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Street Politics, Moral Lives and Transnationalism: Afghan Refugees and Pakistani Citizens in Karachi and Peshawar

Sanaa Alimia

This project will explore how urban cities in Pakistan are composed of different local, national, transnational, and multinational actors that are creating rapid changes to the physical landscape and forms of belonging in the city, to question the increasingly naturalised ‘national order of things’ (Malkki 1995). In addition, the project analyses the different ways in which alternative forms of belonging, being, and modernity are negotiated and expressed within the city by analysing different urban spaces. In particular, the project explores how informal structures and spaces, such as social solidarity networks in katchi bastis (squatter settlements [rather than the well-developed housing schemes]) or the bazar (rather than the shopping mall) are indicative of a ‘modern’ culture, albeit in a different way to dominant understandings that are articulated by neoliberal structures in Pakistan and the global political economy.
I will do so by juxtaposing urban spaces constructed by the ‘elite transnational city’ with spaces constructed by the ‘moral transnational/national urban poor’.
In essence, I want to uncover the moral frameworks that operate in and shape Pakistan’s ‘everyday’ informal urban economies. For authors such as Partha Chatterjee (2004) informal spaces in South Asia are explained as constituting a ‘pre-modern’ culture. For others such as Shahram Khosravi’s (2008, 99-101) ethnographic work in Iran, ‘modern’ structures such as the mall are explained as sites of ‘modernity’ when juxtaposed with the ‘traditional’ bazar – both in terms of a being a ‘rationally’ organised physical space and as producing a ‘modern world view’. However, I want to explain how informal structures and spaces, such as social solidarity networks in katchi bastis (squatter settlements) or the bazar, are also indicative of a ‘modern’ culture, albeit in a different way to dominant understandings that are articulated by neoliberal structures in Pakistan and the global political economy. Indeed these ‘alternative’ informal structures and spaces are also shaped by a material and non-material rationale. During my doctoral research I was intrigued by the oral narratives I collected in which I was informed of the emotional, moral, and ethical – as well as material – frames that guided informal redistributive actions of urban poor residents. Here an ‘alternative’ urban consciousness appeared to be in effect as residents pushed for a quest to live a ‘humanised’ life that was also inclusive of the diverse landscape of Karachi’s mixed local, regional, and international populations.
This project asks, what do other urban spaces - often unplanned and non-unitised -including the bazar (as opposed to the shopping mall), the informal katchi basti (as opposed to the well-developed housing scheme), and the informal neighbourhood streets - often bustling with cricket and football pitches, local stores, or women’s reading and sewing groups – reveal about a ‘post’-colonial and transnational modernity in urban Pakistan?