JAMEEL YUSUF IS SMALL AND STURDY and wears his trousers slightly above his waist. Quick on his feet, he has a firm handshake and the general disposition of an economics professor—he wears a trim salt-and-pepper beard and rectangular-rimmed spectacles and peers at you with inquisitive eyes. His gaze, manner and mien do not betray that Yusuf was once one of the toughest characters in a city with a tough reputation. He was Karachi’s Dark Knight.
Yusuf, however, will say, “I’m just a Khoja businessman.” The Khojas are a tight-knit, mostly mercantile community who populate cities from South Asia to East Africa and Canada. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the urbane founder of Pakistan, was one. Yusuf’s trajectory was rather more traditional: he got into the textile business after graduating from university, manufacturing cones used in spinning units, before venturing into construction. He built one of the first malls in Karachi in the mid 1980s. By the late 1980s, he had become a successful self-made businessman—“Whenever I take up something, I like to do a thorough job,” he said—and middle-aged.
And in the late 1980s, Karachi had become unsettled. The American-funded insurgency in Afghanistan against the USSR had drawn to a close. More than 3.5 million Afghan refugees—the largest population of refugees in the world—had crossed the border into Pakistan. They settled in camps in and around the northern Khyber province, and in and around Karachi. It was a city where Pathans and mostly Urdu-speaking Mohajirs were already at daggers drawn. A fiery Mohajir student leader named Altaf Hussain had used an incident in which a bus driver ran over a student as his launching pad into national politics. With the death of Zia ul-Haq in 1988, democracy had also returned to Pakistan after a decade of military rule.