Karachi is passionate, alluring, seductive, loving and always teasing you with that quiet threat of danger.
You don’t wake up in Karachi so much as you come to. Your mind swirling with colors, sounds, images, faces, ideas and a taste in your mouth you can’t quite describe and can’t easily get rid of.
Karachi is a city of extremes. There is precious little middle ground here, and it’s mostly unoccupied.
In Karachi we went everywhere with an armed guard — a gentle man with a loving smile for friends and an angry glare for beggars and hangers on. A man who carried a shotgun like your grandfather might carry his cane.
The city is sliced and diced by concrete walls topped with barbed wire and security checks at every building we visited — every building but one.
At the Bilquis Edhi Female Child Home we were met out front by Edhi Foundation founder Abdul Sattar Edhi and his wife Bilquis and wandered into a Karachi paradise without pat downs, x-rays or metal detectors.
The couple has dedicated their lives to helping Pakistan’s less fortunate. They have built an empire of ambulances, health centers, shelters, animal hostels, maternity homes…. The list is longer than Edhi’s beard and as playful as his wife’s eyes.
And he insists on doing it all with donations from Pakistanis. Part of his mission is to teach Pakistanis charity and to care for their own.
At MQM headquarters we saw the other extreme of a group that on the surface seeks to help Pakistanis lead a better life. Arriving at their neighborhood our bus passed through security and was escorted by a motorcycle to party headquarters ominously known as “Nine Zero.”
To some they are heros; to others they are gangsters.
Haider Rizvi, deputy parliamentary leader of the MQM, makes the argument that “MQM unfortunately is the most misunderstood phenomena in Pakistan for the rest of the world.”
But the glares I got as I asked if they had put on a nice face for our visit (see video) caused me to twitch nervously. The answer I got was telling about many things — Karachi, Pakistan and MQM — and Rizvi showed me a letter from ISI, the Pakistani intellegence agency, warning him that he and others in the room had been targeted by al-Qaeda.
Tuesday’s headlines show the security is necessary — Four MQM men among 14 killed in gun attacks across Karachi
Rizvi was emphatic that just as Karachi is the center of gravity of Pakistan, MQM is the center of gravity of Karachi, and therefore MQM is the center of gravity of Pakistan.
Journalists I visited with later would argue with that point. They made it clear that you don’t criticize MQM. “You say bad things about them and you will get shot at” one of them told me (this source didn’t ask for anonymity, I’m just assuming).
The safety of journalists is a critical issue in Pakistan, which regularly ranks as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.
Karachi is a center of Pakistani media and when we visited news outlets we always asked about safety.
“What are you doing to protect your reporters, photographers, camera crews when they cover bombings, assassinations, shootings?”
We received a variety of wishy-washy answers. “No one is forced to cover hazardous breaking news stories. We are looking into buying helmets, bulletproof vests and other equipment to protect our people.”
The real answer came later when we visited the Karachi Press Club. The club is an anachronism with a long history and a limited future. But they made the present quite clear. “The company insures the cars. They insure the equipment. But they don’t insure us.”
The lives of journalists are less important than the gear they use.
OPB photographer and web editor Michael Clapp recently returned from a two-week trip to Pakistan with six other American journalists as part of an exchange program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists. This is the second of five travelogues he will be writing about the trip for OPBNews.org.
Pakistan: Mapping The Unknown - OPB News Series