City of Brass



Traveling to Karachi from the US is not easy. But traveling back is even worse.

I returned a couple weeks ago from my trip and have been coping with the usual jet lag and GI/respiratory baggage that comes from an extended trip to the far side. The pace of events during Ashara itself was too hectic for me to have any time to post while I was there, but now that I am back and mostly recovered, I can retrospectively write about the experience. And in retrospect, Karachi deserves a spotlight all its own.

Karachi is the living heart of Pakistan. It is Pakistan’s New York, its Mumbai, its London – the sprawling metropolis where everything happens, where everything matters. We were in the heart of the city, in the Saddar district, and to be honest there were few architectural landmarks visible from street level that were notable. The most important feature of the landscape, Jinnah’s tomb (above), was only visible from the hotel’s upper floors, and dominated accordingly.

The difference between Karachi and Mumbai is subtle at first, then gradually grows – the eyes first see similar things like juxtaposed high-end boutiques and street vendors, parks and dumps, condos and slums, with roads full of cabs,cars, and rickshaws. But the nastaliq script is everywhere, which immediately gives a sense of identity. Small signs on street medians that say “subhanallah” or “mashallah” convey the entanglement of faith and culture in a familiar instead of alien way. Instead of mandirs there are mosques, mosques everywhere – but still outnumbered by the shops and the old buildings. The sea glitters in the distance, glimpsed from an overpass, but seaside is far more industrial.

There is energy here and there is ambition. It is not a cynical place, Karachi, nor a world-weary one. It is not as cosmopolitan, but this is in a way a reason for its focus and its drive – it doesn’t need to cater to everyone, the city knows it audience and focuses accordingly.

Of course, there was the security. The Pakistani government was highly aware of the significance of Ashara sermons being conducted in the city for the first time in 21 years, in addition to the local Shi’a processions that are an annual tradition. Entering the environs of Taheri Masjid, where the sermons were conducted, was a bit like playing Call of Duty in real-life – large shipping containers blocked off all major access roads, with armed guards atop and below, and sniper nests on nearby rooftops. For the final days of Ashara, the city disabled all cell services, which would be unthinkably inconvenient in the US but simply accepted as necessary by the entire metropolis of 15 million people.

Karachi – and Pakistan – have a negative perception here in the US because the only filter is the lens of terror and conflict. And there is a reason for that filter. But it hardly captures the living reality of this amazing city, and proud nation. Pakistan is unique among Islamic countries, because it was conceived as an expression of Islamic democracy at the outset (setting aside the chaos of Partition, a gross and tragic failure of implementation). The founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, himself articulated his vision in various radio broadcasts as follows:

“Pakistan is the premier Islamic State and the fifth largest in the world. . . The constitution of Pakistan has yet to be framed by the Pakistan Constituent Assembly. I do not know what the ultimate shape of this constitution is going to be, but I am sure that it will be of a democratic type, embodying the essential principles of Islam. Today, they are as applicable in actual life as they were 1,300 years ago. Islam and idealism have taught us democracy. It has taught equality of men, justice and fair-play to everybody.”

The great majority of us are Muslims. We follow the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (may peace be upon him). We are members of the brotherhood of Islam in which all are equal in rights, dignity and self-respect. Consequently, we have a special and a very deep sense of unity. But make no mistake: Pakistan is not a theocracy or anything like it.”

“You have to stand guard over the development and maintenance of Islamic democracy, Islamic social justice and the equality of manhood in your own native soil.”

Jinnah did not conceive Pakistan as a theocracy, but rather a republic, and that vision has endured. Imperfect though it is, Pakistan tries, and by its own existence proves that Islam as a political entity is not limited to Caliphates like the Ottomans, Kingdoms like Saudi, or theocracies like Iran. This is why Pakistan matters, and this is why Karachi exists, because Karachi could exist nowhere else in the Islamic world.


Every year, I travel to attend the Ashara Mubaraka majlis (gathering), with the spiritual leader of my community, the Dawoodi Bohra Muslims. Last year, I went to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; the year before was on my home turf of Houston. I have been attending regularly for almost a decade now – starting with Colombo in 2008, Mombasa in 2009, and Marol (Mumbai) in 2010. This year, 2017 (1439H), I am headed to Karachi, the great metropolis of Pakistan.

Ashara is many things. On the most superficial level, it is an annual excuse to travel the world and meet people, many of whom actually read this blog. More importantly, Ashara is a religious rite, replete with sermons, elegies, and remembrance of the sacrifice of Imam Husain AS, not just for Shi’a, or for Muslims, but for all mankind.

Fundamentally, however, the purpose of Ashara is to mourn. As I wrote last year,

We mourn because we love. The stronger the love, the greater the mourning; the indifferent do not mourn. Love is the basis of our humanity; the very word insaan (human) is the root of the word anasat (intimacy) in Arabic. When anasat is betrayed, the human soul never fully recovers. The truer the love, the deeper the wound. Imagine, then, the wound upon insaniat (humanity) itself, when the truest love of all, that of the divine, was betrayed at Karbala? The violent irony of humanity’s own capacity for inhumanity is truly heart-breaking.

This year, I hope to reflect more on the meaning of Ashara in a personal sense and try to capture some of that experience for my own posterity. I also will be doing some photography of Karachi and environs while I am there, since this is my first visit to Pakistan in 20 years. Bookmark my geekblog,, for the artsy stuff and stay tuned here at City of Brass for the pseudo-intellectual rambling 🙂

Tomorrow I depart, inshallah. More to come. To everyone else also traveling to Karachi, Dua ni iltemas and mubarak!

Related: Reflections on Grief and the Remembrance of Imam Husain.

I don’t write about 9-11 every year, because on the 12th anniversary I looked back at over a decade of writing about it and realized I had nothing much left to say.

On the 13th anniversary, I said, and I still believe, that:

The simple truth is that our response to 9-11 – the Afghan campaign and the Iraq War – directly led to the chaos the region faces today, including ISIS – far worse chaos than before our intervention. Had Saddam Hussein stayed in power, we would have seen the Arab Spring reach Iraq on its own, and all the young men who join militias today, toddlers during the war, might have grown up dreamy-eyed revolutionaries for democracy rather than radicalized forces for sectarianism and/or jihad.

Two questions I asked 8 years ago still stand out in my mind as the most relevant to the modern age: is terrorism still a threat? and, was 9-11 an outlier?

These questions are inherently political, but there is data. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in April 2017 on Countering Violent Extremism was unequivocal:

Since September 12, 2001, the number of fatalities caused by domestic violent extremists has ranged from 1 to 49 in a given year. … Fatalities resulting from attacks by far-right wing violent extremists have exceeded those caused by radical Islamist violent extremists in 10 of the 15 years, and were the same in 3 of the years since September 12, 2001.

Of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far-right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73 percent) while radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27 percent).

[T]he total number of fatalities is about the same for far-right wing violent extremists and radical Islamist violent extremists over the approximately 15-year period… 41 percent of the deaths attributable to radical Islamist violent extremists occurred in a single event — an attack at an Orlando, Florida night club in 2016.

(emphasis mine). Looking at the data, then, 9-11 is an outlier in scale, in type, in casualty, in method, and in actor. The threat is domestic terror. Of these, extremist whites and extremist Muslims have the same body count, but right wingers are responsible for 3x as many actual incidents as Islamists.

Of course, terrorism is a threat. It probably always will be. But the T-word is inherently political:

The “political” component seems to provide convenient cover when there is reluctance to call an attack what it is. Terrorist action strives for specific ideological goals or expectations, which can be centered on race, religion, national origin, or other systems of issue-oriented priorities. Implicitly, every ideology entails a political tendency, and thus, by its very nature, terrorism is also political.

Wha this means is that terrorism is a category that will eventually expand. Terrorism is reactionary. There’s a reason antifa is back – and punching back. I would not be surprised if antifa started appearing on the fatality scoreboard in a decade or so. The pathway we are on empowers all angry actors, because we lack a political system for those actors to meaningfully influence the civic space. As Shadi Hamid said in an interview,

On a basic level, violence offers meaning. And that’s what makes it scary. In the broader sweep of history, mass violence and mass killing is actually the norm. It’s only in recent centuries that states and institutions have tried to persuade people to avoid such practices.

That also reminds us that when institutions and social norms are weakened, those base sentiments can rise up again quite easily.

The winter of 9-11 is behind us, and we are now entering the American Spring.

In just a few weeks, it will be Ashara. The faithful who remember Imam Husain tremble in anticipation…


(Photo by Alefiyah Shikari – Check out her photojournalism project, Unsung Echoes)