Pakistan | Domestic Tourism

A bus tour throws light on Karachi’s urban geography

The Super Savari Express, started in December, strives to show a part of Karachi to Karachiites who would not brave the city by themselves. COURTESY SUPER SAVARI EXPRESS
01 July, 2015

EARLY ON A SUNDAY MORNING IN MARCH, a bus stood parked near the Karachi Gymkhana, close to the city centre. It sported the signature kitsch of the city’s public buses—kaleidoscopic paintwork, Urdu couplets, chintzy decals. Close by, a knot of men tucked into parathas at a tea stall, and a stray dog went at a plastic bag. Some 40 people gradually congregated and began to board, using a plastic crate as a makeshift step. They took pictures of themselves, and of each other, incessantly. Inside, one young man asked people to raise their hands if this was their first time on a bus in Karachi. Almost everyone did.

Karachi’s buses are a cardinal part of its cityscape, and vast numbers of its 24 million residents rely on them for transport all across this megalopolis. Not so, however, for the city’s elite, who have for years derided and avoided public buses and the bulk of the areas they serve. Karachi is famously unsafe—extortion, political assassination, kidnapping, militancy, gang warfare and sectarian murder are all common—and the buses are ramshackle, overfull and grimy, with female passengers squeezing onto a dozen or so seats reserved for them, trying to avoid the groping hands of men. Now, a new company hopes to take rich Karachiites out of the handful of neighbourhoods where they live and show them, onboard a bus, parts of the city they don’t dare brave themselves. But the fact that wealthy Karachiites are such strangers to the city they call home says much about its history, and the nature of its present development.

Every Sunday, the Super Savari Express welcomes aboard anyone willing to pay 2,000 Pakistani rupees—roughly $20. Tourists join in, but the organisers pointedly target young people from the city itself. The itinerary varies every weekend, and Super Savari also sporadically runs a cuisine tour on weekday evenings. Since the tours launched in December, they have been praised by the media and by passengers—Instagram has hundreds of glowing photos tagged #superkarachiexpress—and now come with a wait list. On the Sunday I joined in, we headed out on a six-hour tour of Saddar, Karachi’s crumbling and eclectic city centre, which contains everything from crowded new flats to historical colonial buildings, and even a market selling exotic animals and kidnapped pets.

Our tour group consisted mostly of 20-something-year-old Karachi hipsters, several of them aspiring artists, with a smattering of others coming along: a local architect, a middle-aged Pakistani-American couple, a consultant visiting from London. Despite the early hour, there was no lack of accessorising or blowout hairdos. Also onboard, standing out in a pair of fluorescent Peshawari sandals, was Atif bin Arif, who co-founded the tours with his friend Bilal Hassan. The two had planned our route through Saddar, which Arif described to me as a “mosaic of cultures.”

The area’s heterogeneity traces back to before Pakistan’s independence, in 1947. Arif Hasan, a noted urban planner and architect who has long chronicled Saddar’s evolution, has written of its pre-independence guise—a neighbourhood where Hindu, Zoroastrian and Goan communities all developed businesses alongside their British rulers. After Partition, refugees flocked to Saddar and adjoining neighbourhoods, increasing their population by over 400 percent. But even so, Saddar remained a place where the “wives of government officials and foreign diplomats went shopping for their provisions.” By the 1980s, however, all that was gone. “Saddar’s old institutions are no more,” Hasan laments in an article from 1986. “The city’s cultural centre is dead, clogged up with traffic, pollution and commercialisation.” In present-day Karachi, Saddar functions mainly as a transit hub, a place where you go in order to get elsewhere. But traces of its old glory remain.

Our first stop was on Zaibunnisa Street: one of Saddar’s main roads, formerly Elphinstone Street but renamed after Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah, a pioneering female journalist, in 1970. One woman ran into the middle of the road to pose for a photograph, arms outstretched—a feat only possible in the early hours of a Sunday, since for the rest of the week the road is surrendered to vehicles. One of our two teenaged, English-speaking guides spieled that, in colonial times, this was the “Piccadilly of Karachi.” Nostalgia is a large part of Saddar’s draw for Karachi’s upper classes. Until 1977, before the government banned the general sale of alcohol, the area boasted a thriving nightlife. At a later stop on Club Road, the guides explained that the thoroughfare got its name from the large number of clubs once on it—enough for it to also earn the name of Scandal Point.

We got off on Zaibunissa Street to take photographs before the Mohamedali Building, a looming colonial-era landmark. Behind shutters covered in graffiti, the structure sheltered bank branches and shoe stores that were pale shadows of the exclusive establishments it once hosted. Times are difficult for those still doing business here, as extortionists run unchecked. On the pavement outside, I got to chatting with Amtul Baweja, who looked much younger than her 23 years of age. It was her second time on the Super Savari Express. “I learned so much about the city,” she said of her first tour. Saddar was new ground for her. “I’ve been to Zainab Market a lot,” she said, referring to a nearby plaza famous for selling export-reject denim. “That’s in Saddar, right?” Beyond that, she’d never had reason to come to the area. “I didn’t even know there was anything worth seeing here,” she said.

After climbing back onboard, we made our way through streets strewn with garbage to the Kutchi Memon Masjid, built in 1893 by an eponymous ethnic group originally from Kutch, in modern-day Gujarat. The compact building, with elaborate façade details painted in green and red, slotted in beside its neighbours as neatly as a Lego piece. It is a far cry from the expansive mosque complexes now fashionable in Pakistan. A flyer inside advertised a religious sermon geared specifically towards traders, who throng the mosque and the neighbourhood. Arif told me that the tour was meant to emphasise “the richness of culture, diversity and religion which really does coexist in harmony if you look beyond the sectarian violence and all of that.” The idea, he said, was to give Karachiites “a sense of liberation and pride.”

But where Arif sees cause for pride, others see only desolate reminders of a collective spirit long lost. Roland DeSouza, an executive member of Shehri, a non-profit working to stem Karachi’s environmental and social decline, questioned if there was anything left of the city’s history worth seeing. He had read of the Super Savari tours, he told me over the phone in May, and considered them a good thing, “but what people will see out there is nothing like it was.” He mourned “a vibrant, pluralistic culture, which doesn’t exist in Pakistan anymore.”

When I visited Talat Aslam, a senior editor at the daily The News who has lived in Saddar for over 20 years, he pointed out that modern-day Karachi is characterised by the “ghettoisation of the rich.” The city’s elite lives in a few self-contained areas—most famously Clifton and Defence—with their own markets, cinemas, cafes, and home-delivery services for bootleg alcohol, tiramisu and more. “I’m not romanticising this,” Aslam told me, sitting in his unadorned office in Karachi’s financial and media district in April, “but there were once public spaces in Karachi where the rich, poor, middle-class could somehow mingle—educational institutions, cinema halls, shopping.” But the generation that grew up with such heterogeneity “has been replaced by a group of people that only meets and shops with its own kind.” Aslam said the city has seen the “end of public spaces,” which has exoticised places such as Saddar in the minds of the rich. On either side of the socio-economic divide now, “people don’t even know what the rest of the town is doing.”

The tour wound on. We stopped at Karachi’s main fire temple, the H J Behrana Parsi Dar-e-Mehr, built in 1848 and the spiritual centre of a Zoroastrian community now down to less than 2,000 members. Its pale yellow walls gleamed in the sun, almost unstained by the city’s grime. The place is off limits to non-Zoroastrians, so our group milled around outside the gate, taking pictures. Fazal Rizvi, a 28-year-old artist, stood nearby, having drifted off from the crowd. Rizvi knew Saddar better than most others on the tour: until recently, he used to switch buses here every day to get to college. He didn’t look pleased. “I think for most people here the excitement is about the bus,” he said. “It’s a novelty.”

We walked on to the Sunday-morning fabric sale at Bohri Bazaar, to photograph traders unfurling cotton and voile with flowery prints, and food vendors tossing raw puris into hot oil. As we walked, almost no one on the tour spoke with anyone we met on the street. We stopped at the quiet, imposing Taheri Masjid, holy to the Dawoodi Bohras, a Shia sect. Arif advised us to make use of the mosque’s clean lavatories.

We got on the bus again, and some young passengers climbed up to the roof. A short drive later, the bus parked in front of the 166-year-old Shri Swaminarayan Temple, on Muhammad Ali Jinnah Road, which served as a refuge for Hindus during Partition. The guides warned that photography was prohibited, setting off grumbling and groans. We followed the sound of a blaring bhajan into a courtyard surrounded by Hindu homes. A priest pointed out statues of Radha and Krishna in the temple. Devotes walked around us, trying to ignore the strangers in their midst. Marco Pezzotta, a visiting Italian artist, lit a cigarette in the courtyard. “I’m not really enjoying this,” he told me, puffing away. “Because of the feeling you get—occupying the places. It feels like a safari.”

A few stops on, we arrived for a late breakfast of tea and parathas at Jahangir Restaurant, down the road from Bohri Bazaar. People gushed loudly about having discovered the area, though of course not everyone on the tour was giddy with delight. But Pezzotta, Rizvi and their ilk held their peace. Rizvi, I noted, was particularly subdued. Earlier, at the fire temple, he had observed that the whole excursion was as much a presentation of Karachis’ cloistered elite to the rest of the city as it was vice versa. Who, he wondered, was out to see who? “Is this a spectacle?” he had said. “Are we becoming the spectacle?”

Saba Imtiaz is a journalist based in Pakistan. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian and the Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of Karachi, You’re Killing Me! and the forthcoming No Team of Angels