Urban Life

My Zatara!

Urban planning is a definite science and somewhat of an art - and it is not practiced in a city like Karachi.

By Dr. Suneela Ahmed | May 2022


For me he is a character from the city of saints and madmen. Drifting through the streets, without any destination. The journey he is undertaking is all the purpose he has in life. It starts from one end of the street, and culminates at the other end. And then he starts all over again, after a pause of five minutes. When he exhausts himself, he rests on one of the footpaths, or drinks from one of the earthen vessels (matka) placed outside a big bungalow for the watchmen and security guards. I call him ‘Zatara’- and I come across him every day, although from a distance. Giovanni “John” Zatara also happens to be a fictional character appearing in comic books published by DC Comics, and in Spanish it is slang for driftwood, referenced in Count of Monte Cristo, “I shall call you, Zatara.”

Zatara is a middle-aged senile man, who lives on the street, and is found frequenting it day and night in an affluent neighborhood of Karachi. He doesn’t talk to anyone but himself, and doesn’t bother anyone either. The only time he loses temper is when someone interrupts his routine of walking up and down the street or calls him names. The pace of his strolls increase when it becomes dark, and he prefers resting more during the day. Yes, senile, but having a sense of the impact of the heat. He asks for food from the watchmen and domestic servants socializing on the streets, who willingly oblige. Many refer to him as ‘pagal’ and some think of him as an ISI agent, on a secret mission in disguise. The neighborhood children are scared of him, because their elders have told them stories of madmen being a source of harm, or causing discomfort.

For me he is someone who makes me think about ‘equity’ in a city. As professionals, engaged with the built form design and research, we talk about sustainable development, with equity being one of its major pillars. Equitable development means fair, impartial development without any discrimination based on race, income, ethnicity, religion, gender or caste. But how equitable are the buildings and cities we design today? Do we ever think about making our urban spaces and buildings inclusive for the ‘zataras’ of the city? In fact, our plans and designs are quite the opposite, and anyone who does not fall within our definition of ‘normal’ is excluded from these proposals and policies, resulting in the ‘zataras’ of the city being abandoned on the streets, or banished to nearby shrines.

My ‘zatara’ is just an example of someone who falls out of the norm. Do we design our cities for the elderly, for people with mobility issues, for expectant mothers, for mothers with young children, for ethnic minorities, or for women in general? Sadly, our cities are designed for a middle aged healthy Pakistani male belonging to a certain class and a certain income bracket. If you belong to this group, you are happy and content with your surroundings. If not, then you are an outcast and that too is your fault. Why were you born a woman, a differently abled person, or within an ethnic or religious minority?

If one were to actually understand the role of the informal processes, and out of the norm practices in a city like Karachi, one would realize the importance of planning for these madmen, instead of the saints. Many studies have been done which conclude that about fifty to sixty percent of residents live in informal housing in Karachi. According to the recent population census of 2017, Karachi has a population of sixteen and a half million.

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