The heart of Karachi

Saba Imtiaz has one thing in common with the protagonist of her debut novel – they are both journalists in one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Paul Muir writes.

The UAE-born writer and journalist Saba Imtiaz, author of Karachi, You’re Kiling Me!, a loosely autobiographical debut novel about Ayesha, a young reporter in search of romance in an increasingly violent Pakistan. Courtesy Random House
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“I am a child of Cosmopolitan culture, have been traumatised by supermodels and too many quizzes and know that neither my personality nor my body is up to it if left to its own devices,” reads a quote from Bridget Jones’s Diary on the flyleaf of UAE-born Saba Imtiaz’s debut novel, “a comedy of manners in a city with none” called Karachi, You’re Killing Me!.

It is not hard to see the parallels between chick-lit pioneer Helen Fielding’s bumbling, unlucky-in-love thirty-something struggling to cope with the social and career challenges of life in 1990s London and Imtiaz’s protagonist, Ayesha, a hard-partying, twenty-something reporter looking for romance in contemporary Pakistan’s violent commercial capital.

Ayesha’s reporting assignments, usually undertaken after a late night on the town with friends, cover a peculiarly broad spectrum: from navigating her way through scattered body parts at terrorist attack sites on one end, to interviewing her editor’s niece, a couture-cupcake designer, on the other.

Imtiaz admits that there may be something of herself in Ayesha, but stresses that the comparison can only be taken so far.

“Karachi, You’re Killing Me! is autobiographical in a very loose sense. I had a lot of references from my own life to draw from: being a twenty-something journalist, anecdotes from reporting and [like Ayesha] a pampered cat,” she says. “So it was easy to write a character whose life and friends I could write about with a fair bit of first-hand knowledge, but by the time I finished the book, I had very little in common with the character.

“The protagonist and I – or actually, most people my age and in similar professions/economic backgrounds – have fairly similar social lives, but I usually spend my evenings ordering McDonald’s by myself.”

Imtiaz was born in Ras Al Khaimah, grew up in Sharjah and went to school in Dubai before moving at the age of 10 to Pakistan, where she was well-prepared for the hustle and bustle of Karachi. The 28-year-old freelance journalist told The Review of her time in Dubai: “I credit my childhood for ingraining a love for big cities in me, and possibly a bit of a shopaholic tendency.”

Karachi, You’re Killing Me! is a very funny book, but there is clearly a serious side to Imtiaz. Her freelance journalism has appeared in newspapers such as The Christian Science Monitor and The Guardian, and she has embarked on a new book project, this one featuring an altogether more sinister cast of characters than Ayesha and her fun-loving friends.

“I’m currently finishing a non-fiction book called No Team of Angels,” she says. “It’s a reportage-based account of the conflict in Karachi, the drivers of violence and the fight for resources in the city.”

Being female has both advantages and disadvantages when working as a journalist in Karachi, she says.

“I don’t think my gender has ever been a barrier to my work. It’s often easier to be a woman – you get more access, you can do a wider range of stories. My editor at The Express Tribune encouraged me to report on crime as well – often seen as a boys-only club – and I didn’t feel that being a woman was ever a challenge.”

However, she adds: “While it isn’t a rarity [for a woman] to be working as a journalist – women work across economic backgrounds and professions – there are challenges. Sexual harassment is largely treated as a joke, though some organisations have attempted to address that, but you can’t do anything about widespread harassment outside.”

Sexual harassment may be distressing, but there are worse things reporters can face in one of the world’s most dangerous places. Numerous journalists have been murdered over the past decade, some of them, it has been alleged, by members of the security services, and it is extremely rare for anyone to be held accountable. Imtiaz doesn’t see that changing in the foreseeable future.

“Even if those responsible are ever brought to justice, the damage has already been done,” she says. “Once fear sets in, it’s hard to shake it off and it seeps into work and self-censorship. And in this country … [one can] end up in a ditch.”