Trouble at Sheikh Villa

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Sheikh Amer Hassan saw his house as his castle, and a lot more besides, and that too in a Pakistan he saw as increasingly permissive. Till he wound up dead

Sheikh Villa is a lean townhouse in the middle of Karachi’s Zamzama, a centrally located grid of streets boasting designer boutiques, shoe shops, expensive restaurants and swanky cafés, with an arms and ammunition outlet calmly occupying a vast storefront between them. In its day, which ran from the early noughties up until the owner’s execution in August 2008, Sheikh Villa was one of the city’s best-known hangouts for people who loosely fell within the parameters of Karachi ‘Society’ (the ‘High’ goes unspoken, and for good reason).

Night after night, the great and the good—by which I mean the affluent, the vaguely glamorous and their hangers-on—could be found here drinking cocktails, exchanging bons mots and lustful glances, and doing the odd line of blow right off the sleek black counter of the bar. The country’s codes of enforced modesty and conspicuous piety do not apply to this cosy club, a fact that everyone has cottoned on to, barring a few sloppy foreign correspondents.

Pakistan’s people’s parties have always comprised the usual suspects: landowners, politicians, scions of industry, high-ranking bureaucrats, generals, colonels and a sprinkling of professionals largely from families of landowners, politicians and so forth. It’s a clique within a clique: high school with real power and some serious lunch money. A running joke is that directions in Pakistan are never given on the basis of road names and house numbers: one is asked if one knows X’s house, then told to take a left from that, till one gets to Y’s house, and it’s next door. If you don’t know the people whose homes form these landmarks, you can’t get anywhere. Literally.

The 30-something host at Sheikh Villa bucked this trend. He appeared to buck all trends. Sheikh Amer Hassan was a dandy—a fey, self-styled eccentric with a penchant for hats, often found withstanding the sticky heat of this seaside city in a three-piece suit and cravat, pipe in hand. Or an extravagantly embroidered sherwani, or perhaps a denim shirt set off by a wide diamanté necklace. His shoulder-length hair was most often seen pulled back in a Transylvanian-via-Hammer-horror style. He stood tall, holding himself in the manner of a man forever in the thrall of the photographer’s viewfinder.

Hassan came from a professional background of lawyers and doctors, a family that qualified as successful but not prominent. This did not stop him from bestowing a medieval coat-of-arms upon his titular residence, a crown atop a golden shield held up at both sides by unicorns. This crest made appearances on his crockery, cushion covers and hand towels. In lieu of a motto, it read: ‘Sheikh Villa, Estd 2002’.

The juxtaposition of the coat-of-arms and the date seems an irreverent masterstroke, the work of someone thumbing his nose at the closed ranks of the old ways. But it was not a send-up, unfortunately. At least, no more so than the characteristics of Hassan himself and his boudoir of a home. One was able to ascertain on briefest acquaintance with the man that the coat-of-arms was sincerely aspirational.

Hassan flattered his guests by honing in on their areas of interest, from parties to poetry, and being all things to all men. In his home, he played courtier, not the one holding court. The walls were covered with framed photographs and documents, including contributions from a few A-listers, the apex being a letter from the late Diana, Princess of Wales, the tail-end some rather dubious Pakistani models and hairstylists, with some of Boney M’s original line-up featuring somewhere in between. Hassan was to the Pakistani social pages what tourists are to the Eiffel Tower: ever-present. He dominated the weekend supplements of the mid-noughties: Hassan having friends over for a soirée in time, Hassan throwing a casual get-together, Hassan celebrating birthdays; his own, his friends’ and, in one inspired spread, his cat’s.

His official website of achievements (and then some) proclaims that Sheikh Amer Hassan, after his graduation from the Bournville College of Arts, became ‘an established name in the British fashion industry’. There is no evidence of this, of course. Even within Pakistan, a place where girls who are photographed on billboards in more than two urban centres can airily lay claim to the term ‘supermodel’, and where arranging a fashion show earns one the title of ‘fashion choreographer’, Hassan’s credentials are met with great scepticism. He was appointed fashion designer for an independent local TV channel for a stint, he had been interviewed as a Pakistani fashion designer by the BBC, but the general consensus was that he had bragged his way into these gigs. A few months before his passing, he excitedly publicised his fashion show in Banja Luka, the second largest city in Bosnia-Herzegovina—that is, absolutely nowhere, even by Pakistani standards. Following his death, several popular designers went on record to say that the few fashion shows he held featured the work of design students and that his portfolio consisted of clothes borrowed from other designers.

To the dispassionate observer, Karachi may not seem the obvious choice to follow Paris, London, New York and Milan while sizing up global fashion capitals, but people locally seem to have a different impression. The culture pages of newspapers, at a respectful distance from the pages that list the bombs and death tolls, are filled with fashion people: models, designers and the aforementioned fashion choreographers. This may appear paradoxical in such close proximity to the Taliban heartland, but in fact both stem from the same root cause—religion, or, rather, Pakistan’s application of it, along with a determination to craft a decidedly Pakistani identity detached from its own history.

Deemed ‘un-Islamic’—or that other no-no, ‘Indian’—several art forms that once thrived in this region have now gone extinct. The film industry is defunct for all practical purposes, dance has been all but wiped out, theatrical productions and music concerts are few and far between, and art shows are small and hold limited appeal. This gaping cultural vacuum has come to be occupied by God for some people and by conspicuous consumption for others. For the wealthy, there is little to do but wear their status on their sleeve, buy expensive clothes and be seen by others who buy them. While concerts and festivals have been increasingly driven underground by the constant threat of terrorism, fashion remains something that the elite have clung to with great tenacity, revealing the priorities shaped by two-three decades of cultural deprivation.

After the devastating earthquake of 2005, no one batted an eyelid when funds were raised through a concert and fashion show, intended to celebrate Pakistani culture, at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Spending is officially an art form, if not the primary art form. In the last few years, the fashion industry in Pakistan has not just retained its clientele but expanded, with national ‘fashion weeks’ becoming the latest trend. And while fashion has grown fat as the arts have grown lean, Musharraf’s media boom and comparatively liberal tenure made it all the more visible in the public eye. His term ended in tears, with the Taliban at the gates of the capital, the judiciary suspended, independent TV channels forced off air, and Pakistan briefly joining that notorious fraternity of countries that ban the BBC. But before the General lost the plot, there was a golden age. Well, ‘golden’ might be overstating it a tad; since Musharraf’s drive for Enlightened Moderation tended to hover at the surface of things, ‘the gilded age’ might be closer to the truth. Along with paving the way for independent broadcasting, taking the country from just two TV channels to over a hundred, his unfulfilled desire for Pakistan to adopt a more relaxed religiosity and his modest economic boom ushered a new class into the spotlight.

Fifteen years ago, if you weren’t part of the soigné set, a night out would comprise a drive to the marketplace to browse shoe shops and bookstores and perhaps have a meal and an ice-cream. Whatever happened at private parties stayed within the confines of those homes. Since that time, the glitterati has outglowed its own spectacle. There are TV channels that exclusively cover red carpet events, and, in imitation of glam events in the West, red carpets have come to roll out for absolutely everything from the opening of a fast food restaurant to a book launch.

It is something of a triumph of style over substance; imitative modernity executed so shabbily, it’s almost touching. This is a homegrown celebrity culture that goes beyond the traditional domain of sports and politics. Those beautiful (or at least affluent-looking) young people you see with their easy air of entitlement and glittering lifestyles are having fun, and in this very country! And so everyone wants a piece of it.

The noughties have seen ‘fun’ become the hot new commodity. In a country where the law calls for prohibition, resulting in a lack of bars, pubs and nightclubs, event management has become another boom industry. Whereas ten years ago, New Year’s Eve for the elite was restricted to charity balls at exclusive establishments, now that media boomers and other professionals have a disposable income too, there are ticketed parties being organised by the dozen, with private bars, imported flowers and fig and brie hors d’oeuvres. ‘Party planner’ is now a profession, and one that mints money. Just as crucially, the old guard, while still exclusively marrying one another, is mingling with people their parents didn’t go to school with, whose family trees they are not familiar with. It is all still a private little world away from the Pakistan of the street, where you can be arrested for blasphemy on a whim, but it is a world that has recently started granting a certain element of social mobility.

An association with fashion, as Sheikh Amer Hassan deduced, was the easiest entrée to that world. He became, in lieu of clothing from his alleged fashion house, his own greatest creation, with his outlandish dress sense, his stylised manner and his over-exposed lifestyle. Famous for being an exhaustively familiar face on the people pages, in the fawning social columns that sang odes to his parties and celebrity guests, and briefly as the host of a fashion-related talk show, Hassan all but out-Warholed Warhol and became the patron saint of nothing. While he was sneered at behind his back, and sometimes to his face, this did not stop Karachi’s pretty people from flocking to his home. Anything for a good time in a country where the only way to entertain yourself is to drink, wear or snort your money.

However, Hassan was dogged by uglier rumours than mere tales of his ridiculous extravagance. Anecdotal evidence from his extended social circle suggested that he had a penchant for young boys. The grapevine went so far as to whisper that part of his income, supplementing his TV stipend, came from supplying young boys to interested parties. Despite the talk, and there was plenty of it, nothing was done. A columnist quipped at a party that this was the country where serial killer Javed Iqbal had to hand himself over to the police after they failed to notice that he had killed an alleged hundred children. Some started turning down Hassan’s invitations, but not enough for the good times to die down at the Villa.

When Karachi awoke on 30 August 2008 to find that Hassan’s body had been discovered at his home, bound, gagged and shot twice in the face and once in the head, people were shocked but not necessarily surprised. Two brothers, 19-year-old Saad Farooq and 23-year-old Ameer Hamza, students from a town in Punjab, were arrested for his murder. Statements in the papers varied, but the boys’ confession claimed that Hassan had tried to rape the younger brother. A leading broadsheet said that Hassan bartered sexual favours on the promise of making the boy a model. The Sheikh Villa regulars went mysteriously quiet and were at pains to distance themselves from their former friend. Hassan’s was an ill-attended funeral, in sharp contrast to a typical night at his swinging pad.

The boys were arrested with what seemed like overwhelming evidence: bloodstained clothing, records of phone calls to and from Hassan in the early hours of the morning just prior to his murder, and, if that wasn’t enough, a smoking gun. The evidence was deemed insubstantial, however, and in 2010 they were both acquitted, without a fuss, with barely a mention in the papers or in social circles. In a country steeped in the politics of revenge, there is a comfortable consensus that Hassan “had it coming”. A member of the bureaucratic elite, who doesn’t wish to be named but was a regular at Hassan’s gatherings, says that he believes the boys come from a feudal Punjabi family and that there was no way the clan was going to let their children be charged with “the death of a nobody” like Hassan.

If Hassan is representative of the beginnings of a New Pakistan, set on its path by Musharraf’s media boom, it appears Old Pakistan will triumph over it every time. Sheikh Amer Hassan’s website, which is still up and running, seems simultaneously deluded and prescient in its sign-off to the page celebrating his home: ‘Oh, I so very truly love life in this post-partition subcontinent now called Pakistan where life can be so exciting… and everything so possible. Pakistan is the place, the ultimate land of opportunity. Thank you, every one, for being part of my fantasy called Sheikh Villa.’