Karachi is my city, allow me to show you around? We have four days. But first, a caveat: There are many Karachis. There is the international Karachi, its narrative performed by states and corporate news channels that tells the tale of a city lost in fear and suffering. There is the Karachi of the well-heeled, an elite that transformed the city of their youth into a metropolis of luxury shopping, Hummers and French-fusion cooking. There is the Karachi of millions, the poor and disenfranchised for whom water and electricity are scarce, whose homes are dispossessed by the monsoon. They are all true, they all exist in this bustling monster of a city with a population of somewhere between 14 and 18 million. There are a myriad Karachis, each of them beautiful and frightening. Nothing is easy here, but if you like your cities challenging, let’s begin.
Karachi’s Gothic architecture meets you from the corners of the city. Look behind the Bata Shoe signs and the Pizza Hut hoardings in Saddar, Karachi’s central business area, and you’ll find collapsing sandstone facades. Lose yourself in the maze of electronics stores, textile and garment bazaars covered from the heat of the midday sun, money traders, real estate agents and stalls selling antiques and car parts. The Hindu Gymkhana, an elite club built in the Mughal Revivalist style, now houses an arts school. At Empress Market—an uncovered equivalent of Mumbai’s Crawford Market—named after the dour then Empress Victoria, you can bargain over mounds of spices, buy an exotic pet smuggled into the country, or visit the butchers (suspiciously close to the illegal pet section). These are all Saddar’s architectural feasts. And drop into Liberty Books to pick up K’architecture, a great new coffee-table book on Karachi’s beautiful but neglected buildings.
Hidden cities: There isn’t a monolithic Karachi. Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg
Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s house is nearby—just get a rickshaw. Spend the afternoon watching the building and people. You’ll pass tourists gingerly snapping pictures, Karachites going about their daily business, newspaper hawkers and families out for a jaunt.
Bypass the Karachi Zoo, and visit the Gandhi Gardens for a stroll instead. There’s something romantic about the wild jasmine that grows unchecked while hordes of families line up to visit the vast (and depressing) zoo.
You’re tired: It’s nighttime, and you’ve only just arrived. But don’t turn in just yet—Bar-B-Q Tonight awaits. This Main Clifton restaurant started 20 years ago as a bunch of plastic chairs and tables on a pavement at the end of Karachi’s Boat Basin food street, set up by two brothers who came newly to this city by the sea. So good was the fare—the fish tikkas so fresh they melt in your mouth; the Afghan kebabs, succulent legs of lamb, garlic naan and gooey plum chutney so addictive—that Bar-B-Q Tonight grew into an actual restaurant, with walls and an indoor kitchen to go with their outdoor flame pit.
Fatima Bhutto is a contributing editor to Condé Nast Traveller India and author of Songs of Blood and Sword. This is an extract from a story that appears in the magazine’s launch issue, which hits the stands this month.
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