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Street Signs: Karachi Graffiti

By Sehba Sarwar

The streets of Karachi are alive. Each day, as we drive out, there is something new to see, to read: all the walls around the city are plastered with political slogans, candidate endorsements and poetry in calligraphic-style Urdu and roughly-written English. When growing up, I never paid much attention to the writings scribed on the walls, but now I find myself scouring the streets for them, reading them and using them to make sense of the city around me.

Pakistan is not a land where there can be open homes. Because of crime—and a hundred other reasons—walls are wrapped around buildings and homes, creating an open landscape for graffiti writers. And graffiti artists don't discriminate on neighborhoods. In some of the richest parts of town (Clifton, where the two Bhutto houses are, and Defense), one sees as much graffiti as in Lyari, a neighborhood that struggles for water, electricity and safety.

Most of the writing is in beautifully styled Urdu, with script often rearing three feet high. A large majority of Karachi is Urdu-speaking, since many Urdu speakers migrated from northern India after the '47 Partition, but this is itself an issue worth a separate blog: During the nineties there was a civil war in Karachi between the immigrants—mohajirs—and the local Sindhis.

Much of the writing these days was written before Benazir Bhutto's October 2007 arrival in Pakistan: "Welcome Benazir," the walls proclaim (èWelcome' sounds like èwailcom' when transcribed in the Arabic script.) On another drive, I see a sign that sings out: íAai Aai, Benazir Aai/ She's here, she's here, Benazir is here."

One wall in Clifton grabs my attention. It is an Urdu verse: íThe world will be turned around/ From every house a Bhutto shall rise.ë The writing ends with a chant: íLet's go, let's go, To the airport, let's go.ë The graffiti is dated is 18 October, 2007, the date that Benazir returned to Pakistan after eight years of exile. The date also marked the first assassination attempt on her life that killed more than 100 people at a welcoming rally.

Other Urdu signs call for the return of Altaf Hussain, the leader of the MQM party that has a stronghold in Karachi—and the party that tore Karachi to shreds more than a decade ago. Still more graffiti lists names of different election candidates; the new election date is 18 February, but there is no guarantee that the shift toward democracy will take place.

Some of the more crudely scrawled signs are in English: íOne Coup Per Dictator" reads one that can be seen on several different walls in the Defense neighborhood. Another one (that's a slogan shouted at many political rallies) reads: íGo Musharraf Go!"

One of my favorite ones—to protest against Musharraf's restrictions on cable TV news channels back in November 2007—is written in large letters on the outside walls of the Karachi Press Club and it is illustrated by cartoonist Feica, who works for Dawn: íWe are terrorized by PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority."

Now that Benazir is no more, and her political party struggles to maintain its hold among the larger populace, there is a sense of uncertainty. No one knows what is around the corner, whether the elections will be held, and if so, how much they will be rigged. For now, the texts continue to promote candidates. After 18 February, there will be another wave of street language, but what that will look like remains to be seen.

Published Feb 15, 2008   Copyright 2008 Sehba Sarwar

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