Shuttling between Bahawalpur, Karachi and Islamabad every month means I get to see perhaps more of the informal eateries – cafes is not really the best word – than most. The last five years have seen something of an explosion in the range of classy food outlets that are also established social hubs for the seemingly expanding middle-class. There is such a profusion of these places, with the ones that I frequent being busy with networking digerati, that I am led to the conclusion that things might not be as bad as we (and others) like to tell ourselves that they are.
These places represent a considerable capital investment; and would require at the very least some testing of the potential market for viability before somebody actually put their hands in their pocket to build them. In short, they are there to turn a profit for their owner-operators, and on the unscientific evidence of my Mk 1 Eyeball in the last fortnight they look to be in robust good health.
To the best of my knowledge there is no equivalent of Butlers or Café Espresso or The Elbow Room in downtown Mogadishu. You will not find Gloria Jeans or Mocha anywhere in Chad, Somalia or Sudan which all feature in the failed states index as do we, currently at number 12. Even deeply-asleep Bahawalpur boasts a couple of very pleasant restaurants-cum-coffee-shops that get my business from time to time.
Today, it was breakfast in Butlers. Bright, breezy, very busy even early in the morning and bustling with people whose disposable income was broader than their conversation to judge by what I overheard. These are gossip shops, not the equivalent of French Left Bank intellectual powerhouses with Albert Camus lurking in the shadows – that role in Pakistan is still, just, a teahouse-niche that is a different form of café culture entirely and almost exclusively male. But my breakfast was taken amongst predominantly female companions. Young and not-so-young women servicing their social network with a bit of quality face-time. The food was quick and good, the prices bearable (more so than in Islamabad) and Butlers gets my repeat business.
So too does The Elbow Room, which has the look and feel of a converted warehouse, none of the brashness of some of the other places, a fine set of ceramic tiles on the staircase to the upper floor and an atmosphere that was crepuscular without being gloomy. My lunch on Wednesday was leisurely and well presented but my companion and I could both have done without the aural wallpaper that pretended to be music in the background.
I hold no brief to promote either establishment, and merely mention them to illustrate the sheer diversity of places that are now in business. There is real choice, and prices to suit most middle-class pockets. As with the literature festival I wrote about last week these are places of the élites, the people with money in a country that is wracked by poverty.
A family could eat for a month on what I paid for my breakfast last Thursday. I know families that do…and think themselves lucky that they are able to eat at all. But that is not the point. No country or culture anywhere is without its elites, or without a poor underclass who look in with varying degrees of anger and envy. The point is Dear Reader that the local economy has within it an expanding number of predominantly young and educated young people with sufficient disposable income to spend on expensive coffee and cakes. As ever, all in Pakistan is not what it seems.
The writer is a British social worker settled in Pakistan. Email: email@example.com
Source: The News