The Cartographer By The Sea

By Sonya Rehman

Having lived in Melbourne, Australia, for a decade, where she worked as a certified Montessori teacher, Zahra Dhanji always knew her true calling was in the field of architecture.

But after moving back to her home city, Karachi, Pakistan, as a single mother of an 11-year-old daughter, Dhanji decided to follow her lifelong passion. Back on home turf, she finally had the opportunity to pursue a career-path that not only excited her, but also gave her a new lease (and a fresh outlook) on life.

Currently in her fourth year as an architecture student at the prestigious Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS) in Karachi, the 35-year-old currently juggles her time between parental duties, college, and her thriving cartography start-up, MappedPk.

Zahra Dhanji works on a customized map for a MappedPk client. Photo: Umme Abiha Mehdi

Launched in November, 2019, Dhanji’s start-up hit pay dirt during the lockdown, when she found she could devote more time to the slow, and rather demanding, process of map-making.

“I learnt how to source and work on maps during an internship project which was centered around maps,” Dhanji reveals, speaking about the birth of her start-up.

An intricate map of Karachi by MappedPk. Photo: Umme Abiha Mehdi

After the orders began rolling in from friends and loved ones, Dhanji decided to officially take MappedPk to Instagram. “The more work I put out there, the more people wanted my maps.”

The feedback was overwhelming.

Currently a team of three (including herself), Dhanji mentions that her process entails digitally sourcing maps, after which each map is carefully tackled to add on bespoke elements, such as; text requirements, hand-painted detailing and other customizations to give each customer the opportunity of owning a uniquely personalized map.

“Every time I get a new city that hasn’t been done before, I get so excited because being a student of architecture, I get to see so many different grids of cities around the world,” she says. “I love the excitement that people bring with each map order. The stories behind them, the places that people associate themselves with…the events they associate with particular places on a map, I think that’s one of the loveliest things to experience as a cartographer.”

The soft-spoken cartographer by the sea, Zahra Dhanji. Photo: Umme Abiha Mehdi

No matter how challenging a map, Dhanji takes it in her stride. In fact, for the soft-spoken cartographer, the more demanding a project, the better.

One of her very first orders was an A1-sized gold map which required hand-painting on a black background. “I’d never made a map of that size before. Plus, it was a scroll map that took me two months to make. I enjoyed the process thoroughly,” she laughs.

“I encourage people to make their maps more personalized even though it takes longer, but it makes the map so much more than just a map. Each map then turns into a little story. Because then the grids aren’t grids anymore, they’re lines that tell stories and emotions.”

A scroll map of San Francisco by MappedPk. Photo: Umme Abiha Mehdi

Currently working on a few ideas that are still in the pipeline, Dhanji mentions that she has also branched out into wooden laser-edged maps, including a series of maps printed on deliciously shiny gold card material. There’s something there for children too, she reveals, a series of maps just for kids!

For Zahra, a map is more than just a map. It’s a story, an emotion, a cherished memory. Photo: Umme Abiha Mehdi

“It has been an unexpected, almost surreal journey. I’ve received so much appreciation and an outpouring of love from Pakistanis around the world,” Dhanji says, reflecting on the past year. “To be a Pakistani female entrepreneur has probably been one of the proudest moments of my life.”


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