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Viewpoint: Putting Karachi in context

By Sharik Bashir, Assistant Editorial Page Editor
Published February 26, 2013

I was reading the viewpoint by Omar Mahmood on Monday and noticed he was quite disappointed by his visit to Karachi, Pakistan last summer. He complained that Karachi, the largest metropolis in the nation, had lost its indigenous culture because the people allowed globalization to corrupt the city. I’ve lived in Karachi all my life and my entire family is from Pakistan. I can say with certainty that Pakistani culture is most definitely not “simply a shameless attempt to be American,” as described by Mahmood. Karachi, and Pakistan as a whole, may be facing a plethora of crises, but losing their cultural identity is not among them.

Firstly, it would be wrong to judge Pakistani culture based on the experiences of one summer in Karachi. If one is to be critical, it’s important to first know about the history of the city.

Karachi, until the partition of India in 1947, has historically been inconsequential and mostly irrelevant. It never epitomized Indian or Pakistani culture. Before the British colonized India, Karachi was barely even a city. It was a small fishing village with no recognizable historic culture or architecture to put it on the map. In fact, it wasn’t even called Karachi. Burns Road, Frere Hall, Napier Road and Empress Market are among the city’s oldest landmarks. Doesn’t sound very Pakistani, does it? That’s because the British constructed these landmarks.

Today, Karachi has grown into one of the most populous cities in the world. It’s the New York City of Pakistan — a mixture of many ethnicities in a single place. Karachi never had a cultural identity of its own. But since so many people from different backgrounds moved to Karachi, the many cultures became somewhat subdued in order to facilitate communication between groups of people. What I’m trying to say is that if you come to Karachi expecting to be bombarded with Pakistani culture, you will surely be disappointed. You will only find traces of various cultures within the homes of individuals who choose to preserve their native heritage.

Mahmood's article showed that he’s aware of Sufi music, poetry and Qawwalis — all unique to Pakistan and India. Pakistan has not lost its culture — you just have to look for it beyond Karachi. It’s like learning all about the American South and then going to New York and expecting to hear Southern accents. It’s not going to happen.

If you visit cities like Lahore or Multan, you will experience Sufi culture; you can see the old shrines and Mughal era architecture. There are more than 60 languages spoken in Pakistan, and each region has a distinct culture. I’ve visited parts of the country where even I can’t seem to relate to the culture because I haven’t been exposed to it in Karachi. Pakistan has such vibrant culture that it would be naïve to say the country has become completely westernized. The entire culture of Pakistan is not expressed on the streets of Karachi.

Yes, in Karachi we have a Texas-themed restaurant where it’s OK to throw peanuts on the ground. I will even confess to watching Hollywood movies and listening to English music— that’s just a result of globalization and cultural exchange. I don’t think Mahmood visited the restaurants I often frequented with my friends. I can assure you that you’d find no such places in America. As for the mall where “the national language of Urdu was effectively banned,” I’ve yet to see this. It’s also important to understand that it’s not abnormal for Pakistanis to be speaking English. After all, English is a legacy of British rule and has been absorbed into Pakistani culture. For Mahmood, I don’t think it was Karachi that was the problem, but the tour guide.

As technology and communication develop, we will be exposed to different cultures around the world and need to learn to embrace them. The moment the first flight that could get you from Karachi to New York departed was the moment it became inevitable that Karachi would open up a Texas-themed restaurant. Take a look at Ann Arbor. I doubt that Ann Arbor had Indian, Korean and Chinese restaurants in 1905. But the fact that we have them today doesn’t mean that Ann Arbor has lost its culture.

Despite not being a historically vibrant city, Karachi does have a unique culture that isn’t necessarily a microcosm of Pakistan or a shameless imitation of America. If you want to find the culture of Karachi, you have to look beyond the shopping malls and Texas-themed restaurants. Culture isn't defined by restaurant chains — it’s defined by how you live. It’s defined by your background, the language you speak and the values and traditions with which you grow.

Only when I came to America for college did I realize how different Pakistani culture is, and I realized this despite living in Karachi all my life. I notice it every day when I don’t get authentic Pakistani food to eat, when I don’t hear my aunts chatting with my grandmother in Punjabi, when the entire city is discussing football instead of cricket and when I can’t crack Urdu jokes with my American friends. The list of cultural differences is endless. The effects of globalization should not be confused with erosion of culture. Karachi may be suffering a lot these days, but it’s definitely not suffering a loss of culture and hopefully it never will.

Sharik Bashir is an LSA sophomore.