Getting to know Saba Imtiaz
In conversation with the author of ‘Karachi, You’re Killing Me!’
Saba Imtiaz is one of the more interesting young journalists that I have had the privilege to read. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, The Revealer and the Express Tribune to name a few publications. What is striking about her work is the range of issues that she has written intelligently about.
In February of this year, her maiden book ‘Karachi, You’re Killing Me!’ was published by Random House. The story is about a young Karachi based journalist named Ayesha. Ayesha is single, looking for Mr. Right, wants a job in an international media organization and despises the elite in Pakistan. The book criss-crosses through Karachi, leaving the reader feeling like they really know the city. A fast-paced, chilly chips filled book, it really is worth a read.
The book, coupled with her other work made it essential that we at the Scribbler caught up with her.
Lets start at the start, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m 28 (well, 29 in a few months). I work as a freelance journalist and am based out of Karachi, Pakistan.
Ayesha is a young, socially mobile, Pakistani journalist. People would be tempted to draw parallels between Ayesha and you, would that be fair?
People have been more than tempted to draw parallels, but there’s very little in common other than the basics: the protagonist of my book and I am the same age, live in Karachi and work as journalists. There’s very little else we have in common. It was obviously easy for me to write a character like Ayesha because I knew what it is like to be a journalist in Karachi, so I could draw from real life experiences and anecdotes.
When I read Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif and Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid, I got a very different look at what seems like parallel realities within Pakistan. While Hanif deals with how conservative and discriminatory Pakistani society can be for the poorer sections of society, Hamid paints a picture of a wealthy, liberal Pakistan. It seems as if Karachi You’re Killing Me straddles a middle ground but, again, leans in favour of dealing with the liberal elite in Karachi. Do you think that the chasm between the co-existing realities in Pakistan is getting narrow or is it widening?
Pakistan is a country of 180 million people, so none of these books can adequately describe – nor, do I think, they set out to – any one social milieu. Also, wealth and liberalism aren’t necessarily synonymous in Pakistan. My experience has been the opposite in any case: I meet many privileged people that are racists and bigots and others who aren’t wealthy but are far more liberal in their outlook. In any case, the labels of ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ bother me greatly in Pakistan where these terms are thrown about without any understanding of what they mean. There’s a fairly simplistic and arrogant view of both liberals and conservatives and attempting to put people into these two camps has been the undoing of any conversation about Pakistan.
In any case, I don’t think my book deals with liberals or elite. I’m middle class, my protagonist is upper middle class, and there are descriptors of people from all sections of society.
Is the chasm widening or narrowing? With urbanization and social mobility, it’s fairly hard to say. I’d say it’s widening but in a different way: the poor are being completely pushed to the edges of the city, while the upwardly mobile and the rich are on the other side.
In India we are constantly hearing about the vigour and independence of the Press in Pakistan. Do you think that journalists in Pakistan also take on an activist type role?
I think some journalists fancy themselves as activists and vice versa, but that’s also a byproduct of how the Pakistani press is considered to be an easier medium of conflict resolution or getting resources. For example, if someone who needs medical assistance manages to get their story in the press, they’re bound to get more attention/help than anyone who tries to ask the state for the same. So I think society also treats journalists as activists and the cycle continues.
There has been considerable writing about the monolithic representation of Pakistan and Islam in the West, what are your thoughts on this? Do you think that the Pakistani State reinforces this kind of broad stereotyping?
To repeat myself, Pakistan is a very complex place. I’ve lived there for most of my life and have yet to figure out what kind of state it is, other than a very difficult and complicated one. Events in Pakistan reinforce a lot of stereotyping so I understand where it comes from, but that doesn’t make it right or intellectually honest. I’ve seen the narrative on Pakistan shift so much just in the past decade that it’s really interesting to see how it evolves.
Your book has been really well received across the board. Going forward, do you think that you are going to be an author that dabbles in journalism or a journalist that writes the occasional novel?
A journalist that writes the occasional novel. Either way, I am guaranteed to be broke.