To tame Karachi’s architectural anarchy, a vintage book market may be felled

  • Urdu Bazaar slated to be next victim of anti-encroachment drive
  • Shopkeepers fear a centre of learning and culture may soon be lost

(Arab News) KARACHI: In 1954, Muhammad Riaz set up a bookstore in Karachi, just around the corner from the delectable aromas and crowded pathways of the famous Burns Road food street.
Over the next three quarters of a century, a cavernous market of overflowing bookstores and stalls mushroomed all around Maktaba-e-Imran Digest Publishing and came to be called Urdu Bazaar. Today, it is a well-known city landmark, a sprawling space whose history mirrors the cultural development of Karachi itself and which offers a glimpse into the soul and workings of Pakistan’s chaotic financial hub.
But the bazaar’s fate has been uncertain since earlier this month when nearly 70 shopkeepers were informed by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) that they had to vacate their shops by January 8 or face forceful eviction.
The notice is part of a larger anti-encroachment drive launched by authorities last year following the orders of the Supreme Court to demolish illegal structures built on drains, pavements and state land. Since December 21, more than 3,500 shops have been demolished, directly affecting at least 17,500 workers. Hundreds of sunshades, extended walls, huts, hotels, cabins, street markets, marriage halls and banquets have also been razed to the ground in all six districts of the seaside city of 1.7 million.
For now, the anti-encroachment operation against the historic bazaar has been postponed due to protests by vendors and merchants, and a four-member committee has been set up to decide whether the market runs over a nullah, or drain.
Karachi mayor Waseem Akhtar said he was taking action against encroachers as per the law. “None of our actions are illegal,” he told Arab News at his office. “We are bound to implement the [Supreme] Court’s orders.”
But 70-year-old store manager Mahmood Ahmed said the bazaar was set up following legal procedures and that KMC had itself invited traders to the area in the fifties and asked them to set up their businesses there.
“We haven’t encroached,” the bespectacled shop owner told Arab News at Maktaba-e-Imran Digest Publishing, which he manages since his brother-in-law Riaz passed away. “Everything here was legal but with this notice we suddenly came to know we have no right to stay at a place which we developed into a centre of learning.”
When the subcontinent was divided in 1947, Pakistan made Urdu, the elegant, supple language associated with poets and emperors, her official language. The language was popularised by Muhajirs, mostly Muslim immigrants who arrived from various regions of India, were widely identified as native Urdu speakers and settled in parts of urban Sindh, including Karachi. Indeed, many of those who first opened bookshops in what is currently Urdu Bazaar were Urdu speakers, lending the market its name. Soon, the place became a regular haunt for poets and authors like Mushtaq Yousufi, Ibne Insha, Shaukat Thanvi, Jaun Elia and others — and the rest as they say is history.
The bazaar’s groaning bookshelves and stalls culled from discarded pallets are a stone’s throw from heritage buildings like Radio Pakistan, the Sindh provincial parliament and the Supreme Court, in the heart of what is called Old Karachi. The area is a churning hive of shops, food stalls, street vendors, taxi drivers, rag pickers, and more. It’s narrow, teeming alleyways are alive with commerce. But as far as city authorities are concerned, this pulsating stretch of land is an emblem of everything that is wrong with the city.
“The objective [of the demolition] is to rob high-value space from where the poor are located and use it for the benefit of the rich and the speculators who serve them,” top architect Arif Hasan wrote in an op-ed in Dawn newspaper last year. “It is to replace hawkers and indigenous markets with malls and high-end retail outlets. That they can coexist…is beyond the comprehension of a paranoid elite and enemies of a multi-class city. “
By 2030, Karachi is expected to be the world’s third most populated city. The city is a planner’s nightmare and in theory, the anti-encroachment operations are meant to correct decades of failed urban development.
But plans to raze Urdu Bazaar threaten the very “social and cultural face of Karachi,” said Sahar Ansari, an Urdu poet and linguist.
“Urdu bazaar is the educational, literary and cultural face of Karachi and erasing the bazaar will be tantamount to erasing this very identity,” he said. “I have visited book bazaars in more than fifteen cities of Europe, Middle East, South and East Asia, which have played a great role in transforming those societies. How can we demolish ours which we Karachiites need the most today?”
Indeed, the market has become a temple for Karachi’s literary pilgrims, poets, writers, students of all ages, publishers and paper and stationary sellers. Some visitors are bibliophiles who come to immerse themselves in age-old tomes buried in tiny bookstores. Others are just browsing for textbooks or self-help manuals on meandering stalls that line the edge of the streets.
All around, the view is pure Karachi: the crowds, like in the rest of the city, are raucous and dense and the juxtapositions are jarring. A box set of works by Urdu prose writer Saadat Hasan Manto rubs shoulders with the biography of cricket star and current Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. The historical fiction novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, sits atop a slippery stack of paperbacks about the Atkins diet. Rickety stalls piled high with fashion magazines are pressed up against concrete plaza buildings. Well-dressed university students buy textbooks from elderly bearded men who have grown old running their shops in Urdu Bazaar.
The bazaar’s literary torch is perhaps best represented by Faridi Publications whose 96-year-old founder set up the shop in 1980. Today, he runs it with his 62-year-old son Nazar Muhammad Faridi and 28-year-old grandson Osama Faridi, the three generations of men spending each day together among eager customers and a passel of books.
“This is not only monetary homicide for us,” Faridi said as he put an Urdu magazine in a shopping bag and handed it to be customer. “But they [KMC] are also robbing us of the memories of three generations attached to this old market.”
“We have paid our rents on time and now, after all these years, we are being asked to vacate,” Faridi’s son said as the sun set over the crowded street. “They want to rob us of everything. Our livelihood and our lovely memories.”

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