Karachi, as a microcosm for the 21st century city


Rome dominated the ancient world. Paris starred as the cultural diva of the 1800s. And New York soared as the steel-and-glass incarnation of the American Century.
So what metropolis best defines our restless, rickety present age — Shanghai; Mumbai, India; São Paulo, Brazil?
In his first book, “Instant City,” Steve Inskeep, co-host of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” constructs a compelling case for bestowing the title on Karachi, Pakistan, a destination that usually rates higher among battle-hardened news correspondents than pleasure-hunting tourists.
With an estimated population of 15 million, and a litany of urban ills including dodgy infrastructure and periodic outbreaks of ethno-religious mayhem, Karachi is among the planet’s most chaotic mega-urban areas. In an odd way, Inskeep believes, it’s also one of the most representative.
“It’s both a symptom and a cause of so many problems in the world, and so many trends in the world,” Inskeep said over lunch in Santa Monica during a tour to promote the 276-page volume, subtitled “Life and Death in Karachi,” which was published in October. “It involves technology, it involves globalization, it involves religious conflict, it involves the effort to get ahead, it involves economic inequality. It’s on display in a really unbelievable way.”
“Instant City,” which a Christian Science Monitor reviewer described as “informative, ambitious” and “sometimes glorious,” arrived on bookshelves during one of the lowest points in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Two weeks ago, President Obama phoned Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari to offer condolences for the deaths of two dozen troops killed in NATO airstrikes along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
That calamity capped several months of growing estrangement between the two nominal allies. Relations this year already were frayed by the Navy Seals raid that killed Osama bin Laden, who’d apparently been hiding in plain sight in Pakistan for months, possibly years.
Yet, despite Pakistan’s pivotal role in current geo-politics, Inkseep’s book isn’t really about the country’s relations with the U.S. or its problematic assignment in the so-called war on terror. Rather, “Instant City” posits Karachi as a metaphor for the developing world, teetering between modernity and tradition, democracy and authoritarianism, East and West.
Karachi, the country’s former capital until Islamabad was built practically from scratch in the 1960s, sits at the crossroads of those tensions. It is a place where no amount of U.S. military cajoling and political arm-twisting has been able to impose the American way of thinking, although some affluent neighborhoods wouldn’t look out of place in Southern California.
It’s a place where the best-laid plans of urban designers and social engineers tend to be overwhelmed by the city’s anarchic vitality, including those of Constantino Doxiadis, the Robert Moses of Karachi, a Greek architect who was hired to oversee Karachi’s modern face-lift after World War II. If the book has a secondary theme, its author suggests, it’s the unforeseen consequences of those repeated attempts to refashion Kariachi into something it’s not.
“I’ve chosen a deeply troubled place,” Inskeep said. “But I think it’s symptomatic, it’s normal, in more ways than we realize.”
In mapping out his first published book, Inskeep decided to recount his tale in print much as he would do on the airwaves: by evoking sensory details, such as the scent of spiced meat along the city’s bustling Jinnah Road, and capturing the sound of peoples’ voices. “I wanted to tell the story in the way that I’ve learned to tell radio stories.”
Inskeep also evokes towering historic figures such as Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who struggled to get his countrymen to adopt his mainly secular view of how the country should be run, and the tragic Bhutto political dynasty.
A native of Carmel, an Indianapolis suburb, Inskeep 43, combines let’s-grab-a-beer Midwestern informality with a Washington K Street wonk’s relish for parsing complex data. His fascination with Pakistan began when Inskeep, who’d covered the Pentagon and the U.S. Senate for NPR, was sent by the network to report from Afghanistan and Pakistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Over repeated visits to the region, he grew familiar with Karachi — its history, colorful inhabitants, surreal juxtapositions of obscene wealth and poverty, and the explosive growth that has increased its population 30-fold since the end of World War II.
“But it was actually after I had begun writing the book that this incident happened on Dec. 28, 2009, that I made the focus, the center of the book,” he said.
What happened on that awful date was a bomb attack targeted at Karachi’s annual Shia procession, a locus of friction for the city’s, and Pakistan’s, ongoing sectarian religious conflicts. Forty-three people died that day, and in subsequent weeks the attack spiraled into further violence and recriminations. Disturbingly, it later emerged that the bomb-devastated area was being eyed not only by religious extremists but by hungry real estate developers.
In his book, Inskeep uses the gruesome incident as a springboard into a deeper analysis of Pakistan’s turbulent history since the partition of India in the late 1940s after the withdrawal of the occupying British.
The massive Muslim migration that followed partition helped forge Karachi’s modern profile. At independence, 51% of its population was Hindu; today, about 2% is. The Hindu outflux also deprived the city of much of its skilled, educated business leadership and job-creating classes. “Karachi grew less stable as it became less diverse,” Inskeep writes.
The book’s bibliography is loaded with classic works of urban studies, such as Jane Jacobs’ “The Economy of Cities” and Mike Davis’ “Planet of Slums.” Like those volumes, Inskeep’s is a celebration of what cities at their best can be and a study of the unforeseen consequences.
Above all, Inskeep said, Karachi is a city of “awesome contrasts,” where new McMansions sit across the street from shanties, raw sewage flows unchecked into the once-pristine seacoast, and no one bats an eye during the frequent power blackouts.
“It’s been amazing to closely follow this country for the last decade because you think it can’t get any worse, and then it does get worse,” Inskeep said. “And yet the people survive, and they get up in the morning and go to work.”