The last time I was in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.
My parents moved to the U.S. in the 70’s to live out the American dream. We would go back to visit Karachi often when I was growing up and we’d always have a great time. Time seemed to move at a slower pace, and every home we went to offered up chai, an abundance of food and unhurried conversation. Generosity and poverty live together in Karachi.
That’s where we were in December of 2007 when things went wrong. I was standing with my family at an indoor bazaar — a giant warehouse filled with a maze of tiny shops and stalls. My dad was bargaining with a shopkeeper over the price of a shirt, and only after the shopkeeper took our money did he tell us the news. “You don’t know? Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.” We stared at him in shock and instantly there was a change around us. People began clearing out, lights instantly dimmed, shops closed. We hurried out of the bazaar.
We drove past election banners with Benazir Bhutto’s picture on them, making our way through the clogged roads as people tried to get home before the trouble started. We couldn’t get back to the apartment we were renting because it was just down the street from Bhutto’s home. We figured any procession or riot would likely start there. We camped out at my uncle’s home that night, glued to the news, as a video of the gunman and suicide bomber played on an endless loop. Footage of the rioting started seeping in and we realized that it was happening right outside our building. Booms could be heard in the background as fuel tanks exploded from cars being set on fire. After a while the news wasn’t news anymore. My uncle brought us french fries and mutton cold cuts, and later put in an old James Bond movie. And I realized that was the healthiest response, a programmed response innate in people used to this kind of national trauma. Shut it out, nothing you can do so why dwell — just eat, watch a movie and wait for it to pass.
I didn’t sleep well that night. Early the next morning we went back to our apartment to get our luggage. We all piled into my uncle’s car and carefully creeped out of the compound. Usually the streets of Karachi are packed with cars, buses, rickshaws, pedestrians, vendors and beggars. You have to honk your way around. But the streets were empty that morning, too quiet. It was a sight few would likely see again. The only cars on the road, apart from us, were police and military vehicles. Burnt car shells and blackened store fronts lined the streets. It was an uneasy calm.
Our flight was leaving early the next morning at 5. Gas stations were closed and we needed at least two cars with enough gas in them to get us to the airport. We had secured three cars from friends by 9 p.m., but at midnight we got a phone call. “One more problem!” my cousin said, with one small finger in the air. “Only one car has enough gas in it.” After some calling around and gas siphoning, a friend donated a car and driver to us, and at 2 a.m. we left for Jinnah International Airport.
I don’t scare easily. Even in emergency situations I usually assume things will work themselves out, and they usually do. But during that ride to the airport I came to terms with the fact that this could be my proverbial “it.” The roads were still empty, dark, and the police vehicles were gone. Our driver, a stranger to us, was doing about 80 mph, slowing down to negotiate his way around boulders and rubble, and every so often we’d get a glimpse of a battered, burnt car turned over on the side of the road. Our luggage barely fit in the trunk and we had to tie the hood down, but you could still see our bags. If anyone wanted to rob us, kidnap us, shoot us, anything else — that would have been the perfect opportunity. Every so often a motorcycle rushed past us and my heart skipped a beat. Couple that with the fact that our driver was speeding and no one in Pakistan bothers with seat belts; I’m not even sure the car had any. So on top of being afraid of getting shot, the thought of us crashing kept crossing my mind as we careened to the airport. It all felt like a gamble.
I had a great trip up until that point. We shopped, attended weddings, spent time with family, ate great meals. While we were watching the coverage of Bhutto’s death and the ensuing riots, my cousin turned to me and asked, “So are you coming back next year?” And I replied with an emphatic “Yes.” We high-fived. “That’s the Pakistani spirit!” he said.
I never went back. It pisses me off. We made it to the airport, got on our plane, and knew it might be the last time. My family and friends there are amazing, kind people. They reflect the majority of Pakistanis in Karachi — moderate, hard-working and hoping for peace. I worry about my family. I’m angry that I’ll never be able to take my American husband there to visit. He’ll never see the Pakistan I used to know as a kid. He’ll certainly never see the Pakistan my parents grew up in.
I try to be optimistic, hoping things will turn around. But when the world seems to be slipping backwards it becomes hard to hold on to that hope. So I do what we did the night of the rioting: wait for it to pass. Maybe eventually it will.