Published in Daily Times / 23 June 2014
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).
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.