A Photo Essay
Having grown up outside of Pakistan and not identifying strongly as Pakistani (save for nationality) meant that I had always viewed Pakistan through the lens of an ‘other’: not quite belonging, I felt like an impostor. It didn’t help that everything, from the way I walked to my odd globalised accent, seemed to scream ‘foreigner’. I was definitely more at home in jeans than in the salwar kameez, more likely to swear in Swahili than in Urdu and when people would ask me where I was from, I’d promptly respond ‘Kenya’ and then roll my eyes at the inevitable follow-up, ‘No, where are you originally from?’.
I had always struggled with Urdu growing up – while I appreciated how it sounded and felt, how it felt like home, I did not have much confidence in my spoken abilities. This was not helped by the giggles and looks I received when I would try to speak Urdu in any scenario outside my immediate family. Visually I found it disorienting, the letters all at once familiar and foreign, the lack of diacritic marks disconcerting.
When I visited Karachi (the port city of Pakistan) after 7 years of being away, I was immediately struck by how prominent Urdu was, visually. Although I grew up speaking Urdu, I had never formally learnt to read it and it has only been in the past few years that I’ve made any effort to improve my reading skills beyond the basic level. Maybe it was because of this interest that suddenly I felt like I was seeing a new level of life in the city – one where messages went from the political to the personal, tackling everything from shop lettering to service ads to life advice. The influence of religion, too, was quite strong – the style of lettering had a profound Arabic influence in the shapes and strokes that made up the words, as well as the abundance of quotes from the Qur’an and hadith (narratives) seemed to permeate everything.
These images are only a small reflection of the way language becomes visual, how language is really the soul of a place. Now that I am able to read the language, the entire city of Karachi has changed for me – it almost feels more alive, this pulsing undercurrent that is carried through strokes and sounds.