Prospero's Staff || Shehrazade Zafar-Arif


Credit: Rachel Dolezal

Prospero's Staff

by Shehrazade Zafar-Arif

Karachi’s Central Jail is a relic from a colonial past, buried deep within the innards of the city. It’s a study in contradictions: sweeping arches and sandstone walls that could belong to a museum, but the barbed wire along its walls and the watchtowers on either side of the cheerfully painted red and blue gate reveal a sinister utilitarianism. 

The guard in the gatehouse waved my mother and me through the metal detector, while in a separate queue men were being patted down by a scowling policeman. The inner courtyard, its sand beaten down by hundreds of feet, was crammed with families, and the air was sour with desperation.

I thought of the rapist who’d been given the death sentence last week. The news channels had run a video of his mother outside this jail, sobbing with her dupatta over her face. Remorselessly, cameramen had shoved their microphones into her face. He is my son, was all she’d been able to say, over and over, explanation and apology and supplication all wrapped up in those four words.

Like her, I didn’t have any words as we crossed the courtyard, holding our dupattas over our heads against the blazing sun rather than out of a sense of modesty. Instead I reached, like a child with a security blanket, for borrowed phrases from beloved stories. Full fathom five, thy father lies. But there were no spirits here to release my father from his prison, no brave new world — only the same tired one.

I was seven the first time my father was arrested. We were playing in the living room when the police walked into the house, having bullied our guards to let them through. I could imagine the absurd scene it made to them: the chairman of Pakistan’s most divisive political party, on his hands and knees, pretending to be the Rocinante to my Don Quixote. They stopped short, confused and a bit embarrassed, forgetting their cue.

Abbu seized the moment from them, standing and greeting them with a cheerful: “Assalam-o-alaikum.” He shook their hands as if he’d been expecting them. The exaggerated politeness cooled any promise of aggression. They told him he had to come with them, but made it sound like an invitation.

My mother, who had seen them from her bedroom window, came downstairs in a flood of tears. Her hysteria embarrassed the policemen further, and they agreed to let Abbu pack a bag, giving him the opportunity to have a whispered conference with Ammi and for her to discreetly shove a bundle of papers down her kameez as they began searching the house.

Once they’d left, Ammi’s tears dried instantly, like our faucets when the water tanker didn’t arrive in time to refill the pipes, and she scoffed. Business-like, she began making calls.

It was the first time I'd seen my parents wearing their political masks. They’d slipped into their roles with the practised ease of a dance that had been performed many times. 

Ammi tried to shield me from the worst of it, telling me Abbu had gone away for work, which, in her defence, wasn’t a lie. But the illusion was shattered when a boy at school, the nephew of a civil servant, told me that my father was a criminal and in jail where he belonged. 

“Abbu isn’t a criminal,” Ammi said when I confronted her. “He’s helping people.”

He was released within a few months, and returned home a little thinner but cheerful, ready to resume the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. But I had already begun to see him in a different light. I noticed, now, how people would come up to our table when we were in a restaurant and ask to shake his hand, how media vans sometimes lurked outside our house until Ammi sent our hapless guards to chase them off.

These were all quirks that I had taken to be as much a part of our household as the bulb in the bathroom that was constantly fusing. The same went for the constant flow of students, writers, and activists, who sat in our living room for hours, drinking tea and discussing politics. I had grown up playing at their feet, climbing onto Abbu’s lap as he delivered a lecture to his rapt audience, the cigarette in his hand like a punctuation mark.

But now, those congregations reminded me of the time Ammi had taken me to visit a pir at a Sufi shrine. The old man had sat cross-legged on the floor, occasionally gesticulating with his tasbeeh, as visitors lined up to ask him to bless a sick child or a woman who couldn’t conceive.

Ammi refused to let me attend Abbu’s rallies, so I was forced to follow his trail on the television screen. I hardly ever saw the other members of the Party, which in my head had become a nebulous, mercurial entity with often confusing intentions, but Abbu was always at the forefront. Their figurehead, Ammi said. Their scapegoat, I thought privately. He was the most visible target, rising up through the sunroof of an armoured car to address the crowds. He never wore a bulletproof vest, declaring that he would be as vulnerable or as invincible as every last man in the crowd.

His supporters would fill the roads around Mazar-e-Quaid and Minar-e-Pakistan, claiming the national monuments as their own, looping the Party’s red and green flags around telephone poles and plastering the walls with posters of Abbu’s smiling face. Their singing and dancing turned the rallies into festivals, but when Abbu’s voice boomed out over the loudspeaker, the crowds would fall silent, as if under a magician’s spell.

When I was twelve, the Party boycotted the upcoming elections and riots broke out across Pakistan. Abbu was giving a press conference at Karachi Press Club, a fiery condemnation of the forced disappearances and mass arrests of the Party’s workers, when the news spread that the Sindh Rangers were coming to arrest him. 

Together, Ammi and I watched on television as he walked out of Press Club, ignoring the party workers who grappled at him, trying to hold him back or shield him with their bodies. The Party’s vice-chairman, we later learned, hid in the club’s bathroom and had to be dragged out. But Abbu just strolled over to his car. He leaned against the bonnet and lit a cigarette, head tilted as if posing for a portrait. When the Ranger came up to him, he shook his hand and they walked to the police van like old friends. 

The phone was ringing, but Ammi and I stayed glued to the television as if in a trance. Like that day in the living room, it felt almost too rehearsed, too theatrical, to be real. He who controlled perceptions, Abbu told me later, controlled the situation. It was why he went to jail smiling, exiting the scene on his own terms, knowing that in casting him as the villain they had cemented his place as the people’s hero.

I didn’t inherit my parents’ political acumen, but a childhood steeped in politics shaped in me a love for the theatre. Like the stage, Abbu’s world was one of spectacle: equal parts chaotic and carefully curated.

When I was sixteen, I convinced Ammi that I was grown-up enough to accompany her to the jail. We crossed that sandy courtyard in the shadow of a building that was equal parts terrifying and beautiful.

Inside, we strained to hear Abbu’s voice through the glass divider, its shine dulled by years of hands pressed against it in desperation. After a few minutes of this, Abbu beckoned to one of the prison guards and had a hushed conversation. We were summoned to a private sitting room in the administration block, where Abbu was waiting. I found the domesticity of the flowery cushion covers, like the red and blue gate, disturbing in its incongruity, but at least I was able to hug Abbu.

In Pakistan, even the prison system has its own hierarchy. High-ranking politicians with a dozen arrest warrants walk away on bail, or under house arrest, or into a comfortable exile in Dubai. Poor men, some of them implicated for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, languish for years without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom. Political prisoners like Abbu, meanwhile, straddle a liminal space between the confines of a cell and the privilege of special treatment.

As we drove away, I fussed over poor Abbu, wondering if he was eating properly. Ammi lost patience with me and snapped, “Don’t be ridiculous. His supporters send him plates of nihari and biryani every day. I wouldn’t be surprised if he even got the guards to smuggle him a podium so he can give lectures to the other inmates.”

I was unconvinced. But worse than the jail visits was the endless bureaucracy that would delay Abbu’s release, and the agonising wait that followed. Every time we went to court, his trial would be postponed for some reason or another — the judge was unwell, or attending his mother-in-law’s funeral. Weaponised incompetence, Ammi called it. Let the little man have his little pleasure at my expense, Abbu would say nonchalantly. They charged him with everything they could conceive: corruption, inciting riots, even terrorism. Octopus-like, he wriggled out every time, one newspaper noted, equal parts admiring and scornful.

It was in those moments that I saw both the worst and best of humanity. Cameramen would snap photos of Ammi and me as we left the house. One journalist wrote a scathing article attacking what he called Ammi’s lack of a Muslim wife’s modesty, for going to the mall to shop for Eid clothes while her husband was in prison, when she should’ve been at home, like a widow in iddat. I was livid, but Ammi only laughed and sent Abbu a copy of the article, signed ‘your woefully immodest wife’.

I expected senior members of the Party to rally behind us, but instead their attention was devoted to capitalising on Abbu’s imprisonment to push their agenda. It was the party workers, the common man, who blocked the streets in front of the courthouse with protests, chanting for Abbu’s release until the police sprayed them with teargas. Some of our closest friends became distant, afraid of what an association with us would mean for their security and status, but total strangers would show up at the house with boxes of home-cooked food.

One of them, a young woman not much older than I was, with a child on her hip, hugged Ammi like a sister and told her how Abbu had been the only one to look for her husband, who had been missing for a year. He would visit her in-laws’ house, letting the children climb all over him, and slip money into her protesting hands. Her husband was one of many — party workers, Baloch nationals or other insurgents, journalists and activists — victims of forced disappearances. The Party called them martyrs, dismissing any hope that they might still be alive. I wondered how many of them Abbu tried to help, following their trails to desolate police stations on the outskirts of the city. I wondered how many of them he had actually saved.

Ammi was touched; she told the woman to pray for both of their husbands. But there was bitterness in her eyes. I knew what she was thinking: if only Abbu showed us the same empathy he did the wives and daughters of others.

Ammi kept her resentment to herself. She was a politician’s wife, and before that she had been an activist, protesting the Hudood Ordinances with other students at Karachi University. There’s a photo of her grappling with a policewoman, which had a place of pride on Abbu’s desk. But all that had taken a backseat once I was born. I thought of her now as Lady Macbeth, using her political shrewdness to help Abbu wield the tools of power, but remaining behind the scenes. If she resented me for that, she kept it hidden too.

I was an only child, a rarity in Pakistani families. But my parents hadn’t planned on having children. A happy accident, Ammi said. A plot twist in the third act, Abbu joked. As the centre of their world, I grew up with a sense of entitlement to their attentions. Ammi may have locked away her resentment, but by the time I turned eighteen, on the cusp of adulthood, mine had morphed into something ugly and bitter.

I was Cordelia confronted with an ageing Lear. The hero of my childhood, so untouchable and larger than life, suddenly seemed frighteningly vulnerable — and worse, fallible. The rosy memories of my childhood felt soured, tainted by the years lost to prison and campaigns. I was terrified of losing him — I knew now that the real threat wasn’t the bumbling policemen who’d barged into our house, but the men who watched it from across the street, who made late-night calls to Abbu. The news was filled with stories of people like him who were shot outside their homes, or whisked away by state agencies, never to be seen again. The Party would call him a martyr, but I would always blame myself for not saving him.

I did try, new to the lesson Ammi had learned before she married him: that when Abbu set his will to something, it became like a wall. But that only fuelled my anger. His speeches about making the country a better place, ending corruption and military interference in the government, felt like an old man attacking windmills. He was risking himself and us, I thought, for an unwinnable battle: a system as rigid as the walls of the prison, a tangled web of so many threads that to unpick them would take a lifetime and many broken fingers. 

In my darkest moments, I wondered whether it was altruism that drove him, or an egotistical desire to be centre-stage, the hero of his own Homeric epic. But even Odysseus had come home eventually; Abbu seemed to be drifting further and further from us.

The most explosive fight we ever had lasted for the better part of a night. Ammi retired to bed, claiming a migraine, which was her way of exiting unpleasant situations. As we faced off from opposite sides of the living room that had once been the stage for our games, my voice grew louder and shriller, while Abbu remained calm and implacable as a statue. With each moment, I felt myself start to regress to the pettiest, most childish version of myself, and with each moment, I saw him take me less seriously. 

The argument meandered wildly, from his politics to the state of the country to my desire to move abroad to study, until neither of us could remember what we were fighting about. I broke first, fleeing to my bedroom to let out the tears I had been too proud to shed in front of him. Ammi would have come after me; Abbu walked past my door and climbed the stairs to the roof, confident that I would follow. 

By the time I joined him, the sun had begun to rise, milky light washing over the sea of rooftops, a patchwork quilt of grey interspersed with gleaming satellite dishes and humming air conditioning units that jutted out of the walls like Jenga pieces. Beyond them, you could just about see the flickering silver-blue of the sea, and the golden curves of the McDonald's arches that loomed over Seaview Beach. 

We sat in silence for several minutes on the cane chairs, Abbu lighting a cigarette, until the call to prayer began. There were two mosques in our neighbourhood, and every day their respective muezzins engaged in a friendly competition over who could deliver the adhan with more passion, creating a cacophonic melody that was both jarring and eerily beautiful.

“What’s the end goal?” I asked Abbu finally. “I know you don’t want to be Prime Minister.”

He snorted at the thought. “I would go mad sitting behind a desk, with sycophants kissing my ass all day long.”


“Does there need to be an end goal?” he countered. Politician on the outside, Ammi always said, but with a philosopher’s soul. Those roundabout answers used to comfort me when I was a child. Now, I could feel the chasm between us widening. 

When I’d shouted at him, asking him over and over why he was so committed to a hopeless cause, he hadn’t given me a straight answer. I wondered if he even knew himself.

For all his loyalty to Pakistan, Abbu had been born in India, three years before Partition. He’d spent a decade in the UK, after university, before returning for good. He’d never looked back; it wasn’t in his nature. Ammi’s siblings, all settled abroad, had spent years trying to persuade her to take me and leave Pakistan, for our own safety. Even they’d written Abbu off as a lost cause. But Ammi refused each time, tethered to him out of a sense of loyalty and stubbornness. And he would never leave. Even when he called the country ‘the backyard of civilisation’, it was in the tone you’d taken with an unruly child or a senile elder, equal parts exasperation and affection.

As for me, born and raised here, I was desperate to leave. I could taste the prospect of some brighter, better life somewhere far from the chaos that had been my childhood, and it tasted of freedom. The country that had moulded me had become like an abusive parent, taking away as much of me as it gave, and I resented it the way I did Abbu, with a kind of vicious love. I could leave and never return, even if it broke my heart.

We were two sides of the same coin, constantly spinning, never landing.

“If there’s no reason to stay in politics, then what about a reason to quit?” I asked, playing to his sense of logic. But I ruined the effect by adding, my voice pitiful to my own ears, “What about me — and Ammi? Don’t you love us?”

Abbu took a deep inhale of his cigarette — as always, he’d snipped off the filter. The scent would cling to his clothes long after he was gone. “Not that I loved Caesar less,” he said, “but that I loved Rome more.”

He was speaking to me through my love of Shakespeare, like a secret second language, and it was in that instant that I understood him on a more granular level than I ever had before, as though he’d allowed me to peek at the world through his own eyes, see past the endless rooftops to the sea that lay beyond, and the eagles that circled overhead. In the interplay of all that was beautiful and gruesome in this chaotic city, I saw the things he loved and the things he hated, the endless cycle of hope and despair, forever revolving.

Before his death, Abbu was arrested one last time. His release came on the back of an alliance with a once rival party against the current government, which he jokingly likened to a cricket partnership. Ammi and I sat in the car outside the jail, while his supporters flooded the road under the sleepy glow of streetlamps. I felt curiously removed from the whole scene, as if we were in a theatre’s box seats while they were in the stalls, within touching distance of the stage.

The atmosphere outside the jail reminded me, perversely, of my cousin Fawad’s wedding, which Ammi and I had attended last month without Abbu, shielding ourselves from the stares and pointed questions behind our own personal purdah of lipstick and curls, flaunting our lack of male companionship.

The baraat, the groom’s side, had entered the wedding hall two hours late in an explosion of music and frenetic drumbeats, Fawad’s friends dancing the bhangra in front of him as the procession made its way towards the bride. The long stretch of road outside the jail was now alive with the same kind of heady celebration. Revolutionary songs blared out of speakers as men danced and sang, and a party worker bellowed slogans praising God and Abbu, not always in that order, through a megaphone.

Ammi was silently fuming behind the wheel. We had been waiting for the better part of two hours, since the court had issued Abbu’s release papers. I sat with my hands curled into fists, certain that they would let him out only to arrest him again on a new charge, or worse, that they would spirit him off to a detention centre, never to be seen again.

But a roar went up and the crowds surged forward, the way I imagined pilgrims did when they clamoured to get close to the Kaaba during Hajj, almost causing a stampede in their fervour. I caught a glimpse of Abbu through the sea of bobbing heads, as someone tossed a garland of flowers around his neck, and was reminded of the rose petals that had showered over Fawad’s head as he entered the hall.

Abbu looked like a performer taking his last bows, like Prospero surrendering his magic and breaking his staff, and for a moment I was sick with terror that the facade would shatter and reveal him to be only, frighteningly, mortal. Before I knew what I was doing, I had flung open the car door and leapt out. I heard Ammi yell my name, and then swear more violently than I’d thought her capable of, as she stumbled after me.

I plunged into the crowd, conspicuous in my canary yellow kameez, my dupatta abandoned in my haste. Men jumped out of my way as if the bright colour signified poison. I was no longer a child who could weave between their legs and draw amused laughter as I climbed onto my father’s lap. I was a woman in a space inhabited and dominated by men, but I didn’t care. I thought of Ammi, who had defied tradition and insisted on going to the graveyard with the men for the burial of her father, pushing them aside to take the weight of his body on her shoulders. Surely that wouldn’t be me, I thought. Not yet.

I half fell into Abbu, grabbing his hand. “Come home,” I demanded, raising my voice to be heard over the cacophony of songs and cheers. “Come home with us.”

In a way, it felt like I was reclaiming him — from the crowd, from the jail, from the country itself. It was the first time I’d seen him surprised, but he didn’t resist, letting me pull him towards the car. The cameras captured it all, turning me into part of the spectacle for the first time in nineteen years. But I was still very much a side character, pulling Abbu offstage — where, I always felt, our family had its place, an intermission to his real life.

Then Ammi had joined us, taking my other hand, and we were back in our own little world, the three of us, as it had been in my childhood. None of us knew that in a year, Abbu would be dead — not assassinated by the state, or killed in prison, but from a quiet heart attack in his sleep. It would be a mundane death, which the media and the Party would turn into another spectacle, claiming a government conspiracy. Even in death they wouldn’t let him rest.

But in that moment, we were safe, and I heard Abbu laugh as he lifted two fingers in a victory salute to his supporters before we got into the car. The sounds of the crowd were muffled, the windows fogged up from the air conditioning, blotting out the silhouette of the jail as we drove away, and the rest was silence. 

Shehrazade Zafar-Arif grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, the daughter of a politician and a journalist, before moving to London to study English Literature and Shakespeare Studies. Her writing is influenced by the two cities she calls home, by her experiences as an immigrant, and by her love of theatre. Her short stories have been published in Peatsmoke Journal, Untitled: Voices, FeelsZine, and FEED Lit Mag, and she also writes reviews for Shakespeare Bulletin, Crayon Magazine, and the Japan Society Review. She is on Twitter as @ShehrazadeZafar.

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