BOOK REVIEW:  ‘Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi’ (Steve Inskeep)

BOOK REVIEW:  ‘Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi’ (Steve Inskeep)

by Akbar Ahmed


My first memory is of a train journey from Delhi to Karachi in August 1947. I was 4 years old, and our family, along with hundreds of thousands of other Muslim refugees, was heading to the new country of Pakistan. We were lucky to have survived the killing fields of Punjab where Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus were slaughtering each other after the British had divided the subcontinent into two independent countries: India, where the majority population was Hindu, and Pakistan, where the majority was Muslim. For us, Karachi symbolized hope and optimism.

Almost overnight, it seemed, the city grew from a small, sleepy coastal town of a few hundred thousand people to the sprawling metropolis of about 13 million that it is today: hence Steve Inskeep’s title, “Instant City.” The actual population may well be much larger because many residents are reluctant to register with the administration or don’t give full details of their family, while others live there only temporarily.

Inskeep writes with dramatic flair. He introduces us to the city through a day in its life and, because this is Karachi, the day is a violent one: Dec. 28, 2009, when Sunnis attacked a Shia procession. The sequence of events reads like a movie script. Tension builds as people plan for the religious procession. Yet we are aware that it will end badly. The devotees wear coffin sheets draped over their shoulders with “mourning or martyrdom” written on them. They are saying to the world, you would have to kill us in order to prevent us from joining this procession. It is known that Sunni groups want to stop the procession, and in the explosions that follow 30 people are killed and hundreds wounded. This of course immediately triggers retaliatory attacks, and Karachi is once again caught up in a cycle of violence.

In this way we are introduced to the people who form the character of Karachi society. We meet, among many others, the saintly Abdul Sattar Edhi, who inspires Karachi with his humanitarian actions; Altaf Hussain, who dominates Karachi politics with his power base among the refugees from India; the young public intellectual Fatima Bhutto, who boldly challenges a politicial power structure that includes members of her own clan; and critics of the United States such as Islamic party activist Assadullah Bhutto, who while politely pouring Inskeep a cup of tea, claims that the United States is behind the terrorist acts in Pakistan.

As deeply as he grounds his book in the present, Inskeep does not forget to take us back to 1947 for a discussion of M.A. Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan. Jinnah had a vision of Pakistan as a modern Muslim state, providing full rights and protection to women and minorities and attracting respect for the constitution. His sister, Fatima Jinnah, was always by his side, and the two made a point of emphasizing the role of women in this new Pakistan. Jinnah deliberately sought out the Hindu minority to assure it of its place in the nation. The tension between this ideal and the reality of an imploding society is reflected by the ethnic and political violence in Karachi today.

Karachi may no longer be the capital of Pakistan, but it remains the nation’s largest city and seaport, as well as its economic powerhouse. It is easy to forget its glory days. Inskeep relates the facinating story of how, in the late 1950s, the famous Greek architect Constantinos Doxiadis helped plan the city. But even Doxiadis’s vision and energy could not prevent the city from continuing to expand to the point of unmanagable chaos. Inskeep quotes the architect as saying that cities everywhere are becoming dystopias. Nor could Doxiadis have foreseen the nonstop flood of people arriving from elsewhere in Pakistan and the region. After the breakup of Pakistan in 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of people migrated to Karachi; and from the 1980s onward, Afghans poured into the city fleeing the war in Afghanistan as a result of the Soviet occupation and later the emergence of the Taliban. Karachi became an abode of every kind of South Asian ethnic group, and its ownership remains contested. Unlike the other great coastal cities of the subcontinent — Mumbai, Calcutta and Madras — in recent decades Karachi has been caught up in a downward spiral of violence that constantly threatens to tear it apart.

The Karachi of my childhood has changed. Its beaches are destroyed, its old elegant houses have been converted into ugly high-rise apartment blocks, and its open spaces have been sold by corrupt government officials to developers. The city is mired in violence of every kind — ethnic, political and sectarian. Its administration is broken, and its politicians are seen as corrupt, but Karachi has a big, courageous and even generous heart. The vitality and resolve of its remarkable citizens remain undimmed.

In view of the terrible fate met by another American journalist, Daniel Pearl, only a few years ago, it is an act of courage for Inskeep to write a book about Karachi based on interviews in that city. As the well-known host of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” he must have been aware of the possible dangers he faced. Granted, he was after a different kind of story from what Pearl was chasing, but we need to keep the political and cultural context of Karachi in mind. Not only is Karachi beleaguered by daily violence, but it is also riddled with every kind of gang and international intelligence agency imaginable. As if this were not enough, anti-Americanism is rampant.

A tribute to Karachi is long overdue, and Inskeep provides one. “If this book succeeds at all,” he writes, “it lets the city speak for itself and be judged on its own terms.” For those exasperated and puzzled by Pakistan, “Instant City” is an excellent introduction.


Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and author of a book of verse, “Suspended Somewhere Between.”


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