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Rafia Zakaria: City Of The Almost-Dead

August 25, 2011

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What are the consequences of living among constant violence?

By **Rafia Zakaria**

By arrangement with DAWN.com.

Rafia Zakaria small.jpgIn the centre of Karachi is a well-guarded grave under a dewy white dome. The latter rises up, untouched and pristine, in a sea of encroaching squalor, and forms a backdrop to the busy drivers going past, their gaze averted.

Under this dome are dreams, secured between shiny floors and unreachable ceilings, coddled by silence and reverence.

History lives here too, perched on the edge of the present, questioning the relevance of its particular mix of hopes and ideas, once so ardently fought for, so passionately believed in. The only place as tragic as a country built on dreams is a city haunted by the memory of these dreams.

Dying dreams live in the dome, dying people live beyond it. They are not those killed by bullets and bombs, whose virtually last vestments scream “Chhipa” or “Edhi.” They are actually dead, interrupted in their journeys to stores and slums by their sudden end. Weeping women grasp at their biers, younger brothers, who can barely afford to mourn the promise of their lives, stare into the camera. They weep also for the loss of livelihood that will unravel their own fragile calculations of existence.

It is, in fact, the almost-dead that continue to live in a haunted city. Many millions are born migrants, before even walking a step from the rented rooms or crowded wards where they begin their lives; travellers forever who will never go anywhere.

Others are new to migration, without the romance of stories to patch up their meagre urban realities. They have been forced to leave by rising floods or angry landlords. They arrive, beckoned by a distant cousin who returned to the village every year with a shiny new watch, demanding a young wife. All are conspirators in a dreamless game as they pass by the grave where the original dreams are kept for safekeeping.

The almost-dead are not only the poor. The mute consumers of death watching the parade of ending lives from barely cooled bedrooms also teeter on the edge of life. Being almost alive is exacting beyond death; so much to crop from the frame of vision, the better fortunes of neighbours, the maimed limbs of beggars.

Living in Karachi requires making peace with death, or almost-death, the unenviable limbo of death denied.

The heart must be trained for selective empathy, allowed to bleed in small measured increments for the pain of some and not for that of others. The almost-dead cannot witness their own predicament, weigh the consequences of a normalisation of the cruel and tortuous. Hearing about a hundred fallen bodies or watching the televised misery of a thousand orphaned children inflicts no visible cost, no bleeding gash to be stitched up.

Reality can be turned off, sidelined, even forgotten; the clerk can pick a fight with his wife, the executive can switch on a foreign channel. Both banish, within their means, whatever mayhem lies outside. The barely-living are oblivious to the cost of such interventions. As weddings go on amid bombings, and iftaris are attended despite carnage, the almost-living sacrifice their humanity for survival—in their city there is no sudden death.

If certainty is life’s gift to the dead, uncertainty, its malformed twin, is an award for the almost-dead. Like the incremental build-up of a thousand scars of torture, the cumulative pain of a million uncertainties, the comings and goings of electricity, the presence or absence of the doctor, strike or no strike, exam or no exam, can paralyse an entire population.

The almost-dead live in perpetual thrall having been sentenced to a life of not knowing, of guessing and conspiring, of endless, meaningless doubting. In their predicament lies the explanation to apathy; the answer to the absence of revolution and to the seductive embrace of dogma. When life is precarious, all hope must focus on death.

Karachi’s nearly-dead mark their days in a city of doubt, their unripe rebellions silenced by uncertainty. Those who are coming into the city doubt their destination, and wonder if the cosy romance of faraway villages can be recreated in stifling slums and squalid apartment blocks. Those that stay, eking out a living doing this or that, doubt their continued presence; always questioning if they should have applied for that visa, tried to drive a taxi in Dammam or managed a store in Dubai.

As the flimsy foundations of the city and country break and crack, everyone is too frightened to assess the reality against the dreams contained in that domed heart, its whiteness achingly remote in the city’s bloody reality.

Living in Karachi requires making peace with death, or almost-death, the unenviable limbo of death denied.

There are mountains of accusations and counter-accusations, theories atop conspiracies lamenting the bloodshed, decrying the violence, but nothing seems to sate the monster that demands human meals each day.

In the past two months, Karachi’s nearly-dead have wept on television and in newspapers, buried hundreds, and learned to ignore more and more and still more. The value of the city that was the repository of a nation’s dreams is quite paltry, eighteen million cries failing to compose a lament adequate enough to move a nation’s conscience.

Together the dome and the city, tell the story of a country and the, horrible, inexorable distance between dreams and reality, the dead and the almost-dead.

________________________________________________________________________

This post originally appeared at DAWN.com.

Rafia Zakaria is a U.S.-based attorney and teaches constitutional law and political philosophy.

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