For many decades, Karachi has been revered for its gleaming lights, promising economic opportunities but feared for the unabated ethnic violence, unmanageable problems of urban planning. While Karachi is a city of hope and prosperity for some, it is the land of despair for those languishing amid abject poverty in the city’s slums.
In his latest book on Karachi, Instant City, Steve Inskeep, the co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition, America’s most widely heard radio news program, explores life and death in Karachi.
A graduate of Morehead State University, Inskeep, a native of Carmel, Indiana, has extensively travelled across the world as a journalist to interview heads of states and people living under poverty and deprivation.
In an interview with Dawn.com, Inskeep spoke for the first time with a South Asian publication about his recently released book on Karachi and the city’s problems.
Q: Why did you choose Karachi, instead of Lahore or Islamabad, as the subject of your book?
A: The idea of writing a book on Karachi evolved over the time. I first went to the city in 2002 and returned there in 2008 to do a series of stories about the city’s growth and change. I thought it was an interesting city. The more I learned about Karachi, the more I thought needed to be shared. I have been interested in growing cities for a long time. Karachi represents both good and bad things which are happening around the world in big cities.
Q: Your book talks about the elements of life and death in Karachi. Which of these elements do you think is dominant in establishing Karachi’s identity?
A: The recent times have really been horrific for Karachi. It is important to acknowledge that despite hardships and violence, people survive in Karachi and life goes on. It is not meant to dismiss the suffering of the people but it is an important characteristic of a city like this. Large cities are really difficult to live in. Life is challenging there but it is a place that grows because people come to it in order to make a better life for themselves. They look for different and better opportunities than what they might have found in countryside. That migration in some ways is the sign of optimism. In Karachi, people at least have some degree of hope that they can make a better life for themselves.
Q: Your book significantly focuses on the shifting of the capital from Karachi to Islamabad in 1960s. Do you think the city would be more peaceful if it remained the nation’s capital?
A: Ayub Khan thought the opposite. In his autobiography, Khan described Karachi as too violent and unstable to be the country’s capital. He also did not like the climate in Karachi and cited it as one of the reasons for the administration’s inability to perform well. Urban planner Arif Hassan pointed out that it would be difficult to have the capital in a city which is full of rebels.
Karachi has always been a restive and restless place full of people who are willing anytime to fill the streets and protest. It would certainly be a different city if it remained Pakistan’s capital. It is not essential for a great city to be the capital city. Look at New York City, for instance, which is neither the capital of the United States nor even that of the New York State. New York City has gained its power and importance not because of political connections but due to contributions it makes to the nation’s economy. Karachi’s future is also determined by its economy.
Q: What were some of the surprising things about Karachi that came out during the research of your book?
A: Whenever you begin to dig into things about a mega city, you realise things are more complicated than what they seem like. For instance, Orangi is commonly described as Asia’s largest slum. Under that description, it is the home to many poor people but that description seems very simplistic.
At the same time, it is also a place where people come to make life for themselves; they open schools and come up with ways to deliver services when the government fails to fulfill its responsibilities. For instance, the Orangi Pilot Project Research and Training Institute (OPP-RTI) is helping people to find out solutions to the problems of daily life by learning education and new lingual skills. Orangi is kind of a place where people strive to rise in the world. So, it is too simplistic to just call it a slum.
Q: You also mention Abdul Sattar Edhi in your book. How do people like him influence the city?
A: As long as he lived in Karachi, I thought Edhi was emblematic of the whole city. He arrived in 1947 right at the time of phenomenal growth of the city. He has seen the whole thing. He has survived in the city and proudly done things in his own way. He founded the Edhi Foundation which serves the whole of Pakistan.
Q: Does he represent the segment of ‘hope’ on which the title of your book is based?
A: Yes, absolutely. You find a lot of people in Karachi who find ways to deal with impossible tasks and get through the next day. Ultimately, it is not good for the people to deal with impossible challenges. They should not have to deal with such hardships. Let’s not underestimate the problems here. People who have remained in the government also complain that they have lived under decades of bad governance. The city does not have an elected government at the moment which shows a difficult situation.
A: There are millions of people in the city who do not receive the city services. There is a feeling among the people that Karachi has missed the wave of progress that is happening in places like Mumbai. Mumbai is a similar city like Karachi in many ways but it seems to glitter a good deal on the world stage because it is not engulfed with the same degree of problems. There is a lot of frustration but there are still many people who get through the next day. The middle class in Karachi has evolved and emerged by now. There is a possibility of making life better for that middle class.
Q: Besides the intrinsic problems of an urban city and poor planning, how serious are Karachi’s ethnic and religious tensions?
A: Karachi is a phenomenally diverse city. There is a great religious diversity in the city, both within Islam and to some degree outside it. There is also a great diversity of ethnicity, language and background. In some ways, that has become the weakness of the city because there are so many battles over what the city should look like and who should control it.
Religious and ethnic diversity should be the strength of Karachi. It creates possibilities for Karachi to reach out to different parts and groups of the world. It should also provide an opportunity for the Karachiites to receive, share and adopt new ideas from other places. Diversity has simultaneously been the strength of Karachi and also the cause of its sorrows.
Q: Does Karachi truly have a problem with religious extremism?
A: Karachi’s issue with militancy is different from rest of Pakistan. Militants are not as dominant in Karachi as they are elsewhere in Pakistan. Militants are not the largest source of violence in the city although there is a presence of the religious extremists there. There is a degree of intolerance that exists alongside the city’s great tolerance.
The Aushura bombing of December 28, 2009, which is the center of my book, is an example of the presence of religious extremists in Karachi. The procession was bombed on its way to the city. Authorities in Karachi blamed the al Qaeda-linked militant group Jundullah for carrying out the bombing. Jundullah is a Karachi-based anti-Shia group which Pakistani officials say is trying to destabilise the city and embarrass the city government.
Q: How do you see the future of Karachi ten years down the line?
A: If Karachi can embrace the rule of law to a greater degree and adopt Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 speech about accepting people as equal citizens regardless of their religion, color, caste and creed, then the natural enterprise and energy of the people will put the city on a better direction.
Malik Siraj Akbar, based in Washington DC, is editor-in-chief of online newspaper The Baloch Hal. He tweets at MalikSirajAkbar