John, the taxi driver, will wait for me, even if I take an hour or two. It’s hot. On the pavement that almost no one uses
(since walking here is not considered a practical way of getting around) there are bones — small bones, dry and grey; chicken bones, bones from lamb chops and ribs. They are stuck between cracked
paving stones and rags and trampled plastic. You can easily overlook them. Everything's covered by a light layer of dust. Sometimes the remnants of blood or dried tendons can be seen. Garbage is
piled high along the external stone walls of the shrine.
In the blue sky, dozens, maybe hundreds of dark birds revolve around one another. For a moment, I think they are crows, but they have the silhouettes of griffins, larger than buzzards with slimmer wings, forked tails… And they don’t move like crows. They glide, dive low, take the thermal, gain height, and keep a lookout, each out for himself.
The shrine is a construction site between more construction sites. It will be renovated completely from reinforced concrete: A block with pointed arches and pillars, clad with sandstone, monumental like a fortress.
I cross the half-empty parking lot. A beggar without the lower-half of his legs sits on a plaited mat and doesn’t look at me. Five men stand next to the walk-through detectors for their security screenings, wearing shabby uniforms and ancient Kalashnikovs over their shoulders. I tilt my phone, pointing my camera towards them. They don’t even stop talking.
Only a few pilgrims come for prayers today: a handful of women in colorful, embroidered kurtas (two carry babies in their
arms); dervishes with henna-dyed beards; men wearing freshly-ironed suits, as if they were on their way to the office. I take off my shoes, slip them into a stall watched by an attendant, and
climb the stairs of a half-completed stairway over dirty, tracked carpet. Naked light bulbs hang from rusty steel braces. In the grey relief, some panels have been left open, exposing cable
ducts; a tentative handrail, painted red.
I pause, look over the site to the four-lane road. Behind it, an extended lawn, maybe a cricket field. Immediately below me, on the capital of a group of four columns (leftover from the former buildings), sits one of the birds, dark brown like an eagle, with a yellow-hooked beak, yellow claws, clasping something: prey. His head goes down, tugs at tough fibers, tears at the scraps.
The tomb of Abdullah Shah Ghazi is the most important holy shrine of Karachi. In the earlier times, Hindus and Christians
also came to visit. Maybe they still do, but they no longer reveal themselves as such.
Abdullah Shah Ghazi came around 760 with the first Islamic conquerors as a horse trader to the region of Sindh. Then he turned away from business and war. He was a great-grandson of the prophet. Enemies sat a trap for him in the forests and killed him. His followers brought him back to the place where he had gone ashore for the first time. They buried him on this hilltop with a view over the distant Arabian sea. At that time, there was nothing but rocks and sand, the water undrinkable for humans and animals. After they buried him, a nearby source of fresh water broke out of the rocks. It is said that his blessings still protect the city from cyclones and floods, that he helps against disease and infertility. One can ask him for anything. In 2010, the Taliban sent two suicide bombers. The explosions killed eight supplicants and injured more than sixty others.
At the end of the stairway to the inner entrance, a dervish sits next to a half- full oil drum with thick bundles of incense.
Next to him, I notice the grey area of another unfinished or partly-demolished building. Along a broken wall, a couple of iron bars are cast in blocks, flags fluttering from their heads in faded yellow, red and green.
Again, a crowd of birds fill the sky to the horizon. In the inner rooms of the site, rickety scaffolding, hastily-propped construction erected between the walls. A further stairway is still covered with the ancient blue and white ornamental tiles. The routes of men and women diverge. Under the dome of the grave, they come together again — men to the right side, women to the left. A toothless man cries out. Many layers of colorful towels, millions of rose leaves cover the sarcophagus. In front of the barricades, enclosing the white marble, is a man who takes away the towels and folds them, collects the red leaves and throws them into a trashcan, while the next pilgrims spread out new towels, toss new roses.
I sit down on the naked concrete in the next room, look nowhere, think about nothing. Stone dust mixes with the stink of
rotting waste. The noise of a jackhammer behind a high length of waxed fabric, which is the only partition, makes the silence more obvious than silence ever could.
There is much to ask for – to pray for, no matter what kind of life you come from. So this way time passes. As I leave the shrine's tomb, two of the birds have lit on the edge of the main building, holding their distance from each other. They don't seem to be a couple nor do they behave like rivals. One suddenly takes flight, drops down in the shimmering air, glides in a long arc over toilet barracks and the trailers for the workers and then flies away.
I get my shoes back for five rupies, go down to the parking lot.
Three women in long black robes trail me and call out. I reach into my pocket to give them some money which is expected after
visiting a saint. The first now reaches me, carrying floral wreaths on her arm. She talks to me while I sort through my stinking bank notes. Suddenly she throws one of her wreaths over my head,
skillfully like a cowboy catching a calf with his lasso. I don’t want this wreath. I jerk it off and try to give it back to her, but she now considers it mine since it has been around my neck.
She shows me a two hundred-rupie note – this is what she wants for the blessing, for the wreath she gave me. It's four or five times as much as regular alms would be. I go up to her with an
outstretched arm, the wreath between my fingers. My voice sounds very angry, I scare myself, but she doesn’t retreat – the opposite: She steps toward me, as if to hit me or scratch out my eyes.
All three women surround me now, shouting, screaming. I think they will curse me, and who can ever know what will come of a curse. I give her what I realize is at least a hundred-rupie note. She
takes it, but continues screaming. They follow me, shout things I don’t understand, but it all sounds threatening. Then they disappear between the bulldozers and earth movers and the fences of
corrugated iron. I look back. No one's looking, so I hang the floral wreath on a nearby bush.
John (whose name isn’t really “John,” he just calls himself that for foreign customers), stands next to his car and polishes its fender with a rag. I get in, trying to forget my own embarrassment and the women's curses. He will drive me back to the hotel though no one is waiting for me. Sweat runs down my temples and forehead.
- What did I do at the shrine, John asks me.
- I was just interested, I say.
- You are German, he asks.
- Yes, so?
He says he loves German beer, then asks whether I can arrange some for him?
- It’s difficult, I say, and take my phone out of my pocket, type in the code to give him the impression I’m busy. No one's
left a message. I take photos out of the moving car. It’s pointless, too many bumps, potholes, sudden swerves.
- If I want, he offers to sell me hashish, very good quality.
- Yes, I say. Then add, well, actually no thanks.
A donkey with an orange-colored mane pulls a cart, carrying iron bars, five meters in length, for reinforced concrete.
The hashish is really good, John says, he smokes it himself. I wouldn’t find better.
The whites of his eyes are bloodshot, his teeth alternate between brown and black. At least they are all still there.
- I used to smoke a lot of hashish, I say, then look out into the street, searching for something... I don’t know what, but if it was there, I'd recognize it.
The road leads past high walls, behind them there are estates or restricted areas. The army doesn't owe anyone an explanation. On the right-hand side, there are ruins of unfinished buildings, single palms, a few goats with long, dangling ears. Then nothing: In the middle of the city, a huge wasteland, low bushes, fields of reeds, crisscrossed by narrow dikes. It stinks of rotten seawater.
In front and above us again, the birds, as far the eyes can see, an endless number of them. From afar, they seem like clouds darkening the heavens. They come from everywhere, overtake us with strong wing beats, gather around an invisible center, a few meters above the ground at the edge of the marshes, circling about some focal point. They become a tangle of shadows and lines, take sharp curves, turn aside, disperse for a moment.
We shunt slowly between garish-colored vehicles, motorbikes, Japanese limousines to the place where the birds are circling.
- What kind of birds? I want to know.
John mumbles something. Maybe he didn’t understand me.
- What's up with the birds?
- Kites, he says.
Same as the word for the toy a child flies, except here kites have been recently banned. Too many people got their throats cut by the razor sharp steel cords used to steer them in competitions.
Below the point, they attack, I see a man standing, a slim silhouette in a loose-fitting shirt, white trousers. In his left hand, he holds a black plastic bag, which he put his right hand into, takes something out, throws it with all his strength into the sky. Some of the birds fold in their wings, accelerate sharply, land down on something. Others swirl from all directions around the man's head, lift up or pass him at the last moment. If they would flock together, they could kill him. But none of them even tries to assail him. Every throw moves the center of the commotion a bit, from here to there.
John rolls himself a cigarette, the steering-wheel fixed between his knees. I have no idea how he manages to keep his eyes on the traffic at the same time. I look on the speedometer: the pin vibrates around forty kilometers. I wonder whether I should fasten my seatbelt, but refrain.
- And what's the man doing? I ask.
- He's feeding the birds, he says.
- Just for fun?
- It's a promise.
The birds trajectories cross, interbreed for a hairbreadth, it’s a miracle that they don’t collide.
- Someone has a wish or a problem and he promises that he’ll feed the birds after it gets solved.
The man has a moustache and wears a cap, embroidered with little mirrors. Some of them reflect the sun for fractions of seconds. Again he throws something in the air as high as he can. It’s a frazzle of meat, spinning around itself. Before it reaches the vertex of its flight parabola, one of the birds catches it and shoots between the others out of the centre, disappears to find a safe place for devouring it. Maybe he’ll succeed. Some try to follow him, but turn back after a short while so they don’t miss the next scrap.
- As the people have many problems and many wishes, there are more and more birds, John says.
- And it works?
He shrugs his shoulders, looks on the dashboard for his lighter, lights his cigarette. Obviously he is not very much interested in the subject.
- Does it need some kind of a specific ritual? I want to know.
He looks curiously at me, shakes his head.
The man throws and throws and throws.
- Some people also go to Abdullah Shah Ghazi and promise something to him.
- Did you ever try?
We leave the man and the birds behind us. The traffic is still stumbling about.
I turn around, see that he has just dropped the empty bag. A flurry blows it up, carries it into the air. Two of the birds catch it at the same moment from different directions at different corners, flutter wildly around each other, till a very small piece tears off. The loser has just a small shred in his beak, not bigger than a cigarette paper, misses his balance, crashes, falls almost on his back, catches himself again in the last moment and flies away.
I say half-aloud and in German, I’ll go for seven…
Maybe seven is too little.
It has to hurt.
- Afghan hashish. Smooth as wax. Just tell me, how much you need.
- If all of this here ends up well, I’ll go and feed these birds for forty days with veal.
- I’ll make you a good price: 300 Rupies for one gram.
(c) Christoph Peters & Luchterhand Literaturverlag 2017, Translation: Christoph Peters