Pakistan's 'Little Brazil' lives for soccer
By Abubakar Siddique
KARACHI - Residents of one of Pakistan's most dangerous urban neighborhoods live for the love of soccer. The sprawling Karachi slum of Lyari has earned itself the nickname "Little Brazil", a nod to its reputation as a soccer center in a cricket-crazed country.
Lyari, home to Pakistan's indigenous African community, the Sheedis, has provided some of the most distinguished soccer players in Pakistan's history. But the neighborhood is also gaining fame for its deadly gang violence, religious extremism, and poverty.
The neighborhood's reputations collided on August 7 when a
bombing at a local soccer match killed at least 11, including several young players, and wounded more than 20. The bomb hit just after a local politician from the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) presented trophies to the winning team.
Lyari was once a bustling fishing village, but the arrival of big industry and immigrants after the creation of Pakistan in 1947 changed its landscape and economic prospects. In a neighborhood lacking clean drinking water and containing few hospitals or schools, soccer emerged as an avenue to riches and fame for local youth.
"Soccer is held in very high esteem here. It is appreciated and the players are loved," says community leader Shahid Rahman, a former national soccer star. "Irrespective of whether proper grounds are available, you will see children playing around everywhere. [Soccer] competitions go on all the time - some are held in daytime and some at night."
Punished for political stance
Rahman says that many Lyari residents have led Pakistan's national soccer team. He estimates that half the country's current junior soccer team comes from his community. But Rahman, who also leads a local political faction, the Layari Aman (Peace) Committee, says his community is being punished for its second passion, politics.
Akhter Baloch, a blogger and human rights campaigner, agrees. Reflecting on his years as a Lyari resident, he says that the neighborhood has paid a high price for being a stronghold of the PPP. That party was ousted as Pakistan's ruling party in elections in May, but remains in power in Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital.
Baloch says Lyari distinguished itself through its vocal opposition to the three military dictatorships since the 1960s. "I think Lyari has been punished - in what seems to be an organized conspiracy - because of its political choices," he says. "Lyari used to be the political heart of Karachi. Now it is being maligned. These days Lyari's name is associated with gang war, murders, and robberies."
The pulse of Karachi
Lyari's population is a colorful mosaic of ethnic groups dominated by Balochis and including the Sheedis. Historians believe the Sheedis to be descendants of African slaves who became part of the local coastal communities over centuries of sea trade across the Indian Ocean.
Over the course of generations, Lyari became a melting pot as jobs and business opportunities attracted people to Karachi from across Pakistan. "Basically the Baloch are dominant here. But all the other communities live in harmony with the Baloch," Baloch says. "Over time they have developed similar traditions and customs."
Lyari is one of the oldest neighborhoods of Karachi. It was considered the Muslim quarter in a city populated by Hindus, Christians, and Zoroastrians in the early 20th century. Rahman, the Lyari community leader, says his neighborhood is the pulse of this city of 20 million. "Lyari gave birth to Karachi and has made it prosperous," he says.