A Dark Dawn by Baneen Mirza

Wealth fuels sprawl. It can also buy a false sense of being away, guarded from reality. In one such fictional world, the ‘Eiffel Tower’ was built in Lahore. Walking past commercial brick-and-mortar, aesthetically void cityscape turns into glassy see through-ness. Looking into ourselves from the outside world’s reflection. On the next turn, the ‘Sphinx’ and Egyptian kings are erected to guard a mirage “based on the rich Egyptian architecture in an opulent style,” removed from their prowess in science, agriculture, architecture and crafts. A superfluous sense of achievement, hot air for inflated egos, as our own past — incredibly varied, rich, equally opulent, but also tumultuous — fades away in the background. Oblivious to the wind-catching, multi-storey brick houses of Harappa, a Bronze Age Chicago only 200km away. A grammar comparable to that of the “mohallahs,” with their pragmatic and pleasurable qualities of open-to-sky spaces and of squatter settlements whose residents fuel the machinery of these urban satellites. Even with their poor sewerage system, these settlements seem better connected to their environment, alluding to a more honest, rooted living experience.
Why overlook a vernacular that has taken shape over centuries? It is a consequence of our colonial legacy and an education system which embedded in the natives a sense of inferiority. It replaced the South Asian “guru sitting under the tree” symbol of enlightenment with boxed classrooms. The soul, relevance and value of old traditions is lost to capitalist westernisation, with corruption and inertia further adding to our inability to generate our own contemporary sensibilities, giving rise to a
modernism whose light shines only in (substandard) palaces.

Abounding at the peripheries of Lahore, across plains and agricultural fields, are clustered kutchi abadis/squatter settlements and mohallahs — lower income neighbourhoods forming the bulk of the city’s outskirts. Sprouting organically, built on small plots, these single-storey mud houses are home to farmers and cattle alike. Made of brick, they go up as high as four storeys, the roof an important part of living, used for sleeping on hot summer days, gathering in winters, and kite flying.

Northwards is the bank of River Ravi behind the historical core of the city — itself pushed to a
periphery. The river partly dried out, historical settlements along the banks left to ruin, and with
minarets and domes from the Mughal era visible in a not-so-distant skyline, there’s an air of sadness
and of time long spent.

Surging inexorably southwards are the latest urban islands of Lahore: gated, self-contained ‘communities’ that aspire to the idyllic notion of suburban lifestyle, yet their streets are lined with imported tall date palms rather than local, shady peepal or eucalyptus trees: non-contextual, eco-unfriendly architecture, life-size recreations of iconic landmarks from Athens, Alexandria, Paris are taking a page out of Dubai’s urban philosophy of a global amusement park rather than a culturally relevant evolution of the city’s Sikh, Mughal and colonial antecedents.

Originally published in Failed States issue no.2: suburb, May 2018. Photographs by Baneen Mirza

Baneen Mirza is a writer, photographer, but mostly a wanderer. She is co-founder of Khanabadosh Baithak (Nomad’s Lounge), a campsite in Shigar Valley, Pakistan. Lahore is her hometown.