KARACHI, Pakistan, Feb. 11, 2008 — -- On top of the Pearl Continental Hotel in Karachi, the fountains were filled with chocolate. Two hundred people people had dressed up in ball gowns and suits to dance and mingle. There was booze. There were drugs. And 26-year-old Myra Zafar made sure to arrive early.
"We got there early so we wouldn't miss anything in case there was violence and we had to leave," said Zafar, requesting her name be changed for this story.
In a country dubbed the world's most dangerous, life goes on, every day and every night, especially among the well-heeled. Suicide bombs now explode with such unprecedented regularity here that they have become routine.
But the elite in this country don't let violence halt their move toward decadence, toward parties with imported liquor, imported cocaine and imported themes like "ghetto glam."
A few years ago, "chemical and designer drugs were never a part of what was going on here," said Munizeh Sanai, a 26-year-old disc jockey here.
"Slowly but surely it embedded itself into the culture of parties here," she continued, "because of the kind of culture that's developing with launching parties and stars and starlets. The whole thing is having an effect of glamorizing drug use, and I think it's all over the place now."
A third of Pakistan lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. Like India, this country is filled with villages whose women have never been educated and whose families have never traveled.
But that is a world away from the cacophony of Karachi's young bourgeoisie, who have more money and more control over a recently unleashed media. They are also more and more influenced by the West.
"They're like any party, anywhere in the world," said 29-year-old Asim Butt, an artist, of his city's soirees. "I've partied in London, San Francisco, New York. There's a degree of emulation -- people returning from these places, Western capitals, having internalized all of that."
There are no official numbers for the continuing evolution of Karachi's scene. But go to a launch party for an Armani cell phone, and you'll see the new Karachi. Go to a club where the waiters are dressed up in gladiator outfits, and you'll see the new Karachi.
"Parties here are really crazy these days," says Numrah Javaid, 23, a student at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, whose campus is about 1,000 feet from Karachi's sandy beach. "People drink, people smoke up, if they want to. Yeah, they're pretty crazy."
Javaid, unlike most of the people a foreign reporter talks to, isn't shy talking about politics. "I think there's access to everything these days. And obviously, there's no stop to it. Thanks to Musharraf, there's no stop to anything at all."
Since Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, the economy has for the most part surged. Between 2002 and 2007, annual economic growth averaged more than 7 percent. The stock market soared 40 percent last year and foreign investment flowed into the country, rising almost 50 percent as of last June.
That benefit has largely gone to the rich, for the most part missing the rest of the country.
Not far from the hotels that host parties, and the neighborhoods where the booze flows, Kasim Ali sells fruit. He hasn't always, but he can't find another job. "I make 200 rupees a day," he said. "But my bills are more than 150 rupees per day," meaning he puts less than a dollar into his pocket at the end of each day.
"I am," he said, "depressed. I was only educated up until grade 10. I don't have a job. I can't afford anything. The prices have risen too fast."
Over the last year the price of clothes rose 9 percent and the price of food jumped 12 percent. The cost of flour rose more than 20 percent from November to December, and severe shortages created lines long enough that soldiers were called on to protect what little grain there was.
Abdur Rehman works in a Karachi market repairing stereos -- which means he doesn't have much business these days. "The situation is very bad in Karachi. Flour is too expensive. And there are no jobs. There is no business. Everything is too expensive. And we are too worried," he said.
Asked what he wants the government to do, he points to the nearly 60 suicide bombings last year -- up from six in 2006. "Please stop the bomb blasts. People are too worried. In the hospitals, in the schools, in the shops -- there are bomb blasts everywhere. We are too worried."
Everyone is afraid of bombs. And those who choose to party are afraid of judgment. This is still a conservative, Muslim country.
"I can order a drink anywhere in the world," Zafar said. "But here, there is still a taboo. We know that what we're doing, we're doing behind closed doors."
Officially there are no bars, no clubs that serve alcohol, and no public use of the ubiquitous hashish that literally grows on the side of some roads. That's not a bad thing, Karachites said. People here respect their religion and almost universally don't mind that alcohol is officially illegal.
But despite the laws of the land, the young elite here are not shy about their taste for a little pleasure. "There's all sorts of substances: alcohol, ecstasy, hash, coke sometimes -- if you're lucky," Butt said with a laugh. "Anything. Everything. Everything happens here."
"Recently, there has been a lot of imported cocaine," Javaid said. "Richer people are more into it. … The ones who have access to it wish to make use of it, and if they do, they get used to it, and you know how it goes."
But that isn't to say that for the young elite, life is one big party. A few hours before she attended a recent event, Sanai had to leave work early. Gunfights had broken out in the city after a rumor spread that a local politician had been shot to death.
The rumors were untrue, and the politician had to appear on television to stop the violence.
In Karachi, it always feels as if violence is simmering just below the surface.
It exploded on Dec.27, the night Benazir Bhutto was killed. Across the country mobs burned down stores, set fire to cars and caused millions of dollars in damage. Sanai, the manager of programming at the radio station City FM 89, was on the air that night. She played "The Blues Are Still Blue" by Belle and Sebastian. She played "Don't Stop the Music" by Rihanna.
When she discovered that her uncle was hiding in his shop, lights off and shutters closed, hoping the looters would ignore him, she frantically left to pick him up. "Anything that stops us," she said to her driver, "you just run it over. I don't care."
On the way back to her house, her uncle put her head in his lap and told her not to look up. "We just flew," she said, describing the scene vividly, five weeks later. "There was not one piece of security on the roads. They had burnt drums, they had burnt trucks. It was just petrifying. It looked like it was struck by a civil war -- and I guess it had been."
The parties started up again a few days later, and they haven't stopped. But you have to be able to put the terror out of your mind to enjoy them. You have to be able to balance the fear with the fun, [to] balance headlines with hedonism.
"Most of us," Sanai said, "carry around a dual consciousness. Because that's what we have to do."