The night burned, the den’s chipped painted walls soggy from perspiration, the cramped space filled with Lyari Town men shouting in Balochi and Urdu toward the ring, The Outsider and The White circling each other, barefoot, palms open, coiled and ready to strike. The crowd moved to the beat of the dohol, the sharp cuts of the suroz and ney fitting the rising miasma as Rupee notes and cigarette smoke weaved a humidity thick backdrop as these two behemoths slapped at each other’s bald heads, sweat and snot pouring out of them, all before The Outsider stepped forward and lashed a sharp elbow cutting the eye of The White, the crowd roaring in anger at the moment of the blow. The crowd was rabid, fists pounding the filthy canvas, my mind wandering to The Deer Hunter, as though I was standing here, happening upon some relic of uncomfortable violence, dangerous, unnecessary, dripping with toxic masculinity. Why were we here? Nothing about this was right.
The why was rhetorical, I’m reminded of that as I look at my producer, Bhabir, a gaunt second-generation Pakistani-Canadian with baby fat cheeks and clothes far too nice to properly fit in. He shook as he focused his camera over the throng, shaking as he moved alongside me, the throb given new life as The White flicked the blood from the open gash over his right eye at The Outsider, ambling slowly forward. The Outsider could have been hailed as a neighborhood chief in my eyes thanks to his broad shoulders and barrel chest, but he was from Punjab Lahore, and from what I was understanding, given everything being shouted, he’d been beating up on poor street kids for kicks and acting like he was a champion of the world. The White was why we were here. He smiled as he stalked forward, an open palm strike snapping from The Outsider and hitting him flush across the jaw, but he barely flinched. Another palm strike. And another. The last one staggered him, but only for a moment, a gob of saliva-blood splattering and matted into the canvas by his heel, and before the Outsider realized, his back pressed against the ropes. Suddenly, the crowd wailed, one of the locals shouting at me like I was holding his bet, “This fight’s over!” The White struck with an open palm of such ferocity that it sounded as if a gun had gone off.
Crumbling to a knee, The Outsider grabbed his own head, defenseless. But The White just stood there, looking down at him, a weird smirk transfixed across his face, blood pouring down the side of his cheek into his beard of silver and grey. No words were exchanged, no trash talk, nothing. His opponent grabbed at the waistband of his shorts for stability as he got his bearings, all before firing upward and headbutting The White in the chest. He backpedaled, but shot in and the two began grappling, all before a headbutt made The Outsider’s nose fracture and explode, his legs going limp as The White threw another sharp headbutt into his forehead, wrestling him to the canvas and taking his back as he cinched in a deep rear naked choke. There was no tap out, no referee to make a save. The cords of the suroz grew more fervent, Lyari cheering on one of their own, and finally, he let go, his opponent limp and lifeless, slowly rising from the musty canvas, splotches of blood covering his face and chest.
“Youngblood! Youngblood! Youngblood!”
Brandon Youngblood. A weather-beaten mountain of a man with a paunch and arms filled with sleeves of interlaced skulls and Gustave Dore iconography. He patted The Outsider on the chest at the first sign of life before slowly making his way to the ropes, two men from the crowd stepping up and opening the top and middle ones for him, their arms wrapping over his shoulders, handing him beer and cigarettes, slowly moving him through the crowd into some backroom of the den.
We needed to follow. Everything was wrong because I went off script. We were supposed to meet him at our hotel, but things got complicated, and intuition screamed at me that we had to be here, now, in this moment. I began elbowing my way through, doing my best to push through, making our way through the heat and depravity while they were still trying to peel The Outsider off the canvas so the next fight could take place, and suddenly we had men in Sindi caps burying Kalashnikov barrels in our stomachs, barking and yelling at us to get on our knees, and Bhabir began apologizing profusely, explaining that we had business with The White, that we had the blessing and protection of Aliaj Hamid al-Shirani. They weren’t buying. I opened my mouth, telling them that we were were media sympathizers from the West here to sing the glory of the al-Shirani Brothers, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure I was lying. They stood their ground for a moment, silent, looking at each other, then at us. Bhabir was staring at me, enraged that I’d opened my mouth, but suddenly, the guards were laughing, mocking Bhabir and I’s voices, telling us to get up before pushing the both of us through the door.
Before my producer could launch into a tirade about our safety, we found ourselves inside another whirlwind, heavy bags being smothered with punches by street rats with barely any meat on their bones, teenagers smoking cigarettes as they bench pressed and did dips, freshly taped up young men getting slapped in the face by their peers and getting kneed in the testicles to show how tough they were before stuffing double leg takedowns, and then there were the money men, wearing decent enough suits, flashing rupees in their hands. Those that had fought were congregated around The White, Youngblood. A man in baby blue sherwani stepped toward him, pressing a towel on the cut over his eye, only to be brushed aside. Youngblood was carrying on, his Balochi impeccable. “--Gabol shows his face, I’ll cut his nuts off and feed ‘em to the goats around here! Glory to God The Greatest and his true sons, Rizwan and Aliaj al-Shirani! Peace be to Lyari!”
“Peace be to Lyari!” They shouted in unison.
From the outside looking in, it made no sense, this white man, leading al-Shirani Brother propaganda chants, drinking beer and spilling blood in some rotted out husk of derelict buildings, repurposed as a gambling den for a never-ending parade of street fights, payouts being controlled by Lyari mobsters, the biggest of all the ones he was singing the praises of. But then again, Karachi doesn’t make sense; not because of the madness and the escalating violence, city deaths more than triple that of the drone strikes in the tribal areas against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but because everyone played themselves and their beliefs up to some kind of disgusting spectacle, a twisted reality Bollywood show of people playing political long-games until they ended up on a target killer’s list and in a body bag. My eyes were growing heavy and my stomach was churning in knots, not out of fear, but because I’d had my fill of the ugliness. We needed to move on. I wanted to speak, but Bhabir sensed my desire, staring daggers through me, sneering, this culture we found ourselves in rubbing off on him in all the worst ways. I’d been embedded in dangerous places around Peshawar and the tribal areas. Then again, maybe I was being too rash; the restaurant Daniel Pearl was kidnapped from before he was beheaded was across the street from the hotel we’d been staying at.
We kept our distance, one of the fighters handing Youngblood a duffle bag, everyone standing around laughing. Bhabir felt so strident in being our speaker, so he was going to have to be the one to break through the wall. “Mister--mister Youngblood? Brandon Youngblood?”
Spoken english. It caused the cesspool of fighters to grow silent, the vibe of the room growing cold and dangerous. The White turned around, slowly, a cigarette hanging loosely from his lips, blood seeping from his wound. He stood there for a moment, his eyes moving over Bhabir, and then to me, and once he had me in his sights, he didn’t look away. “You are?”
“You’re already out of your depth, kid.” Weights clanged against their metal supports. A slow murmur bustled through our surroundings. Youngblood’s gaze was furious, unyielding, and if only I knew his desperation then--“I didn’t call you. I called her.” His finger stabbed toward me, all sound draining from the room. I wasn’t covered in a shawl; I wore plain clothes and jeans because I looked and carried myself like a man. Bhabir grew pale. I was numb, suddenly aware of how quickly I could be raped, thinking of how high my ransom might be, thinking of shallow graves. Youngblood’s expression softened, his hand waving for us to come forward. He spoke to them in Balochi. “She’s with me. So’s the dumbfuck. They’re protected.” A subtle nod of his head toward us. “Come on...”
It was as if we were stumbling through an out of body experience, but what could you expect when your thousands of miles away from home and in the slum belly of Hell? Flickering fluorescent lights flashed as we followed close behind him in a narrow corridor, pushing through random bodies and passing open rooms filled with money counters and women packaging bags of Afghan heroin. He opened a door, pushing us inside before slamming and locking the door. The room was barren, walls painted lime green with a few greasy mirrors attached. No furniture, but there was a closet, and he was stripping himself naked as though we weren’t there, getting himself ready, a quick change to gray slacks and black dress shoes and a white dress shirt with the neck and collar left open. I broke our silence. “You need a bandage for your head or something?”
He wasn’t amused. “You’re out here, great, gimmie all my money--”
Bhabir cut him off. “We don’t have the money--”
His hand was out, his tone curt. “Bag.”
“Dipshit,” he growled, “gimmie your bag. Now.”
“Give it to him!” I shouted at Bhabir, hands open wide, stunned at just how gullible and frozen he’d become. “Jesus Christ, what the hell’s wrong with you?”
Bhabir was stammering. “Nothing, I just--”
Youngblood quickly snatched the bag from him, unzipping it, his hands reaching inside to rifle through it, blood cascaded onto his shirt as he scowled. “I told you to wait--”
“Shut up. You called me. It’s done. Just like your little pep talk to everyone about how you’re going to cut the nuts off some Parliamentarian--”
Suddenly, he was on the defensive. “Look, it’s not what you--”
“No, white boy, I kind of have a good idea how it is; see, when people aren’t putting their heads up the ass of Syria and asking the questions about Assad and chemical weapons and Aleppo being shelled to dust, they’re talking about the humanitarian crisis and mass disappearances of people in police crackdowns in the slums of Karachi. But Lyari ain’t Orangi Town. It ain’t Taliban. And your al-Shirani Brothers--”
“Shut up. The al-Shirani Brothers are gangsters. They run the gambling. The drugs. The ransoms--"
“I ain’t never held anybody ransom--”
I know you work for them. I know you protect them. And I don’t know why, or what you’re doing, but from what I’m hearing, you’re down a brother. Rizwan. He ain’t around. He disappeared. Went bye bye. So let’s cut the bullshit and talk.”
For a moment, he stood there, chewing on his bottom lip, his nostrils flaring. He sighed. Eased his back against the wall. Reached for his head and winced. Maybe the adrenaline was dropping. Maybe he was remembering how to be human again. “This place is insanity. Swallows you whole. And we’re all running our own races, but for a long time, I was happy just sitting back and drinking myself to death. But then I thought I spoke to Allah and then...well, things changed. And whatever it is, I’m here, right now, and telling you, the world needs to know what’s going on here. And I can’t do it alone.”
I was perplexed. “What are you talking about?”
He scratched his beard, stammered, and then, as if it washed over us, we both realized that Bhabir was taping our conversation. Maybe we should’ve been furious, but for whatever reason, the tension seemed to release. People put on their masks of brave faces to try to convince the world of something. Here, it felt as though we were detaching. “Life’s cheap here. There’s people...bad people...getting rich off of it. There’s a crackdown going down tonight. A raid. Life ain’t black and white. The only reason Lyari Town has running water is because of the al-Shirani Brothers. And Gabol? Nabil Gabol? That bastard sits in his seat in Parliament doing jack all shit. But his piggie dick needs some victory notches with elections coming up. So why not harass a few poor neighborhoods for the news cameras, huh? Me? Maybe I don’t care if I die. But the kids and the punk teenagers that the cops might be coming out in a show of force over? Kind of figure their parents would like for them to get a little protection for a change.”
Those weren’t the words of a bodyguard rented out on protection or a fixer wanting rupees for a danger tour. This sounded like some kind of crusade, or perhaps a gambit of desperation. I couldn’t ask for the reasons, not now, not yet. His hand reached into his own duffle bag, pulling out a M1911 and holstering it in his waistband.
“Just listen to me, okay?” He pointed to Bhabir. “Sorry for being rude to you. I want you to film, alright? You’re their legacy. Their song to the world. That’s some heavy shit you have to hold, but trust me, alright?” Then, he looked at me. “You want to ask some questions? Ask them to Aliaj. But don’t ask about Rizwan. Got me?”
His grip was fragile. He needed me to trust him. Instincts be damned, I nodded my head. And then we were in for the ride.