‘The great dan­ger of a city like Karachi is how swiftly it evolves, but the speed of its growth can be­come its strength.’

Steve Inskeep is co-host of “Morn­ing Edi­tion” on National Pub­lic Ra­dio (NPR). Af­ter the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks, he cov­ered the war in Afghanistan, the hunt for Al Qaeda sus­pects in Pak­istan and the war in Iraq. He has won a National Head­liner Award for inve

Southasia - - Book review -

What drew you to Pak­istan and why did you de­cide to write a book on Karachi and not any other Pak­istani city?

Karachi is a mi­cro­cosm of Pak­istan in a way that other cities are not be­cause even more than other cities it has drawn peo­ple from ev- ery­where. It is also a mi­cro­cosm of our ur­ban world in a way that other cities are not. Most of all, Karachi is its own world, which is what com­pelled me as a sto­ry­teller. It is con­nected to other places, of course, yet has a unique sen­si­bil­ity, a unique rhythm and its own spe­cial ob­ses­sions.

Can you re­call one spe­cific in­ci­dent that con­vinced you to write on Karachi?

Two things com­bined in 2008. First, I did a se­ries of ra­dio sto­ries on Karachi, my deep­est reporting on the city up to that point, and be­came con­vinced that this one city could rep- col­league Michele Nor­ris and I col­lab­o­rated on a se­ries of sto­ries about race in Amer­ica - just get­ting dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple to talk with one an­other. This very much in­flu­enced my think­ing and added to my al­ready strong mo­ti­va­tion to learn the sto­ries of peo­ple on the other side of the re­sent and ex­plain a great deal about grow­ing cities around the world, es­pe­cially in the de­vel­op­ing world. Why have cities grown so mas­sively? How do peo­ple man­age the con­flicts that de­velop as a re­sult - global ver­sus lo­cal, sec­u­lar ver­sus re­li­gious, old timers ver­sus new­com­ers, rich ver­sus poor? Soon af­ter that, my NPR world and bring them to my fel­low Amer­i­cans.

Your book in­cludes nu­mer­ous en­coun­ters you have had with Karachi­ites. Can you nar­rate one par­tic­u­lar ex­pe­ri­ence that had a pro­found ef­fect on you?

There are so many, but let’s con-

sider this one. I re­ported on the story of Nisar Baloch, a po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist who be­came in­volved with an en­vi­ron­men­tal group that tried to pre­serve a park - the city was spon­sor­ing an ef­fort to build hous­ing on it. The day af­ter Baloch held a press con­fer­ence on the is­sue, he was mur­dered. A few months af­ter that I met his widow and their adopted daugh­ter and learned the widow’s story. This was one of many mo­ments in which I felt, even more pow­er­fully than usual, my duty to bear wit­ness, to get the story and get it right. This al­ways mo­ti­vates my reporting, but even more so when I have en­coun­tered peo­ple in ex­treme sit­u­a­tions in var­i­ous places around the world -- and I met many such peo­ple in Karachi. You get to feel that you have an obli­ga­tion that is al­most sa­cred. Other peo­ple will de­cide if I ful­filled that duty, but I felt very strongly about what the duty was.

Were you ever sur­prised or shocked by any­thing in par­tic­u­lar as you re­searched for your book?

The march of his­tory has sur­prised me. Sev­eral times over the past cou­ple of years I have as­sumed that things are about to im­prove in Pak­istan, sim­ply be­cause it seems like it’s time for an im­prove­ment and things can­not get any worse. Then things do get worse. In spite of that, I con­tinue think­ing that the Pak­istani peo­ple have vast re­silience and that they may catch a break one of these days.

What im­pres­sion do you cur­rently hold of the peo­ple of Karachi?

In the book, I dwell on Ab­dul Sat­tar Edhi and his wife Bilquis. He came to Karachi in 1947 and even­tu­ally founded an am­bu­lance ser­vice that is seen all over Pak­istan; his wife helps to run his char­i­ties, which in­clude med­i­cal ser­vices and an adop­tion ser­vice among other things. I de­scribe the Ed­his as “pas­sion­ate, witty, re­silient, and glo­ri­ously strange.” They have en­dured so much, yet con­tinue in­sist­ing on do­ing things their own way. I think that is a fair de­scrip­tion of the city at its best and may ex­plain why so many peo­ple love it in spite of its trou­bles.

Your book talks about mi­nori­ties in the eth­ni­cally di­vided city of Karachi. What were your ob­ser­va­tions on the mat­ter and how se­ri­ously do you think Karachi­ites treat eth­nic dif­fer­ences?

Much of Karachi’s his­tory since 1947 has been writ­ten in the ten­sion be­tween two schools of thought. One is rep­re­sented by Muham­mad Ali Jin­nah, the founder of Pak­istan, who for all his faults gave a speech in Au­gust 1947 call­ing on Pak­ista­nis to live as equal cit­i­zens, over­look­ing “color, caste or creed.” The de­tails of his own life sug­gest he meant it. The other school of thought was ex­pressed last sum­mer, when bat­tles be­tween po­lit­i­cal par­ties, many of which claim to rep­re­sent eth­nic groups, left sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple dead. There is a broad strand of tol­er­ance in Karachi, which re­mains a very di­verse city in many ways. That tol­er­ance is em­bat­tled and en­dan­gered. But what could save the sit­u­a­tion over time is ac­tu­ally Karachi it­self. It re­mains a very di­verse city, with a wide range of re­li­gions, eth­nic groups and lan­guages. If more peo­ple could in­sist on em­brac­ing this di­ver­sity and pro­tect­ing it, they would lead Pak­istan in a new and bet­ter di­rec­tion; and they would even force the rest of the world to think dif­fer­ently about Pak­istan.

Is re­li­gious ten­sion truly as in­te­gral to the city’s so­cial fab­ric as it is de­picted through the me­dia?

This is still in many ways a tol­er­ant place. Women can still dress in a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent ways, at least in the more up­scale parts of the city; Hin­dus can wor­ship at a tem­ple a block from a Mus­lim shrine; elite par­ents proudly send their chil­dren to a Catholic school. Other ten­sions mat­ter more in Karachi - eth­nic dif­fer­ences, lan­guage dif­fer­ences, or just the naked de­sire for money, land, and power. But with that said, re­li­gious ten­sion is there. It can’t be other­wise, given that Karachi is in Pak­istan. The bomb­ing of the Shia pro­ces­sion in 2009 was one of many, many in­stances of sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence against that re­li­gious mi­nor­ity. And other mi­nori­ties face dif­fer­ent kinds of dis­crim­i­na­tion as well.

What in your opinion is the city’s big­gest strength and big­gest hand­i­cap?

As with many cities in the de­vel­op­ing world, the big­gest strength is the en­durance, am­bi­tion and en­ergy of the mil­lions of peo­ple who have moved there seek­ing a bet­ter life. The big­gest hand­i­cap is sim­ply the lack of law and or­der and a ba­sic de­gree of sta­bil­ity. It would be nice if Karachi had a bril­liant govern­ment; but I sus­pect that the city would thrive un­der a govern­ment that sim­ply man­aged to be less than shame­ful - a word I’ve heard many Pak­ista­nis ap­ply to their govern­ment. The rules are con­stantly chang­ing in Karachi; some sta­bil­ity would help too.

How do you see the fu­ture of Karachi, ten years from now?

I think it de­pends on the sta­bil­ity I re­ferred to in the pre­vi­ous ques­tion. There will never be per­fect sta­bil­ity and or­der in a place that grows and changes so swiftly. But if there was just a lit­tle more of the rule of law, a great deal could im­prove very quickly. The great dan­ger of a city like Karachi is how swiftly it evolves, but the speed of its growth can be­come its strength. The city could change very quickly for the bet­ter.

photo credit: Linda Fit­tante

Arsla Jawaid talks to Steve Inskeep, author of the book ‘In­stant City: Life and Death

in Karachi,’ in this exclusive in­ter­view.

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