Monday, June 30, 2014

What to Expect When you are an Expat


Published in Daily Times / 23 June 2014

Come, it is an opportunity to meet people – the kind you don’t get to see anymore.’

Mekel Waqar’s invitation leads to Côté Jardin located inside the French Cultural Centre. A week ago it had hosted a lovely little exhibition by Pakistani / French artists. The cosmopolitan heart of Karachi has been in retreat; it now thrives behind fortified walls, and eyes the changing landscape with increasing wariness. Mekel, the go to person for visiting / resident foreigners brings the twain together. His mission is to roll out the welcome wagon, arrange mixers, and help expats navigate the cultural divide with ease. He is an InterNations Ambassador tasked with overseeing the Karachi Chapter, while manning the bridge linking city dwellers with the invisible expat community.

InterNations was founded in 2007 by a trio of Germans (Malte Zeeck, Christian Leifeld, Philipp von Plato) and is a global network of expatriates with a presence in 190 countries and 390 cities. It is the first of its kind. Their monthly get-together held on the premises of Alliance Francaise de Karachi (AfK) was reminiscent of a speed networking experiment that took place at the British HC (High Commission) earlier this year, minus the gong, or the switch your partners waltz. Here the agenda goes beyond cultivating professional relationships over strong cups of coffee. Anything can happen. Like that impromptu tour of the newly inaugurated Resource Centre, showcasing artwork from the exhibit and the brief history lesson by Eric Touze (Culture, EFL Manager - AfK).

Mekel encourages those forced to keep a low profile to be a part of select gatherings where they can mingle with locals (676 Pakistani members & counting), connect with their kinsmen or partake of the cultural tableau. The Karachi forum, unlike the city is a bit listless. The Karachi Chapter, however is reportedly more active than Lahore and Islamabad. There were some Repats spotted that day – apparently moving back home can be just as daunting for those without a stable family network. The promised expat sighting over – the fellow who casually introduced himself as ‘the provider’ - a UAE based businessman who passed his cellphone around for a quick preview of his textile collection, and ‘the girl with the British Passport problem’ arrive on cue. The platform allows them to find their footing in regular meet ups, sports activities, or events. The online portal where members can swap war (travel) stories, build trust circles, and get some valuable insight is a glorified trip advisory of sorts. Xandria Aisha – former Ambassador and Albatross member believes that we are inherently expats. That she can drop in at InterNations events across the globe makes it easier to acclimatize.

The expat channel comes in multiple dimensions, and follows a set of guidelines. Meetings must be in public venues, private gatherings are discouraged. Those who provide the space are generally not supposed to charge for its use. InterNations.org is an invite only site where basic membership is free. Albatross members (paid) get priority invites, an invisibility cloak for profile visits, unlimited messages (as opposed to the 5 / month) etc. All members are vetted and the site is monitored for abuse. This does not prevent eager beavers (Arabs / South Asians) from sending silly twinkles (Facebook equivalent of pokes) but there are privacy options to turn them off.

A post seen on their social media page claims ‘0.6 per cent of the world population switches their country of residence over the course of a five-year period.’ Their best guide to surviving in a sprawling metropolis can come from individuals who have already made the move, and the ones who reside here. An Ambassador then becomes the most important link to a strange new land, and provides critical ground support after visitors are done reading dire embassy warnings that restrict movement and limit interaction. Ensuring that the locals do not mistake such events for a typical meet-cute is part of the job; scouting for opportunities to lessen the gulf is part of the design. The financial capital of Pakistan offers attractive prospects but it also comes with its share of challenges. Despite secure locations and filtered guest lists, the diplomat community cannot always venture out given the city’s uncertain political / security climate. Mekel’s quest to establish a global narrative helps define Karachi’s progressive expression.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

E-BOOK REVIEW: A Newlywed’s Adventures in Married Land


Published in Daily Times (Pakistan) / 24 June 2014

Published under the title: Domestic Bliss, Displacement & Desi Wives

Thank you Indireads & Rizwan Tufail for the review copy

Happily ever after’s have not lost their appeal. But Shewta Kumar takes fairy-tale endings, with the land far away as a launch pad, and enlists a newly-wed Mythili busy trading in her journalistic credentials for ‘desperate’ housewife’ as a starter. This is Shweta’s third novel and her first e-book / novella. She is an Indian writer / travel columnist who has worked as a CNN-IBN correspondent, and authored two bestsellers - ‘Between the Headlines: The Travails of a TV Reporter’ & ’Coming up on the Show: The Travails of a News Trainee’.

Here she sets out to sketch Mythili’s new life among fellow expats using Manila as a backdrop where time weighs heavily and the walls start closing in. Having left her crime reporting days as ‘chief-ferreting-out-information-officer’ behind, the characters transformation from an independent young lady to a ‘married Carrie Bradshaw’, minus her signature Jimmy Choos and New York trappings is viewed fearfully. Siddharth, the loyal husband tends to surface as Mythili goes through the requisite stages of adjustment and braces for the unknown. The close knit circle made up of his friends and their wives are regarded with scientific curiosity; the ‘pride of clapped-out lionesses’ is a delightful nod at those cliques found at every corner. Though she ensures that her misadventures in this supposedly unchartered territory are doused with references (implicit or otherwise) to Wonderland (Aka Alice) – the exotic scenery is mapped from cultural mores, and taps into its soulful center.

Some characters like that utterly absurd creature / headhunter teeter on the edge of madness in keeping with the theme, but insular immigrant communities destined to replay the distinct regional soundtrack balance the scales. A ‘dependent visa’ tab that rankles – an eternal quest to fit in, the bored housewives – perfectly coiffed with nary “an intelligent thought between them” are just one of many reasons to stage a delicious takedown using the exclusive vantage point assigned to expats. As skeletons come tumbling out, Mythili stops to observe family photographs that “silently accommodated an invisible mistress and the unseen nanny within its frames.” The plot may toy with the grim side of isolation and crippling doubts that come with the territory, but the core stays sunny, and Mythili’s escapades provide a gateway to the expat zone, its farcical outlines and meandering roads that lead to Promised Land.

‘A Newlywed’s Adventures in Married Land’ is simple, light-hearted fare that follows its leading lady down the proverbial rabbit hole, and keeps the searing commentary flowing to keep readers entertained. While it does feel like a page out of the author’s personal diary, since she was a newlywed in a foreign land herself, her impressions make for a compelling read. In the author’s own words this is a book for everyone “who has chosen to take a leap of faith by saying yes to a proposal, yes to moving to a distant land or simply yes to meeting new people and making new friends.”

It can be found listed under the genre ‘Indilife’ - that hosts “Novellas on life, drama and the modern woman (or man).” Alice will be a recurring motif and splicing a beloved children’s fantasy with Mythili’s struggles is arguably a risky move – the symbolism is inescapable and each chapter is preceded by a quote from Lewis Carrols masterpiece. Doing so might nudge this slender little book towards YA (Young Adult) corner of the shelf and narrow the reader base. As it is the Chiklit tag is considered to be a barrier that locks out an entire demographic.

The protagonist seen going off the beaten track may be an expat but the theme of alienation has universal resonance. Shweta lets the satire brew for that perfect blend and takes the idea of domestic bliss and displacement out for a spin. Her special insight paired with self-deprecating humor lessens the tedium. The desi wives club who almost faint at ‘dhania prices’ while splurging on luxuries, are mercilessly drawn and delivered on a silver platter for readers to devour. Wrestling matches with Mythili’s inner demons, and her oddly shaped obstacle course are ladled over the derivative design.

Manila is where she feels “at home and in a ‘phoren’ land,” simultaneously noting the resemblances with her hometown but without the women “in shorts quite as short” as the ones she observes. Metaphorical white rabbits, grinning Cheshire Cats, and tea loving hatters then become window dressing to a backdrop that is both strangely familiar and, incredibly intimidating. The author does not leave readers dangling and throws in a satisfying conclusion but the possibility of a sequel hangs in the air.

‘A Newlywed’s Adventures in Married Land’ has been published by Indireads on a mission to connect South Asian writers and readers, and is available for download.


Thursday, June 12, 2014

EVENT: Alliance Francaise de Karachi Resource Centre Inauguration


First Published in Economic Affairs (Isl) / June 2014

They say it was dark - the lights had been turned off, and doors of the French Cultural Centre locked when a gentleman arrived, and bought 7 paintings – among them was a set of 4 honoring the elements which the artist had been reluctant to break.



Alliance Francaise de Karachi had invited six painters to be a part of the inaugural ceremony of their new Resource Centre. A charming Diptych by Paul Mehdi Rizvi that blended in so beautifully, and was erroneously believed to be a part of the décor was actually from the exhibit.



The Centre which has gone through several iterations over the years, and lay forgotten as a storage space, now offers combined facilities of a study section, cultural corner, a recreational area, and on May 15th - a taste of contemporary art.



Babar Moghal, Omar Farid, Henri Souffay, M. Akram Spaul, Scharjeel Sarfaraz, and Paul Mehdi Rizvi had been enlisted as their opening act. Inside, somewhere by the book shelves lay a wall that had been taken up by an extravagantly imagined psychedelic dreamscape - the hallmark of Farid.



12 offerings by French artist Henri Souffay were pen & ink on paper rendered in exquisite detail –one came imprinted by compelling visions of dark dungeons (sans dragons), another included a quick nod to the local artisans. Scharjeel’s transcendent expression marked by a touch of divine had been bookended by the stunning simplicity and sunny optimism that is Spaul.



Omar Farid lights up at the thought of Babar Moghal’s Pink Floyd inspired series exhibited earlier. Babar had left Floyd out from his luxuriant statements shrouded in ochre mist, and had gone off the beaten path – scaling monuments fused with a mythical aura and traipsing by forests under the moonlit sky.

The exhibition will be the first of many. The Centre is open for business.

KARACHI DIARIES: KOMAL RIZVI VDO Launch / Press Conference


First Published in Economic Affairs (Islamabad) / June 2014



This brother / sister duo came highly recommended. Their music video launch / press conference held at Port Grand, (Karachi) will be the talk of town. And their experimental new sound would be put up for review.



Komal Rizvi, who made her debut as a singer / actress / VJ in the 1990’s, was staging a comeback with her new single - ‘Kalli Kalli’ in April 2014. Hasan Rizvi stars in the video with his sister; Sohail Javed directs. It would be Komal’s first launch and Hasan’s umpteenth choreography.



The filming had been eventful, the storyboard toyed with the elements - water, fire,,,, etc, as did the musicians; one was scorched, the other drowned, several times over reportedly. Nothing had dampened their ardour, or kept them from bombarding Sohail with a steady stream of creative input. ‘Add a tabla’ one would say, ‘how about a sitar’ the other would suggest.


The award winning director survived, and was later hailed for his artistic vision, and fortitude. The stylists were praised for their masterful creations. Bushra Ansari played host and a Show reel of Pakistani music was screened. Zeba Bakhtiar was in the house, and a short montage of her had been added; a promo of Meher Jaffri’s internationally acclaimed film, ‘Seedlings’ (Lamha) received a well deserved ovation. It was heartening to see the spotlight trained, however briefly, on music’s brightest moments and the industry’s proudest achievements.


Hasan Rizvi, the resident choreographer who had forgotten his prepared notes at home still managed to give an eloquent speech despite Bushra Ansari’s delightfully irreverent interruptions. Video making is a labor of love, sans monetary benefits apparently. The media moguls huddled together with showbiz royalty, and a political personality, who had melted away in the background, appreciated their passion for the arts, and the shades of humility visible in their composition.



Komal finally took the stage, noting the strange new terrain, her determination to stay the course, and efforts to bring music to regions in the eye of the storm. She also performed 3 unplugged versions, including ‘Kalli Kalli’ before lifting the veil of secrecy from their latest masterpiece.


There would be no Q/A on the menu; flashbacks, celebrity cameos, and an impromptu dance routine by Hasan and his merry men however ended the evening on a high.



PR: PitchMedia