Staying Safe in Karachi

-Faris Khan, PhD Student in Anthropology

Growing up I was only exposed to certain affluent neighborhoods that were far removed from the city’s poorer and relatively unsafe settlements. Not surprisingly then, family and friends were concerned about my wellbeing when I returned to Karachi in January 2011 to conduct fieldwork amongst khawaja siras (loosely defined as transgender people), most of whom reside in colonies and katchi abadis (squatter settlements) that are considered unsafe.

Karachi is the site of intense ethnic violence and terrorist activities, and it is not uncommon for political parties to have turf wars and spontaneous shoot outs. Many of these conflicts are concentrated within colonies, which tend to be dominated by one or more political faction.

For fieldwork, I was advised by relatives to adopt the common person’s look, specifically for security reasons. While some suggested a dull-colored shalwar kameez made of inexpensive material, others thought sporting a two-three day old stubble would be a good idea. Amidst fears of kidnappings, especially of US citizens, I was told to take different routes when going to the colonies that I visited regularly.

Further, I was advised to keep a low profile about my citizenship. Days after the arrest of Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor charged for killing two men in Lahore, my research assistant, Nadia, asked if I was also secretly working for the US Government like Davis. She said that I looked Amreekan to her since I am pretty gora chitta (light skinned). I laughed nervously and quickly changed the topic.

I did not hesitate to take heed of the advice that I received from loved ones since Karachi is undoubtedly a volatile city. Even though I had a fruitful research experience, it was tinged with a lingering sense of fear each time I left home to do fieldwork.