Invisible Geographies

If the idea of the modern nation-state is sustained by producing imagined communities, it also involves actively producing unimagined communities…whose vigorously unimagined condition becomes indispensable to maintaining a highly selective discourse of national development.

– Rob Nixon

For the British Indian colonial administration, western science and technical expertise, was the only way to develop regional fisheries. Or more specifically, it was the only way to develop regional fisheries for an export-oriented market. In 1908, Frederick Nicholson, Director of Fisheries in Madras was clear about this.

“The [local/artisanal] fishing industry is in the most primitive condition, quite undeveloped in any of the modern methods and allied industries, bound by custom and ignorance, and entirely without initiative in new departures; it is the Government officers only who have a larger knowledge and a certain degree of initiative, and it is, at present, for them to lead the industry and the men” [Hoeppe, Götz, Conversations on the Beach: Fishermen’s Knowledge, Metaphor and Environmental Change in South India, Berghan Books, 2007:130-131]. 

The fishermen–those who knew the seas and had relations with humans and the other-than-human living in and from it–were dismissed, and their practical, experiential and cultural knowledges cast aside as irrelevant. The denigration of those who have the deepest cultural, historical, social, emotional, and spiritual connection with the ocean, and with the life that resides there, continues to this day. 


In Gwadar, those who have lived and worked the ocean for hundreds of years, remain outside the designs, ambitions, intentions, interests and concerns of the State. Their knowledge, laws, practices, insights, and aspirations, irrelevant to its concerns. It the “moderns,” it remains “difficult…to understand the full breadth and complexity of… [a people’s]…human-animal and human-environmental relations” [Todd , Zoe, “Fish pluralities: Human-animal relations and sites of engagement in Paulatuuq, Arctic Canada,” Études/Inuit/Studies , 2014, Vol. 38, No. 1/2, Cultures inuit, gouvernance et cosmopolitiques / Inuit cultures, governance and cosmopolitics, 2014:217-238]. The “sharp dualities that [inform]…Euro-Western philosophical and scientific understandings of humans and animals, or the familiar and the ‘Other,’” remain [Todd , Zoe, “Fish pluralities: Human-animal relations and sites of engagement in Paulatuuq, Arctic Canada,” Études/Inuit/Studies , 2014, Vol. 38, No. 1/2, Cultures inuit, gouvernance et cosmopolitiques / Inuit cultures, governance and cosmopolitics, 2014:217-238]. 

Mohsin Hamid’s Gwadar

Writer Mohsin Hamid and I visited Gwadar in 2004 and co-produced an essay for Time Magazine about our visit. The magazine had commissioned us to write about a city that was forcing itself into the world’s consciousness for all the wrong reasons; it was the site of a new Chinese financed sea port, an act that was causing consternation in the corridors of American power, and, it was the site of recent attacks against Chinese engineers working on the sea port by Baloch separatists, an act were causing consternation in the corridors of Pakistani power. The Pakistani government had blamed “Islamic militants,” but the word on the street was that it was Baloch separatists determined to scuttle Pakistan’s ambitions for transforming this small fishing village into a global shipping hub. With many regional enemies–India, Afghanistan, Iran and even the American–it was always difficult to know who carried out what act and for what cause. 

“We all are witness to the making of history today.” President General Musharraf had claimed back seaport’s ground breaking ceremony in 2002. “What we are doing in Gwadar,” he boasted, “will end the sense of deprivation among the people…and alleviate poverty.” The bomb attacks were an indication that the people of the region believed otherwise. Baluchistan had long been the site of numerous resource extraction projects–gold, natural gas, fisheries, tin, coal and more–and yet remained one of the most backward and under-developed geographies in the country. By the time Mohsin Hamid landed at Gwadar Airport in 2004, some two years after Musharraf’s promises, Gwadar was undergoing major changes but neither the sense of deprivation, nor the poverty of the people, had abated. 

However, Gwadar had become entrenched in the imaginations of a certain Pakistani class of investors, real-estate dealers, industrialists, and nationalists as the next great capitalist and industrial frontier–a new Dubai in the making. Through online promotional videos, placements in local newspapers, and events held in the country’s major cities, various Pakistani governments had created an idea of Gwadar as the next great real-estate gold rush, a veritable Xanadu and thousands had responded. They all came with the belief that a new utopia was to rise here, a city of glass-and-steal, a consumer paradise where the inhospitable and barren landscape of the Makran Coast would be replaced by lushly watered golf courses, high-rise apartment complexes, luxurious shopping malls and beach-front villas offering every imaginable comfort. Even before work had begun on the sea port, hundreds of speculators, swindlers, and scammers who descended on the city to get their hands on whatever land they could. Many residents were cheated, many others were fooled, and the people who had never thought of land as an exchangeable commodity, had been tricked into selling their properties for a pittance. 

By 2004, many were staking their claims on the city and these could be seen in the form of billboards that announced the construction of new housing schemes, luxury villas, private clubs, 5-star hotels and more. Driving from the airport towards the city, one saw the odd sight of elaborate gates and entrances to “construction to being soon” housing projects, and “world class” condominium resorts. Gwadar’s main market, which was once the centre of retail and commercial activity in the city, was being replaced by a new commercial area further North where the offices of dozens of real estate dealers, construction companies, equipment rental firms and other related businesses were cropping up. In Pakistan’s major cities, there was talk only of the real-estate wealth to be made, and the great leap that Pakistan’s collaboration with the Chinese augured. 

Hamid’s essay in Time Magazine, titled “Waiting for the Boom,” reflected the way the city of Gwadar, one that few had ever heard of prior to the talk of the seaport, had inserted itself into the broader national imagination. Gwadar was “Pakistan’s great boomtown,” he wrote, “a place of great beauty and unparalleled opportunity.” This is what the nation’s newspapers had said, he wrote, and that he was “thrilled” to be going to a place that was trumpeted as “the ‘Dubai of Pakistan.’” He tries to visualize Gwadar and imagines them as other “seaside paradises” that he is perhaps familiar with–Portofino, Bali, and Mykonos. The imaginaries are Western, the lifestyle European, the aspirations consumerist, and the dreams capitalist. When he arrives however, he is disappointed. The town itself, when he enters, is described as “spectacular in its setting,” but little more than “a poor fishing village.” He cannot see how a “seaside paradise,” can emerge in a place where “women are not allowed to do their shopping outside,” and can certainly never be able to “put on swimming suits and venture out into the sea.” 

But there are signs of hope; he finds a place called Global Internet Cafe, a video-game arcade where kids gather, a restaurant that has a television connected to a satellite dish, telephone call offices offering international dialing, and many property dealers. Access to these consumer goods is seen by him as a measure of the “increased prosperity” and “access to goods they could not previously afford.” He finds a few people who tell him what he wants to hear; that the sea port development is a good thing, that the people of Gwadar support the Chinese, and that they welcome “investment” and want a share in it. After a cursory trip, he leaves with “hope” that the “development” in Gwadar is “managed properly,” and that the “locals continue to benefit.” 

Reading this article some sixteen years after it was published, I was dismayed by its rather Thomas Friedman “flat earth” imaginary where globalization not only erases barriers to finance but erases differences in desires and habits. Hamid’s judgement of Gwadar, his identification of what suggested “progress” and “development,” his hopes for what should emerge here in the future, gravitated around the availability of consumer products, and lifestyle. The future towards which Gwadar has to move is cemented through ideas of progress which are simply mimetic of the West, and perhaps more regionally, of a mall-centered idea of Dubai; glass and steel towers, endless shopping, luxury villas with swimming pools, Italian sports cars, nuclear families playing on the beach, clean streets, law and order, and a disciplined life whose hours are carefully divided between work, family and leisure, all at the appropriate time, and at the appropriate amount. Hamid’s judgement of Gwadar as “a poor fishing village,” is less an assessment of the town’s reality, and more a judgement based on his holding the West as the exemplar, the final destination of all “progress,” and the only possible end to work towards. In the future we will all be Europeans, and until then, we must simply work harder. 

Reading his essay now I am struck at how casually, and how unthinkingly the people, histories, culture and ideas of the people of Gwadar itself are simply ignored. They do not exist anywhere in the essay, and it did not even occur to Hamid, or to me when I was working there, to find out. But Gwadar has a long history of its own, one documented and recorded by its historians, and poets. It is the site, along with towns like Pasni, Jiwani and others, of a rich, complex tradition of artisanal fishing whose practitioners maintain a remarkable socio-cultural and epistemic relationship with the ocean, the other-than-human life, and the landscape. They know the waters, the air, the seasons, and the fish, like their own families, and have developed a language and a practice of the sea that is unique. It is a city that has produced poets, artists, writers, historians, linguists and craftsman and was a key part of the Zanzibar-Muscat-Makran seafaring trade routes. This history exists in their language, in their crafts, in their boat building, and in their practices on the ocean. It is heard in their poems, and in the many stories they tell. The people continue to maintain deep cultural and familiar links to places like Muscat in Oman, Zanzibar in Tanzanian and Charbahar in Iran.

“I’ve come here looking for hope,” Hamid wrote, only to be disappointed with what he saw. Gwadar was no Portofino, and the signs of what meant “hope” to him were to be found in the consumer goods and promised luxury hotel developments. These were the markers of “development,” of a promise of a “better” future, and of the movement in time and history. Hamid’s was a colonial eye, one that could only recognize movement, agency, promise, and time through products, and lifestyles he recognized. What he did not recognize, was dismissed as being little more than “a poor fishing village.” Hamid was an heir, much as I was when I came here with my cameras in 2004, to a history of dismissing and ignoring the lives and voices of the people of the region by Pakistan’s urban, Western-educated elite. Away from the cities, and in these “tribal” spaces were where you found the backward, the under-development, the illiterate, the irrelevant who could not be part of history, or have the agency to define it. Their world, one “shaped by the affective, historically textured maps that…[they]… devised over generations…replete with names and routes, maps alive to significant ecological and surface geological features,” wasn’t worthy of concern [Nixon, Rob, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011:17]. Their vernacular landscapes were not invisible [Jackson, John Brinckerholl, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, Yale University Press, 1986]. 

Masterplanning Theatre

The most magical thing about a Wayang–Indonesian shadow puppet theatre, is how it requires a collective and communal act of fantasy and imagination. The entire audience, and the performer of the story, have to agree to participate in the fantasy together. Everyone in attendance knows that behind the screen is a puppeteer, and they are looking at a flat, cardboard cut-out figures that are made to jump, dance and walk with the help of rods and strings. And yet, for the duration of the play, the audience sets aside its rationality, and its sense of the real, to allow itself to be transported into another world; one of kings and queens, of court intrigues, of dragons and other fantastical beasts, of spells and magic. With the help of music, lights, and the voice of the narrator, the audience is pulled along into another world, believing to be real every twist and turn, and feeling and exclaiming at its every surprise and shock. The puppeteer controls the audience with his voice, the rhythm of the story, and the imaginative fantasies spun in front of them. The power of the story told is reflected in the eagerness with which the audience surrenders to the reality of the moment, ignores the mechanics of the production (wires, cardboard, light bulbs, cotton sheets), and surrenders to the fantasy. With little more than a sheet of cloth, a few cardboard cut-out figures, and the ability to narrate, a single puppeteer, if talented, can entice and audience to give him their attention, and most importantly, surrender their rationality to fantasy. It is a sort of magic trick, but one that is performed together. 

On a hot afternoon in Gwadar, a representative from the Gwadar Development Authority (GDA) gave a presentation of the city’s new masterplan, and performed what can only be described as Wayang theatre performance for a select group of researchers, academics, and students, and hoped to perform such a collective magic trick. On a screen in the front of the room, he projected the recently released details of a masterplan that claimed will transform Gwadar into a bustling, glass-and-steel metropolis, complete with environmentally sustainable consumer lifestyles, a bustling tourism trade, golf courses and luxury villas, looming tower blocks, and of course, the sea port. Using imagery that mimicked the landscapes of cities such as Dubai, and Singapore–fantasy worlds that have held the Pakistani imagination hostage for many decades–the GDA representative presented Gwadar–this long ignored, backwater town Hamid called “a poor fishing village,”–as the “most important city you have never heard of.” 

His cardboard cut-out puppets are a selection of stock phrases of global modernity; the city is “strategically important,” at the “intersection of empires,” a “smart” port city that will have an “inclusive” society that “embraces creativity,” offers “entrepreneurship and innovation,” based on on “21st century education,” with “green buildings,” and “green urban planning,” resulting in a “culturally vibrant and happy” place run by a “smart government” structure that utilizes information and communications technology for transparent policy making. The entire city will be declared a “Special Economic Zone–a site “de-contextualized and segregated from the nation beyond its perimeter wall, governed by a political regime that is entirely inward-looking and whose proclamations of hard work as a ‘moral, personal and social good’ serve the interests of transnational capitalists” [Cross, Jamie, “Neoliberalism as Unexceptional: Economic zones and the Everyday Precariousness of Working life in South India,” Critique of Anthropology, 30(4) 2010:355–373]. Tax shelters, exemptions from customs duties, freedom from importation taxes, and special concessions for operating various industries and the port are on offer, and consumer “tax free” zones are proudly displayed on the screen. 

The masterplan shows a city nearly twenty times the size of the original, and effectively parcels up every inch of land into private commercial, residential, industrial and tourism assets. Who is buying the land, what influences are at play to acquire or grab it, is not discussed. The ministry of Defense, Pakistan Army, Pakistan Navy, Pakistan Air Force and National Logistics Cell (NLC)–all military-linked institutions–have asked the Gwadar Development Authority (GDA) for more than 60,000 acres of land in the Gwadar subdivision. It was reported that the Pakistan Army alone wants nearly 45,000 acres of land for building a garrison near Gwadar city. It is also seeking land for its Special Services Group (190 acres), for NLC (1,000 acres), for joint defense purposes (9,270 acres) and for setting up another garrison in Gurandani South area (2,500 acres) besides asking for many smaller patches of land for other purposes. Similarly, says the official, the Pakistan Navy wants to acquire around 1,500 acres of land in different parts of Gwadar district [Ahmed, Maqbool, “The Mysterious Case of Land Acquisitions in Balochistan,” The Herald, November 23, 2018]. As if as an afterthought, a rather poorly drawn page–its design and colors unlike that of any other in the presentation–is shown as the design of a future housing scheme for the mahigeer who will be displaced from the old city and into a new housing society. The page reveals a conventional modernist design for an urban enclave–all squares and straight lines, with carefully segregated areas for housing, leisure, and commercial activities–and offers no indication of where it is in the larger masterplan. It appears as an afterthought. 

But the puppetry isn’t going well, and the audience isn’t prepared to surrender to the fantasy he is weaving. The audience is uncooperative, and even less so when the GDA representative reveals the industries the fantasy of the new Gwadar is based on are some of the most polluting and poisonous industries known to man: a coal-fired power plant emitting large amounts of air pollutants, a steel-mill emitting large amounts of air and water pollutions, a desalination plant (to serve these industries) emitting large amounts of brine, ship breaking yards destroying entire water front with leaking oil, chemicals and other pollutants, and a sea port bringing in large numbers of container ships emitting waste, oil and chemical pollutions. Sensing the restlessness of his audience, the GDA representative rushes to offer the “humanitarian” benefits for the locals, a hospital, a sewage treatments facility, public parks and schools.

There is silence. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and the fantasies of Gwadar as the magical city on the hill, are projects that cannot be questioned or doubted. Doing so is considered a threat to the security and safety of the nation state itself. Nearly a decade’s worth of political, military, political economic and mainstream capitalist arguments have helped weave Gwadar and the many infrastructure projects associated with CPEC as the only, and the inevitable project. It is Pakistan’s future, and often positioned as the final solution to solving the problems of “the economy,” and the critical source of the nation’s “growth.” Today, political and state conversations revolve around the abstract concept of “the economy,” and are no longer questioned for their material reality and their concrete meaning. “The emergent discourse of the economy represented,” Mitchell argued, “a re-imagination of the nation-state,” and perhaps more importantly, the construction of “a discursive object…[that]…provided a new language in which the nation-state could speak for itself and imagine its existence as something natural, bounded and subject to political management” [Mitchell, Timothy, “Fixing The Economy,” Cultural Studies, 12:1, 1998:82-101]. These discursive constructions today interact with broader social and political discourses and have offered the justification for “new powers of planning, regulation, statistical enumeration and representation,” and repression, dispossession and violence. The silence is one that Pakistanis have practiced for a very long time. 

The puppet theatre comes to an end. Instead of applause, there are questions, but before these can be raised, chai is served. 

Vernacular Landscapes

James Holston observed that modernist planning’s view of history is teleological; it works backwards from an imagined future and the means to get there, while distancing itself from existing norms and forms of life. As a result, it relies on total decontextualization, with a view of history that is entirely de-historicizing, and a conviction that the state and the master-planner are the only meaningful agents of historical change. It claims that knowledge of the “social context is not crucial in making history.” Furthermore, it removes as participants and political actors, those who are not planners, since their voices and organization become irrelevant to the decisions about the development of the city [Holston, James, The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasilia, The University of Chicago Press, 1989:7–9]. We see hints of this de-contextualizing and silencing in the Gwadar masterplan, where the future of Gwadar cannot have anything to do with its present social, cultural, historical, economic and imaginative conditions, nor with its historical residents. Gwadar, as seen by the State, is nothing more than “a poor fishing village,” and the land around it empty, unused, and available as a clean slate for its fantasies of “development,” and “progress.” 

But Gwadar is anything but a tabula rasa, and what is unfolding behind the colorful powerpoint presentations, the slick video productions showing glass-and-steel office towers and sunbathing European vacationers on Gwadar’s ocean shores, are acts of violence slowly but determinedly erasing the city’s vernacular landscape. It is a landscape that is integrally defined by the socio-cultural, and environmental dynamics of the community which maintains deep spiritual, and practice-based relationships with the ocean, the land and the other-than-human life there [Nixon, Rob, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011:17]. Its shorelines, alleys, corners and mountains are mapped with memory, myths, stories, histories and relational infrastructures that have allowed the community to live and thrive here for generations. It is a landscape embedded in ocean going and overland trade and familial networks that are still alive and vibrant, where the inhabitant have been actors in writing their own histories. And as any other people, they carry with them ideas for a future they want, and a city they dream of planning. 

And yet, all this is invisible to the official eye, as it was to Mohsin Hamid and me back in 2004. For the officials, the landscape is seen in “pitilessly instrumental” ways as it is carved out into parcels of commodifiable assets for sale and exchange. But the story of Gwadar isn’t just the story of material wealth. It cannot be, for much more is at stake as these imposed official and destructive landscapes erase “spiritualized vernacular landscapes as if it were uninhabited by the living, the unborn, and the animate deceased.” 

We only have to start to look closer and listen closely. 


Ahmed, Maqbool, “The Mysterious Case of Land Acquisitions in Balochistan,” The Herald, November 23, 2018

Cross, Jamie, “Neoliberalism as Unexceptional: Economic zones and the Everyday Precariousness of Working life in South India,” Critique of Anthropology, 30(4) 2010:355–373

Hoeppe, Götz, Conversations on the Beach: Fishermen’s Knowledge, Metaphor and Environmental Change in South India, Berghan Books, 2007

Holston, James, The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasilia, The University of Chicago Press, 1989

Jackson, John Brinckerhoff, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, Yale University Press, 1986

Nixon, Rob, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011

Todd, Zoe, “Fish pluralities: Human-animal relations and sites of engagement in Paulatuuq, Arctic Canada,” Études/Inuit/Studies , 2014, Vol. 38, No. 1/2, Cultures inuit, gouvernance et cosmopolitiques / Inuit cultures, governance and cosmopolitics, 2014:217-238

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