined in Karachi. Built during the British Raj, it had been the city’s town hall, its front lawns and back lawns dedicated to the British King and Queen.  In the style of bygone princely rulers and the then newfangled British ones, Sir Bartle Frere held his first “durbar” on the ground floor of Frere Hall. The street where it stood was very stately then, and the insides of Frere Hall were redolent with the busts of reigning royalty. Not far was the sandstone edifice of the Sindh Club, a bastion of British officers and their wives but closed to “natives.” To the locals, the building’s fanciful arches and sharp spire would have seemed alien and awe inspiring all at the same time, a specimen of other lands transported into their midst, an expression of the beauty of another kind. Without the curves and porticoes and carvings that festooned the mosques and mahals of their own Mughal past, the points and angles were indicative of new rulers.

When Sadequain turned his attentions to Frere Hall, it was already neglected and in disrepair. Pakistan had been created, and the confusions of an Islamic state left unanswered the question of how to fit this colonial vestige into an Islamized present. Just like the roads and the bridges, erased of their British names, Frere Hall and the gardens around it had been renamed Bagh-e-Jinnah, or the Garden of the Founder. New names, it was supposed, were the first step in erasing a past whose subjugation was a mockery, whose legacy weighed heavily on the present and rendered it impure. Few came to the park then, save groups of men, wandering migrant laborers from the interior of the country, seeking some respite under the still shady trees. There was no glory left, and the building itself remained shuttered up, dusty, its insides smelling of neglect and forgetfulness and, perhaps, revenge.

Roof of Frere Hall. ©Dr. Salman Ahmed. Sadequain Foundation USA

Detailed view. ©Dr. Salman Ahmed. Sadequain Foundation USA

Sadequain sought to change all of that, he had after all reinvented Islamic calligraphy, taught it to himself, and then presented it to the world interpreted anew. In his creations, the verses of the Holy Quran had been transformed into aesthetic entities, the curves of some Arabic letters recast as the sails of ships, the towering angles of others becoming trees. His art combined Islam and artistic vision, post-colonial identity, and recreation. In Pakistan, he had been feted; he was indigenous and relevant and in his work was the complex marriage of past and present, which seemed elusive in the politics of the country. As he painted in 1986, Sadequain sought to breathe his own ebbing life into the ruins of Frere Hall.

His efforts were successful, for a time. One winter evening, painting in the eaves of the abandoned Frere Hall, he fell ill. He was taken to the hospital but was never able to return or to complete the mural. After his passing, the Galerie Sadequain was inaugurated at Frere Hall, and for several years people did come to look at the many works that were stored within. At the same time, there were some other inhabitants in the vicinity that began to gain greater consequence. On the other side of streets from where Frere Hall stands, now stood the American Consulate; adjoining it soon would be the Marriott hotel, its multiple stories towering over Frere Hall. Guests to Karachi, foreign and local, could have a view of the odd Gothic building from the safety and comfort of their luxury hotel rooms. A library that had been established on the ground floor of the hall remained open, an invitation to readers who wanted a quiet place in a noisy city.

Then change came again. At first the American presence across the street, in a square, squat building with stolid rectangular windows, was benign. The fluttering American flag was not a sign of anything civilizational. Traffic, ever swelling as Karachi grew from a city of eight to ten to twelve million, coursed between the old durbar of Bartle Frere and the Consulate building of the Americans. The road was an important one now, for it fed directly onto Clifton Bridge, which connected the city’s inland areas to all the new developments built near the sea. 

©Dr. Salman Ahmed. Sadequain Foundation USA

©Dr. Salman Ahmed. Sadequain Foundation USA

It was a late morning in June when a suicide bomber in a white Suzuki van struck. At exactly 11:08am on June 14, 2002, he drove into the police kiosk that guarded the American Consulate. The van, full of fertilizer, exploded. When the shock and chaos of the initial explosion subsided, there were ten bodies and many injuries. To the relief of then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who was in the region gathering support for the Allied invasion in Afghanistan, no Americans were killed. All the dead were Pakistanis, four of them women who had come to a nearby Government office to obtain drivers licenses. 

That would not be the only cost to Pakistanis. The attack had proven the security threat to Americans in Pakistan and particularly to the Consulate. American security, it was determined, required a constant monitoring of every car that traveled along the road between Frere Hall and the Consulate. A checkpoint and police installations appeared at the intersection where traffic fed into the road, and a set of rules emerged. Men traveling alone would be stopped to have their trunks searched; if women and children were in cars, they did not have to stop. Of the many millions that traveled on motorbikes, men traveling alone or in pairs had to be searched for guns. On especially sensitive days, the entire road was shut down to traffic, forcing millions of the city’s fifteen million people to resort to a long, circuitous and perpetually clogged detour.  Those who could avoid the road did; few if any came anymore to Frere Hall. Even fewer paid attention to the damage that the impact of the blast had caused to that building, to the shattered panes and magnificent murals that lie within. The city had other preoccupations.

On January 19, 2011, the Americans moved away to another location, near the sea and far from the city. The road that passed between Sir Bartle Frere’s edifice to colonial governance and the now vacant American consulate building now lies open to traffic. The scars to Frere Hall and the newly replenished threats to the art within remain. In February 2014, the galleries in the Hall were host to an exhibit of new artists, an attempt to revitalize the feeble popularity of the site as a venue for cultural events. Affluent Karachites hesitantly walked to the site. Above them, the Sadequain mural hung suspended over their heads. A leaking roof has meant that several of its panels have now been deteriorated by moisture. The admiration of the art on the walls did not seem to create enough of a desire among the curators to make any effort to conserve and preserve the art above. The pleas of the Sadequain Foundation, written to governors and administrators and various directors, all begging to be permitted to restore and preserve the “Heaven and Earth” mural he left behind as a legacy to the city, have been rejected. The foundation is based in the United States, and help from that corner is not welcome in Pakistan.

A generation of Karachi’s children has been born and are now adults since the painter in Frere Hall left his legacy to the city. In February of 2014, twenty-seven years after Sadequain’s died, leaving his incomplete mural on the ceiling of Frere Hall, the preservation of his legacy is a complicated matter. If the Pakistan in which he was feted was still open to looking at faith, at verses from the holy text expressed in novel and unique aesthetics, the one that exists now is far less welcome to such inventiveness. The tortured human representations that appear in many of the artist’s renditions are even more problematic, forbidden in the literal creed of Wahabi conservatism that now commands many Pakistanis as their followers. A town hall built by the British, a mural made by a painter who saw religion and artistic expression as inextricably united, all facing the headquarters of an imperialist power on whom Pakistan pins its current woes—they are all misfits in the Pakistan imagined by Wahabists. In that ideal land of literal interpretation, of black and white, of a medieval purity that existed before the British and before the Americans, none of this would have any room. Perhaps in preparation of those days, the lawns around Frere Hall were largely empty the Sunday in February when I visited. Across the street sits the old American consulate, strangely naked without the many security cordons that lingered when it was in use, and the much barricaded Marriott hotel, which despite ongoing threats continues to be the venue of elite weddings. The mural on the ceiling is threatened today by moisture. Tomorrow it may be devastated by malice, by the vicious acts of purification that would erase history to pacify the present.