City by the sea

Fayes T Kantawala could not block out Shah sahib and his worldview – try as he might

City by the sea
I arrived in Karachi a few days ago for work and the trip was long. So very long. Apparently border tensions with India are still frosty, which means that rather than flying the straight line down form Lahore to the coast, the planes have been directed to avoid the Indian border altogether and circle around via Baluchistan instead, which, if I am honest, didn’t make me feel a whole lot safer. The detour means that an hour’s flight turns into nearly three hours - an expansive, crawling amount of time that I spent in a middle seat between a toddler and a man called Shah. The toddler, hypnotized by an iPad and juice box, ignored me completely. Sadly Shah, who like me had neither juice-box nor iPad, did not.

His perfume smelt like rose water and he kept clocking absentmindedly on his rosary as he sped through a monologue about his job in Karachi (owns an electronics store), his thoughts for Lahore (too cold, but good food), and his failed attempt to get into the army when he was a teenager (it had something to do with a tube well, but you couldn’t convince me to pry). I am constantly surprised when people talk to me in public. I consider myself an unapproachable person, both in design and ambition. But especially on planes, I usually always have headphones, laptop and sunglasses on - universally acknowledged to be the symbol for “Stay Away”.

I kept having to take my earphones out every time he said something but after a while I lost patience I told him I was watching a movie, and propped my laptop on the tray with a loud thud of finality. I think he took this as an invitation, because he, too, kept looking down at my screen like we were schoolgirls watching a Youtube clip on a shared phone. Unfortunately for both of us I was watching the new movie the Favorite. Its a period piece about an English Queen, and those of you who have seen it will know (as Shah and I do now) that it has lots of lesbian love scenes in it.

Karachi by night

When the first one came on I panicked and froze. To turn it off would mean to acknowledge he was watching it with me and I couldn’t do that, but to keep watching it could have unpredictable consequences. I stared straight ahead in prudish horror but even then I could see the pace of his rosary beads quicken from the corner of my eye. Eventually I skidded across scenes and eventually switched to one of the Lord of the Rings movies, which are always a good bet. Still Shah watched with hawk-like interest.

By hour two I was getting a headache and was grateful to see the stewardess coming though with her drinks trolley. In the split second I took my headphones out to ask her for a diet coke and a sandwich (preferably without ecoli #PIA), Shah poked me in the arm and began talking about movie. “Did you know it was filmed in New Zealand?”

I did.

“Do you know that 300 people converted to Islam there after the shooting last week?”

I did not.

“They have a wonderful leader,” he continued, taking a soggy sandwich from the air hostess and tucking in. “Very good woman.”

There seemed to be no irony for him in saying this, and it was possibly the only time I actually wanted to talk back to him. If only to ask him what exactly he thought he liked about her?

She’s been rightly feted for the way she has handled herself and her country, particularly across the Muslim world.

Her face has been projected onto the Burj Khalifa in Dubai as an homage. That a declared agnostic socialist woman leader who had a baby out of wedlock and is a fierce ally of LGBT rights was projected into becoming the symbol of a country that criminalized nearly all of those things reeks of hypocrisy. The way she acted in the aftermath was with humanity, and to fete only that aspect of her humanity which concerns Muslims, without addressing all the other things that make her cool (and uncool in the same Muslim eyes) is myopic and willfully disingenuous.

I was trying to remember the Urdu phrase for agnostic socialist before I gave up and went back to the movie, because to unfurl Shah’s contradictions was not my job that day.

The rest of the flight went by smoothly. But then we landed, and all the little screens on the flight lit up with a video of a religious naat by Junaid Jamshaid, presumably to give thanks for landing safely. I looked around the plane to find out if anyone else thought it was slightly off to play a video of man who died in a literal plane crash to celebrate landing, but no. Apparently not.

But small mercies, because at least now I’m in Karachi. Also known as the City of Peace - as the large sign outside the airport tells you as you drive away. Most of the sign was hidden by the five armed guards standing in front of it, but you get it. Most of the time.

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