Imagining Lyari Through Akhtar Soomro

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By Maniza Naqvi

“I’ve lived all my life in my old neighborhood of Lyari. My father was a mason and he died of lung-cancer when I was six years old. I still feel his presence and remember his gestures and his appearance with his beard and a black and white checkered scarf on his head— you know like a Palestinian- scarf on his head.” Akhtar Soomro narrates himself. AkhtarSoomroselfport

And through his photo journalism Akhtar Soomro challenges us to enter on journeys that make us confront the geography and calculus of our own reality and recognize and imagine other stories. Stories of people, who have been systematically humiliated and diminished: people, who have been marginalized; and criminalized by those who have amassed power by grabbing every resource and facility and service in Pakistan. These photographs, as stark evidence, let us enter their world of survival, of how despite it all, people cope, triumph, flourish, create and celebrate, kick and punch back. Occasionally he gives us glimpses into the pathology of those grabbers of power: glimpses of the glint in their eyes, of the cynical grin on their faces and of the instruments and weapons that they wield to maintain their supremacy.

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Akhtar Soomro tells us:

“I want to document a world that is in danger of disappearing. I have in the course of my own interest in these communities, photographed people at their festivals and in the streets. I remember the daily ordinariness of the Leva dances at weddings and other festive occasions in our streets. This dance is meant to induce a spiritual trance of joy. And how that is not a common place event any longer but still can be found. I want to show this world to the world and to these people themselves as something of value, of cherishing and for safekeeping.

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I know their lives in their homes, at their births, weddings, funerals, their rituals at the hundreds of shrines dotting nooks and corners all over Lyari; boxing matches; circuses, wrestling matches, volley ball tournaments, outdoor pop and folk concerts, football matches at football clubs, and political rallies. I know them for their work as manual laborers, daily hard labor wage earners; and as returnees on visits from their oversea workers in the Middle East as laborers in construction. And I and my photography are witness to the sheer joy and energy that more sedate dominant cultures consider “wild.”

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And I am witness to the crushing tragedy of drug mafias overtaking the streets and making the lives of children in schools dangerous and impossible and I am witness to the struggle by mothers and fathers to give their children a safe environment and an education through the schools gracing the rooftops of the vast world on to itself inside a sprawling inner city, called Lyari.”

There are quite a few videos on youtube for Leva dances in Lyari A few are posted here: A dance performance which includes costumes and fire breathers and another one and guys in a neighborhood lane and here in a lane at someone’s private celebration.

Gangs, gang wars, and gunfire. Drugs, guns and death. These make the headlines for Lyari the densely packed neighborhoods of dilapidated apartment buildings, shacks and houses. Lyari is home to over a million residents in Karachi who work mainly as manual labor in low paying daily wages in the nearby docks and port and the surrounding fisheries, tanneries, textiles, construction and ship breaking industries. Most of this work is grueling and back breaking and often dangerous, toxic and a hazard to health. Lyariten

This sprawling ghetto of tightly knit neighborhoods, is in the south western quarter of the city and straddles the Lyari river and the busy highways which lead to the port, and to the north and to the west of the country to Baluchistan and to the border of Afghanistan.

Here, access to electricity, water and sanitation services is scarce but drugs and guns abundant. Successive Governments have neglected Lyari when it comes to fixing things. They have ignored its desperate need for social and economic development but they have kept Lyari on their radar screens because there are plenty of votes to be harvested here and there are many other advantages to be gained from young men who are desperate. So services are provided as benevolence and through patronage. And there is plenty of power to secure here through pushing drugs and bullets on the streets.

But still. Those who live there, as does, Akhtar Soomro, love their hood. Here in Lyari when there is a celebration, say a wedding, or a birth, or a football victory in a field nearby or watched on TV; or a politician’s rally; a donkey cart race spilling into another part of the city; or a festival there are astonishing bursts of color and the rhythmic Afro-beats, and songs, and gyrating dancing in the streets. There have always been outdoor concerts of local pop stars performing locally, written and locally produced pop music and poetry.

Here there are boxing matches, football matches and local folklore of champion boxers, footballers, cyclists—and posters plastered everywhere of iconic role models like of course Zulifikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto but also Mohammad Ali, who is still referred to as Cassius Clay here—Michael Jackson and last year when it was all about hope, Barack Obama.

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About himself Akhtar says:

“I was born in 1965 in Karachi. My mother always dreamed to get us a good education in good school and following her dream she got me admission in a community based school with the help of a lady who was our neighbor. But, I was always a lazy dog in the classroom with no interest in education and I passed my matriculation examinations in fourteen year instead of ten years – but by this they had introduced technical education into the system and I was enrolled in electrical trade and so I passed with a second position.

I did my diploma from a technical college with the intention of to work for Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO). But, after I appeared in two attempts of interviews I was rejected because most of the questions in the interviews were related to religion rather than on electrical subjects! So from that time I gave-up institutional education and start searching for a job to support my family members along with my other siblings. Finally I got a job at a local photo laboratory.

My interest in photography started when I have seen work of various photographers during my lab job and by meeting professionals who worked on many subjects like interior, fashion, industrial etc and they helped me to get learn basics and ethics of photography. After few months I saved from my earnings and bought a second-hand camera. From then on I started clicking… clicking, clicking: my neighbors, clicking people on the streets in my neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods, clicking buildings. I’m still clicking whatever communicates to me or speaks to me to click. After leaving my lab job I started working for an advertising agency and that was a great opportunity to work with professional team where I learned a lot and photographed businesses, industries, products, fashion etc. By working for a few years as an advertising agency photographer there was always a feeling of being in a very unnatural within very artificial, fake, inauthentic surroundings and environment.

Finally, I got what I needed most – chance to work with a newspaper as a photographer… and it gave me freedom. The freedom to move out on to the street shooting peoples places and events. By working for a newspaper I was introduced to the Internet, and a friend helped me open my first e-mail account and from there I started communicating with photo agencies and started contributing my images. I contributed on Corbis – Sigma – The Image Works – Rex Features – Polaris Images and get published on few of the very prestigious newspapers of the time. Also during this time I was exposed to and saw the work of other photographers around the world and it gave me a very different level of understanding and instinct on how to get close to the subject.

During the course of my photograph I was detained while working on assignment in Quetta in 2006 and was held by the Taliban in the tribal agency of Mohmand and then detained by the security authorities in 2008.

I continue to live in Lyari with my family – my wife Farzana, my sons Maqbool fourteen and Ayan who is three years old and my daughter Eman who is twelve.

More examples of Akhtar Soomro’s work are on his website here and here in the The New York Times and Boston Globe and on Reuters and on Corbisimages

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Among Akhtar Soomro’s portfolio of work: there are his photographs that narrate the stories in Lyari NPR and many of these stories are focused on the Sheedi communities who live in the neighborhoods in Karachi and in Southern Pakistan.

There are rituals here that people adhere to and believe in—rituals to try to make things better, health, wealth, happiness involving trances, character transformations; the receiving of spirits and speaking in tongues.Lyarifour

Lyarieight Through his photography Akhtar Soomro goes beyond the annual festival at Mangophir, Karachi, held at the shrine of Hazrat Sakhi Sultan Baba Manghopir and mostly known to outsiders for its 200 or more crocodiles, to tell a larger story. The photography documents the emotional lives and stories of people in this community in their diverse aspects of attitudes towards their race, their self perceptions; their heroes; their beliefs and their history.

Akhtar seeks to explore their concerns about the changes and the pressures on their social systems by the rapidly changing socio-political environment of the region and the city and their coping mechanisms. He documents and explores the connections of these communities to their African heritage—and the manner in which this heritage has evolved into a very specific South Asian character distinct and unique on one hand; and on the other, threatened by the global cultural experience and the political and social changes of the rapidly changing political, social and security environment. His photographs celebrate the Sheedis remaining triumphant in maintaining their culture and their identity within an overpowering dominant culture which is in fact influenced by this part of its multi faceted aspects.

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The people who call themselves and are referred to as Sheedi live in Southern Pakistan on the Mekran Coast, in Turbat and Pasni and in Karachi (mainly here in the tightly knit neighborhoods of Lyari, Karachi). They trace their arrival to these shores of southern Pakistan and further in Gujrat India as soldiers in the Arab armies in 712 A.D. The descendants of these soldiers are the Zanji Siddis. People were brought as slaves from the African continent, from Ethiopia and Abyssinia to the Sub continent in the eleventh through the 20th century. Soldiers and slaves alike, they came across the ocean and the Arabian Sea in boats whose captains were referred to as Sidii ir Sayyids. This cargo of of slaves, brought in by these captains became known as Siddis. Still others in Southern Pakistan on the coast of Baluchistan in Tarbat, Pasni and Mekran trace their ancestory to slaves from Tanzania, Kenya and Zanzibar brought by the Omani Arabs. Most of the original Siddis live in Sindh. ‘Sheedi’ comes from the same root as Syed. The root of this word Syed, means black. When ‘sheedis’ of Sindh were named the word became known in the population as meaning ‘black people’ The word Sheedi is from the Arabic word Sidi. Today the word itself “sheedi” in Sindh, can be used as a derogatory term used for the poor and people with darker skin.

In North Africa for example in Morocco, the word Syed as used in Pakistan and the subcontinent is Sidi or simply Sid. In Pakistan, the title of Syed before one’s name denotes that someone is of high birth who can trace his or her lineage to the Prophet’s family. This is how the word is understood on the Sub continent.

Khalid Ahmed gives us the etymology of the word sidi, the root being swd from the Quaran. He writes in his article that the 11th century conqueror Rodrigo Diaz was called El Cid by the Muslims and El Camprador (the champion) by his countrymen. He appears in European literature, as El Cid, the play by the French classical poet Corneille.

A poet from this community lives and teaches in New York city. Noor Mohammad Danish—Noon Meem Danish compares his experience of identity in Karachi and New York he is quoted as saying:

‘I was black and in Karachi it was always a shocking experience when people would ask me where I came from. They would ask how come you are speaking saaf (perfect) Urdu. I had to explain myself each time. Here, in New York, I feel that I am in my own city and as long as I don’t say open my mouth, it is all right. It is my accent which gives me away. Yahan ki fikrain aur hain, wahan ka azaab aur tarha ka tha,’ (the anxieties here are different from the agonies over there).

The things that give one away: Abdul Ghafoor Majna whose name means crazed by love is now seventy years old and lives in Saify lane in Lyari. His daughter Shama also remembers how when she and her two sisters went with him to see matches in various grounds on the outskirts of Karachi. “We often asked him ‘Father why do you take us to matches – we are girls and what is it all for. He always answered with a smile on his face ‘one day – there will be a women’s football team in Pakistan so he wanted us to be female players in the future!”

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“My father never ever let us wash his sports-kits socks t-shirts. He always washed these things himself. He almost never missed any local match but now he remains at home after he had a stroke and was paralyzed. This happened a few years ago when local security authorities raided our house and detained my brother in false allegations of terrorism activities. Now our brother is released but my father is paralyzed after the security authorities broke into our house. What do they mean when they say my father is our national hero – if that’s really so then why do they forget their heroes when these heroes aren’t celebrities any longer. Why do they never look back in respect? Shama asked.

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“My great grandmother and great grandfather came from Africa and settled in Saify lane Baghdadi area,” says Shama with pride “It’s a name of the city of Baghdad in Iraq you know there also a famous street name Bambasa street (Mombasa, Tanzania). Here children still attend night time schools that are set up outside in the lane. ‘During our trip to India, by train people used to asked where we from and when we’ve replied ‘we are from Lyari’ and people said ‘oh Majna’s neighbor!’

Abdul Ghafoor Majna says “I was always fond of football and had often run away during class to nearby ground to join boys playing football. When I was a boy the playground in our area wasn’t very good or even developed and we used to play bare foot. I remember that I had to sell my school bags to get me canvas sports shoes.”

His wife Sabiha’s parents were originally from Allahabad, India “My father was a government servant, he was the driver for a minister and he was posted in Dhaka. My father was a big fan of Majna and was so impressed with him that he wanted me to be married to him. Majna has always been a responsible husband and very friendly father, he used to sing songs and dance when he was young and very fond of watching films in cinema halls. Every weekend we drove in our own car to a drive-in cinema and it across the city from us in and far from Lyari. Now that place is a shopping mall.”Majna&Sabiha

Akhtar Soomro photographed Majna and Sabiha. And says that everyone knows Majna in Lyari and loves him, everyone knows that he’s a famous footballer but what he’s even more loved for is his generosity. He used to bring everyone gifts whenever he went abroad. And his Green blazers, for the national football team—, which were a source of honor and pride, those he always gave away to poor people. In fact even before he left for a game abroad, someone or the other would ask if they could have his blazer when he returned. And he didn’t refuse. Now he doesn’t even own one as a souvenir. Pre-partition he had been selected by Mohammad Omer a famous coach for the Colkata-Mohmmmedan team and then in 1959 he was selected for the Dhaka-Mohemmedan team. Later he played in tournaments in many countries in Asia. He played Dhaka Dilkusha in 1962;1964 and 1967.

Everyone recalls when Majna Gafoor was famous in football now he’s ill and stuck at home all the time. He used to work at the Karachi Port Trust and even after his retirement he was involved with the game visiting football grounds; spending his time at local football club; coaching younger players in their daily practice sessions. He says “But now all I do is wait for my old friends who still visit me daily and we share our time memories.”

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Other old timers include a former captain of the football team Shabbir Ahmed (above) who is is now the caretaker of Saifi Sports Club and Ghulam Akbar Baloch and Karim Bux. . GhulamAkbarBaloch

Ghulam Akbar Baloch (above) used to be the secretary of Saify Sports Club from 1972-1976.

Karim Bux ( below) is now incharge of Pak Sports Football Club. He retired from the Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC), and now passes his time by offering his services at the play grounds during tournaments as a gate keeper and a pass checker.

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And even for the young playing football seems a distant goal. Farhan who is 22 years old (below left) and Amjad who is 24 years old (below right) used to be football players and members of the Pak Sports Football Club – but they gave-up playing football because the club couldn’t afford to buy uniforms and shoes for them to play in, their kits – “And if we don’t have kits we don’t have chance to play tournaments” says one of them. Lyariyoungfootballers

It is a pity that the glory days for football and football players, seem to be a thing of the past in Lyari. Mostly the news now about Lyari is about Mafia dons who live, hustle, rip each other apart, damage, kill and die there. And it is true, on any given day and night in Lyari, there is always the threat of violence–you can hear gunshots and see gangs fight each other. The reality may be somewhat different. Dig into the backgrounds and look at the profiles of those held up to be notorious, feared and revered criminals—the gang bosses and they seem to be no more than damaged and desperate people, children. Piece it all together, and they are just desperate young men who do the bidding of real Kingpins who live elsewhere. And at some point almost all of them were aspiring sportsmen, heroes–many of them were football players. Heroes with no future in Lyari turned into drug addicted desperadoes.

And when these aspiring heroes who are turned into desperadoes are killed in gang wars or targeted killings by the State they are referred to as big bosses—referred to by the State as having been powerful and dangerous. And in turn, these men, desperate to succeed and to break out of poverty, achieve immortality when they are killed and they are revered in their neighborhoods as legends—benevolent and awful.

Each tier in the benevolent and violently awful feudal system’s and in gang land’s hierarchy of power refers to those below them as children—bachey. Kid or child: beta, beti, bacha, bachi. One has only to look more closely to see whether these men who are called and call others bachey are what they are made out to be, mafia dons. These aspirants to power doing the bidding of real power live in poor neighborhoods without basic services —they are drug addicts, drug pushers and they are relatively poor—easily satisfied by receiving a weekly bhatta or tax from shopkeepers in the area; trading and pushing drugs—and assassinating people for a fee. The cost of a bullet the saying goes is only 5 rupees a couple of dimes. The trigger pullers get a few dimes more.

These gangsters are paid assassins and in turn are snuffed out when the Kingpins, the real hunters are done with them or threatened by how much they know. They are killed when the real Dons are done calling them bachey. Then, once dead, these bachey are trumped up by the forces of the law and the media as mafia dons. Lyari is the kennel for the hounds of the hunting masters. Lyari is the servants' quarter for the tribal mentality holders of power, the rulers of Pakistan. Lyari is where the powerful store their hostages and their assassins alike.

But that’s another story.

More Writing by Maniza Naqvi here

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