When I was growing up in Karachi around the 1980’s we used to come back from school, have lunch and then cycle to the nearest park to play cricket or soccer to our hearts delight till the sun went down. Carefree days indeed and one misses them sometimes. However these days all three of the parks near my house have been deemed unplayable due to a single reason. They are now places of worship and thus the pitches have been removed. One of them has a walking track now but that also has hours and is shut off when the call for prayer issues.
Much has been written about the illegal encroachment of parks by various vested development schemes and what not, but today dear reader I would like to draw your attention to the fate of parks which have been swallowed up by the bearded brigade.
It usually starts with austere members of our clergy approaching the relevant administration of the area and then getting permission to build a mosque adjacent or inside a park. Obviously this is not a problem as who would say no to a mosque right? Well Soon after this the members of the newly commissioned place of prayer go around in the neighborhood informing the residents that instead of 2 mosques within 500 feet of their homes they will now have three. Again they are usually met with nods as people in Pakistan are quite soft hearted towards religion. Soon a structure is raised in the green space and starts catering to the people coming there for leisurely activity or sports. All’s well so far but after a few years the same structure is then increased to include a seminary as there is such demand for new madrassahs and so much supply of cash to finance them. Thus the mosque expands and lo and behold is now occupying quite a bit of the green space. Next come the shops, and the place of worship and imparting religion then becomes a wee bit commercial. Now here is the cu de grace, not only are these shops then rented out to various businesses but they start chalking and cutting up bits and pieces of the park to make approach towards their income slightly convenient. Hence the public park is now a religious center of learning a mosque and a shopping center all rolled into one.
Sooner or later the pretext of â€œnoiseâ€ from children playing in the park during prayer time comes into the limelight and the clergy then extols the virtues of having a peaceful ambiance for people to concentrate upon religion in. Thus the next step is either the banishment of playing activities from the park by neighborhood clergy patrols which go door to door and â€œrequestâ€ the neighbors to tell their kids to play in their houses as the people praying are being disturbed. The few that dare to disobey the divine are then met with cold stares and in some cases more.
In this way the public park thus ceases to act for its purpose, although it is still there in all its greenery one cannot play sports their or walk around in the grass in view of members of the opposite sex, that is if they still dare to come to the mosques park without donning the proper hijab/abaya of their choice.
This is not all, there have been various instances in recent times when clergy members from the adjacent mosques have threatened park visitors in parts of Karachi with dire consequences if they see so much as a female ankle in full view and have even stormed a concert or two on account of too much noise coming from it. With sticks in hand and menace galore they have managed to clear out these parks from all seekers of harmless fun because they assume it is their divine right to do so. Even if the park/public space has been hired by the organizers from the relevant body with full permission. As was the case in the last â€œvalentines day concertâ€ held at â€œnisar shaheed parkâ€ in the D.H.A area of Karachi. The concert had to be abandoned because no civic authority was willing to stand in the way of the march of righteousness. Where exactly is the huqooq ul ebad so stressed in the qurâ€™an gone from these people? Or is their religion selective to the people they think it applies to now?
Many people claim this is the talibanization of Karachi in one form. I however think that this is not talibanization but opportunism being exercised by clergy members of organized religion to have their way with public property without paying a single cent for it. Up till now over 44 parks of this city have been encroached upon by mosques and the prime example of this is the 105 year old Jehangir park of saddar which for 50 years served as a site for pentengular cricket tourneys between teams from every corner of this city. The first encroachment on this park was also in the shape of the Al shalay mosque which chopped off an entire corner. Thus and the saga continues as everyone in the relevant government bodies and the neighborhoods are too scared of being damned to hell, lest they intervene in the mosques grand design for their area.
The situation in my personal residential area is now so unique that at the time of prayer we hear the muezzins call from three different mosques
all within earshot of one another. Each one of them having enough space to occupy the pure of the neighborhood in their entirety. Right now in Ramazan the biggest park of the area has been set aside for taravih prayers. The central road of the neighborhood blocked for all traffic from 9:30 pm to 1am and our lanes filled with people parking where they damn well please because they are going to pray and can do whatever they want to. I do not think there is any harm in praying or building a mosque to fulfill the needs of an area, but canâ€™t this be done with some modicum of planning?
Whether we care about it or not green space has to be a vital percentage of the inhabited living area in any city in the world. New York which is often regarded by some of us as an equivalent to our city in its smog, pollution, traffic jams etc has a green space as percentage of the city area of 25%, that is out of 194,115Â total acres the city boasts 49,854 acres of parks. It also boasts green space of 6.2 acres per 1000 residents. Not that we in Karachi have any sort of data like this, but can you begin to even calculate dear reader how many acres of green space do we have per 1000 residents here? On top of all this the already available green space and amenity plots are being poached in-between the land and the religious mafia, to an end which will be both dry and horribly dusty.
So the next time you see videos or read articles of how the children of Karachi are passionate aboutÂ cricket to the extent that they play it in the streets, remember that they do so only out of helplessness as the parks that were once theirs are now no more.
As published in The Friday Times on 18/9/2009