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Valentine’s Day in Karachi 16 February 2009

Posted by ABD in Culture, Travel, VARANGALI.

This week’s guest post is by VARANGALI, a San Francisco-based consultant and one-time regular at othermatters.org.

One of my favorite educational experiences came while studying abroad. Specifically, sitting in a pizzeria on the coast of Normandy with friends, eating the thinnest pizza margarita I have ever had, topped with an egg, sunny side up. Sometime between the yolk and the crust, we noticed a troupe of angelic, costumed 1st graders winding its way through the tables to the maître d’. With a huge grin, he swooped out a bowl of candy. This was one in the afternoon, October 28th. This was Halloween, French-style.

Holidays, like other cultural imports, often get lost in translation. I thought of my French Halloween a couple of days ago, while stuck in traffic late at night on February 13th. Bewildered by the timing of the jam, I questioned my cousin. “Valentine’s Day, of course.”

Of course. Cruising the streets the night of February 13th. A live rock band at Dunkin Donuts. Wearing red to announce your healthy love life. Restaurants turning off their lights for a minute at midnight. Valentine’s Day, Pakistani-style.

Idiosyncrasies aside, Valentine’s Day is another flashpoint in the continuing polarization of Pakistani norms. Each year I have returned to Karachi the mosques have gotten fuller, as have the malls with teenagers bedecked in less and less. Pot and booze were once the purview of the elite, but no longer. Religiosity was an attribute of the lower classes, but no longer.

What is lost is nuance. If a man prays, he must grow a beard. If a woman wears tight jeans, she must drink. And in this context of congealing identities, the battle has moved from the private sphere to the public. McDonald’s and KFC are great spots for first dates not in elite enclaves like Defense and Clifton, but in middle class neighborhoods like Gulshan. A religious jama’at trolls the city in pick-ups with loudspeakers, playing cassettes of an Islamic Jonathan Edwards exhorting the masses to repent, perhaps best done by joining the jama’at.

It is a brave new world in Karachi. Exhilarating are the genuine attempts at a more personal relationship with faith, and fascinating are the co-optation of secular, problematic traditions like Valentine’s Day. Yet it is a context increasingly devoid of the gray wherein tolerance, acceptance, and perhaps even kindness lie.

The black and white played through on the ticker of a news channel on Valentine’s Day. Nisar Shaheed Park was overrun by men brandishing sticks, giving chase to the teenage lovers parked within. I dream of a time when the parks were free of both illicit couplings, and of recalcitrant stick-men.



1. karachikhatmal - 17 February 2009

fair point. but there is an explanation for a lot of these things that might really bother you – it’s cuz we are all so f**king bored.

i mean when i was in school, a lot of us were pretty much similar people. then as the teens hit, there was that awful realization that just as we were getting up to live life, there wasn’t much life around to live here.

that’s why now, with all of us graduated and employed, i can see the effects of what a lack of options has done. those who took drugs took them religiously, smoking drinking and popping and inhaling every waking second. those who took religion took it like an addiction, constantly judging, ripping out cable tv cords in their homes, smashing record players, going on random tableeghs every chance they got. those who took to girls took to them obsessively, constantly being in the throes of love with more than one at a time, repeatedly frequenting prostitutes and unsuspecting naive girls alike.

it seems to be the thing with pakistan – whatever we take on, we just can’t let it go.

2. Baraka - 18 February 2009

Fascinating piece, Varangali. Even in the late 90s the roses of Lahore would sell out by Valentine’s Day. I haven’t been back to Pakistan in almost four years and I long for it all, the shocking and the strange and the new ways of being.

And I agree about boredom, KK, that worldwide plague. The question is always how to create a rich life that is joyful and life-giving for ourselves and our children. Beyond that, the choice is theirs.

3. ANNA - 18 February 2009

As-salaamu alaikum, ya VARANGALI. Masha’Allah. I have to admit to being clueless as to the continuing polarization of Pakistani norms; still, I found that your writing captured my imagination.

From the yolk and the crust to the costumed 1st graders to the recalcitrant stick men, the details of your piece brought other worlds into focus for me. For one stuck in Boston’s February doldrums, the shift of focus is not unlike a breath of fresher air. Jazak Allahu khayr.

4. VARANGALI - 21 February 2009

Salam All, and jazakAllah for the comments.

KK: Interesting thought, and I’m sure you’re right. The follow-up question would be “why now?” Our parents’ generation had fewer options, a smaller range of decisions in which to exercise choice (marriage, career, etc). Yet I feel ennui is something fairly particular to Gen-Y folk, despite increased choice. Actually, I would venture to say ennui is causally related to increased choice, but that requires a fair amount of unpacking. Unpacking I’m going to chicken out of, for now.

Baraka: Pakistan is intoxicating – the ever-brave new world does pull one back in constantly. It’s like Frost in Birches – I always want to leave, and then come back, and then leave, and then return. And in this cycle is contentment, for it’s difficult (for me) to be content rooted inside or outside Pureland.

ANNA: Glad to be of help in adding some color to your understanding of Pakistan. But I fear I’ve made it worse for you, not better. With news on Pakistan, as with this blog post, the focus is on change, not continuity. But much of the beauty of Pakistani society lies in continuity: the extended family is like a home unto itself, the milkman still delivers the milk everyday, neighbors know each other well, fruits and vegetables are still bought fresh from pushcarts instead of canned goods from supermarkets. And, at the end of the day, what matters most is always family, with mangoes and cricket close behind. You should check it out, I highly recommend it ;)

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