Visiting the city of my birth is always a humbling experience; my mouth full of hunger for a brief taste of memory, unfamiliarity still hanging over the rooftops of my mind as my eyes try their best to adjust. How interesting that a blink can reroute you back to a time when your body felt airy and gold-souled and slipper-free. How peculiar that it is only when you return to a place that your brain suddenly realizes how to remember. It’s a lot like wiping away dust. A few weeks ago, I was in a rickshaw somewhere on a nameless road near Gulshan-e-Iqbal when the traffic forced us to a stop at a roundabout overlooking a wall of graffiti. The words kahan gum ho? (Where are you lost?) were bordered by twin roses and a rhododendron bush. The weather was beautiful: sunshine, white sky, a dusty horizon. A child on a motorcycle reached out his hand towards me; the cars were so close in proximity that if he wanted, he could hop on to the seat beside my own. I slowly extended my hand from beneath my shawl to give him a small high-five. To my left a woman was hanging her clothes out to dry; the crumbs of her balcony lay beneath her in a mess of white paint and dry clay. To my right children ran around a man pushing a portable Ferris wheel, his hands the colour of rust. Somewhere in the distance the Asr adhan echoed around minarets overtaken by birds. Walnut trees lined the inner cul-de-sacs where watchmen sat around a broken table, smoking cigarettes under the sun. Welcome to Pakistan, the Land of the Pure; the green country of my blood.
A week into my trip my cousins and I were packed like sardines in a bed with my Nani, cuddling against her as the cold gripped the marble tiles of her home. Our conversation started off with, “If I could change one thing about Karachi, it would be…” and then we trailed off into things that, to them, were close to impossible, but to me were not entirely out of reach. There’s something sad about the way faith dwindles away from the place where people connect to the land. That night I had a dream that I was walking barefoot across a ground that was half dirt and half marble, the breeze a yellow shadow on my back, tugging the reigns of a camel. The next morning, we were somewhere along Tariq Road, a whirlwind of vendors and fast fashion and children begging for money on the side streets. It’s our feet which become the roots of our oppression. Where you walk determines where you will soon stand. If I could tell you one thing about Karachi, it would be that there’s an unseen force which moves the city forwards. You look into any child’s eyes you’ll see the words etched on the wall behind that rhododendron bush; you look at their hands you’ll see dirt even if there isn’t any there. People spend their days collecting dust on their eyes and on their brows and on their beards and then go home to wash it all off, to not let it enter a state of permanence on the fringes of their mind, to not let it clamp around them like dirt.
Despite the dirt, there’s so much colour that it hurts your eyes trying to take it all in. If you look close enough; if you look with your eyes squinted beneath the crumbling architecture, the empty park benches, the calloused fingers of the hundreds of merchants that line the sidewalks, the sad eyes of children, beneath the discord of vested power structures and inner-city politics, you might catch a glimpse of what Musa (as) saw on the mountain in Surah al-Araf.
You might see so much light and laughter and beauty and colour that you need to wipe your eyes to adjust.
When I was a child, I found it astounding that flowers could burst from a clump of dirt that thick; how their gentle bodies could grow and bloom and spread their blithe arms out over the earth. Memory is a lot like a flower. So is the human condition.
What do you do with so much dirt and dust? I spent my time there rooting and routing. This was the country of my blood, and yet I felt both attached and detached from its structure. I don’t know what it is about Karachi which always makes me want to go back, despite the liberties offered by the western world. I believe there’s something within the mitti, the dirt of your homeland, which is hard to let go of. You keep waiting and watching for something better to bloom. Until then you keep trudging your feet, slipper-free, against that earth.