Coming into Karachi International, at the baggage claim, a young woman in a stylish black burka from head to toe, including black gloves, giggles at her husband. Beneath his wrapped headdress, he has the bruised forehead of a pious and persistent Muslim bowing five times daily toward Mecca. Hair and beard styles.
Outside, the night is humid, but the sea breeze cuts the air into a manageable mugginess. McDonald’s golden arches in the foreground, a minuet of mosque in the background.
The traffic is instant. The kaleidoscope painted buses not so full tonight, since there’s no one sitting on the roof. Motorbikes weaving in and out, women in hijabs sitting comfortably sidesaddle behind their husbands.
A rickshaw driver in a motorized three wheeler speeds along at 50 mph with his sandaled foot on the bumper of a second rickshaw just ahead. Another example of Karachi ingenuity, called “Jugar” in Urdu, or “quick fix.” The two drivers are saving gas with one pushing the other.
Welcome to Karachi, likely the world’s largest city with a population of 22 million or more - about twice the size of New York City. No one knows exactly how many people are here, or for that matter, in all of Pakistan, a country that has not had a census count since the 1990s. Politicians of the two major parties are comfortable with that, since they might have to redraw their constituencies.
After the artificial city of Islamabad, a capital built from scratch, Karachi is the “Real Pakistan,” growing from a sleepy fishing village at the mouth of the Indus River feeding into the Indian Ocean, into a mega-city of high-rises and colonial buildings dating to rule under the British Raj.
Karachi boasts more of everything. There are more Pashtuns here than live in their ancestral haunts in Kyber-Pakhunkhwa Province, or K-P in Pakistani shorthand.
Riding up in the elevator at the Avanti Towers in the heart of Karachi, a bearded man and woman with long hair, western-style clothes, get on at the third floor, punch the button for the top. The man sizes up my colleague, Quincy Snowdon, of the Aurora in Colorado.
With his blue eyes and beard, Snowdon could pass for a Pashtun from the country’s rugged northwest frontier, except for his 6 foot- 5 frame that gives him away.
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“Too tall,” the bearded, bespectacled man says. “American?” He cocks a bushy eyebrow.
“You too,” he turns his eye on my 5-8 frame.
“Yes,” I say. “It’s my first time in Karachi.”
“Hmmm," he says, half nodding, then he raises his empty palm. “When I’m in Karachi, I carry a gun in my hand.”
A second of silence until his joke hits us.
Karachi gets a bad rap for violence, from terrorist activity to political violence to crime gang warfare on the streets.
Daylight reveals a sprawling city still inventing itself with construction cranes erecting new high-rises toward the horizon.
Bird cries and beeping horns are the signature sound of the streets by day. Black kites, pigeons and corn crows circle ceaselessly overheard. Traffic begins to build. Pakistan drives on the left-hand side of the road, following British conventions, but a cross-town commute is an adventure, through the avenues and the roundabouts, each driver making his way with short beeps of the horn whether on motorbike, rickshaw, car or bus.
At the Three Swords circle, named for the monumental three pillars of Faith, Unity and Discipline that founder Muhammed Ali Jinnah urged for his nation, drivers have to have faith they can thread the needle around the mob of vehicles in the roundabout. Against the modern melee, a man in a brown shalwar kameez, the national dress of Pakistan, peddles fresh samosas from a platter balanced on his head.
There are sedans inching their way through the traffic as well as families of four riding on a single motor scooter, mother in hijab, father in his shalwar kemeez, the kids tucked in between as they head for home.
Shalwar kemeez, the national dress of Pakistan with a flowing tunic and pajama-like pants, are everywhere, but they come in a variety of colors, cuts and styles. Others like the casual Western look of slim jeans, T-shirts or buttoned shirts. Fashion is a personal taste. More than a few men like red henna for their hair or beards.
Pakistan is strangely familiar and wonderfully alien to the American eye. English and Urdu are the nation’s official languages, and there are about 100 regional tongues in between. Signs in the upright march of Roman alphabet compete against the undertow of Urdu script with its calligraphy of waves, dots and dashes.
But Urdu and English can sell. Huge ads on buildings promote the latest perfume or fashion while posters stuck on walls advertise tutors for your kids. Mercedes and Toyota dealerships on one block, fruit stands and marketplaces on the next. Cellphone stores abound, and phones are cheap. You can pick up a smart phone for about 6000 rupees or $60. Don’t talk phone plans in Pakistan. You can pay around $4 a month for service.
Pakistan has a growing middle and upper middle class of perhaps 20 million, a market that would be about the size of Poland, but its potential lies in its youth. Some 35 percent of the population is under the age of 15, more than half under 30 years old.
Kids with backpacks are herded down the edges of the street by mothers in hijabs from neighborhood schools, behind guarded gates.
Under a new bridge in the Clifton sector, a group of young children are in a makeshift school, shaded by the overpass as they learn their lessons.
Hair and beard styles 2014
But what children are learning remains a concern.
Textbooks that discriminate against Hindus and other minorities need revision. Some books won’t show any girls without headscarves. There are alphabet books that have “J is for Jihad,” a distinctly loaded religious term in a society besieged in the War on Terror.
At the Mausoleum of the Quaid-e-Assam, Karachi’s monument to Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, a boy sports a western style T-shirt with a distinctly conservative message. “There is a name for people without beards - Women.”
Pakistan is a paradox, a mix of cultures, languages, policies. A noisy democracy with one of the world’s largest militaries. A nuclear power that can’t keep electricity running every day. A modern middle class living by medieval-style poverty. Problems that won’t be solved overnight.
Night falls again in Karachi. A man on a cantering horse leads another pony across the roundabout, following in the wake of Mercedes and motorbikes. Call it a metaphor if you must. It's just another human being making his way home.