Arts + Design

How not to get lost in Lahore, Pakistan

Sep 23, 2013 /


Technology professor Khurram Siddiqi got fed up with getting lost in Lahore. So, as he tells Nicola Twilley, he and some friends started a signage project to fix things.

“In Lahore, you don’t get lost: you start off lost,” says Khurram Siddiqi. “It’s a condition, not a situation.”

Siddiqi, and his friends Asim Fayaz and Omer Sheikh, wrote a proposal to install and maintain road signs in the city — after it took several phone calls and half an hour for Fayaz to navigate the 5-minute drive from a main road to Siddiqi’s house for a TEDx planning meeting back in 2010. With $10,000 in seed funding from the TED City 2.0 Award, the trio chose the streets of Allama Iqbal Town, a densely populated area developed in the late 1970s in southwestern Lahore, as their testing ground.

The neighborhood is named after the national poet of Pakistan, and, fittingly, words decorate almost every surface: store awnings stacked several stories high, political banners strung across the street, billboards for the latest Porsche, hand-written flyers stapled an inch deep onto telephone poles, multicolored trucks emblazoned with verses from the Koran, and old Dawn puri cartons filled with yellowing Enid Blyton paperbacks.

The only thing missing are the street signs. On Lahore’s main highways, large blue placards give clear directions in both Urdu and English. In the chaotic, dusty alleyways on either side, however, the chances are good that 80 percent of the men yelling into their mobile phones are actually asking for directions.

This chaos is the opposite of Siddiqi’s daily life: just four miles away, he teaches undergraduate electrical engineering and enjoys a spacious office overlooking the lawns of the main quad at the National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences. What’s more, if it weren’t for all the foliage in between, he could see his house from his office window. “I can go home for lunch and see my baby daughter!” Siddiqi tells me, in the tone of a man who can hardly believe how lucky he is. (He met his wife at TEDx, where she was a volunteer, which makes their baby a close competitor to the street sign project as the most exciting outcome of TEDxLahore.)

In the chaotic, dusty alleyways of Lahore, the chances are good that 80 percent of the men yelling into their mobile phones are actually asking for directions.

Fayaz and Siddiqi continue to meet at each other’s houses to work on their signage project, rather than at a Starbucks, as Siddiqi would have done during his grad school years at the University of Southern California. “You have to get dressed up to go to a coffee shop in Lahore,” Siddiqi says mournfully. Rather than serving as informal offices and homework stations, in Lahore, branches of Gloria Jean’s (an Australian coffee chain popular across the subcontinent) are a destination, filled with chic twenty-somethings. Sometimes, entire wedding parties enjoy a post-reception chai latte to a soundtrack of Western pop. It’s not the place to obsess over signage. So, “At my house, at his house, and at my office, we designed and redesigned and redesigned again.”

“We hunted down the longest road name in Allama Iqbal Town (Molana Hasrat Mohani Road, after another poet), we tried different fonts, and we struggled for quite a while with the fact that the vertical height of Urdu letters is larger than that of English.” Finally, the team arrived at a bright yellow design, cut and glued a posterboard prototype on Fayaz’s living room floor, and stuck it on an electricity pylon at the corner of two quiet, concrete-gray residential blocks on the neighborhood’s southern edge. It wasn’t a success. “It looked really big when it was coming out of the printer, and it was hard to read out on the street,” Siddiqi admitted. “But that’s cool. I’m a fan of making dumb mistakes in the prototyping phase.”

Fayaz and Siddiqi have spent hours balancing different sign options on top of onion sacks and car bonnets in the streets of Allama Iqbal Town to get feedback from taxi drivers, vegetable vendors and residents. The team also met with the head of a sign company who was visiting from Islamabad. “We met in the lobby of one of Lahore’s fanciest hotels — all marble and crystal and a guy playing the piano. I can’t stand those places, but he was staying there,” recalls Siddiqi. “He was really helpful. He shared a lot of signage trade secrets and saved us hours of research.”

Although Lahoris rely on landmark-based navigation, for Siddiqi, the essence of a city is to be found in its soundscape, rather than a particular place or view. [To read about someone who thinks similarly, see this profile of Jason Sweeney and his home city of Adelaide, Australia.] “When I first got back to Lahore from the US, it was the sound of the city that hit me right away,” he tells me. There’s a saying in Pakistan, he says: “a car needs a horn more than it even needs an engine.” To the incessant honking add the high-pitched whine of two-stroke moped and auto-rickshaw engines, the hypnotic chanting of street vendors advertising their wares, and the percussive beats of a dholki player or two, and you could only be in Lahore. For Siddiqi, who DJs a show on a local radio station, those sounds are an endless source of creative inspiration: for his sets, he often mixes field recordings from the local bazaar or his favorite ice cream shop in with the latest in electronic music.

There’s a saying in Pakistan, he says: “a car needs a horn more than it even needs an engine.”

That said, he admits that it was a recent drive through the oldest part of Lahore — the original walled city of the Mughals — to pick up his sister at her college that made him fall in love with the city all over again. The traffic is terrible in that part of town, and Siddiqi’s work, family and friends typically keep him in the newer, leafier parts of the city. “But it was so refreshing — it’s so dense and there were so many people and not a single tree, and I thought: this is Lahore.”

Although he was born in the city, Siddiqi spent large parts of his childhood in Saudi Arabia, where his father taught architecture in Jeddah and Dahran, and then he lived in the United States for nearly a decade, studying electrical engineering at Purdue and USC, and then working in Silicon Valley. His move back to Lahore in 2009 was inspired in part by the desire to spend more time with his family, but also drew on a related urge to reconnect with his roots, by a need to “uncover and share the city’s beauty, despite all the troubles it has gone through recently.”

That perspective — the critical distance of a returnee combined with the romantic filter of a nostalgic booster — has shaped Siddiqi’s ongoing and tumultuous affair with this equally dynamic, frustrating, magical and chaotic city.

Meanwhile, the team’s signage adventures continue. After negotiating layers of bureaucracy to secure a meeting with Lahore’s mayor in the city’s Raj-era government offices, Siddiqi and Fayaz have been told they have to bring their prototype street sign back on a pole in order to get approval. “If that’s what it takes,” Siddiqi says, “then fine, we’ll go back with a pole! We’re not urban planners or graphic designers, so we’re figuring out everything from scratch, but we’re getting there. The thing is, quality of life doesn’t care about your educational background. It cares that you get stuff done.”


Check out all of Siddiqi’s favorite places in Lahore in this handy annotated map. See also a gallery of photographs he shot for TED. This article was published as part of our “Questions Worth Asking” series. This week’s teaser: “What makes a city feel like home?” 

Nicola Twilley is author of the blog Edible Geography, co-founder of the Foodprint Project and director of Studio-X NYC, an off-campus event space and urban futures think tank, part of a global network run by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning.