Magical Karachi

Traffic chaos in the megacity of Karachi, Pakistan
Traffic chaos in the megacity of Karachi, Pakistan (image: picture-alliance/Asianet Pakistan/R. Ali)

Juergen Wasim Frembgen's new book, "Bambasa Street", is a fascinating account of the traditions of the African diaspora in Pakistan's largest metropolis

By Marian Brehmer

"A street dog rubs itself, rattling and clattering, against a shop's metal shutters. A young boy begins to sweep out the tea shack, and in an instant it becomes a dancefloor for an army of sandfleas. They leap and bite, and no creature seems to be spared. I take to my heels, cross the street and enter Baghdadi, an impoverished neighbourhood in the port city of Karachi". 

This desolate opening scene sets the tone for Juergen Wasim Frembgen's new book Bambasa Street (Schiler & Muecke, 2023), a compact tale taken from the alleys and gutters of Pakistan's most populous metropolis. 

"In the same way crows find their way back to their hidden food stores, the ethnologist navigates the megacity by his inner compass, steered by his thirst for knowledge," Frembgen writes. His own compass is finely calibrated by numerous trips to Pakistan, on which he has turned his attention to many different aspects of the country's culture. 

In Bambasa Street, the ethnologist descends into the depths of a "wildly cosmopolitan megacity, almost suffocating in dust and dirt, traffic and noise".

Bambasa Street, whose name conjures up far-off East Africa, lies in Baghdadi, an impoverished neighbourhood of Karachi ruled by gangster mobs, which is also one of the city's centres of African subculture. The Afro-Sindhis and Afro-Baluchs, also known as "Shidi", are the descendants of slaves from East and Central Africa, brought to Karachi two centuries ago via Zanzibar and Oman

Pakistanis with African heritage may be a long-established part of the city's ethnic mosaic, but they are "still seen as inferior and mocked" – or as "the Professor", one of Frembgen's early contacts in Baghdadi, puts it, "Essentially, we fall between two stools, on the dirty ground. For us, education is the only way to escape the misery."

In the liminal world of spirits and djinns

And the centre of this story is the healer Wali, who is of African descent, and whom Frembgen meets through a contact at the Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan. Rooted in a half-shamanic, half-Muslim world, Wali helps his patients to find solutions for all manner of troubles and illnesses. 

People come to him because business is bad, or they are suffering from migraines, or their desire to have children has not been fulfilled, or their daughter cannot remember anything. Wali is a magician; at home in the liminal world of spirits and djinns, he calls on the powers of Sufi saints as mediators between the spheres to help neutralise these spirits' influence on people. 

During visits between 2010 and 2022, Frembgen dived ever deeper into Wali's life as a healer: "The magical realm of the imaginary seemed to open up for me, the world of spirits and mystery". Sometimes "Pardesi Sahib" (Wasim, the stranger) – as the locals call him – takes part daily in the healing rites and ritual gatherings. 

Even basic foodstuffs are barely affordable for many people due to inflation
Street scene in one of Karachi's poor neighbourhoods: generally, Pakistanis from the middle or upper classes do not venture into these parts of the city. Juegen Frembgen has made such quarters the focus of his researchy (image: Rafat Saeed/DW)

Meeting with humanity

The German academic learns the hierarchies of various ethereal beings, such as patron saints and helping spirits, that Wali calls on in his healing. "In Bambasa Street, in the midst of a population group originating in Africa, whose ancestors were slaves, we encounter a world that has not yet lost its enchantment," Frembgen says of his book.

As in earlier field studies, Frembgen approaches his protagonists with respect and human warmth, though he remains in his role as silent, scientific observer, later writing about what he has seen and heard. "Pardesi Sahib is an apprentice who watches," Wali once says of his foreign friend, as he is introducing him to curious visitors. In Bambasa Street, Frembgen then gives a precise and detailed account of the rituals of prayer and sacrifice performed during the healing sessions. 

Frembgen's research in Baghdadi comes with its privations: in hot and humid weather, he sleeps in bug-infested hotel beds and is eaten alive by mosquitoes. 

But he also gives a vivid impression of the other Karachi, the screened-off world of its wealthy residents. Frembgen attends a gathering of middle-class Pakistanis, who can't believe he dares to frequent these areas of the city. They themselves have never even set foot in Baghdadi. 

They also ask Frembgen whether, as an ethnologist researching the culture of the Black population, he is not portraying these people as "other", and highlighting differences rather than commonalities. 

He responds: "That is a dilemma that we ethnologists try to navigate, somehow. We love what is special, what is peculiar, but also people's humanity. And if you are looking for humanity, then Baghdadi is an ideal place to encounter it." 

The ethnologist – between worlds

Well-to-do Pakistanis regard the religious customs of the lower classes with scepticism, tending to dismiss them as superstition – although they themselves wrestle with their own relationship to the supernatural. After all, numerous quasi-shamanic rituals, such as the smoking of rooms with wild rue while reciting verses from the Koran, are practiced even in "enlightened" families. 

As a transducer between worlds, the German ethnologist has a social mobility that most Pakistanis do not – a bridging function that Frembgen is adept at using. 

Frembgen's connection to Pakistan began more than forty years ago: when an Afghan relative came into his life though marriage to his godmother, Frembgen developed a fascination with the region. His first ethnological expeditions to the Hindu Kush followed. 

After those early trips, the complicated political situation in Afghanistan drove him further on, into neighbouring Pakistan, which he has been visiting annually since 1981. Over time, Frembgen has become a high-profile expert on the nation that was founded in 1947: "Over the years, my experiences in this country have resulted in my traversing the border between ethnology and Islamic studies on the one hand, and literature on the other."

Dancing in ecstasy in the courtyard of a shrine in Lahore, Pakistan
Land of the Sufis: Hardly any other country in the geographical area that we commonly refer to as the "Islamic world" is as strongly characterised by the traditions of Sufism as Pakistan. Ecstatic dance in the courtyard of Baba Shah Jamal's shrine in Lahore (image: Marian Brehmer)

Between literature and academia

During this time, Frembgen has established the hybrid genre of the half-literary ethnographic book in the German-speaking world. His books on life in Pakistan – whether on pilgrimages, music nights, encounters with living saints or life in a tribal society – are among the best ethnological literature published in German. 

Frembgen has shown in previous publications that he has mastered the balancing act between academic distance and intense personal experience: "This is actually a matter of navigating between the proximity that is absolutely essential in fieldwork, which involves a radical subjectivity and – if possible – close participation in rituals and other events, and the fact that you are a scientist, describing and interpreting these things," says Frembgen. "As an ethnologist, you have to get close to other cultures to enable an understanding between people."

Critical of modern Western ontology

This closeness proves hugely successful in Bambasa Street. A particularly valuable aspect of the book is that Frembgen does not stick to descriptions of the foreign and exotic, but derives critical questions from what he has seen and experienced, which scratch at the surface of our Western ontology. 

In so doing, Frembgen shows how an ethnologist can not only emerge from the shadow of a Eurocentric and exoticising ethnology, but turn his research into a mirror that questions the premises of the West's culture of rationality. 

In the chapter entitled "Pardesi's observations and reflections", for example, Frembgen reflects on the fact that when people in the West are plagued by visual or auditory hallucinations, they often end up in psychiatric care. 

He makes no bones about the arrogance and know-it-all attitude of the Western perspective: "Many of us would regard Wali as a charlatan, and those who come to him with questions or ailments as hopelessly superstitious, if not mentally ill, and certainly suffering from hallucinations. We would assess and pass judgement, assume chance and coincidences where Wali sees connections and is convinced that supernatural beings are at work. [...] How presumptuous and arrogant, to think all people like them stupid, deluded or psychotic, from our outsider perspective. How egotistical of us not to take their perception of this other world seriously. What on earth are we thinking of, wanting to dispel with our rationality the autonomy of their point of view?"

For many years now, Pakistan, too, has been undergoing major changes under the influence of Western culture. On the question of how this has changed in recent decades, Frembgen has this to say: "In common with, I expect, almost all countries on this planet, Pakistan has felt the pull of globalisation, which comes with the loss of traditional cultures. I am especially pained by the rapid disappearance of cultural traditions. Beauty is less and less to be found in expressions of life here. And yet, despite these sobering facts, most people remain warm-hearted – and this humanity is the most important thing." 

Marian Brehmer

© 2024

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin