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Despite Scars Of War, Karachi Holds Onto Its Chutzpah


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. When you hear us say Karachi, Pakistan, you might assume we're going to bring you're a story about terrorism or a bombing or a kidnapping - and you would often be right. It is the most violent city in all of Pakistan. But NPR's Philip Reeves found that isn't all there is to the city. In fact, there's often a gap between Karachi's reputation and the reality of the place, as he explains in this letter from Pakistan.


PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Wars give cities a bad name. There are few cities with a worse name than Karachi. Last year, violence here claimed the lives of 3,200 people.


REEVES: As I head downtown by taxi, I'm expecting to see the scars of conflict everywhere. I see the big hotels wrapped in blast barriers and razor wire. I see paramilitary troops with helmets and machine guns, rattling around town on the back of small white trucks. I hear my taxi driver describe how, on the way to pick me up from the airport, he saw on the roadside the corpse of a man who'd been shot in the head. It's obvious this place has problems. But what really hits me is the chutzpah with which this gigantic metropolis is going about its business.

Open a newspaper any day in Pakistan and you're sure to read something about someone being killed here in a bombing or a gun battle because of mafia gangs or rival ethnic and political militias, trigger-happy policemen and, increasingly, the Taliban. But just look out of the window of this cab. I'm seeing crowded markets, people out shopping, roads, jammed with motorcycles, taxis, buses. This place is pullulating. Karachi's a port on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Trading runs in its veins. There are huge billboards everywhere advertising mobile phones and shampoo and Oreo cookies and hamburgers and - wait a minute, can that be right? A Karachi production of the classic Broadway musical "Grease." Could you pull over a moment, please?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Backstage, the cast is warming up for tonight's show. They're young and they have chutzpah by the bucket load. You need bucket loads of chutzpah to take part in an American musical about sex, booze and rock 'n' roll in Pakistan. These performers feel they're doing something worthwhile, says actor Faraz Lodhi.

FARAZ LODHI: Our fight is against people who are forgetting the importance of things like this, to keep a society functioning, to provide a society with color and life. It is the life force of a city, or the life force of any culture, which is art. I personally believe that.


REEVES: There's a full house. This is a niche audience from the metropolitan elite. They seem to know all the hit songs.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) You're the one that I want, you're the one I want, I want, ooh, ooh, ooh...

REEVES: Karachi's such a resilient city partly because of its vast size. A lot of the violence is confined to certain areas. It really doesn't deserve its bad name, says the show's director, Nida Butt. That's one reason she decided to bring "Grease" to Karachi.

NIDA BUTT: There is a lot more to Karachi than meets the eye. I wish that the world would recognize that fact. So, I'm just - yeah, I'm happy that we're taking these steps so that the world finds out that there is art here, there is culture here, you know, there's a society that needs and, you know, tries and it's not just all death and destruction.


REEVES: Listening to her happy audience, it's hard to argue with that. Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.