Inskeep’s Excellent Book-Length Profile of Karachi, the Key to Pakistan: A Review

A Publication of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Inskeep’s Excellent Book-Length Profile of Karachi, the Key to Pakistan: A Review

America’s decade-long war in South Asia has prompted a spate of books that purport to explain how Pakistan really works. Though everyone agrees that insurgent-infested and nuclear-armed Pakistan is tremendously important to U.S. interests, few have been able to unravel the country’s byzantine complexity. In the excellent Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, Steve Inskeep sidesteps the machinations of Pakistan’s national politics, the grinding geopolitical competition in Afghanistan, and the apocalyptic scenarios of terrorists seizing nuclear weapons, and focuses instead on scrupulously narrating the everyday stories of the beleaguered citizens who inhabit Pakistan’s most important city. This ostensibly narrow approach ends up illuminating a vast landscape, showing how decaying institutions have constrained Pakistani aspirations in tragic and tortuous ways.

According to Inskeep, an “instant city” is characterized by above average population growth relative to the rest of the country, often due to mass migration induced by severe political and economic unrest. Pakistan’s partition from India in 1947 produced millions of desperate refugees on both sides of the bloody border; as a result, Karachi’s population doubled overnight. Pakistan’s largest city and a financial and industrial hub, Karachi still lures migrants in search of economic opportunities from all across the country. The unremitting influx has overwhelmed an inadequately resourced government’s ability to provide basic services. The yawning gap between what people need and what the state can deliver, exacerbated by deep ethnic and sectarian cleavages, has spawned crime and corruption and violence. Karachi is a sprawling urban mess that cannot be cleaned up by a municipal authority which is hapless when it is not perfidious.

Nonetheless, desperate people keep streaming in and the city totters forward. Inskeep is best when delineating the tactics Karachites use to forge ahead in the face of improbable odds. The katchi abadis — so-called ‘temporary settlements’ comprised of shacks made of mud and timber — are technically illegal because they are created by people simply squatting on vacant land; in reality they house as many as half of the city’s population. Bereft of amenities such as water and energy, residents devise expedient workarounds — for example, by planting hooks on main electrical lines, siphoning off power, and bribing the police to look the other way. Over time, the process of illegal settlement has become regularized: profiteering land developers — who include the local government, political parties, and the police — have gained control over vast swathes of real estate which they rent out to individual residents and communities. As Karachi’s titular government flails, an alternative form of government — predatory but characterized by certain informal rules — has sprung up.

A few courageous souls fight the social consequences of a crumbling state. A wealthy philanthropist couple is devoted to providing affordable and healthy housing for the poor. An octogenarian humanitarian annually collects millions of dollars in contributions that funds a vast array of social services — even as he himself does not own a house, living in sparsely furnished rooms at his work headquarters. A doctor in charge of the emergency department at Jinnah Hospital attends to the victims of a sectarian suicide bombing even after the hospital itself is attacked just a few hours later.

For those steeped in Karachi’s lore, such stories are unsurprising. Unfortunately, the rewards for heroism in such a city are sparse. Life in urban South Asia rarely resembles Oscar-baiting fantasies like the Academy Award winning Slumdog Millionaire, and Inskeep is not in the business of selling uplifting bromides to his readers. Again and again, Karachites striving to create a better life for themselves and for their communities are thwarted by forces much larger than themselves. In one of the book’s most haunting stories, a social activist named Nisar Baloch tries to save a public park in his neighborhood from unlawful encroachment. The day after he denounces the land grab in a press conference he is murdered. Who killed Baloch? No one can tell Inskeep for sure, but his dogged investigation locates clues scattered like crumbs. The local government is dominated by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) – a powerful provincial political party whose votes are critical to the fragile coalition government steered by the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The MQM was doling out the park land to its constituency, the ethnic Mohajirs. Baloch belonged to a different ethnic group that has tense relations with the Mohajirs in that neighborhood. Although Baloch was a dedicated member of the PPP and his death led to spontaneous riots and protests, his party stayed silent and the encroachment continued.

Instant City pivots on Dec. 28, 2009 — a day Inskeep says “almost everyone in Karachi remembered” — when extremists bombed a religious procession on Ashura, the annual Shiite day of mourning. Inskeep describes the events of that day and the lives that intersected with it, using their stories as a window into the tensions roiling Karachi. This narrative strategy succeeds in riveting the reader’s attention before deftly segueing to broader geographic, political, and historical factors that influence the city.

Yet the structure of Inskeep’s tale has some flaws. Anti-Shiite terrorism is a longstanding part of Karachi’s history and deserves to be highlighted, but the city is too vast to be filtered through the prism of one day’s events. Inevitably several of the book’s chapters, though well-crafted vignettes in their own right, are disconnected from each other. Furthermore, although Inskeep provides an intriguing definition of what constitutes an “instant city,” his discussion of the concept is underdeveloped. His preferred method is to compare Karachi to other “instant cities” — for example, he suggests that post-partition migration to Karachi fueled ethnic tensions similar to Chicago in the 1830s — but these fleeting analogies are sometimes superficial.

Instant City‘s real strength lies in conveying powerful stories through cinematic prose. At his best, Inskeep conjures up the visceral experience of life in Karachi with all its incongruities, its brooding intensity, and yes, its flashes of vitality and fun. Reading the book I often felt transported back to the early 1990s when I attended middle school in Karachi. When school was shut down — due to strikes or municipal crises or any number of other reasons I was oblivious to then — we would illegally play cricket on the roads, skirting the honking cars that crossed red stoplights and thundered across our makeshift pitches. We survived and even enjoyed ourselves along the way. Instant City is full of keenly observed insights about a battered and bloodied city that still hasn’t quite given up.

Ahmed Humayun is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

The article was first published at Foreignpolicy,.com. Read it here.