The essay is based on conversations my students–all from the city and regulars at Kareemuk–had with patrons at the café. Two were working on projects related to the social world of the café and spoke to people to understand its importance. I then talked to the students as part of my support for their project and also to understand what such places and spaces mean to Gwadar's mahigeer (fisherfolk community). The students knew my research interests, carried my questions and queries into the café, and made them a part of their work. The essay incorporates ideas and insights generated during discussions, debates, planning, and thinking sessions between myself and the students, alongside my interviews with those few who were willing to talk to me about the significance of Kareemuk in their lives. All photographs belong to the students, Tariq Faiz and Rahim Sohrabi, and are used with their permission.
The neighbourhood looks like the aftermath of an aerial bombardment. The skeletal remains of two-storied buildings, almost all now little more than a pile of rubble and waste, stand leaning against each other, their former elegance and beauty reduced to collapsed walls, shattered windows, peeling paint, wayward wires, managed wood, and steel girders. Their walls, made from proud stone, now bear scars of years of neglect and weathering. Patches of paint cling to the walls and carelessly pasted advertising posters scream at passersby wherever the stucco hasn’t peeled off. Cracks snake up the walls, slowly but inevitably marking the time of the final demise. Wooden beams that once held up sturdy roofs lie rotting, their spines broken and shredded. Rain, debris, and garbage have seeped through roofless skeletons, leaving dark stains on the interiors. The alleys that meander gently through the neighbourhood, marking paths defined not by master planners but by the necessities and difficulties of the landscape and human desires, are riddled with deep craters, potholes, and rocks. Utility poles lie leaning and useless and look like arrows sunk in the blighted dirt, cast at the town by giants in the sky. An eerie quiet surrounds the area, so much so that one can hear the dust meet the dirt. People walk silently along these alleys, lowering their voices as if in a cemetery as they make their way between the long shadows cast by these crippled stone skeletons that stand as witnesses to times gone by. Those who peer into the remains of a building through the wound-like crevices in walls can glimpse at abandoned personal belongings, furniture, and other household items scattered among the ruins. These once were the foundations of someone’s home, but today, they are of interest only to the many drug addicts who roam the alleys searching for items to sell to salvage yards. Blackened, charred walls and the smell of burning wood testify to the presence of men cooking heroin.
Most who come here – the old Shahi Bazaar area – do so only to walk towards the Kareemuk Hotel, a small tea shop that sits deep in the heart of this post-apocalyptic landscape and remains the centre of social life for the mahigeer of Gwadar. The neglect, violence, and displacement that have made the neighbourhood a ghost town seem not to have affected this café and the many who come and congregate here. The stream of clients starts early, shortly after the muezzin calls for Fajr prayers, his voice carried across the homes with the help of crackling and popping loudspeakers that have seen better days. Among the first to arrive is Imam Buksh Musa, who has been delivering tea water for over 23 years, a job he inherited from his father Musa Gadhay Gari Wala (Musa, the Donkey Cart Owner), when he inherited his father’s donkey cart. In the weakening darkness of twilight, the buildings bathed in a livor mortis blue, Imam Buksh’s lithe figure, always in a poorly fitting, stain-laden shalwar-kameez that drapes around his thin body like a shroud, works quickly and with a practised economy of effort as the bussers sit smoking cigarettes and watch him unload the barrels of fresh water for the morning tea. Soon, the others will arrive: those preparing to leave for the sea, those returning from a night of hunting, those who are unable to leave because of a lack of money, petrol, nets, or crew, and especially those mahigeer who have lost their livelihood because of bankruptcy, lack of means, capsized boats or age. And the errand boys, with their metal flasks or stacks of clear plastic bags, to take back home. One can map the flow of tea from the café to the dozens of homes and businesses and understand how chai is never just a drink but a catalyst of relations.
A cacophony of clattering dishes and cups, murmured conversations, and the ominous hissing sound of full-power gas burners fills the air as you enter. Men sit about, undeterred by the chaos and disarray, deep in discussion, debate, argument, or learning. Some do not come: the recently arrived, city-educated engineers, drawn to the city because of the seaport bureaucracy; the Pathans from the North who remain recent arrivals and are seen as “outsiders,” the middle-class elite who prefer to have their tea at more upscale places in the city, and political and bureaucratic personalities uncomfortable with the bold and outspoken nature of the mahigeer. No signs, barricades, or bouncers stop people from entering, but there are social, cultural, and political fences that everyone seems to be aware of. The blocks of decaying buildings and twisting alleys that lead up to Kareemuk also discourage those unfamiliar with the town from entering the area. Many visitors to Gwadar never cross into this area, preferring to turn back at the edge of the busy marketplace around it.