Last year, The Economist called Karachi, Pakistan -- a urban center roughly the size of Los Angeles -- "a hell for ordinary folks." Over the past two decades, the Pakistani economic capital has mutated into a noirish Gotham, complete with gangsters, drug dealers, dirty politicans, and violent power struggles. VICE founder Suroosh Alvi recently traveled to the most violent city in Pakistan to examine the city's seedy underbelly and widespread corruption. After mingling with heroin junkies, visiting a mobster's lair, and interviewing a hitman, Alvi came back with an incredible hour-long YouTube documentary, "VICE Guide to Karachi: Pakistan's Most Violent City." If Sergio Leone were to make a real-life spaghetti western about the Middle East, it'd look a lot like the five-part VICE Guide to Karachi. Seriously, watch it:
Oddly curious about a place as nefarious and damnable as Karachi, I fired over a few e-mails to Alvi about the documentary. Here's what he had to say:
BroBible: Compared to your other dispatches from Pakistan, how did this trip into Karachi’s dark underbelly rank in terms of danger?
Suroosh Alvi: There are all different kinds of danger. The violence in Peshawar is scarier as it often stems from suicide bombing, which is so unpredictable and invisible until it happens, while in Karachi, many of the violent deaths are caused by target killers. I felt safer going into Karachi because there was no real reason for target killers to come after us. Though things are probably different now since our piece has aired. That being said, I was very concerned about having my producer Jason Mojica with me. He’s a 6’2 inch tall white guy – we obviously didn’t blend in, and this is the city where American journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and killed.
I think with each experience I have filming in Pakistan, I notice significant deterioration in the country across the board. Karachi was this city that we’d been looking at from afar, but when we learned that the number of violent deaths in Karachi is higher than the number of people getting killed in the tribal areas by drones and by the war on terror, we thought it was worth investigating... We had to look into it more closely.
You mentioned in your interview on CNN about the fear of Karachi erupting into a civil war and destabilizing Pakistan. How close to the brink do you think Karachi is to that worst-case scenario?
Karachi is not a war zone - there are a lot of safe and rich communities, but also neighborhoods that are borderline anarchy. That’s what makes the city so fascinating. But I do think that the next two years are critical in Pakistan. A lot depends on what happens with its relationship with the United States - a relationship that has arguably never been in a worse place, and what the United States does when they pull out of Afghanistan in 2014.
If anything, the direction that Karachi is heading in right now is terrifying. There’s a vacuum in terms of leadership; there’s a serious shortage of power and electricity and basic social services with no solution in place, a population explosion, and the presence of the Taliban; there’s no one ready to step in and try and fix it. If change doesn’t come soon the worst could happen. It’s just a matter of when.
The interview with the target killer was one of the most chilling moments of the entire series. Who exactly are these guys working for? Mobsters, politicians, big-time drug dealers?
They get hired by the mafia, political parties, and anyone with a score to settle who doesn’t want to do the dirty work himself. These target killers have no livelihood; we can assume that they’re at a pretty desperate place when they decide to get into that profession. It’s really all about money. I can’t think of a worse predicament to be in, where you have to start ending lives to put food on the table.
The scene with the heroin zombies was extremely intense. How new is widespread, street-level heroin use in Karachi?
Heroin’s been a problem in Pakistan for a very long time. It started back in the ’80s when the Mujahedeen were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and it’s been a problem in Lahore and Karachi since. There are upwards of 4 million heroin addicts in Pakistan – it’s running rampant. And it’s not a rich person’s drug. You can buy it at 80 cents a gram. It’s cheaper than hashish. Plus the hashish is now being cut with heroin as well… It’s like, “Holy F*ck?! Take that BroBible!”
That is pretty f*cked up…
You could be a dirt-poor person living in the third world and still stay strung out at 80 cents a gram. It’s ridiculous. These people have nothing; literally nothing, but can stay strung out, shooting SUPER high-grade horse with dirty needles on the street. It’s f*cking insane.
I found the swarm of Pakistani media on the police raid for Al Qaeda members extremely interesting. Do you think these public media hunts are fueling a lot of public resentment in Pakistan, especially when working in concert with the drone strikes ?
No. I think we should assume that generally these police operations are legit, and people want to see the police forces doing something. But the one that we were invited on happened to become this big media spectacle. It was high comedy and totally absurd. The cops weren’t actually doing anything, and it was really just for “tonight’s nightly news.”
However there is a huge amount of misinformation being pushed by the media that ends up perpetuating really high levels of fear. The country is filled with 180 million 24-hour news junkies addicted to their real life reality TV. A great example of the hysteria that the news can create is after bin Laden was captured and killed in Abbottabad. Pakistan went into a craze where no one could trust what the government was telling them anymore. It created an awful environment of denial and delusion and paranoia and suspicion… A black hole.
What is youth or 20-something life and culture like in Karachi?
There are kids who go to good schools, are into culture, and are plugged in. They know what’s happening in the world, they’re educated, they’re making art, they’re making music, and they’re dating. The only difference is they live in this insane environment, and for obvious reasons avoid the “no-go” zones. Their lives are constantly interrupted by the violence, strikes, and so on.
One of our guides, Osama Motiwala, was a really interesting kid. He was only 19 years old, but when I was hanging out with him I felt like I was hanging out with a peer. The kid was pretty advanced, and I think he was sick of being surrounded by the lunacy and craziness of life in Karachi. Then there was Basim Usmani, who plays in a band called Kominas. He lives in Boston now but used to work as a crime reporter in Lahore. They played the first-ever punk show in Pakistan. They brought everyone in – beggars off the street, rich kids, people who had never heard punk rock before. There was even this little mosh pit going. It was an amazing thing to see.
At this point, VICE put us in touch with Motiwala to talk a little bit more about Karachi.
Osama, we hear you love Hunter S. Thompson. Are you fan of the Doctor's political work or just his greatest hits, like "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?"
I love Googling random quotes, and that's when I came across Hunter S. Thompson." Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trial '72" was his first book I ever read - and I've read the book a couple of times since. The most attractive feature was the 'Gonzo' style of writing, and of course his love for .22 magnum, drugs and Doberman. Frankly, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is overrated, maybe because of the movie. I believe his other works like "The Great Shark Hunt," "Better Than Sex" and "Hell's Angels" are better. I still have to get my hands on "Gonzo: Photographs by Hunter S. Thompson" though.
Do you feel like there's anything from HST's canon that could be applied to modern day Pakistan?
I believe a lot of things from HST's writings could be applied to Pakistan. We don't have motorcycle gangs like Hells Angels here, but we do have motorcycle gangs who can kill you for your mobile phone - trust me, it happens! We don't have anyone like Doctor who's open about the use of drugs, alcohol and sex but that's just because it's Pakistanl; people are scared. Haha. But the drug culture, the violence, the "dirty politics." It’s all there.
What is youth or twenty-something life and culture like in Karachi?
Karachi is home to people from different backgrounds and different income groups. Rich kids party with expensive booze and listen to Western music on beaches. Others might play cricket at night, smoke a joint or two. There are night matches, concerts, small gigs, 'sheesha' bars and there are occasional study groups to discuss Marxism too. It's all scattered - you should know the right people and have the right amount of cash with you. Haha. Usually, a working 20year old might just hang with a bunch of friends over 'chai' - tea.
Can you talk a little bit about what happened after VICE left Karachi? There was a fear shit was about to go down between the MQM and Peoples’ Aman Committee. Is that what happened?
Karachi is always on the verge of violence. In fact, as I write this, the whole city is shut down because yesterday, an ex-MPA's brother was shot. So you get the picture. After VICE left Karachi, it was the usual. Innocent people died, vehicles were torched by 'unidentified men' because no one gets caught in this city. Sad, but true.
What are the lasting repercussions of that violence, if any?
I don't think there was/are any lasting repercussions of that violence because here, there is a new story everyday. People forget. There are clashes between different political parties every fucking day.
You told VICE that "The people of Karachi possess a certain 'We don’t give a f*ck!' mind-set." Do you see that attitude changing any time soon?
People might call me a pessimist but I don't see that mindset changing any time soon, and that's because we are very selfish; we don't really empathize with others. No, actually we do, occasionally dedicating Facebook statuses to people who're killed in bomb blasts and attacks but that's about it. It sucks, but it's true.
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