The Fisherfolk of Karachi: a Parable of Pakistan

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mohammed Ali Shah (16 minutes, 8 mb mp3)

Mohammad Ali Shah, Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum

KARACHI — We are taking the fishermen’s measure of Pakistan’s distress here in a fishing village that goes back to antiquity, that fights the present-day odds with spirit. The fisherfolk all around us are the sea-level “canaries” in a shrinking and severely polluted fish-farming system, centered on the Ibrahim Haidri neighborhood on the south shore of Karachi. Make of it what you will that the young men repairing nets and wooden boats for a day’s work tomorrow on the Arabian Sea don’t look out-of-luck yet. And they have a notably serene and good-humored leader in Mohammad Ali Shah, who is giving us the awful litany of threats to their way of life.

The city of Karachi (pop. roughly 20-million) dumps 500-million gallons of waste into its harbors every day — “into the bowl of our livelihood,” as Mohammad Ali Shah puts it, and that’s just the beginning. “Land grabbers,” whom we’d call developers, are encroaching on their land, as fish factories at sea are gobbling their catch. Two of the allied activists fighting the “land mafia” that has targeted their mangrove forest were murdered this past May. Fishing families suffer the cold war between Pakistan and India acutely, in the periodic arrest (and long arbitrary sentences) of fishermen who stray across territorial borders. And on top of everything, says Mohammad Ali Shah, nobody seems to care — certainly nobody with much political power. Pakistani politics, he instructs us, is an inside brokers’ game that shuns “people power.”

In short, we are looking at what seems a hopelessly broken system — a metaphor for all of Pakistan, perhaps. And yet the people talking with us seem anything but hopeless. The air about them suggests solidarity, savvy, global awareness — the “resilience” that Pakistanis seem to count as their last card. It counts, too, that fishermen paint their own boats in Pakistan (as teamsters paint their huge trucks) with brilliant floral designs, colorful splashes in their workplace at sunset.


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  • Very nice. Work done by Mr. Muhammad Ali Shah and his team.

  • gul

    It’s graceful work for the labour of the marginalise community, to work in the development process for the main livelihood.

  • nother

    “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”
    -Henry David Thoreau

    I love the pictures you brought back of these fishermen. The fishing nets are as celestial clouds illuminating the dignity of these laboring men. “But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!” – Moby Dick

    You asked him if he is Muslim and he said yes, yet I’m guessing this gentleman “had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practicle world quite another.” – Moby DIck

    The obstacles these fishermen face seem to be as daunting as Mr. Moby Dick, all of which makes one wonder “…whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.”

    Regardless, men such as Muhammad Ali Shah and Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” will persevere: “Not they have beaten me, he thought. I am too old to club sharks to death. But I will try it as long as I have the oars and the short club and the tiller.”

  • nother

    As much as I appreciated the enlightened words of Muhammad Ali Shah I was disheartened to hear what seemed to be his dark feelings towards Indians down the river. I have know doubt that he has what he believe to be good reasons, but this demonizing of the -other- across the border is the same old story all over.

    “This means that more and more our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional” -MLK (from his Nobel speech)

    • I don’t think he was demonising Indians. He knows and has said so, that Indians getting arrested in Pakistan are treated the same way as Pakistanis getting arrested in India. He has said in previous interviews that they both treat each other as prisoners of war – quoted in my 2009 report for IPS:

      “There will be no peace until the arms race ends,” said Mohammad Ali Shah of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, representing a community severely impacted by the hostilities, with whom the Indian delegates spent an evening.
      “There are currently over 500 Indian fishermen in Pakistani prisons, and over 150 Pakistani fishermen in Indian prisons,” Shah told IPS. “Fishermen on both sides caught violating the maritime borders are treated as prisoners of war.” (link:

  • mazHur

    my message to boat-owning fishermen is that they must rise up and help themselves rather than relying on politicians, advances from packers and exploitation of ghatoo’s!! If they do not act they would have no choice in future but to take kids on camel rides at Clifton beach and Hawke’s Bay!!

  • Potter

    Beautiful interview!- reminding me that I go to my “fishman” knowing, expecting, that he has been to the docks in Boston from here in central Massachusetts each morning that he opens for business. He’s is a rarity these days.

    Our protests and support to save the fishing grounds habitat are not met so harshly and although I am thankful about that, I am horrified to hear MA Shah’s story. The fisherman must be an environmentalist.

    Listening, I was reminded of vacations on the gulf coast of Florida the thick mangroves of the Florida keys we have and the fabulous birds that congregate there- the egret, the pelican, the heron, the spoonbill.

    This is a beautiful interview…I love the sounds.

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