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I Was a Pakistani Soap Opera Star!

As the World Burns in Karachi

Illustration by Jim Stoten

The afternoon that Zain Zaidi’s house was blown up, we were filming a scene from our soap opera, “Silvatein,” or “Fissures,” in which one character tries to convince her ex-sister-in-law not to remarry. I play Natasha, a troublemaker who is perpetually worried about her social standing, and Zain is one of our two assistant directors. He ties his hair back in a long ponytail and always wears tinted shades, even inside. Every morning, before the camera rolls, he likes to say,Bismillah-ir-rahman-ir-rahim”—“In the name of Allah, the most compassionate, most merciful”—in an earnest, rhythmic voice. Normally, everyone just hopes the blessing will protect our portable power generator—the machine we tote around like an ailing animal from shoot to shoot— or else the a.c. shuts down and the actors are left covered in a pasty mass of foundation and sweat.

As I was being made up for the final scene of the day on Sunday, March 3, I heard Zain saying into his cell phone, calmly at first, then loudly as if he were talking to a dense customer-service agent, “Are the children OK?” We all started flipping through our phones to find out what he was talking about. It was Zain’s cousin calling; he said that a bomb had ripped through Zain’s apartment in Abbas Town, a Shia-dominated neighborhood of Karachi. Forty-eight people were dead and more than 150 injured. The children were OK, he said, but their neighbors were all dead. Zain shut his phone and left the set. Dazed, we rushed through the rest of shooting—we said our lines on cue, we packed up equipment, we piled into cars. We just wanted to get home, safe from Karachi’s volatile street politics.

When I called Zain the next morning, I could hear gun shots through the phone: protesters firing into the air. Zain’s house had been reduced to rubble, but he sounded grateful, even upbeat, to be alive. “Maalik,” he said, using an Urdu word for God, “has been extremely kind.” I asked him if he and his family were OK. “Like I said, Maalik has been kind by sparing us.” He said it was a miracle from Allah. He wasn’t interested in geopolitics. “I used to think, if I ever came upon hard times, I would sell my birds,” he said. “I had pigeons, cockatiels, fischers, black figbirds, javas, and even little chicks living in a cage above the apartment. But they have also been blown to pieces.”

Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, police arrested four people from the banned terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). In 2012 alone, LeJ was responsible for massacring more than 400 Shia, who are routinely targeted for being “lesser” Muslims. The lines between sectarian violence, criminality, and state-sponsored violence in Pakistan are increasingly blurred. Muslims are killing Christians, Deobandis are massacring Ahmadis, Sunnis are massacring Shia, Wahhabis are killing Barelvis, Barelvis are killing secularists. The Taliban are killing everyone: polio workers, doctors, schoolgirls, journalists.

“Silvatein” shoots had been put at risk because of violence before. In early autumn, filming stopped for three consecutive days when Pakistan celebrated “Love of Prophet Day” in response to the trailer for the infamous Innocence of Muslims movie. (YouTube is still banned because of the trailer.) I was holed up at a relative’s house for 72 hours as mobs burned down three cinema houses and attacked banks, restaurants, and the Chamber of Commerce.

This time, with episodes from our serial already airing weekly, we couldn’t afford to delay production. The day after the bombing, we ventured out for a few hours in Clifton, an upscale residential neighborhood, looking for locations to film a black-magic scene. We shot as quickly as we could in Karachi’s deserted streets, usually busy with traffic. As I played Natasha, stumbling out of a sorceress’s quarters, fearful and confused, a strong wind knocked the chiffon scarf off my head. (Spoiler alert: Her dependence on the sorceress leads to sinister repercussions for her family!) Natasha was meant to be thinking about the demons she has unleashed, a pivotal moment for her character, who is not generally introspective. But I also felt chilled, standing in the weirdly empty road.

The next day, while we were shooting on an isolated beach at the edge of town, two men with slickly parted hair, both wearing sunglasses and tentative official smiles, ambled up to the set. They said they were from the intelligence unit that monitored the physical safety and secrecy of the country’s nuclear weapons, and that they meant no harm, but photography or filming of the nuclear facility was not allowed. Dumbfounded, we all looked around and suddenly realized that, in fact, the tower of a nuclear facility loomed behind us. For the next three hours, until we wrapped the shoot, the two gentlemen sat on plastic chairs, taking small sips of fruit juice in the blistering midafternoon heat. Then, they went through the reel to make sure we had not captured images of the facility. Some images, even those with hazy outlines of the building, were methodically deleted. The director of production, recovering from a mild sunburn and used to Pakistan’s culture of bureaucracy, did not show his irritation. But when we finished filming the last scene of the day, the director, one of the few young female directors in Pakistani television, said in between hugs to the actors, “The tragedy of this country is that it is only the guardians of our bloody nukes who are doing their job properly.”

That day happened to be Zain’s first one back, and he arrived in a fog, not having showered or changed since the attack. When we found a moment to talk between takes, he told me his brother, two sisters, and parents had survived because they were in the farthest corner of the house watching a cricket match. “The auntie who used to pull my ears and tell me to get married—she’s gone,” he said. “And the uncle who used to tell me to stop smoking—he’s gone.” On his cell phone he showed me a video of the rubble that remained of his home. “This used to be the bathroom,” he said, pointing to a heap of jagged gray concrete. He tipped the phone upward, and you could see the sky from inside his apartment. “And this,” he said, his voice cracking, “is where I kept my beautiful birds.” It occurred to me later that this was the only day, after months on set, that Zain hadn’t offered his bismillah at the beginning of the shoot.

Mira Sethi is a writer and actor living in Pakistan.