Monday, February 20, 2012

Observations at the Karachi Marriott

I was in Karachi just before New Year's Eve and I wrote this piece as an experiment, to see what I could write, after arriving in a city I had been away from for a long period.

When I recently arrived for a break from studies abroad, a group of us decided we should eat out. Since one of our number just had her birthday, days before I arrived, it was decided that a suitable place needed to be found. The decision was made to choose the Marriott, a place with many wonderful memories. From milky Rooh Afza iftars, to a bookstore that monthly would stock my childhood library for a few years, the Marriott seemed like a nice place.

And so we drove there under the darkening evening to a place we considered we knew. As the barriers approached, it seemed like a usual enough sight, but the twists and turns once we crossed the crash beam barrier were a minor adventure all to themselves. We went through one lane, twisted in a u-turn and then entered the parking lot. All the while we passed over at least three speed bumps, saw the car checked by a sniffer dog at the lesser barrier, merely a rope strung between two ends of the lane, themselves bordered by blast walls. It was interesting.

Parking the car, we got out and walked towards what was clearly an outer security room. The X-ray machine into which people had to drop their purses, briefcases, handbags, was worthy of any international airport. Passing through the metal detector, I was fortunate enough to not set it off and was spared a wave with the wand. Our audience with this semi-effective show of security theatre complete, we were cleared to walk the rest of the way to Marriott. That was at least a pleasant experience, a return to the Marriott of half a decade ago; when I had been under order to go to a seminar chaired, by a person who I think was a closet ex-Jihadi. This time the run in with religion in the interior of the Marriott was even stranger. There were two ladies standing as greeters. One was a lady in a respectable pantsuit, and I must commend Pakistan, or at least its major cities for now tolerating adult women who may wish to wear jeans. I guess a country’s beating hand can only harm so many women before it tires out. The other lady was a display of corporate religious confusion. Like a caricature from Arabian Nights, she had a hijab on that tightly covered her ears and hair, leaving her face and neck uncovered, which I think goes against Muslim regulations, since she didn’t have a chador wrapped on. However from the waist down she had a flowing smock in peach and the colours of the rainbow draped on. It looked like something a Hollywood costumer would dream up for a female character on 1001 Arabian Nights, crossed with whatever monstrosity a repressive Gulf Monarchy would toss out trying to look “modest but modern”.

It wasn’t the religious and clothing disaster, but rather the display of confused religious appeasement by the Marriott that looked strange to me. Here was a hotel that had instituted a minor labyrinth of security procedures that its customers had to enter, and simultaneously to protect the Marriott from attack by religious madmen, had one of its most famous branches attacked and destroyed by religious lunatics, and if we weren’t all used to so much security theatre by now, we would find the experience degrading. Yet to go to such lengths of behaviour to find one normal lady greeter, and one dressed to “appease” what should be clear by now is a bottomless pit of religious demands, is breathtaking as a corporate policy. I guess it shouldn’t surprise us that a literal bastion of the Pakistani elite, which has constituted fortress style defences to keep an enemy out, would still throw sops to that enemy in a confused attempt to maybe ideologically buy it off. Whilst protecting oneself from religious madmen, why not at least try not to care what they think about you, since they do seem determined to bump your hotel and its staff off.

After observing this weird display of confused religiosity at the door, the rest of the Marriott thankfully looked the same as I had seen it in the past two decades.

There was the usual reception area and its restaurant, with the lobby musician singing quite sweetly to the crowd. We passed by the bookstore, which was closed since it was after its hours. We walked to the restaurant, were seated and served. One must commend the waiters for their attentiveness to the guests and the food was scrumptious. One cannot be as effusive about some of the guests, as one particular gentleman on his phone seemed to loudly want the entire restaurant to know that he was making a VERY IMPORTANT deal. A teenage couple seemed to be sitting quite bored at their separate seats, obviously there unaccompanied, making one wish that I had the resources and initiative to take a date as a teenager to the Karachi Marriott.

We had our dinner, paid and headed for the exit, stopping for a group photo in the lobby. At that time we saw entering the building, one more display of weird religiosity. With a white flowing gown, a head covered with a hijab so tightly you could bounce a coin of it, and arms and chest covered tightly in bright white cloth. With the flowing gown nearly a cape, she looked like a villain from the later Thundercats. So there was good reason for the Marriott to appeal to the religiously confused segment of the elite.

This whole cycle of supply and demand of religious pretension, especially amongst the Pakistani elite might be part of the problem for the baseline existence, tolerance or acquiescence to religious terror. And when I walked out of the lobby I was greeted by the sight of the huge mosque that stands in front of the Marriott. The black comedy of its placement was darkly ironic. Definitely that outsize and very obvious mosque had been put up as some sort of sop or appeasement to religious irrationalism. Fat lot of good that did the Marriott people with their Islamabad branch destroyed, their parking lot turned into a fort’s maze and even the public display of their hotel front’s Bauhaus architecture blocked.

Appeasing irrational religious urges does not seem to help much in cooling that irrationality or burning it out. It seems particularly pointless when the religious irrationality is melded to elite opinion, especially an elite that is targeted for assassination or elimination by religious revolutionary groups as stated by Al Qaeda and its fans within Pakistan. And no amount of kowtowing to religious strictures can protect someone from being a victim of terrorism if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s best to dispense with ornamental religiosity when everyone has been a target.