Karachi and My Family – Life Amidst the Bombings

Bharta2

A few weeks ago, I woke up a little after 6am and with my eyes half shut, I checked my iPhone, which I usually do before making my way into the kitchen for my morning caffè latte ritual. As I scrolled through my Twitter newsfeed, I saw “bomb blast Karachi”, “injured”, “daytime tragedy” “in the upscale Defence neighbourhood” “targeted attack” – all those words you don’t want to read when your husband is in Karachi, visiting our family; his parents, siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts.  It was April 25th and there was a bomb blast somewhere, in some neighbourhood in Karachi. I called Zain immediately, and when he told me the bomb had exploded in Delhi Colony, I selfishly took a sigh of relief. My family is safe, I said to myself and jumped out of bed.

Each time a bomb goes off, or someone is abducted or mugged at gunpoint, it just becomes another anecdote about how everyday life is in Karachi. It is never reported in the news. There are hardly (if any) photos of the victims in the newspapers. There are no police reports filed. It becomes one of those stories you talk about over dinner with your friends, while dipping your naan into the caramelised, spicy, braised beef broth called nihari, a specialty of Karachi, “Did you know that Samira, her husband and children were at the traffic light at 2pm near McDonald’s and this man came, tapped on her side of the car window with the butt of a Kalashnikov and asked them to hand over their cell phones?” Your friend to the left of you, while sipping on his bootlegged-bottle of Heineken will say, “Yes, I know, they have no shame, they don’t even spare you when you are with your kids. That is why I carry a fake cell phone whenever I am driving. I keep my iPhone in my dashboard just in case some *ucker tries to mug me.”

To be mugged in Pakistan has a different meaning than getting your purse snatched on your walk home. When someone points a Kalashnikov in your face in broad daylight, it means, give that to me now, before I blow your face off.

If you visited Zain’s parents’ home on the day the bomb went off, his aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings would probably be gathered in their drawing room, with the news on the TV buzzing in the background and tea being poured into cups while my mother-in-law passes around plates of her homemade fruitcake, studded with currants and nuts from Northern Pakistan. These are the things I miss about Pakistan – the warmth of family. There would be talk of the bomb. Conversations would start off with, “Unbelievable. I was just driving past that mosque in Delhi Colony last Wednesday.” Everyone would continue to sip tea. And deep down, everyone would be relieved that they were not in the area where the bomb went off. Phone calls would be made and SMSs would be sent out, inquiring about the well-being of family, friends and colleagues. And then the conversation would turn to cricket and how awful the team is doing this season. If I was there I would harass my father-in-law for his secret recipe for chicken liver pâté. I think he makes the best pâté on the face of this earth. He serves it in a footed Bohemian crystal bowl and it is always wiped clean with some crusty bread my mother-in-law makes.

Yes, pâté is probably what I would start talking about. It is how you survive. When you live in a city where there are bomb blasts every day, week or month, in some corner of your city, you turn your thoughts elsewhere because you don’t know how to stop The Madding Crowds.

On April 25th, this bomb killed 28 people and injured 6. In a bomb blast, an injury isn’t a deep cut; it probably means that the person was maimed. The blast was reported in the media. I read cold numbers and statistics. Locations and times. No names. No photos of the departed. No photos of their relatives. It made me think of Richard Martin, that little boy from Boston. It was only one year ago that he died. He was just eight years old and supported the Boston Bruins hockey team. He died at the Boston Marathon bombings. I saw his sweet face all over the media, his grin large and real. He was 1 of 3 people who died that tragic day. Those who die in Pakistan every day get no photos published in newspapers; no one knows their name.

My best friend lost an employee in the Karachi bombing – someone who had been working in his family business for 27 years. The employee was on a motorcycle, running an official errand. He died along with 27 other people. His name was Obaidullah. I don’t know how old he was, or what he looked like. These people are faceless, if not nameless. There was no tribute to him in the news, we weren’t told how many children he had or if he had any brothers or sisters. I remember reading that Richard Martin had a scoop of Ben and Jerry’s fudgy Moose Tracks ice cream before he died. He also loved pizza, which he ate before he went to bed before the marathon took place the next day. What did Obaidullah eat, I wondered? Did he eat naan every morning for breakfast, dipped into a little saucer of ghee? Or did he have it with some leftover salan; tomato curry from the night before? And how did he drink his tea? Did he like it with milk, as all Pakistanis do?

Julius, my Cameroonian friend and colleague at the UN in Rome always used to tell me, “Shayma, don’t say it, or it will catch you,” if I spoke of some mishap or negative event which had occurred. With all the different dishes, beliefs and dialects which existed between the two countries of our birth, this superstition was one Julius and I shared.  When Julius emphatically said, “cachoo (catch you)” he would curl his hand shut for dramatic effect. We used to laugh about this. You never think it will happen to you. Or to your family. And by writing this, some will think I am tempting fate and that it will “catch me”. But it is also impossible to stay silent about it when your family lives this reality in Pakistan every single day. Over dinner at Enoteca Sociale here at home in Toronto, it is all Zain and I want to talk about. Between mouthfuls of Chef “Slotzy’s” famous steak tartare served with salt and vinegar crisps, we talk about the attempted suicide bombing outside my sister-in-law’s offices where she goes to work every morning. Zain wanted her to resign from her job – a wee sister, off to grad school anyway – but she says, and my father-in-law says, their lives have to go on. We marvel at how she still gets up and goes to work. Every Single Morning.

How dare I complain about the cold weather in Toronto?

Here is a little dish to welcome in the reluctant Spring in Toronto. In Pakistan, a vegetable which is cooked and mixed into yoghurt is often referred to as raita, but I find that when we are dealing with a thicker yoghurt dish, the term bharta is more fitting. I use squash marrow in this recipe – it is basically a sweeter and more robust type of zucchini, often found at Middle Eastern grocery stores. I ate a lot of this type of zucchini in Rome, too. I love having it with lavash or a few slices of toasted sourdough bread. Be sure to use full-fat yoghurt.

Bharta3

Serves 2 as a dip or side dish
If you want your vegetables to caramelise, you should not use a non-stick frying pan.
Ingredients:
*3+3 tbsp olive oil
*1 shallot, sliced thin
*Sea salt to taste
*⅛ tsp turmeric powder
*¼ tsp cumin powder
*¼ tsp coriander powder
*⅛ tsp red chili powder
*500g squash marrow
*1 clove garlic, minced
*250 Greek yoghurt (or any other strained, thick yoghurt)
*½ fennel bulb, sliced, tough outer skin discarded (fronds reserved)
*Pinch pul biber/Aleppo pepper or paprika for dusting on top in the end
*Bread – lavash, pita, sourdough or any other bread you love to scoop this up with

Preparation:

*Slice tough ends of the marrow and discard, then cut the marrow into half, lengthwise and then chop into half moon shapes. Set aside.
*Place a large pan (I use this one, which is 30cm / 12in) on the stove on medium-high heat and add 3 tablespoons olive oil, shallots, pinch sea salt, turmeric powder, cumin powder, coriander powder, red chili powder and sliced marrow. The marrow will become soft after 7-10 minutes. You don’t want the marrow to completely disintegrate, so don’t let it overcook.
*Turn the heat to high, add the minced garlic and let the marrow turn golden – it should look blistered and slightly charred. Make sure to flip the marrow slices so that both sides are bronzed/charred. If you want, you can add more olive oil if the marrow is sticking to the pan. Set aside and allow to cool.
*Place a medium-sized pan on medium-high heat and add the remaining 3tbsp olive oil and sliced fennel. *Saute gently for 10-15 minutes till wilted and bronze around the edges.
*Set fennel aside and allow to cool.
*Using a slotted spoon, remove the marrow from the pan and transfer to a chopping board (you don’t want to use all the excess olive oil). With kitchen shears or a knife, finely chop the marrow.
*Do the same with the fennel. Reserve two tablespoons of the fennel to add as a garnish.
*Gently combine chopped marrow and fennel into yoghurt. Adjust taste for salt.
*Adorn with the reserved fennel. Drizzle with your favourite olive oil, dust with pul biber (or paprika) and adorn with fennel fronds.
*Enjoy with lots of warm bread.

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Comments

  1. Sarah Khan says:

    Shayma – I could totally relate to your post having been born and brought up in Pakistan and now living in London. I was just like you, the dead were faceless people and just another statistic until the day my own father (an actor called Sultan Khan) was killed in his car in 1994 at the peak of the unrest. Yet even after moving to England I returned to Karachi each year – returned to meet my family, to enjoy the ability to just turn up to anyone’s house and feel it’s your own with the most amazing snacks and food, the resilience of a city where no matter what happens life goes on!

    • Dear Sarah, I am so sorry for your loss. The resilience of the people is incredible. I also admire your strength to go back every year, even after everything you have been through – chapeau, Sarah! Thank you so much for taking the time to read my super-long piece; I appreciate it very much. All the best to you and yours.

  2. Dear Shayma, i was at the same location in Karachi a day earlier while being in Pakistan for work. I also somehow believed that these things will never happen to us. But then it hit hard when my father and brother were driving right behind the sri lankan cricket team bus when it was attacked in Lahore. Narrowly missed. I stood a kilometer away in Rawalpindi when Gen. Musharraf’s motorcade was attacked. Countless lost their life, just because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time on that day. I saw ambulances carrying body parts, something i will never forget. Me and my family passed over the bridge rigged with explosives targeting Gen.Musharaff’s motorcade 5 mins before it exploded. It was scary till sometime but then you pick yourself up and get on with your life. My father had forbidden my brothers to go to the mosque for Jummah prayers saying ” i will not come to pick up your pieces”. Its tragic how all this has changed us individually and as a nation. But really cant you see the resilience in our faces? Despite all this we all are tying so hard to make a difference and keep flying the flag? Dont give up! Being an expat Pakistani i feel each word you wrote today. But as a Pakistani i must also say giving up is not an option! Stay strong my friend! We will get through this! God has promised a dawn after every dark night! Thank you for the recipe. I am making biryani today :)

    • Dear Ambreen, Thank you so much for reading my piece and for your thoughtful, heartfelt comment. It saddens me to read about what you have seen and how close you came to what could have been an unfortunate situation. May you always stay protected, my friend. Thanks for the lovely words and onwards we march, as they say! x s PS Biryani sounds perfectly comforting :)

  3. Big hugs to you, Shayma, and I hope your family stay safe.

  4. I feel the same difference between India and here. Although things are not that unstable in India but the value of human life is almost non-existent. A bus full of people were dead one day and the newspapers were covering it like it was a party and the next day everyone pretended as if nothing happened. A train ran off the track and several other people were dead. They remained as mere passengers or pedestrians or motorcyclists. I like the resilience but I would hope one day we will value human life more than we do now. Our resilience might be making the authorities reluctant to do something to protect the people. I don’t know. Just feel helpless being so far off from my parents and family. Every time I hear something bad happened in India, my heart skips a beat. I don’t believe in God, in destiny or fate….all I believe is there must be a saturation someday and people will get tired of doing bad things to each other in the name of God and religion. Stay strong.

  5. Excellent article. In Egypt, a country once famous for glorifying the end of one’s life on earth, there is a similarly dehumanizing effect of violent death. Nothing is sacred any longer at the alter of a country’s vile politics. All of humanity, from Boston to Karachi to Cairo to Lampadusa, suffers from these abject failures.

    http://balasticman.blogspot.it/2013/07/egypts-shame.html

  6. Hi Shayma, Thank you so much for writing this and for just doing what you do. There is a lot of beauty in what you write and do but we know there is ugly in the world too. Thanks for writing about this particular ugly heartbreak and confusion too, if only for the rest of us who don’t know how to express it.

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