Though Karachi is home to one of the biggest concentrations of Dawoodi Bohras outside India, the sect’s leader has not visited for Muharram for 21 years. Those years have been bloody ones for Pakistani Shiites, with thousands killed in sectarian attacks that almost always go unsolved and unprosecuted.
Bohras in Karachi have seen a share of violence. In September 2012, two blasts in a predominantly Bohra market killed seven people. Three years later, a bomb detonated outside a Bohra mosque moments after an evening prayer service. Two worshipers were killed, sending shock waves through the tiny sect.
“When the blast happened, this entire half of the mosque went dark,” said Muhammad Hussain, pointing to where the bomb detonated. “We saw the bodies afterward. One of them, his body was split into two.”
He said he would continue to attend the mosque. “I’m not scared to come here to pray because God is here,” he said. “God will save us in all situations. He watches over us.”
The Dawoodi Bohras in Karachi estimate that they number close to 30,000, a small sub-sect of Shiites in a metropolis of more than 20 million. During Muharram, the community will effectively double with the arrival of foreign Bohras, the majority of them from India — a momentous exchange considering the countries’ tumultuous relationship.
The city’s hotels are solidly booked, and many local Bohras are hosting visitors in their homes. But with the sudden increase in Bohras comes a sudden increase in their visibility.
Though they try not to call attention to themselves, the Bohras’ traditional dress gives them a higher profile than other Shiite groups. The men wear stiff, crocheted hats and maintain long beards, and the women dress in colorful, cotton two-piece abayas. They stand out on the street, and pockets of Bohra traders are obvious in the city’s bustling markets.
Azad Khan, one of Karachi’s top police officials, is assigned to coordinate safety in the city during the month of mourning. He sees the Bohra procession as a daunting security task in an already daunting month.
“There’s barely a single area in Karachi that doesn’t have a procession,” Mr. Khan said. “The Bohra event is turning out to be such a challenge because we can’t pull resources from elsewhere. All of our law enforcement agencies will be busy with hundreds of processions in the city.”
Mr. Khan particularly frets over the Bohras’ distinct style of dress. “Other Shias, you can’t tell just by looking at them,” he said. “For groups looking for soft targets, the Bohras stand out.”
Over the main 10 days of the procession, Bohras will be flocking to their largest mosque in central Karachi from all over the city. “It’s not just about securing the one area,” Mr. Khan said. “And the foreigners arriving for the event multiply the threat factor.”
Murtaza Abdeali, a spokesman for the Bohra community, said he was confident about the security protocols. Sitting in Syedna’s official Karachi residence, a walled compound lined with rose gardens, he noted that Karachi’s law enforcement agencies had assured the Bohras they would be safe. That is significant: For years, Shiites often felt that the authorities did not care whether they were killed.
“These last few years, they’ve been better than the previous few years,” Mr. Abdeali said, addressing the city’s sectarian violence. He skirted any questions about the threat of attack, as if speaking about it would give it power. “Things are slowly but surely improving,” he said.
Mr. Khan, the police official, said that the city’s leaders felt that allowing the procession to go ahead safely would send an important message. “If normalcy and a better situation in Karachi have arrived, we need something to manifest that normalcy,” Mr. Khan said.
Still, the Bohras are taking precautions.
They have their own security units, called the Borhani Guards, though leaders make a point to keep them unarmed. The guards surround the gates of every Bohra mosque.
And in a message sent to their followers before the event, the organizers cautioned Bohras not to engage in any “deep conversations, especially that regarding our community with your public.”
But amid the anxiety, there is also excitement. During recent preparations at one mosque, congregants were busy and filled with pride , talking animatedly with one another about the celebrations to come.
“Ultimately, this historic Muharram is an icebreaker for other events,” Mr. Abdeali said. “It’s a sign of progress, but it’s the first one, so we have to set the tone. We have to make sure it’s good.”