Several Decembers ago I was in Pakistan on assignment, staying as the houseguest of a member of the professional and managerial classes whom I'll call Steve. I have to be oblique here, because Steve is gay, and Pakistan is hardly the pink–ribbon country of the developing world.
Steve's driver picked me up at the Karachi airport and took me out to his miniature palace in the posh districts of Clifton and Defence. The armed guard opened the front gate. Steve welcomed me warmly, showed me to my miniature suite of rooms and told me with some excitement that I had come at the perfect time: it was December 28th, and every New Year's Eve he threw the most spectacular and outrageous party, to which I was, of course, invited.
This was a cultural twist I hadn't expected, but then again, travel is travel, so I accepted with both curiosity and eagerness. After I dumped my bags, Steve drove me into the city to meet his colleagues, with whom I'd be working. Three hours later, when I was in mid-discussion with a woman I'll call Jasmina, her phone rang.
"Oh no," she whispered. "That's bad. That's terrible." She turned to me. "We want you to go home right now and stay there." Benazir Bhutto, she said, had just been assassinated. Nobody knew what would happen next, but it was unlikely to be anything good.
Karachi's Mass Exodus
She called her driver, who turned up in a reinforced pickup truck, and we plunged into the kind of traffic you'd expect in one of the world's megacities when everyone is fleeing along the same roads at exactly the same time and the police and army have vanished. Vehicles were not just bumper-to-bumper, but door-to-door and elbow-to-elbow. A three-lane road had five lanes of traffic, a four-lane road had seven: hand-carts, donkey-carts, a boy on a bicycle carrying two large wooden crates, two boys on a moped carrying an extension ladder and metal piping, a family of five squeezed into the bed of a tiny pickup along with what looked like a giant refrigerator. A family of five clung on a motorbike. Each brightly-painted bus had twenty or more people on the roof. Everyone looked like a refugee.
Flickr photo by edge of space
The 25-minute journey back to Steve's villa took three hours. The television news showed over and over the same footage of the assassination, and of the same incident or two of street violence—burning tires, a few people with sticks–– that had prompted President Musharref to declare a universal curfew: the whole country was to be shut down for three days.
I went to bed with the usual surreal jetlag mixture of excitement and exhaustion raised to the nth power by the events of the evening. Yet in the morning, astonishingly, the entire mood of the city had changed. I went out onto the roof–balcony where the weather, as usual, was warm and calm. The soft morning air was scented with jasmine and the occasional whiff of sewage. Karachi's usual racket of traffic, construction, and demolition was utterly absent; a single conversation was taking place on the street, probably between a couple of servants, out of sight beyond the high walls that enclosed Steve's house, like every other house in the neighborhood. Then that ceased, and the panorama of villas and mansions, of palm trees and ornamental gardens, was silent. The wealthy had withdrawn, like hermit crabs into gilded shells, and life had stopped.
Outsiders Hiding Behind the Enclave Walls
It was extraordinary; then it became ordinary; then it became boring. I'm never at my best doing nothing, and by mid–afternoon I was ready to climb the spiked walls. I was saved by the appearance of Steve, who had slept in but was in general rather nervous. Times of instability are typically not the best times for those outside the cultural mainstream, and there's no telling what single spark or remark will send a population on the rampage against gays, or Jews, or gypsies, or pretty much anyone.
I imagine it's not easy being gay in Pakistan, I suggested.
Well, yes and no. Every Islamic country, Steve told me, has its largely invisible gay minority, and it's a sign of the tensions between the country's political and cultural extremes that Pakistan's gay community manages to be both more secretive and more flamboyant than most. Gay beach parties, publicized by word of mouth, take place on a regular basis down the coastline from Karachi, attracting hundreds or even thousands, including well–known figures from politics, the army and the police, none of whom can afford to admit in public what they are up to. But for now, all his gay friends were staying behind locked doors, watching the news, calling each other, sniffing the wind for signs of trouble.
The second day of the curfew was almost as uneventful as the first. A servant was dispatched to buy supplies and came back to report that a few banks had been set on fire (a favorite method of revenge among Karachi gangs, Steve claimed: you know where your rivals keep their money, and when you have the chance, you torch the place). A few small shopkeepers had been looted, but in general the streets were deserted.
By evening the sense of threat had ebbed to such a degree that Steve decided to risk going out to visit friends. The driver took us through a gray and empty city to a tower–block complex that from the outside seemed post–apocalyptic.
Inside, though, it was probably the wackiest place in South Asia.
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