Blood wedding

Boy meets girl. They fall in love and marry. It's an everyday story - except that the couple have ignited a tinderbox of communal tensions and now her father wants them killed

Jason Burke,Peter Popham
Tuesday 29 December 1998 00:02

Khanwar Ahsan, a clerk from Karachi, and his true love, Riffat Afridi, a young woman from the rugged mountains of the North-West Frontier, have done a very modern thing. They have fallen in love; they have run away; they have married in secret, and in defiance of their families they have set up home together. And now there is a good chance that one or both of them will pay for all this modernity with their lives.

This love story has mesmerised Pakistan over the past year: a bitter tale of star-crossed lovers and of fierce communal hatred and violence to rival anything that Verona could produce. It is, in short, an aptly harsh tale to sprout from the urban wastes of Karachi: a city at once the most prosperous and the most violent, the most stylish and the most barbaric in Pakistan.

Their's was a match made in this city, sometimes described as a melting pot, but which more often seems like a time bomb. To the outsider's casual gaze, there appeared nothing wrong with their relationship. Both partners were products of communities sucked into the city by economic need and opportunity. They were both Muslims, both Pakistanis, both citizens of the province of Sind. But their communities are deeply antagonistic. In Shakespeare's play, the deaths of Romeo and Juliet bring their warring families together in the final scene. Only the most optimistic could imagine that the deaths of Khanwar and Riffat might produce such a result for the Mohajirs and the Pathans.

For the past nine months, ever since the assault with automatic weapons that has left Khanwar with a permanent limp, they have been in hiding. According to Khanwar's elder brother they are in the care of Khanwar's friends and distant relatives, moving frequently from one hiding place to another.

A fortnight ago they emerged from hiding long enough to make it known that they were seeking asylum abroad. But the latest news is that their applications for asylum have failed. Of EU countries, only the Netherlands held out some hope. "But they suggested we hire a lawyer over there to pursue the case," said Khanwar's brother. "That, however, is more than we can afford." Meanwhile, he claimed, professional killers hired by Riffat Afridi's family are still hunting for the couple.

Khanwar Ahsan, aged 30, had worked for several years as a clerk in Karachi, close to the Afridis' family home. He was the child of Mohajirs, Muslim refugees (mohajir means simply refugee) who streamed into Karachi at the time of Pakistan's partition from modern India in 1947 when the sub- continent gained independence from Britain. More than half the current population of Karachi consists of Mohajirs, but they retain lingering, deep-seated grievances against both the native Sindis who were the old feudal power on this coast (the influential Bhutto family - Zulfikar and his daughter Benazir have been president and prime minister respectively - prominent among them), and the Punjabis who dominate the central government.

As outsiders and newcomers, the Mohajirs feel persistently cheated and downgraded; excluded from the higher ranks of government, the judiciary, the police. Stoking the fires of grievance, their main political party, Mohajir Qoumi Movement (MQM), has adopted tactics of hyper-violence against its opponents, turning Karachi into the bloodiest city in south Asia. Last month it became so bad that the current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, placed the city under martial law.

If there was fanaticism and fury among Khanwar's community, his lover's had it in equal measure. Riffat Afridi was the 19-year-old daughter - the "favourite daughter" according to one report - of a Pathan tribal chief. The Pathans or Pashtuns are the tribesmen of the North-West Frontier: tall, rangy, valiant, and unmistakable with their piled-up turbans, hawk profiles and insouciant mountain man machismo.

Their community straddles the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and, while the majority now live in Pakistan, in sparsely peopled Afghanistan they number more than half the population.

During the colonial period, the British found them persistently unruly: there were numerous fierce rebellions. "Widespread lawlessness and defiance of British authority," writes historian Robert G Wirsing, "were the constant complaint of British officialdom at virtually all times."

The best the British Empire could manage was to contain them through political agents, allowing them to rule themselves under tribal chiefs and with their own laws. And this limited autonomy has continued to the present day in Pakistan. The clamour for an independent state of "Pashtunistan" is no longer vociferous, however, as citizens of Pakistan, the Pathans are at best semi-detached.

The matching of a middle-class Mohajir with the "favourite daughter" of a tribal chief from the mountains was never going to please either set of in-laws. That they got together at all was a testimony to the melting- pot qualities of Karachi. But the reaction of Riffat's family exemplifies more the city's explosive potential. The Pathans have very strong ideas about what is and what is not right in love and marriage. Their heightened sense of honour, nang, means that if a woman of the tribe receives so much as a lingering glance from a stranger, tribal honour is besmirched, and badal, or revenge, must be sought. This can mean death to the offender.

But if a woman of the tribe enters willingly into a liaison with a stranger, it is not her honour but that of the family which must be restored, and that requires both lovers be killed. This is the nightmare in which Khanwar and Riffat now live. Details of the first meetings and the doubtless furtive courtship of the couple are hard to come by. Apparently they first met four years ago, by chance, because of the proximity of Khawan's office and Riffat's home. In snatched meetings after that, their relationship deepened. Then in September of last year, they took their fateful decision. In secret they married, then eloped to Rawalpindi, a large city in the north, suitably distant from both their clans.

When the news of the marriage reached him, Riffat's father erupted in fury. But he hatched a plan and laid a charge of kidnapping against his unwelcome new son-in-law. Riffat, he insisted, was already married to a 19-year-old from the same tribe called Niazbat Khan. Khan backed the story up. "We were married seven months ago," he claimed. "I will accept her as my wife if she is returned to me. She is already married according to our customs, and cannot be given to anyone else."

The police took this convenient tale perhaps more seriously than it merited. Khanwar was duly arrested in Rawalpindi, and taken to Karachi to stand trial for kidnapping. There matters might have rested until the case was heard but at this point a tribal dimension entered the affair.

Riffat's father convened a jirga, a tribal council, to deliberate on the matter, and the elders solemnly declared that Khanwar and his Mohajir protectors must die. Pathan law, which prevails in their own tribal area, should also apply in this case, the jirga maintained - even though the urban wastes of Karachi are hundreds of miles from their mountain homeland.

Now passions were ignited - political grievance, communal xenophobia and traditional urges for revenge make an explosive mix. On 11 February riots broke out in Karachi, and continued for three days: two passers- by were killed, and many people injured, including several policemen. The couple remained defiant.

From his prison cell at the time, Khanwar told reporters: "We loved each other and they would not allow us to marry, so we did it anyway. I will not leave her, come what may."

He did not have to wait long for what was coming. As he entered the Karachi court building on 4 March, relatives of Riffat opened fire with AK47 automatic rifles, hitting him three times, damaging his spine and leaving him partially paralysed. Three policemen were also injured in the affray, and seven members of Riffat's family were arrested.

Why has the story of Khanwar and Riffat so captivated Pakistan? It is not only the frightening exoticism of the Pathans trying to impose tribal law in suburban Karachi. Nor is it merely the gruesome communal mismatch of the unlucky couple. Rather it is a story that touches a particularly tender nerve. It throws into relief the centrifugal forces that threaten to rip Pakistan apart: refugee "outsiders", on the one hand, using everything in their power to achieve the status they believe is their right; proud and stubborn tribals on the other, clinging to their traditional codes, even trying to extend them.

These are the sorts of forces that give this young, fragile, artificial nation such a tenuous sense of its identity, and such a tenacious fear of what the future may hold.

Karachi remains a tinder-box of communal tensions. Anything - a road accident, a love affair, an assertion of will by the usually eunuch-like city government - can set it off. This simmering city is constantly on the verge of boiling over.

Yet for all its troubles, which include collapsing infrastructure, severe atmospheric pollution and crazy, cancer-like growth, in many ways Karachi works. It works for the rich, for whom it is Pakistan's centre of urban sophistication. It works for women, vast numbers of whom obtain good educations; get responsible and well-paid jobs, and conduct themselves almost as freely as Europeans. It even works for many of the poor, whom it attracts in huge numbers and whose shanties sprawl across the baked desert sand. "It is a gharib nawaz city," a bus conductor put it recently to a local journalist - "a city which provides for the poor." Food is cheap, for example; accommodation cheaper.

Such a city should breed and inculcate civic values; just as it enables couples of different, warring communities to meet and fall in love. It should also create the conditions where they can settle down and live in peace. But for Karachi at present that is one measure of civilisation too far.

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