The following is an excerpt from an essay first published in The Aleph Review, Vol. 5 (2021); curated for the website by digital guest editor Taha Kehar.
I came to the Karachi Literature Festival on 27th February 2020, the same day the first two home cases of Covid-19 were reported in Pakistan’s media. One patient was being quarantined in Karachi and the other in Islamabad, the two cities I was going to. Both sufferers had come from the then badly affected neighbouring country of Iran.
My British-Pakistani friend Asma, who now works for an NGO in Islamabad and was later to be one of my hosts in the capital, learnt about the outbreak when I was en route to Manchester for my flight. However, she didn’t want to frighten me by mentioning it, which meant I was quite surprised by all the facemasks and thermometers when I arrived at Jinnah International Airport. She filled me in on WhatsApp while I waited for my baggage.
Bear in mind that the week before, my husband and our two teenage sons had gone to northern Italy for a short skiing holiday. They came back full of stories about how quiet everything was: ‘We didn’t have to queue for the ski lift even once!’ I had to break it to them that the deserted resort was probably due to fears about coronavirus rather than good luck on their part—news of Italy’s devastating plague having just hit the British media. If they had left it even a few days later, I don’t think my boys would have made it home, for parts of Lombardy were soon to hunker into lockdown.
In late January, a Chinese student from my workplace, the University of York, had caught the virus while staying in a local hotel. His mother, also ill, was thought to be on a visit from China’s Hubei province. This case was contained, and the pair happily made a full recovery. However, by the time I set off for Karachi in late February, the UK had already confirmed towards twenty infections, most of them through domestic transmission.
All this would later have me questioning whether I might in fact be Patient Zero, this virus seeming to follow me around like a clingy toddler.
At the time, though, I was none too alarmed by the news of just two people in a country of Pakistan’s size testing positive. It seemed inevitable by now that a few unlucky victims would be found in almost every nation. This is not to say we anticipated the scale of the spread. The news from Italy wasn’t yet as dire as it would become, and the Far East had largely seemed to deal efficiently with their health crisis. At this point, for most people in both Euro-America and South Asia, coronavirus was a talking point rather than Armageddon. The general assumption was that it was a problem happening somewhere else. Even if a bottle of hand sanitizer was thoughtfully popped into each of the Karachi Literature Festival goody bags, people were still hugging each other, and social distancing hadn’t even been heard of.
The crowds to see writers talk about their work thronged as confidently as ever, only a few amongst these audience members sporting masks. On the festival’s closing night, the Raga Boyz played a riotous bhangra and qawwali set, with their fancy jackets and a Coke Studio drummer. One of their lyrics was, ‘You’re so beautiful that the whole of London dances.’ I felt a dual pride for Britain’s multicultural capital city and Pakistan’s jubilant pop culture, as a camera drone buzzed like a wasp over the bustling audience.
During the festival I recall desultory conversation about poetry and politics in the burnished evening light bathing the Beach Luxury Hotel. How beautiful the hotel’s pontoon was at night, lit-up speedboats churning the water as they sped past the mangroves, carrying whooping mariners. I gazed over at the food street at nearby Port Grand, also illuminated, but contentedly decided against venturing there. I was mistaken for Pakistani several times in my shalwar kameez, and Indian once because I don’t eat meat. To me there are no women more beautiful than South Asian auratain, so this came as a great compliment.
Despite the chef’s assumption that I was Hindu, I am not vegetarian, but pescatarian—or what a witty relative calls a fish and chipocrite. On the last night, I bumped into a friend who was eating at Casbah, the hotel’s seafood restaurant. She encouraged me to help her deal with what I can only describe as a crab apocalypse, so I set to with great enjoyment.
Even someone as uninterested in sport as me could hardly fail to notice that cricket was back in Pakistan. Evidence of mania for the so-called gentleman’s game was everywhere in Karachi. A male author, I forget which one, waxed lyrical about the resumption of Pakistan Super League as well as international matches. Test cricket had restarted in late 2019, and—symbolically enough, given the circumstances of the Lahore attack that had put an end to it a decade earlier—Sri Lanka was the first team to play, safely, in Rawalpindi.
These relaxed experiences chimed with a tale I heard several times. The story was recounted with particular pride at a dinner thrown for KLF speakers at the new Police Museum. Karachi had fallen, so the legend went, from its position as one of the most dangerous cities in the world to low in the Top 100 of metropolises vying for this questionable accolade.
Certainly, there was a sense of cautious optimism and I felt well cocooned. Indeed, looking back there is the guilty sensation that, like the British colonizers of the Bombay bubonic plague epidemic, I was segregated from the urban maelstrom, oblivious to what was really going on.
Perhaps I am overplaying the optimism as, despite all the conviviality, there was the faintest scent of panic in the seasalt air. A woman wearing a niqab, who had been seated next to a female writer I know on a flight in from Abu Dhabi, blithely told my friend the face covering had been protecting her against viruses for years. The writer took this as a reproof of her own uncovered head. However, with hindsight it is the idea of modest clothing as PPE that is more striking. Just as the French have moved quickly from banning Muslim women’s face coverings to mandating the wearing of masks for all in indoor public spaces, all our attitudes have done a swift about-face this impossible year.
Moreover, about a week before my arrival, a toxic miasma had killed fourteen in Karachi West. The government said this lethal gas came from soybean dust, but their explanation was widely suspected to be a coverup. Someone said we’ve got pestilence, plague, and there’s even been a swarm of locusts!
And I shouldn’t forget that I was fleeing the equally biblical storms that had swept through much of Britain in February. It had been a miserable month, when viruses seemed far less pressing than climate change, as much of the island nation found itself under water. I had realized the immensity of the soggy destruction as I travelled back from my uncle’s funeral in Glasgow. Having almost got stuck in the waterlogged city, I was allowed to hop on the first train to escape the relentless rain. On the long journey back from west-central Scotland to northern England, I saw goalposts peeking out of what looked like a lake, seagulls flying overhead. It was astonishing to process that this littoral scene was a field usually used by young people as a football pitch.
Perhaps my relief at now being in Karachi’s dry heat goes some way towards explaining why I didn’t pay enough attention then to the signs of coming trouble.
Claire Chambers is professor of global literature at the University of York, UK, where she teaches literature from South Asia, the Arab world, and their diasporas. She is the author of several books, including Britain Through Muslim Eyes (2015), Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays(2017) and Making Sense of Contemporary British Muslim Novels (2019). Most recently, she coedited (with Nafhesa Ali and Richard Phillips) A Match Made in Heaven: British Muslim Women Write About Love and Desire (2020). Claire is editor-in-chief (with Rachael Gilmour) of the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, which she has edited for a decade, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
About the featured artist: R.M. Naeem was born in Sindh. He graduated from the National College of Arts, Lahore, with a distinction in fine arts and has been a part of the permanent faculty at NCA since 1994. In 2019, he was awarded associateship at NCA. Over the past three decades, he has held 18 solo exhibitions and curated various shows. His work has been exhibited in Australia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Korea, Malaysia, Norway, Oman, Singapore, Sri Lanka, UAE, UK and USA. He has attended several art camps and residencies abroad over the course of his career. He has also conducted various art counselling workshops, both in Pakistan and abroad. In 2015, he was selected by the Embassy of China to experience Chinese art and culture, as well as to represent and promote Pakistani art and art education in six cities of China. Since 1994, he has been promoting art through educational activities at his Studio RM, and has initiated the Studio RM (International) Residency program in Lahore. In 2018 he was shortlisted for the Erasmus+ International Credit Mobility Staff Teaching Week at Middlesex University, London. His work has garnered several scholarships, awards and prizes in Pakistan, including the provincial Best Painter Award, first prize in the best short-short film category at the Punjab Film Festival, shortlistings at the Summer Film Festival 2014 Mainz (shortlisted) and Kunsthalle Mainz 2014, and the National Award of Excellence.