The cultural genius of Pakistan is evident not only in its mosques and musical traditions, but also in its people’s embrace of the single greatest car ever made: the Suzuki Cultus. This beautiful subcompact was marketed in North America as the Suzuki Swift and the Geo Metro, which was my first car. A triumph of populist design, the Cultus has been maligned by car snobs and other garden-variety ignoramuses who fail to appreciate the gossamer charms of a lightweight “econobox” that can hyperefficiently move a nation of 180 million from point A to point B while fitting into almost any overstuffed motorway or sliver of a parking space. The more affluent in Pakistan may opt for a Corolla or Civic, while the truly ostentatious few show off their Mercedes and Range Rovers, but the masses get around in Cultuses, Altos, and Vitzes.
People in the West tend to perceive Pakistan as a dangerously failed state, perennially on the verge of collapse; and while this caricature is inaccurate, the country certainly has its problems. The Islamic Republic faces widespread poverty, chronic corruption and demagogic mischief, grossly unequal access to education and healthcare, religious extremism, ethnic strife, tribal militancy, inadequate provision of electricity and gas, and an overbearing military and intelligence establishment, among other problems. These are issues that many developing nations contend with, but Pakistan’s huge size (it is the world’s 6th most populous country) and unfortunate position at the nexus of geopolitical struggles involving the United States, India, China, and other powers set such problems in especially stark relief.
Life in Pakistan goes on, though, and millions of people improvise to meet the challenges of everyday life in ingenious ways. Indeed, the rather grim picture that one finds in the New York Times, BBC, or even local news outlets such as Dawn obscures the many vital and creative aspects of Pakistani society, from arts and activism to the architectural treasures of Lahore and the complex patchwork of ethnic cultures in Karachi, a metropolis of some 20 million people.
One small part of Pakistani life I would like to highlight is the unique automobile culture of a nation that spends much of its time on the road and in traffic. Any visitor to Pakistan cannot help but be struck by the elaborate, extravagant designs that adorn the buses, trucks, cars, and rickshaws that populate clogged and chaotic city streets. Years of negotiating the frenetic traffic of New York City could not possibly prepare one for navigating the roads of cities like Lahore, where unrelenting waves of cars, bicycles, and motorbikes zig-zag in almost inconceivably dense configurations.
Traversing the urban landscape provides one the opportunity to observe a rich tradition of car culture that is present everywhere from the smallest vehicle to the largest. The most noticeable and distinctive are the Bradford and Mazda buses, which have been painted with intricate patterns and vivid, Aquarian colors, day-glo swirls of paisleys, stars, hearts, birds, fish, and countless other illustrations. They are also encrusted with beads, butterflies, lights, feathers, pinwheels and other ornaments. These buses ply the streets ferrying the poor and working class, densely packed inside and even perched on top of the vehicles at times, around cities that lack sufficient public or mass transit. (An ambitious plan is well underway to build elevated bus rapid transit in Lahore, Pakistan’s second city and cultural capital; locals say that the powerful “union” of transport operators in Karachi has attempted to block any efforts to supplement transit options in their city with a comprehensive public system.) Whatever the political machinations that gum up transit in Pakistan’s cities, the buses remain a wonder to see, an example of what one Karachite simply calls “car art.”
Judging from the care taken in festooning and painting the vehicles–and the countless roadside shops that sell every kind of beaten-up auto part imaginable–these buses are driven for every kilometer they have in them. They are not, presumably, swapped out for new models after so many years like buses in American cities. The same rich colors can be found on equally hardworking, mundane forms of transport such as the trucks that transport people and goods and the tankers that move water and gas around Pakistan.
Owners and drivers often invest a sense of humor in their transport; my favorite sighting was a water truck I had seen many years ago in Karachi. Since the local tap water is not always safe to drink, many in the middle and upper class have water shipped to their homes, or rely heavily on bottled water. One such water truck claimed its address as “Hydrantmabad,” punning on the names of cities like Faisalabad, Islamabad, and Hyderabad.
Many drivers also like to set their individual autos apart with giant decals that spell out various brash sayings on their back windshields. This practice is akin to the American who decks out her Prius or pickup truck in dozens of bumper stickers, emblazoned with political and cultural slogans, except that the letters are often larger and louder, with a single phrase expressing the driver’s personality. The favorite I’ve seen so far read, “Oh shit… I’m in love!”
The messages often convey a sense of personal braggodocio, like “It’s My Style,” or “Mr. Bad” and “Honey” below.
Then there are the ever-present rickshaws, which feature advertisements, political and religious slogans, and the familiar iconography of butterflies, birds, hearts, stars, and other symbols.
The rickshaw below features an ad promoting a rally by Allama Tahir ul Qadri, a religious figure whose visage was plastered everywhere in Lahore during our visit in December. Since returning from several years away in Canada, Qadri has scrambled the Pakistani political scene, with general elections looming in 2013; although his political intentions are unclear to me, as a novice observer, and recordings of his sermons have a furious and strident texture to my ear, he appears to advocate a moderate interpretation of Islam and oppose extremism. A friend in Pakistan even implied that US government money was fueling the ad campaign that made his face and message inescapable in Lahore ahead of his massive December 23rd event. (Qadri’s Wikipedia page appears to be blocked or at least inaccessible here in Karachi; in the conspiratorial fever swamp of Pakistani politics, it’s hard to tell what that means.)
Joining the bustle in the streets of Pakistani cities in the last ten years is the Qingqi or “Chinchi” motorbike hybrid, an even cheaper alternative to rickshaws. As the local Express Tribune observed, for as little as ten rupees (i.e., about ten cents)
a three-wheeled monstrosity can take you anywhere in Karachi. They are everywhere: from Keamari to Landhi and from Orangi to Safoora Goth. At least, said to be, much better – and cheaper – than the age-old Bradford and Mazda buses. For traveling over a short distance of six to 10 kilometres, they are the latest rage.
The chinchis are essentially motorbikes with a cart attached, hauling as many people as can be carried by their little engines. Originally produced by Qingqi, one of China’s largest motorcycle companies, the rickshaws are now said to be assembled in Lahore and Hyderabad. They first entered into widespread usage in Lahore in 2001 and subsequently spread to other major cities. Their light, wobbly frames, though, have raised concerns about safety, and even the All Karachi Qingqi Rickshaw Welfare Association, which represents the operators, has lobbied for regulation to bring order to the business and curb harassment of drivers by police and local authorities.
Overall, the loving decoration of even the most modest and workmanlike vehicles brings great beauty and variety to Pakistan’s noisy urban panorama. A creative car culture is, of course, no monopoly of South Asia; many Americans like to soup up and pimp out their cars, and if ToM ever succeeds in snagging a photo of Atlanta’s elusive cookie-mobile, we will be sure to post the picture here. However, the streets of Karachi are a far cry from the sedate blues, silvers, and greens of the sedans one finds on the average American highway; expressions in big, bold lettering and the appropriation of political and pop culture figures (such as Mickey Mouse) make up a distinctive visual culture in Pakistan’s cities. We are left, then, with the colorful exclamations of “Don Love” and “Butt Luck,” and the question written on the back of one of motorist’s hoodie: “What?”
This report was filed in December by the senior correspondent in our Karachi news bureau.