Monday 2 March 2009

An evening with the Pashtuns of Karachi

Pashtun does not equal Taliban, say the men of Karachi

I've been in Pakistan for two or three weeks, mostly in Islamabad, but for the last couple of days I have been in the chaotic (to me) port city of Karachi. Once Pakistan's capital, it is still a major
centre of business and commerce. It is also home to around 15 million people, making it one of the largest cities in the world.
What is less well known is that Karachi is also home to more than three million Pashtuns (or Pukhtuns) from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), many of whom have arrived since the 1980s following the upheavals caused by the war against the Soviets in neighbouring Afghanistan. Others have been here since the 1950s and many were born here.
Pashtuns - particularly the Afridis - run much of the city's transport system, owning and driving the thousands of gaily coloured buses that snake their way through the traffic, their superstructures loaded with masses of chrome, chains and brightly painted scenes and patterns.
They also run much of Pakistan's road transport business, including almost all of the trucks that move between here and Peshawar, and some of which take supplies to the Coalition troops in Afghanistan.
The presence of so many Pashtuns has for some time been a source of tension for Karachi's political bosses, most of whom are members of the MQM and are Mohajirs descended from Moslems who fled from India to Pakistan at the time of Partition.
Last night I heard about this first hand in two hujras I attended, the first in the Sher Shah area of Karachi and the second in Shirin Jinna Colony. This was an extraordinary experience. Both were attended by people in the transport industry - about a dozen at the first meeting and around 70 at the second. A hujra is a traditional tribal gathering of men, held most nights, where all manner of issues are discussed.
Both meetings were formal, in that introductions were made and tea was served. It was unthinkable to leave before taking tea. Those attending were mostly Afridis, but there was a wide mixture of tribes present, including Shinwaris, Yusufzais and Mohmands. I won't name them, but several were prominent men in their communities.
At both meetings a common theme emerged. These men told me that they had been characterised as 'Talibans' and that the world seemed to think they were all terrorists. They wanted to impress upon me that this was untrue (see my picture above). They were devout Moslems, to be sure, but this did not mean they agreed with the Taliban. They felt that their homelands were being used to fight other peoples' battles - indeed it was the reason that many of them had left the NWFP in the first place during the anti-Soviet period.
Now, they said, they were under a different kind of pressure. The MQM was making it more and more difficult for them to stay in Karachi. Last week there had been a spate of vehicle burnings and when one of their drivers had tried to stop this, he had himself been burnt to death. If they try to apply for a job they are told they have to get ID papers from the NWFP, as they will not be issued here. This means obtaining birth certificates and other documentation that is simply not available. Many of them told me they had been born in Karachi, so why should they go to the NWFP to get papers?
This is the reality behind the perceived threat of 'Talibanisation' of Karachi. Already, I have seen videos on YouTube that try to suggest the Pashtuns are making a bid to take over the city. Of course, during the course of such a short visit, I can make no judgement on such a claim. However, there is a wider point here. Pashtuns from the NWFP and from FATA in particular are now scattered all over Pakistan and the Gulf. The tribal society that existed a generation ago no longer exists except in the most remote areas. It is this breakdown in tribalism that has been exploited by al-Qaeda and its supporters in some of the more remote regions.
Al-Qaeda had even sought to exacerbate this problem, not least by killing the traditional tribal maliks who dispensed justice. According to some reports, more than 170 maliks have been killed, many of them by Uzbek islamists who have no comprehension or interest in tribal culture. They are the same people who wish to impose their own stark and inhuman form of Islam onto the people of the region.
We sometimes forget that it is not only the West that is a victim of the intolerance of the salafists and takfiris associated with al-Qaeda. It is also their hosts, the Pashtuns, who have become victims of their own generosity and hospitality towards Osama bin Laden and his followers.


Lee Harold McCready said...

Hey Nick,

I know this is completely random, but I have found very few resources for good information on living in Karachi. I'm studying Pashto and would like to live in a less volatile area that has a large enough Pashtun population from which to learn the language. Karachi has been on my short list for a while. Do you have any suggestions of who I could contact to live in a decent area. I would be interested in hiring a full time live-in teacher for a few months so I could be immersed in the language and culture. Any information would be great.

Thanks a bunch,

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