Each year, approximately 3000 unidentified corpses are found on the streets of Karachi, an ever-expanding mega-city in southern Pakistan. Sometimes they are drug addicts or migrant workers who came to the big city in search of a better life; sometimes they are the victims of the sectarian clashes or gang violence that give Karachi its reputation for violence. In this tightly packed city of over 21 million people, some get lost amongst the heaving mass of brick and bodies, ending up destitute and alone. They are lawaris: without an owner.
My first documentary project focuses on the people who care for these unidentified dead bodies, trying their best to find their families and restore dignity in death. I co-produced the film, along with my friend and frequent collaborator Haya Fatima Iqbal, and it was directed by my partner Owen Kean. The film was made possible by a grant from ScreenCraft and BondIt Media, and it was subsequently acquired by Vice.
The film aired on Vice back in August 2019, and astonishingly, it has since been watched almost half a million times on YouTube. It’s shortlisted for a One World Media Award.
I am so delighted to announce that I’ve won the inauguralPortobello Prizefor narrative non-fiction, which was set up to “showcase the most exciting new voices in narrative non-fiction, offering debut writers an opportunity to seek out and publish an untold story that reflects our times.” I entered with a proposal for a book about Karachi, building on some long-form pieces I’ve already written. (This piece on an ambulance driver, and this piece on a crime reporter, among others). It will follow ordinary lives through a chaotic period in the city’s recent history.
The inaugural Portobello Prize has been awarded to “electrifying new voice” Samira Shackle for Karachi Vice, a “fresh and thrilling” non-fiction exploration of Pakistan’s largest city.
According to the judges, this “glimpse of a city largely misrepresented and misunderstood is told with a clear sense of urgency and with a personal connection. It will place human drama at the fore as it follows the lives of several citizens of Karachi”.
Read more over at the Bookseller’s website. I now have to actually write the book, which will probably be out at some point in 2020.
Late last year, I travelled to Karachi to spend a week with Muhammad Safdar, an ambulance driver for the Edhi Foundation. This is a huge charitable empire which fills many of the gaps left by the state – including the world’s largest voluntary ambulance service. In Karachi, a city that for years has been riven by gang crime and terrorist violence, the job of an ambulance driver can be perilous. The Edhi Foundation also tends to unidentified corpses, along with a dizzying array of other services.
Karachi’s ethnic conflict and violent gang war was in full flow. On his first day, Safdar went with another driver to collect one of the unclaimed bodies frequently found on the streets. He couldn’t look. The other driver slapped him in the face. “What do you think this is?” he said. “It’s a human being. What are you? A human being. Why are you behaving like this?” Safdar picked up the corpse.
“It takes time to get used to this work,” he says. “A lot of people leave after a week or so as they can’t take it. They have fear in them.”
The profile of Safdar and the Edhi Foundation was originally written for Mosaic, a magazine run by the Wellcome Trust. It was syndicated by theGuardian’s long-read section, and will be appearing in Esquire Malaysia along with a few other places. It’s accompanied by wonderful photos by Akhtar Soomro (a full gallery is available on the Mosaic website).
Earlier this year, I travelled to Karachi (where I lived in 2012) to spend some time with the city’s crime reporters. This is one of the most crime-ridden cities in the world, plagued by political conflict, organised mafias, and now, terrorism. The city is enormous, so gang wars can change one area into a battlefield while others remain totally untouched. This is something I’ve noticed acutely when staying with family (my mother is from Karachi and many of our relatives still live there); in the luxurious houses and beautiful gardens in the elite districts, you might barely notice the tension consuming the city at large – were it not for the armed guards outside every house.
Reporting on Karachi’s crime wave and tracking the shifting nature of the threat from gang wars to terrorist strongholds is a high stakes, dangerous job. I spent some time with Zille Hyder, a television crime reporter who proudly proclaims his place on a terrorist hit-list, exploring the day-to-day reality of his job and trying to work out why anyone would choose to do something that puts their life at such risk. The piece was months in the making and I’m really proud of the result, which is published in the Guardian’s long-read section on 21 October. You can read the piece (around 6000 words) here, or the clipping is below.
It falls to Hyder and the city’s crime reporters to make sense of the throbbing disorder of Karachi. The fact that crime has infiltrated every aspect of life there puts them in the curious position of being minor celebrities; Hyder regularly receives fan mail and is often recognised in public. The Karachi airport attack shows that reporters can sometimes go overboard – but deciphering the shifts in ethnic conflict and gangland alliances is a vital job. The fate of Pakistan depends on Karachi, the megalopolis that provides a quarter of the nation’s GDP, and the fate of Karachi will be decided by the power struggles between its gangsters, terrorists, police and political groups.
On 8 June, Taliban gunmen stormed Karachi airport, killing scores of people before they were eventually fought off by security forces. I’ve lived in Karachi and have many friends and relatives there. I wrote this quick response to the attack for the New Statesman:
What does this say about the state of Karachi, and of Pakistan? Firstly, it should be noted that this coastal megalopolis is not just the biggest city in Pakistan, but one of the biggest in the world. Home to around 25 million people, it is the economic hub of Pakistan and one of the most important cities politically. It is mind-boggling that such an audacious attack should be possible in such a major airport in a major city. To their credit, security forces were fast on the scene, but how did it happen at all? This comes at a time when the conservative government is emphasising the need for peace talks with the Taliban. Once again, this incident raises the question that many outraged commentators have posed: what is there to discuss? And where do discussions begin when one party seeks the destruction of the state as its basic starting point?
I also discussed the attack on Monocle radio and LBC. You can read the rest over at my New Statesman blog. A version also appeared in the magazine: