Karachi is the saddest of cities. It is a South Asian Beirut: a city on the sea, rich and almost glamorous in parts; but also a monument to hatred among different sectarian and ethnic groups, and to the failure of a civic society. It is a city at war as much with itself as with the outside world. The most populous metropolis in Pakistan, Karachi is a profoundly troubled place, intermittently engulfed in terrible bouts of killing and kidnapping. It is a city where the police sit huddled in sandbag emplacements for their own safety, and where the foreign consulates now resemble great fortified Crusader castles—which is how the people of Karachi look on them: the unwelcome, embattled bridgeheads of alien powers.

William Dalrymple, Murder in Karachi, in the New York Review of Books, December 4, 2003.

I am saddened to read about the Karachi of today because the city I knew in the 1970s was a much more welcoming place. Sure, it was hot and dusty, but it had an urban dynamism and people generally got along. The tension between native Sindhis and the Mohajirs—Muslims who moved to Pakistan from India after Partition—had not yet erupted into sustained conflict. The local economy was booming. New office buildings and hotels were giving Karachi a skyline. Maybe it was a stretch to label Karachi as “cosmopolitan,” but “provincial” didn’t fit either. Sizeable Christian, Parsi, and Hindu minorities gave the city a different feel from other Pakistani cities. Unveiled women in saris, salvar-kameez, and Western dress circulated in street and bazaar, not abdicating their claim to urban space as they mostly do now.

On the streets of the city, shiny Mazdas and Toyotas buzzed about, unlike Peshawar and Rawalpindi where decrepit Morris Minors and Chevrolets were the staple of transportation. When traffic lights turned red, cars stopped—a novelty for me because red lights were generally ignored in other Pakistani cities. Still, the occasional camel cart lumbering onto city streets was a constant reminder of the real Sindh that began just beyond the city limits.

I didn’t live in Karachi, but in the capital, Islamabad, 800 miles to the north where I worked as the lawyer for the United States Agency for International Development, the foreign aid-dispensing arm of the U.S. government. But Karachi was the banking and commercial center of Pakistan, and I often went there on business. It was an easy flight on a PIA DC-10, which trundled back and forth between the two cities.

During my workday, there were meetings—and more meetings—mostly held at the American Consulate on Abdullah Haroon Road in central Karachi. In those days the consulate was an urban oasis, with an excellent library and cafeteria open to all. Security was almost non-existent. Now the consulate is closed to the public and is surrounded by razor wire and bollards, pocked with shrapnel from frequent suicide attacks on the complex.

Another of my haunts was Surridge & Beecheno, then and now Pakistan’s most prestigious law firm, located in Finlay House, an aging concrete commercial house on busy Chundrigar Road. One walked up three flights of stairs and pushed through large swinging doors like in a Wild West saloon and entered a large bullpen with clerks, messengers, and typists hard at work. Overhead ceiling fans clattered away, making a terrific racket but successfully dispelling the oppressive heat. The walls were lined with gilt-edged, framed articles of incorporation of Pakistan’s leading corporations legally brought to life by the partners of the firm. During a break in meetings I would walk out onto the third floor veranda for a breath of air or a smoke, where a large sign warned:



Pan chewers are requested to make use of the spittoons and refrain from spitting over the veranda. Also please do not throw live cigarettes over the wall into Volkart’s Compound.
I didn’t use the spittoon—or chew pan. Any cigarette butts I tossed into the compound had been extinguished—or so I remember. If I had the time, I walked over to a stand near the law firm where I bought delicious freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice. I can still picture the men hard at work, with sweat on their brow and their white aprons stained red from the juice.
On occasion, I went to court, not to try cases, but as an observer when a case of interest was being argued. One morning I was even invited for tea with the Sind High Court Bar at the imposing Victorian red stone colonnaded building on Court Road. Bewigged barristers stopped in for a chat on their way to and from the courtroom.

In the 1970s Karachi was a playground for wealthy Arabs who wanted a nearby getaway from conservative Islam. House prices were low, liquor flowed, and beautiful female companions were available for a pittance. Also, the nearby desert was ideal for falconry. In winter, when the weather cooled down, Arab hunting parties took to rural Sindh with lorries full of hunting gear and costly, highly-trained grey falcons, hawks, and peregrines in search of prey.

In Karachi, the Arabs settled in Clifton, once a sea-front British military enclave of graceful colonial homes and gardens.

One evening I was taken to Clifton for an “inspection” tour of Arab-owned villas by “Kenny,” a Christian from Goa, who ran a property management firm in Karachi. We toured two ornate marble villas, decked out with crystal chandeliers, velvet upholstery, and oodles of gold leaf. Their wealthy Muscat and Dubai owners were away, but in each garage a Mercedes 280 SL was under wraps awaiting the arrival of its owner, whenever that might be.

At the second villa Kenny took me downstairs to a circular bar decorated with empty Vat 69 whisky bottles, oversized mirrors, and lewd paintings of naked ladies. The sound system was cranking out Kung Fu Fighting, Leroy Brown and other 1970s hits. A barman stood at the ready with a bottle of—you guessed it!—Vat 69 and a tray of canapes. Later, two Arabs in kaffiya and long robes, totally wasted, stumbled down the stairs, apologized for the intrusion, and exited, holding onto each other for support. After Pakistan adopted Sharia law and cracked down on liquor and nightlife, fun-loving Arabs deserted Karachi, to be replaced by the more ominous, bomb-throwing sort.

My usual evening entertainment was much more sedate. Sometimes I visited the Sind Muslim Law College where a Pakistani lawyer friend taught a course on company law. The faded walls of the college were lined with the portraits of wigged and robed judges and lawyers of British India and Pakistan. The students always peppered me with questions about American law, most of which I couldn’t answer. Or I met with Pakistani barristers who were in court all day and were available to meet with clients only at night. Their chambers were a beehive of activity as lawyers readied themselves for the next day’s cases and typists churned out documents. Occasionally, I was invited for dinner at some iconic place, such as the Gymkhana Club or the Sind Club, both steeped in the atmosphere of the British Raj.

Karachi was not a tourist town, but still enough tourists frequented the Saddar Bazaar, buying copper and brassware, carpets, and Pakistani handicrafts like snakeskin purses, to make life interesting for the average shop owner. They traipsed up to the city’s few monuments, most notably the white marble tomb of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-i-Azam or Great Leader who led the movement for a separate Muslim state in India, which sits on a stepped pyramid overlooking the city. Another landmark was the Defence Society Mosque with its vast dome said to be the largest of its kind in the world, above which hovers Honeymoon Lodge, birthplace of the Aga Khan.

My favorite pastime, though, was a sail in Karachi harbor, with Captain Challi at the tiller of his 30-foot outrigger bunder boat and two sure-footed boys clambering up and down a plank extended over the side to keep the boat on even keel. Beyond the Karachi breakwater, the seas would roughen and the boys would strain to keep their balance. Hawkes Bay, some 15 miles from central Karachi, came into view, deserted except for a lone camel lumbering over the white sand. If one had the time, a sea crab barbecue on Baba Island would end a perfect day.


Captain Challi was the favorite of the airline flight crews that laid over in Karachi and his boat was festooned with the airline logos—Pan Am on the prow, Lufthansa on the stern—of the flight crews that sailed with him. Karachi is still an airline hub for flights from Europe and Asia, and the airport boasts a spanking new international terminal, but few flight crews lay over in Karachi if they can help it. The Lonely Planet Guide warns that if your flight touches down in the middle of the night—as many arrivals do—the safe thing is to wait at the airport until sunrise before taking a taxi into the city.

My travels were usually alone or with a business colleague. When I got home to Islamabad, there was always lots of discussion around the dinner table about the places I had visited. After two years in Pakistan, my wife Christine and I decided to take our two kids on a nice, educational family-oriented trip to the Sindh and lower Punjab. This way we all could see what the real Pakistan looked like and expand our family’s vision beyond the environs of Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and the Murree Hills. So, the day after Christmas in 1976, we all flew to Lahore and there took the overnight train to Sukkur in Upper Sindh. Just after sunrise the next morning, we were served a delicious breakfast of marsala omelet, toast, and tea in our compartment—a big hit with the kids.

In a real sense, our trip traced the route of the Indus River, Pakistan’s 2,000-mile-long lifeline. In the north where we lived, the river was confined by mountains and gorges until the village of Tarbela, where an enormous earth-filled dam was being completed. Below Tarbela, the river burst out onto the plains of the Punjab and pushed southward into Sindh province. It is no accident that the word Sindh is derived from the ancient Sanskrit name for the river, Sindhu, for without the river, the Sindh would be nothing but unrelenting desert.

Sukkur is primarily of interest for its pivotal role in the irrigation of the Sindh. For here, in 1932, the British completed a huge barrage, stretching 1,400 meters across the Indus in 46 spans, feeding seven canals, which is claimed to be the largest irrigation project in the world. Combined, these canals irrigate 2.5 million hectares of previously non-arable land. One of these is wider and longer than the Suez or Panama Canals.

We stayed at the Inter Pak Inn alongside the barrage—and almost immediately got into trouble. As we took a tonga ride over the old railway bridge spanning the river, our 7-year-old daughter Jocelyn snapped a photo. Immediately, we were surrounded by Pakistani soldiers who demanded that we hand over the camera. They said the bridge is a protected military site. We didn’t want to lose the camera but didn’t want to get arrested either. A crowd gathered and quickly took our side in the dispute: these are foreign guests, they meant no harm, let them go. Our 4-year-old Anthony began to cry. Finally, the intervention of the crowd and our contrite apologies expressed in halting Urdu carried the day. The soldiers gave us a warning and let us keep the camera.

The next day we rented a taxi to take us to Mohenjo-Daro (Mound of the Dead), the most extensively excavated site of the 4,500-year-old Indus Valley Civilization, which consisted of 400 cities and towns along the river. The site is about 30 miles from Sukkur. We checked into a small, on-site guesthouse and walked over to the ruins. In antiquity, the climate was far cooler and rainier than the present desert suggests. Today the Indus flows three miles to the west of the site. The following day, we took a brief side trip to Larkana, home of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, then prime minister of Pakistan, and scion of one of the largest zamindar, or landowner, families in the Sindh. We walked by the Bhutto home but there wasn’t much to see.

From Sukkur, we flew to Multan, in the heart of Pakistan’s cotton-growing country. It lies on an extensive plain between two tributaries of the Indus—the Ravi and the Chenab. An ancient city from the time of the Muslim invasion in the 8th century, Multan is famed for “dust, heat, beggars, and tombs” according to an old Persian saying. This is apparently where Alexander the Great received the wound that eventually proved fatal. We dutifully saw all that Multan had to offer, including the ancient Qasim Bagh Fort with its superb views and the 14th century mausoleum of Shah Rukn-e-Alam, elaborately ornamented in dark blue, white, and azure tiles.

From Multan, we flew home to Islamabad, ending our six-day odyssey. Although far from an ideal family vacation, the trip opened our eyes to the real Pakistan outside the big cities. Today, as I think about our trip, I am struck how easily we were able to move around the country. Not any more. No foreigner today in his right mind would take his family on this kind of trip. The country has become just too dangerous. Al Qaeda and Taliban elements are active, and there are other risks as well. Greater Karachi’s specialties include the drug mafia in the east, extortion rackets in the west, sectarian violence in the south, jihadi-minded Afghan refugees in the north, and a slight zone of relative security in the city center.


In the interior of Sindh, the violence is mostly related to tension between the two main ethnic groups—the native Sindhis and the Mohajirs. There have also been clashes between Sindhis and Biharis, Urdu-speaking migrants from former East Pakistan. This strife is manipulated by political forces that often use gangs of dacoits to wage proxy wars on one another. As the Lonely Planet Guide says:

The greatest concentration of dacoits is on the west bank of the Indus, especially around Dadu and Larkana, and on the east bank around Sukkur, but no part of the province is immune. Kidnapping, robbery, blackmail, murder, and rape are their means of expression, and they rarely discriminate their targets … Every day Karachi’s Dawn newspaper gives a gruesome tally of the latest outrages.

Besides, even if a foreigner were inclined to take the risk, there is scant opportunity. Family members of official Americans assigned to posts in Pakistan were ordered to leave the country by the U.S. State Department in March 2002 and have not been allowed to return. Most Western embassies have followed suit. Nowadays, a diplomat goes to Pakistan alone or not at all. Unfortunately, Pakistan has become a country where the phrase “family life in the foreign service” has become a contradiction in terms.

Gerald Zarr is a consultant on international development and a freelance writer.