Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Karachi's Winter Days By Sehba Sarwar - NYT

Karachi's Winter Days
By SEHBA SARWAR, New York Times, March 30, 2008

I've been living in Houston for some time, but I often return to Pakistan to visit my parents. In December, when I arrived in Karachi with my 3-year-old daughter, Minal, the city was spinning with more than the usual winter weddings, parties and reunions. President Musharraf had issued emergency rule to hold back a possible Supreme Court ruling against him, and Benazir Bhutto had returned to Pakistan at her own risk. There had been suicide bombings, the lawyers were battling for restoration of an independent judiciary and parliamentary elections were a few weeks away. My husband, René, wanted me to postpone our trip, but my father wasn't well, and it was important to go. I assured René I'd do my best to stay away from the political action.

But after I got to Karachi, it didn't take long for me to change my mind. I simply felt that too much was at stake. I joined my journalist sister, Beena, who is based there temporarily, and other friends at several marches in support of a free press and the lawyers' movement. Under Musharraf's emergency rule, public gatherings of more than four people were forbidden, and there was some danger in the air; beatings and arrests took place in Islamabad and Lahore earlier that week and outside the Karachi Press Club the month before. On one day, the police formed on all sides to "escort" us as we marched through Saddar in central Karachi. Fortunately, they kept their distance.

A week later, we gathered at my cousin Asif's house for Eid-ul-Azha , a lunar religious holiday that my family enjoys for the tradition. Asif sacrificed two goats and gave a long lunch for the occasion. Toward the end, as we polished off our kheer , a delicious milky dessert, we reminisced about our childhood: the plays we performed at our old house when we were young, trips to the beach that were especially euphoric when my father drove us. He always belted out the same Hindi folk song from his youth activist days. We talked about how wonderful it would be to spend a day by the water again after all these years. My father declared that if we decided to go, he'd join us. Asif said he'd book his company's hut. After much debate, we settled on the Sunday after the Jan. 8 elections, when we figured the city would be calm.

Less than a week after that, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Karachi burned for three straight days. We were all shaken and depressed, and as the day of our beach trip approached, I e-mailed my family asking if we should cancel. But everyone still wanted to go. Perhaps we just needed the excuse to be together again. We'd be missing a vigil to protest the house arrest of Rana Bhagwandas, a Supreme Court justice. But it felt right to want to be with family.

Sandspit Beach is only a 30-minute drive from our home. My family was among the first to arrive, but others began trickling in, and by the peak of the gathering there were 25 of us, representing three generations. The children played on the sand while adults parked themselves in deck chairs on the balcony and sipped drinks (soft and hard) as conversation kept coming back to the future of Bhutto's political party or the judicial battle or the arrests throughout Sindh.

The beach was fairly empty. A few local men ambled by with lavishly adorned horses and camels for rent. Lunch consisted of two versions of homemade haleem , one with beef and the other with chicken for the "noncarnivores." We joked about why, according to my aunt, chicken was vegetarian , but no one questioned her. After we ate we walked along the calm winter Arabian Sea, so different from the summer's violent cascading waves. At the end of the day, Asif and I pulled out our cameras, and the family posed for group photos shot by Asif's cook. We drove away at sunset, feeling happy.

Once home, I was getting bath water ready for Minal when my sister entered the room with news of the vigil. "There've been arrests," she said. "More than 10 people." Our close family friend, whom we call Kamran bhai (Kamran brother), was one of the protesters being held. I've known him all my life. As children we spent many afternoons in his family's apartment by the Hotel Metropole while our parents talked politics.

At the news, I turned off the tap and crouched low on my knees, my elbows pressed deep into my stomach. If there had been no beach plan, of course, we would have been there, too.

Kamran bhai was released on bail later that night, but when Minal and I flew out of Karachi four days later, it still wasn't clear what would happen to him. And there was no way of knowing what kind of country I'd be returning to in July, when I plan to be there again, regardless of what unfolds.

Sehba Sarwar is the author of a novel, "Black Wings," and founding director of Voices Breaking Boundaries, a nonprofit arts organization.

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