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Pop Idols

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Before Youth Culture

In 1987 I had a lot in common with many other fourteen-year­-olds. I watched the Brat Pack/John Hughes films, repeatedly; I knew the Top 10 of the UK chart by heart; I cut out pictures of Rob Lowe, Madonna, a-ha from teen magazines and stuck them on my bedroom walls; I regarded the perfect ‘mixed tape’ as a pinnacle of teenaged achievement and gave thanks for not living in the dark days of LPs. But in doing all these things I merely affirmed what every adolescent growing up, like me, in Karachi could tell you – youth culture was Foreign. The privileged among us could visit it, but none of us could live there.

Instead, we lived in the Kalashnikov culture. Through most of the eighties, Karachi’s port served as a conduit for the arms sent by the US and its allies to the Afghan mujahideen, and a great many of those weapons were siphoned off before the trucks with their gun cargo even started the journey from the port to the mountainous north. By the mid-eighties, Karachi, my city, a once-peaceful seaside metropolis, had turned into a battleground for criminal gangs, drug dealers, ethnic groups, religious sects, political parties – all armed. Street kids sold paper masks of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo; East met West in its adulation of the gun and its hatred of the godless Soviets.

In those days, schools were often closed because of ‘trouble in the city’; my school instituted drills to contend with bombs and riots, rather than fire. Even cricket grounds – those rare arenas where exuberance still survived – weren’t unaffected; all through 1986 and for most of 1987, there was hardly any international cricket played at Karachi’s National Stadium because of security concerns. The exception in 1986 was a Pakistan v. West Indies Test match. Still, my parents refused to allow me to attend. They were worried there might be ‘trouble’. This was the refrain of my adolescence. My parents and their friends constantly had to make decisions about how to balance concern for their children’s safety against the desire to allow life to appear as normal for us as possible. Like all teenagers, though, we wanted to go somewhere – and public spaces, other than the beach, held little appeal.

As a result, ‘going for a drive’ became an end unto itself. A group of us would pile into a car and we’d just drive, listening to mixed tapes with music from the UK and the US, singing along to every song. Sometimes these were tapes one of us had recorded straight off the radio while on a summer holiday in London, and we’d soon memorize all the truncated clips of jingles and radio patter as well as the songs. ‘Capital Radio! Playing all over London!’ we’d chant while navigating our way through Karachi’s streets. ‘There are tailbacks on the M25 . . .’ We always travelled in groups. You heard stories about the police stopping cars that had only a boy and girl in them and demanding proof that the pair were married, turning threatening and offering an option of arrest or payment of a bribe when the necessary paperwork wasn’t forthcoming. There weren’t any laws against driving in a car with someone of the opposite gender, but there were laws against adultery – and the police treated ‘sex’ as synonymous with ‘driving’ for the purposes of lining their pockets.

That was life as we knew and accepted it. Then one day in 1987 I turned on the lone, state-run TV channel to find four attractive young Pakistani men, wearing jeans and black leather jackets, strumming guitars, driving through the hills on motorbikes and in an open-top jeep, singing a pop song. And just like that, Youth Culture landed in living rooms all over Pakistan.

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