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Reflections On Karachi
World Social Forum

By Ingmar Lee

28 March, 2006

I tried very hard to get to Pakistan by train, but there was zero information available from Indian Railways about the Thar Express which started running between Jodhpur and Karachi in February after having been shut down since partition in '47. The only other alternative was to take the train up to Amritsar, then cross the border at Wagah, a short bus hop to Lahore, and then a 16 hour bus ride to Karachi. So after two days of wrangling visas and plane tickets in New Delhi, I flew into the beautifully austere Jinnah Airport at Karachi, population 15 million. Upon exiting the airport, one's first view of Pakistan is of a flashy McDonald's joint, which the new airport surrounds like a crescent moon.

I arrived just in time for the start of the plenary of the Karachi World Social Forum, which started, luckily for me, several hours behind schedule. There was a raucous red flag-waving, demonstration crashing the front gates to get in and the banner-festooned sports stadium was already packed with a boisterous crowd of about 10,000 people. I found myself a spot on the carpetted floor in front of the stage just in time for the introduction of the evenings keynote speakers, Tariq Ali, and the Palestinian activist Jamal Jumah. I haven't had a chance yet to identify the other speakers from Brazil, Cuba, South Africa and India. As the speakers were introduced, hundreds of terrified doves were shaken out of large sacks behind the stage, many of which careered straight into the crowd.

Before the speaking began, the first of three powerful Qawwali bands came out on stage to warm up the crowd. Qawwali is sacred music which was made famous around the world by the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Nusrat isbeloved and revered in Pakistan. Qawwali's spiritual power is such that it is also greatly respected and appreciated by Hindu's and is amongst the best aspects of the irrevocably intertwined Muslim/Hindu culture which binds the subcontinent's history. Given the large Hindu contingent which had come from India, this was a great choice of entertainment and the bands really got things going. People, men, and women, immediately got up in the crowd and danced. People even climbed right onto the stage and danced joyously, clearly intoxicated only by the music.

The speeches were all intensely fiery, -given with a podium-pounding anger which is rarely witnessed in the west, and although the translating was excellent, the details of the speeches were clear enough whether in Urdu, Portuguese, Hindi or Spanish. George W. Bush is the biggest terrorist scumbag ever to defile the planet. The crowd was completely energized and engaged, shouting out comments, with waves of call/response chants rolling around the stadium. It was very nicely staged, the whole evening, -nobody droned on too tediously as can happen, and the speakers were interspersed with the Qawalli bands and a frenzied troupe of kerosene-guzzling fire-blowers. The evening ended at midnight with a finale of fireworks launched dangerously right on the roof over the stage.

I had arrived straight from the airport and hadn't made any hotel arrangements, so it was pretty wild trying to grab a rickshaw as the crowd streamed out of the event, but eventually I got one to take me down to the train station where I figured I'd have the best chance of finding a hotel within my $5-a-night budget. Sure enough, I found a room at the Al-Faisal hotel, complete with squatter-toilet and hot running water, and as expected, perfectly comfortable. Karachi gets very few foreign tourists, thanks no doubt to the dreadful Travellers Alerts which are posted by western embassies warning of bombings, drive-by shootings, kidnappings and beheadings etc., (like it's safer walking around any American city) so although people are a bit surprised to have me walk into their kebab, nan and tchai joint, as soon as I sit down, all the men go back to their dinner. It's all men at midnight, and the restaurant is busy all night.

This morning I took a rickshaw out to the venue to get registered. I registered a month ago on-line, but it looked like it was touch and go as to whether the Forum would proceed, as it had already been held up by the devastating earthquake that hit the Kashmir region of Pakistan a few months ago. I'm registered as a delegate and will be conducting a workshop on the seemingly insurmountable obstacles which are encountered in the effort to protect the Earth's final forests. Although environmental issues have a low profile at this Forum, which is understandable, given Pakistan's location near the epicentre of the impending geopolitical catastrophe being wreaked by America's current and threatened invasions. Nevertheless, there's a good deal of interest and there were two demonstrations today over plans to damn the Indus, led by a large and loud group of angry women from Sindh. A large aspect of the obstacles I'm talking about involve what has already been identified as a problem within the procedures and direction of the World Social Forum itself, -it's turning into an Big NGO-dominated event which is overshadowing its grass-roots roots. Just as the environmental movement is being disempowered by collaborationist ENGO's which are choosing to negotiate compromises with government and industry, similarly, the WSF is apparently swinging towards entrenchments which transform flexible, energized grass-roots action-oriented effort to entrenched, professional, celebrity NGO pyramidical power structures.

Here's how Arundhati Roy, who turned down an invitation to the event, put it in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! recently:

Amy Goodman: Finally, Arundhati Roy, you are headed to Pakistan, not to follow President Bush, but for the World Social Forum that will be taking place later this month. Can you talk about what you'll be saying there and the significance of this forum on the heels of this visit?

Arundhati Roy: Well, actually, I'm not headed there, because -- I know that my name was announced, but that was done without anybody asking me. And, you know, I'm really thinking about all these things too much to be able to go and speak at the World Social Forum now, because I'm very worried about, you know, all of us who are involved in these things, spend too much of our energy sort of feeling good about the World Social Forum, which has now become very NGO-ized and, you know, a lot of – it's just become too comfortable a stage. And I think it's played a very important role up to now, but now I think we've got to move on from there, and I've already said this at a previous World Social Forum job, and I really don't want to, you know, carry on doing something when the time is over for it, you know? I think we have to come up with new strategies.

I attended a workshop this morning on "The State of Federal Democracy in Pakistan: The Reality and the Rhetoric." One of the three speakers was the Canadian Professor Bruce Toombs, who has, apparently acquired some sort of academic posting here. He described the Canadian "Federal Democratic System" (what the hell is a "federal democracy??") in great detail, going over the evolution of the Canadian parliamentary process, which he said has always been a 'work in progress' and never initially envisioned in its present form. He made referrences to the FLQ "terrorists" which have been reintegrated into Canadian society and described the French/English issue as Canada's main source of tension. I was utterly shocked that he worked through his entire presentation without a single mention of the fact that what is called Canada had been peopled for tens of thousands of years prior to the white arrival, and that the Colonialist adventure which had resulted in Canadian democracy has been as genocidal for First Nations as has the Zionist occupation of Palestine, which is the focus of so much angst at the Forum. So my first real work at the WSF was to stand up immediately the guy was finished and remind Mr. Toombs of the context in which he was speaking.

Yeah, it was only the first day, but I did get the sense that there are a lot of people there, who unlike me, have some kind of hope that we can turn the world around from the very brink of disaster through the existing political processes, like in the event that the left should prevail against the right, that Peace and Justice will prevail again. I don't believe it, and I hope that Arundhati isn't exactly right, ~that the WSF has stopped being a cutting edge vehicle for finding new ways to organize people to action.

I do think she's a bit unfair, because really, this is a very impressive event for Pakistan, it speaks to Pakistan's social maturity and I commend the people who put it together.

So, I'll head back to the Al Faisal Hotel now.









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