From outside it looks like a garrisoned fort dotted with towering building blocks that stretches for over a kilometre. The building blocks, which appear to have been modelled on a Lego project made by an easily distracted child, has more than 2,200 residential flats. Most of them occupied by families settled for more than a decade. Rabia City in Gulistan-i-Jauhar is rumoured to be one of the largest residential projects in Asia but is certainly the biggest in the country.
It is said that a baby conceived in Rabia City doesn’t have to go out of its compound till it graduates from high school — and the aphorism is not unfounded. The grand apartment complex has two high schools, a general hospital and an array of more than 500 shops within its premises that cater to the minutest to the grandest needs of daily existence — cobbler, butcher, barber, whatever — you name it, Rabia City has it.
Billed as one of the most dangerous places to live in Karachi, Rabia City has a different story to tell from inside. Life — at least, in times of peace — bustles with activity: children bickering over controversial decisions made by the make-shift umpire s in their road cricket match, girls walking to colleges in groups, old women arguing with vendors, gray-haired men sitting in distress, defeated by loadshedding.
For some residents, what they termed “hyped-up” notoriety of the place is unjustified. “My colleagues jokingly bade me farewell for the last time every evening when I leave office for home,” said Farooq ruefully, a private bank official, who has been living in Rabia City for the past 10 years.
However, there are more serious issues faced by the dwellers than mere leg-pulling.
Families living there find it difficult to hunt for good marriage proposals, especially men. In one incident, a prospective groom had to leave Rabia City for a more “secure” place as part of a marriage agreement.
“The couple fell in love, the boy was educated and very much eligible for the marriage, everything was fine, the bride’s side had no issues except that he should settle somewhere outside, and the family did so, they left,” narrates a neighbour, who asked not be named.
Rabia City was up for public booking in 1992, and today most of its apartments are occupied. The complex has access to direct water lines, which is still considered a treat in many recently build so-called luxury apartments in Gulistan-e-Jauhar — which thrive on borrowed water brought in regularly by tankers.
The intricate politics of the place are well-known in the whole city, but the residents seem to have honed their skills to deal with it.
The residential complex sits at the centre of the city’s many ethnic and political faultlines. People from almost every ethnic group and political party have their stakes in the apartments.
“It is true that you see young men vigilant all the time – the tension seems to be always there. But if you mind your own business and do not poke your nose in their matters, they don’t disturb you,” explained one resident.
But the unsavoury reputation of the residential complex has also affected the real estate value of the place. “Prices of apartments in Rabia City are stalled for the past few years, as investors don’t want to waste their money on a place known for chaos,” informs Tariq*, a real estate agent, who has been dealing with apartments in the area for 12 years. “The recent spate of violence made it worse, but people who own apartments have learnt to live here.”
Nevertheless, sporadic violence is a serious reality of Rabia City. “There are times when you hear gunshots cracking in the air for hours into midnight, when you can sense that it’s unsafe to step outside your house.
“But I think Rabia City is comparatively better off, because when everything in this area (Gulistan-e-Jauhar) closes down out of fear and
uncertainty, the shops inside Rabia City function as usual, life remains pretty much the same.”
Living amid a constant sense of volatility, have the families in Rabia City developed a steely outlook on life, where danger doesn’t seem dangerous to them any more? Or is Rabia City a victim of bad PR? It is difficult to tell.
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