On Saturday nights, the head waiter at Xander’s Café placates people waiting to be seated. The café doesn’t take reservations and it can take up to 20 minutes to get a coveted table on the weekend. Surreptitiously wrapped bottles of alcohol, procured from the city’s bootleggers, rest on some tables along with Chanel bags. On most days, those dining appear to have been transplanted straight out of the society pages: scions of landholding families, politicians, models, designers and media barons. The same faces are spotted again the next afternoon, sporting oversized sunglasses and taking in a selection of eggs for brunch.

Xander’s Café is the newest addition to Karachi’s roster of restaurants, coffee shops and shisha cafés. It is the current favorite of the upper echelon of society who can afford to pay up to Rs 1,200 per head for a meal—popular dishes include mini-burgers, gourmet pizza and a prawn salad—and buy from bootleggers whose prices start at Rs 1,800 for Absolut Vodka and Australian wine.

Halfway across town, the city’s first 3D cinema, Atrium, is showing several latest films including Bol Bachchan, The Amazing Spider-Man and Ice-Age: 4. Cocktail, the latest Bollywood release starring Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone, is fully booked throughout its opening weekend.

Atrium begins screening films at 10 a.m. and as the hours tick by, the queues increase. With boxes of caramel popcorn and plates of nachos in tow, people head into the cinema halls. There’s a bustling food court nearby which is packed after film shows.

The late night shows are among the most popular. On FourSquare.com, Cinnabon offers a special deal that is only available for users who check-in to the website after 11 p.m.

Atrium Cinema is in Saddar, one of the oldest areas of Karachi. Down the road is Cafe Subhani, among the few Iranian restaurants that have survived in the city, which serves up a mix of succulent kebabs over a bed of rice, with butter slowly melting on top. In pre-partition Karachi, Victoria buggies trundled down the streets. Today a few remain for the curious out-of-towner to take a short trip through the area, while some are hired by families in the neighborhood to take children to the old missionary-run schools. Opposite Atrium is Zainab Market, one of the city’s most popular shopping markets for western clothes.

One store stocks Zara and Mango jeans that were originally meant for export. Pashmina shawls, leather jackets and intricately embroidered cushion covers are sold year around at others. Fur traders occupy the first floor of the plaza, hawking secondhand fur coats brought in from the former Soviet states.

When Atrium opened, it had all the odds stacked against it. The area didn’t have any parking spots, it was considered “too far away” for the clientele it was targeting, and was in a decidedly “not posh” area. While the city’s older cinema district is a short drive away, few of the well-heeled families who are now regulars at Atrium ventured there because the cinemas had become seedier, mostly showed Urdu and Punjabi films, and looked run down. But the success of Atrium proved that for a quality viewing experience, people would drive to an area they may have earlier turned their noses up at.

After the import of Bollywood and Hollywood films began in earnest in 2008, the few cinemas left in the city (several were torn down to make way for shopping plazas) realised that better times were in the offing.

Nishat was one of the few cinemas that had survived the purge. To cater to the post-2008 wave of cinemagoers, it put in a new sound system, plush seats and improved security and cleanliness. Tickets are priced cheaply compared to Atrium and it has no restrictions on bringing snacks and allows children of all ages as well as single men. Traditional vendors make a killing during intermission by selling ice cream, crisps, popcorn and soft drinks in the aisles. 

As a result, big ticket Bollywood films such as Singh is Kinng and My Name is Khan, opened to full houses. Audiences applauded as the ending credits rolled at the evening show for Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey, a gritty crime flick that reminded them of the city they had just escaped for the comfort of celluloid.

Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city with an estimated population of about 20 million, is rife with crime. Muggings are common, as are cell phone robberies by gunmen on motorcycles. When a potent mix of politically and ethnically motivated feuds is stoked into street violence, dozens of people are killed in targeted attacks by armed men from political parties and criminal groups. In the 1990s, when there were several police and military led operations against criminals and political parties implicated in the violence, Karachi would be a virtual ghost town at 10 p.m.

Despite the violence, Karachi began to turn around partly because a considerable amount of money was pumped into the city during the post-9/11 years of the Pervez Musharraf regime. The city saw an uplift in terms of development projects, and low interest rates helped a burgeoning middle class get easy access to car financing and credit cards.

Entrepreneurs took a cue and capitalised on a young, urban income group that wanted to spend money—and fast. Pakistan’s most prominent coffee shop chain, Espresso, opened in 2004 as a hole-in-the-wall cafe on Karachi’s Zamzama Boulevard and inspired a dozen imitators, opening up an entire niche retail sector. Though the bubble has long burst, the heady 2000s has resulted in a more consumerist culture in Karachi, whose residents are now bigger fans of malls and multiplexes than of the traditional venues of entertainment.

But unlike the 1990s when the violence impacted the entire city, the sporadic bursts of intense violence in recent years have been largely restricted to parts of the southern and central districts. As a result, the city has become a virtual bubble. For the well-heeled with access to a car with tinted windows and a stocked kitchen, it is easy to escape the violence. Despite the weekly death tolls running into over 100 people killed in shooting sprees by armed groups, it isn’t unheard of to have concerts and plays run as scheduled.

In November 2010, as models showed off the season’s latest styles at fashion week, a massive bomb blast throughout the city as the Crime Investigation Department headquarters were attacked. Fashion week wasn’t cancelled.

Sami Shah, a columnist and stand-up comedian, once called being mugged in Karachi a “rite of passage”.

“You cannot be considered a true Karachiite if you haven’t been held up at least once,” Shah wrote, “If you have managed to avoid such an experience, then it’s probably because you are the one doing the holding up.”

Despite the usual security situation—which goes from neutral to bad to worse in a matter of minutes— people are still willing to go out and have some fun with their families and friends, which is an extremely positive development.

Despite the crime, rising inflation and political instability in the city, Karachi has somehow managed to regain a semblance of the nightlife it once had. In the 1950s and 1960s, the city played host to cabaret dancers and had several bars and nightclubs. An account of a pop concert in 1967 was described by the Associated Press as being marked with “rhythm, frenzied passion, ecstasy and exuberance”. A breathless published account of a stopover by The Beatles in Karachi featured “screaming girls” who cornered Paul McCartney, “caressed his hair and cheeks” and ripped off his shirt at the airport.

But a ban on the public consumption of alcohol and a drive to “Islamise” the country in the 1970s and 1980s put a virtual end to the boisterous nightlife of Karachi. Bollywood films smuggled in to watch on VCRs increasingly replaced all other mediums as a form of “entertainment”.

Over the years, that has begun to change. On any given night of the week, middle and upper middle class Karachiites have several options: attend plays and concerts, eat out at the high-end restaurants, hole-in-the-wall eateries or roadside dhabas, sit by the beach promenade or find a friend’s house to hang out at. Nearly every residential neighborhood has at least one shisha café; cafés in the more upscale areas offer both well-blended cappuccinos and a double-apple flavored shisha. For the elite, there’s a choice of invite-only events: private parties, fashion shows, shop openings, award shows and dinners.

Taha Durrani, a 26-year-old executive at Pfizer, is a regular at Atrium’s late night shows. “Despite the usual security situation—which goes from neutral to bad to worse in a matter of minutes— people are still willing to go out and have some fun with their families and friends, which is an extremely positive development.” For Durrani, the international food franchises that have sprung up over Karachi in the past two years—Cinnabon, Hardees and Tutti Frutti—have added to his list of options for a night out. “Most plans in Karachi revolve around food, to be honest,” he says, and even if he’s going to watch a movie or a play, the night inevitably ends at a restaurant.

Areas once renowned for their restaurants have been replaced by informal food streets, comprising a mile-long stretch of fast food and BBQ restaurants.

In Clifton, Roadside Café serves up a trussed up version of the traditional bun kebab, just two minutes away from the area’s most popular vendor—Tipu Burger. There’s nearly an Rs 100 difference between the two dishes.

Despite this, Roadside Café stands out in the area for its relatively cheap prices. While a cup of tea or coffee costs over `100 in most cafés, Roadside still serves it for half the price and offers free refills of tea. Its customers reflect a mix of Karachiites. H M Naqvi, the author of Home Boy, which won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2011, was often spotted at the café prior to his novel’s publication, a laptop cable sneaking across the floor to his seat. Supermodels gingerly pick at food amid groups of young students and teenagers sitting for hours chatting over shisha. The music selections reflect its customer base: a continuous stream of the latest releases from Coke Studio, qawwalis by Abida Parveen and Nusrat Ali Khan and 1980s pop songs by Nazia Hassan of “Aap Jaisa Koi” fame.

Sibte Sajjad, who opened Roadside Café with his partners in 2008, says that it has not just made a mark in the area, but in the city. “It’s a hangout spot. Any gora (foreigner) who is visiting, their friends bring them here.”

The reason it has that status, Sajjad says, is because of its treatment of customers. “We don’t clear out the tables the minute the bill is presented. It’s not one of the places where you dress up, eat and then ship out.”

But food and films aren’t the only option for Karachiites. While Karachi has had a long tradition of theatre, the quality of plays staged in the country stagnated in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Urdu theatre plays, which relied on a mix of ribald comedy and dance sequences, continued to thrive even though there have been consistent calls to curtail them because critics allege that they are “vulgar”.

But highbrow productions landed on the city’s cultural calendar after the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) opened up in Karachi. While its theatre company’s productions often include translations of popular English plays, it has also branched out into original productions.

According to the academy’s Zain Ahmed, it has had a “huge impact” on the theatre scene in Karachi.

“In 2008 there was no real theatre culture,” Ahmed, who manages special projects at the academy, said in an e-mail interview. “The theatre hall at the Arts Council would remain empty most of the time and would only be open for student performances by NAPA. Then in 2008 NAPA started the NAPA Repertory Theatre. In our first year we performed 6 plays for 10 nights each. Suddenly theatre was an option in the city.”

As a result, he says, the Arts Council is now booked year around, making theatre a “viable” entertainment option.

But he agrees that it is still a semblance of a theatre-going culture, chalking this down to the quality of productions. “With many untrained young amateurs staging big budget plays, a culture of commercialism is being created which often ignores the artistic and subtle.”

At the Arts Council and other performing arts venues in the city, there are near-daily book launches and readings, and the occasional mushaira. Karachi plays host to an annual literature festival, music conferences, qawwali nights and a government-run event called “Hamara Karachi” which continues for almost a month and includes events as varied as concerts and mushairas to a donkey cart race.

The events calendar of The Second Floor—which calls itself a “community space for open dialogue”—is an eclectic mix. Author and translator Musharraf Ali Farooqui holds a weekly session explaining the poetry of Mirza Ghalib and there’s a children-only reading event most Sundays. One any given day of the week, one can find events ranging from a quirky art exhibit, a discussion of the insurgency in the Balochistan province to a stand-up comedy show or a young filmmaker exhibiting a latest short film.

But venues like The Second Floor and Roadside Café often appear like throwbacks to a different era in Karachi, when artists and intellectuals hung out at cafes and discussed politics and literature, a meal was a long, drawn out affair and one could sit outside without worrying about being mugged later. It seems lacquered over and far more romanticised than the reality. Café Grand, one of the city’s pre-partition establishments that were once a favorite of Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, is now a fast food restaurant struggling to pay the bills.

One venue that has had a promising return to its former glory days is Frere Hall. A stunning property that encompasses gardens and fountains and a hall once used for public events, the venue was closed to the public because of security concerns. Frere Hall’s neighbors included the US Consulate and the Marriott Hotel, both targets for militant groups.

Frere Hall reopened in 2011 after the US Consulate moved to a different location. Before its closure, the park used to be packed with picnickers and hosted a thriving book fair. Though it has been open for a year, the weekly book sales are a shadow of what they used to be, though sellers hope it will pick up.

“Some people are just here to buy books to decorate their libraries. Others are trying to evade taxes,” says Shahid Jamal, whose family had a share in the old Nizami Press. “Since the internet arrived, people have stopped reading.” Still, Jamal says, at least 200 people come to the Frere Hall on Sundays and he is still sourcing books through private sellers.

According to Azam of Shahzeb Enterprises, who only stocks new books, he manages to sell 20 to 35 each Sunday. “Umair Ahmed and Nimra Ahmed are among the popular Urdu writers. We sell a lot of Islamic books too.” A tradesman who buys old books and newspapers from neighborhoods wanders up to his stall. “Oh you only sell new books,” he says, and Azam refers him to one of the secondhand book dealers at the fair. A prominent Urdu writer walks into the fair and customers rush up to him to say their hellos.

Abdul Qadir Mangi, a self described ‘fan of books’ is a regular to the book fair. “It’s good, but a lot of the books are repeated. There’s little variety, and the books have become more expensive. And there need to be more facilities here… tea, a place to sit.” Ahsan, another visitor to Frere Hall, agrees. “I think there needs to be seating for senior citizens since there is no place for them in the city. I want to be a part of an initiative like that.”

“The difference between the Frere Hall of then and today is the same as sending a letter and a text message,” Ahsan says. “I am from the generation of letter writers.”

While Frere Hall doesn’t charge for entry, socialising in Karachi is expensive. Tickets at Atrium cost Rs 200 minimum, and food can put one back another Rs 110.
Dining out can range from Rs 300 to Rs 1,160 per person.

And nowhere is the social divide more visible than at Port Grand. Built near the historic Native Jetty bridge, which overlooks the marina, the high brow food street Port Grand charges Rs 300 (around INR 180) for entry and is only open to “families”— a euphemism employed by many entertainment venues that translates into “single men not allowed”.

Visiting Port Grand is out of the question to the lower income groups who are regulars to the Native Jetty Bridge. Far from the polarised Port Grand, Native Jetty—referred to as “Netty Jetty” by Karachiites—is used by everyone. Hindus use the bridge to leave the cremated remains of their loved ones into the sea, and on Sunday evenings the area is packed with people taking in the views and offering sacrifices to the birds flying overhead—Rs 6 buys a plate of dough balls and for Rs 11 to Rs 17, one can offer packets of meat. Mohammad Saleem seats his young son on the pier boundary wall. “We’re here to give a sacrifice,” he says. “On weekends we either stay home or take our son to Sindbad,” referring to an amusement park. “But my child definitely prefers going to Dolmen or other malls. There are so many places that have opened up in the last couple of years.”

But while Saleem may have choices, not everyone does. “They charge Rs 300 for that ‘hotel’!” says a young boy standing at Native Jetty bridge, pointing out the route to Port Grand. “300!” he repeats to himself.

Noshee, a transgender, says Port Grand is off-limits to her too. “The guards won’t let us stand there,” she says. Her companion Tamanna nods in agreement. “We make about Rs 170 to Rs 235 here on a Sunday, but Rs 100 just goes to food. We don’t work after evening prayers – since every Muslim must go to pray.”

The Native Jetty area is barricaded off with metal sheets, as is an overhead bridge.

“They put these up here because too many people would jump off and kill themselves,” Noshee explains. “And because of the hotel.”

The “hotel” a.k.a. Port Grand is a short walk away from Native Jetty. Steps lead down from the main road. A woman sits in a corner, begging for money. The walls are splattered with betel nut juice.

The steps open up into the Port Grand entrance, where on a Sunday afternoon, guards shoo away men who have wandered close to the gate. “This is a hotel,” the guard says to two men. “Are you here for the hotel? Do you have a ticket?” A painted sign on a pillar states that eating paan is not allowed at Port Grand.

Port Grand is a well-maintained property built as a promenade and houses vendors selling greasy snacks, cafes, restaurants and a selection of boutiques. When it opened in 2011, thousands thronged it, including parents pushing babies in strollers, shy couples and senior citizens. One of the city’s most well known BBQ restaurants, Ghaffar Kebab, had a 30-minute wait for a table at its branch at Port Grand. Self-styled amateur photographers walked around sporting DSLR cameras to take photographs of the venue and giggling girls posed at a restaurant balcony designed as a ship deck, emulating the famed Leonardo DiCaprio-Kate Winslet pose from Titanic.

A narrow winding lane next to Port Grand leads to the Laxmi Narayan temple, with marked off ghats for men and women.

While some profiteer off Port Grand, it has inconvenienced Hindus who visit the temple. On one weekday night, a wedding procession replete with a band made its way to the temple through people queuing up for entry tickets to Port Grand. A flower seller at the temple says, “Look, this is in front of you. What can we do? This is Pakistan.”

Jeevan, who frequents the temple, complains bitterly about the noise. “They play loud music there [Port Grand]. The guards once stopped me and asked where I was going. That is our temple.” For Jeevan, whose father moved to Karachi in 1905, the landscape of the city he grew up in has changed irrevocably.

As large swathes of Karachi become more commercialised to make way for malls, food streets and shops replete with rules and restrictions such as “no maids allowed” or “families only” (a euphemism that means “no single men”) the spaces for the lower income groups to have a night out on the town have diminished.

Reports of couples being harassed by the police at the public beach are common. Earlier this year, a talk show host, Maya Khan, filmed an episode for her morning show that showed her barging in on couples hanging out in parks, demanding to know why they were there and if their parents knew what “they were up to”. Khan’s outrage wasn’t shared by everyone: the then-director general for parks and horticulture at the Karachi Municipal Corporation told The Express Tribune newspaper “that couples were free to use Karachi’s parks and did not have to declare or justify the status of their relationship to anyone” and she was fired by the television channel. 

Despite Maya Khan’s witch hunt, Karachi’s public beach Sea View and parks are constantly crowded on weekends and public holidays. At Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim, built around a historic pier and a temple, families wait outside patiently on a Sunday afternoon for the park to open its imposing gates.

Entire vanloads of families and single men on motorcycles—with their silencers removed—roar up and down the Sea View road. In the summer, picnickers make the trek up to the relatively remote beaches of Hawkes Bay and Sandspit. A few streets away from them, invite-only parties rage on at private residences and beach huts, with a steady supply of alcohol, hashish and for a more selective crowd, cocaine and Ecstasy.

In 2011, a musical with tickets priced at Rs 870 staged at the Arts Council featured characters inspired by footballers from the low income area of Lyari, who are largely unemployed and could never afford to go to a production based on their lives.
Event organisers are mostly unapologetic about the social divide or whether it looks insensitive to be celebrating fashion or film when there are riots in parts of the city, often touting the “but life most go on” line.

Ahsan has been watching his children play in Frere Hall’s gardens on a Sunday morning. “We try to live our dreams through our children,” he says wistfully. “My father never had enough money to give us a lot of things. I used to come to Frere Hall with my uncle, so I have an attachment to this place. That is why I bring my four children here.” His other choice is to take them to Sea View, where the children can take rides on camels and dip their feet in the sea.

He isn’t alone. On an unseasonably cool weekend in Karachi, a couple on a motorcycle stops a rickshaw driver in Saddar. “What’s the way to Sea View?” the man asks and careens off after he is given vague directions. The route to Sea View fills up with traffic as the sun sets.

In almost every lane, there are raucous games of street cricket going on, with young boys shrieking out to residents for balls that have mistakenly landed into their houses. Families sit around their televisions, watching news of Pakistani tennis player Aisamul Haq’s rumored divorce. On the streets, fevered arguments continue over whether the umpire made the right call for a leg-before-wicket.

A 1950 profile of Karachi in The New York Times described the city as having been “projected into unexpected fame” when it was chosen as Pakistan’s capital (prior to Islamabad being made the capital in the 1960s). Karachi, the Times noted, “is midway between its tranquil past and bustling future.”

Sixty-two years later, as the sun sets and the restaurants begin setting up tables for their patrons and the rickshaws, motorcycles and heavily decorated buses careen throughout the city, that line still holds true. In other parts of the city, targeted violence continues to claim lives. Despite the death toll—18 people were killed in the 24 hours before filing this report—Karachi’s frenetic pace hasn’t ceased.