Under the dilapidated ceiling of the Taji Khan Hazara Sports Complex—its white paint now grey and peeling—72-year-old Habibullah Jaferi practised punches with a young student. A spot of sunlight lit the cold, concrete ground. The two danced around it. As his narrowed eyes followed her movements from behind a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, she positioned her gloves close to her face, swung a left, then a hurried right. He parried the blows, before shifting his focus to the next student.
For six days a week, Habibullah holds free coaching classes at this club on Quetta’s Alamdar Road—one of four boxing clubs in the neighbourhood. A washed-out poster of the “father of boxing,” as he is known here, standing next to his star student, Syed Asif Shah Hazara, was plastered on the wall. Through the windows, the towering, barren mountains that surround the city were visible. Habibullah would practise along the foothills as a teenager in the 1960s. He would run in the open field, throwing his bare fists against the wind. “Has Habibullah lost his mind?” alarmed bystanders would ask his younger brother, Hasratullah Changezi.
“Boxing was an unknown sport in Balochistan,” Hasratullah said. But whenever the state-run channel PTV would telecast the fights of Muhammad Ali, the boys of Alamdar Road would huddle around black-and-white televisions to watch. Then, in the 1980s, they began renting video cassettes of the matches of boxing legends. “We never missed a fight,” Habibullah remembered. “We would hire a TV and VCR from the shop and all would gather to watch the fight. The children would get very excited. They would imitate the moves of Ali, Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson.”
Even now, decades later, Ali remains the reason many children here are drawn to boxing—although YouTube has replaced state television and VCRs as the medium for watching the sport—Fatima, a 15-year-old who already holds a black belt in karate and took up boxing when the club introduced an afternoon slot for girls last year, told me. Her friends made fun of her for taking up such a “masculine sport,” but her family has largely been supportive. “It’s more difficult than karate. There are more injuries,” she said, holding out her hardened knuckles.
Alamdar Road’s identity was once linked to the imambargahs—Shia congregation halls—scattered along its length. Now, its name brings back dreadful memories of 10 January 2013, when two explosions ripped through a snooker hall and killed over a hundred people. Incessant attacks against the Hazara community, including bomb blasts and targeted killings, have led the Hazara-dominated neighbourhoods of Quetta to become heavily fortified ghettos. Haji Abdul Wahid, who owns the Azaad Boxing Club in the neighbourhood, said that earlier, “there used to be an equal number of Baloch and Hazara students training, but barely anyone from outside comes anymore. We can’t go outside to practise either. We’ve become isolated. It’s like we’re in camouflage here.”