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Life and Death in Karachi


January 1, 2012

The NPR host and reporter on what Americans miss when they consider Karachi, the city’s resilience, and what Jinnah really envisioned in Pakistan.

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A year ago in February, Tennessee became the first U.S. state to propose a ban on Sharia law, introducing the American Laws for American Courts Act. The Friday before I met author and NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, Tennessee State Representative Rick Womick called Allah “a false god” and demanded a purge of Muslims from the military, a project echoed by Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry (or at least his staff). It was against this backdrop that Inskeep, a voice as familiar to Americans as their morning coffee, spoke of a place very far away. Our conversation was laden with the conflicting senses we have of Islam and the West, terrorism and fundamentalism. But the assumptions here in Tennessee, I would argue—those that went into the law banning Sharia—have everything to do with that faraway place, and how it is seen and not seen.

The story of Karachi is typically packaged as a monolithic, sinister one: a place where terrorists roam free and blasts distant and near shatter the hot, dark nights. When you think of this city, what comes to mind? The graveyard, perhaps, where Daniel Pearl’s body was found, the sinister hovels where Khalid Sheikh Mohammad planned 9/11, the road from the airport where suicide bombers first tried to kill Benazir Bhutto, the Sheraton hotel where ten French engineers were killed, the Arabian Sea where several U.S. battleships are currently deployed, or the port where NATO supplies are shipped in and out. Or maybe you just think of a place you can’t picture, where drones fly overhead, so high above the hazy horizon that no one below can see them. At least not at first.

In his new book on Karachi, Inskeep does begin with a bomb blast, but if America wants a unified story, Inskeep peels an onion: it is a layered narrative unraveling a difficult place that encompasses the familiar, the noxious, and the surprising. Inskeep’s departure is notable because the paradigm of the dark place was handed to him on a platter; his own introduction to the vast, intractable city was through none other than the trial of Daniel Pearl’s assassins. Inskeep traveled to Karachi for the first time in 2002 to cover the trial of men accused in the Pearl murder. The hearings in the city courts were a mess. It was hot, difficult to get around—a less than hospitable welcome from a hard-to-love city. But Inskeep continued to court Karachi, returning not once or twice but again and again. In that time, he did a series of NPR stories on the city, peeling away the epidermal violence to uncover the resilience required of those who live in it; this beside the ordinary, the human.

But breaking with paradigm does not mean evading the stark realities of a megacity at the heart of a conflicted country, beset with human detritus from nature’s wrath and remote-controlled drones. Treading this balance, Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi begins with a terrorist attack, but not one familiar to Americans, who at that time (December 2009) were preoccupied with the underwear bomber, an attack that never happened. This was, instead, an attack on a procession of Shia pilgrims. Taking the threads of that day, the victims and the ensuing arson, Inskeep is able to gather in words the story of a city of contradictions. Instant City chronicles the march of Karachi from the arid resting place of Muslim refugees from India to a megacity with millions still strewing their dreams, hopes, and disappointments on its dusty, crowded streets.

When I go to American cities and speak…about Karachi, I am able to draw their own wonder and consternation about the cities they live in as an entry point to this other faraway, instant city.

I joined him in the offices of Nashville Public Radio to discuss the challenges of writing about a chaotic and complex city, and where he sees Karachi going in the future. Inskeep, who covers stories at NPR ranging from international politics to pop culture, education, urban reform, sports and a variety of others, is a large man; he must be at least six feet four, with blond hair and blue eyes. He looks like a former football player who became a college professor. Once you get over the surprise of his prodigious embodiment in human form, new and real against the familiarity of his voice in your car and kitchen, it may occur to you just how noticeable his blond, blue-eyed towering form would be in a city like Karachi. But his voice contextualizes that form as affable and approachable. In fact, the moment he speaks, you might find that you can’t help but want to tell him your story, a skill his book reveals is particular (and in this case, directed toward you) but not unique; he undoubtedly had to draw out Karachi’s story using this trait again and again. He pauses to think, remember. We spoke in the late afternoon in November, as a wintry sun set in Nashville.

—Rafia Zakaria for Guernica

Guernica: Why cities, and why Karachi?

Steve Inskeep: I have always loved and been interested in cities; I spent a year during college in New York City and fell in love with it, and have been reading and reporting on and about cities for many years now. After 9/11 I got sent abroad to Iraq and Afghanistan to do stories there. I first went to Karachi in 2002 to cover the trial of Daniel Pearl, and I will tell you that I didn’t really like the city at first. It’s large, difficult to get around, and it’s tough to get your brain around the place. I went back a second time, did a story about a Shia doctor who was killed, and then again a few years later to do a series of stories for NPR. Over the course of these visits and reporting on the city and its growth and development, I began to see it as an example of what was happening around the world as people move rapidly into urban areas that emerge almost instantly as large cities. I also began to see parallels between Karachi and the cities that I was familiar with: a very different place, but in terms of its human stories not really very different at all. That was what excited me about the place—that it was so complex, as difficult to me as an outsider and yet so human in a way that was ultimately very familiar.

Guernica: So many of the books about Pakistan or Afghanistan focus inordinately on the sinister dangers of these places, but you chose to break out of that paradigm, looking instead at the similarities Karachi has with other cities. How did you mediate these issues when you were doing research for this book?

Steve Inskeep: I really wanted to take the time and listen to people’s stories and present an account not simply of how I see them, but also how they see themselves, to be honest about them. The cover of the book has a burning bus with a motorcyclist whizzing by—a snapshot of what it is like to live in a very difficult and very resilient place. It was incredible to me that I would show up at these places and people would be so eager to tell their stories, about everything from their livelihoods to the violence in their neighborhoods. I could tell that they were just burning to tell their stories but that no one had taken the time to listen or to record them. It’s a long way of saying that the city grew on me.

Guernica: You begin the book in December 2008, on a day when a Shia mourning procession in Karachi was bombed. Why did you choose to begin there?

Steve Inskeep: Maybe I will find out in the long term that I should have begun with the Daniel Pearl trial and that would have made it easier for people to relate. But seriously, for me that was just one of the stories about Karachi. I have reported enough about Islam and terrorism to recognize that a lot of what is at stake is not strictly religion, even though it’s also about power and control. In the case of Karachi, like so many other growing cities, it’s also about land, mafias, gang activity. I wanted a story that represented that and all the layers of the city.

The hope is that the migration that comes into the city replenishes its stores of resilience and energy.

So I do begin with an act of terrorism—in some way a religiously motivated act of terrorism, but it’s about more than that. It’s about prejudice, about failure to respect a minority. It’s also relating to police, al-Qaida, and the various pressures on the government in Pakistan. I want to show, with the bombing, how an act of terror is one single element of it, and so many others come in after it. The burning of real estate in Bolton Market right afterward shows the land mafia issues. The ethnic parties that make accusations and counteraccusations, the fact that no one trusts anyone—all make up this mad mix, and all of these different dimensions become apparent through this one episode at the beginning of the book. That, to me, said more about the city and the life of the city than the Pearl assassination. In the end I want to tell a good story, and when I go to American cities and speak to American audiences about Karachi, I am able to draw their own wonder and consternation about the cities they live in as an entry point to this other faraway, instant city.

Guernica: Karachi is, in many senses, an overwhelming city; when you get there you are immediately submerged in its violence, crowds, stories. You really capture that in the first few pages of your book. Did you find the sort of visceral onslaught of the city abate a bit with your successive trips?

Steve Inskeep: So many awful things have happened in Karachi, it’s true, and I say in the book the city has had an overdose of history, too much has happened. You’re right that you go back and you see that the barrage of events continues—it is why I wanted to take a single event and dissect it, because it gets lost in the avalanche of horrible events. It has its own crazy rhythm. Even as crazy as other news is in Pakistan, the city manages to beat that in the frequency of catastrophes.

Guernica: It has been said that the people who are born and raised in a city and who live in it are sort of inside its body, familiar with it internally but unable to see what it looks like from the outside. Do you think that’s a fair analogy of your perspective on Karachi?

Steve Inskeep: I would hope that if I did my job I was able to do just that. My intent was to use my status as an outsider to see patterns and details that someone from the city would perhaps not notice, because they have become so surreptitiously part of the landscape.

Guernica: You talked about the overdose of history. Do you think that at some point resilience becomes a numbing toward violence, the hundreds killed every day, the bomb blasts?

Steve Inskeep: It is an incredibly, unbelievably resilient place. When I showed some of my friends the picture of the cover of the book, they laughed and loved it, because it both has a burning bus and a man whizzing by on a motorbike, looking elsewhere. I thought, gosh, many people in Karachi may not like this image; I’m representing the city as a burning bus. But to the contrary, they loved it, because that is people’s understanding of their own city, of going on with life no matter what. In a sense it is an image unique to Karachi that captures the layers of your question—the lines between resilience and perhaps an unavoidable desensitization that comes with such a surfeit of violence. It’s a great question. Can all this happen and people continue to go on and on and on? Will that continue forever? I don’t know, but so far they have and do go on.

I wanted to capture a picture of a country that is not necessarily at war with the United States, but is at war with itself.

Guernica: What, then, would you say is the hope of Karachi? What can save this city?

Steve Inskeep: I would say that the one incredible thing that the city has going for it is the unabated supply of new migrants that pour into it day after day. It could be a poor factory worker who simply wants a job, it could be an ambitious guy coming for an education—they all add hope and vibrancy to the city. Now, this is not something that is generally taken as positive in Karachi. But the hope is that the migration that comes into the city replenishes its stores of resilience and energy.

Guernica: Would you call it urbanization, which often points to a breaking of traditional structures?

Steve Inskeep: Many have moved but have retained the ties to the village. In one chapter, I tell the story of a factory worker who works in a little sweatshop, and right outside is a man who sells bus tickets to their home villages. In a sense, it is a redefining of community. They have left the village but never really left it; they’re essentially making Karachi an extension of the village, of their community, even if it is at a distance from them, a very far distance. It is not that there is no conflict. In fact Karachi captures all of those rifts between ancient and modern, communal and individual. You see them playing out in people’s lives.

Guernica: How would you say that the uncertainty—from political violence, from migration—affects conflict in Karachi?

Steve Inskeep: People don’t know where they stand and what they’re going to lose, and that makes things uncertain. The political parties try to meld people together, but then that becomes a problem. There are parallels here to American cities, which, in the ’80s, with massive rural to urban migration, saw incredible amounts of violence. This has quieted down a bit over the years, and part of that may just have been that they’ve been able to work out better governance. You do have this circumstance in Karachi that because people know things are changing, the stakes are higher. Everyone is thinking, “My home is threatened, my job is threatened, my identity is threatened, my world is threatened.” And that creates a very particular sort of climate, that is linked. I mean, some people respond like the men in the sweatshop, holding on desperately to their village. Others may become like Mohammad Nadir; they marry, set down roots, and have to face the question of, “How am I going to make it work for myself here in Karachi?”

People who want a different Pakistan have to find a way to go back into their own past and revive the vision of their founders.

Guernica: Do you think this also engenders the religious revivalism in the city, in response to the uncertainty?

Steve Inskeep: The initial migrants from various parts of India that came immediately after partition were attracted to religiously based parties like the Jamaat Islami, since they were trying to figure out questions about what their new political identity as Pakistanis really meant. Then you have the ’80s and the emergence of Altaf Hussain that united the migrants under the platform of the MQM and gave them another way to identify themselves based on their refugee status. So religion becomes a factor. It may well be that people who feel dislocated turn to religion as a substitute for whatever identity they had before. But there are also larger questions for Pakistan that are seminal. What is this country about, what are the values for which it stands?

Guernica: Karachiites often complain, as do Pakistanis, that they don’t control their country’s narrative in the world, that they’re misunderstood. What do you say to this?

Steve Inskeep: So much has been written about partition and that era, but not so much about what happened after. I really have tried, with this book, to continue the story of what happened after. I think it’s fair to say that the country is misunderstood. At the same time, it’s not like everything is going great in Pakistan and nothing is wrong. I hope that Americans reading this book will pause and consider that this is a complex place that cannot be understood in an instant, and it’s not that they’re all against America or against universal human rights. I thought it important to tell the story of a people who, in their own quiet, heroic way…I wanted to capture a picture of a country that is not necessarily at war with the United States, but is at war with itself.

To Pakistanis, I would emphasize the urgent and absolute need for them to take back their history. People who want a different Pakistan have to find a way to go back into their own past and revive the vision of their founders, that was clearly a tolerant and diverse one, so that they can distinguish it from the one that has been imposed upon it. If they can do that, they can take back this city and their country. Tradition has to be retaken by the liberal forces, so that they can show their values of tolerance and democracy not as novel western ideas but as ones indigenous to Pakistan, as a part of its very creation.

Guernica: Aren’t there Pakistanis already engaged in that project?

Steve Inskeep: Let me name three of the people who influenced me, although it’s definitely not a complete list. Ayesha Jalal, the formidable Pakistani-American historian, has rigorously re-evaluated Jinnah’s political strategies leading up to Partition. The result is revealing. Jinnah was not seeking an all-Muslim homeland but rather seeking a way to protect the political rights of people who were Muslim. Akbar Ahmed, a former diplomat and now a distinguished scholar, has documented Jinnah’s life as a man who welcomed, worked with, and even married people of other faiths. Ahmed has argued that Jinnah did not need to choose between a Muslim society or a pluralistic one—rather, that Muslims could welcome minorities in ways that were fully in accord with their faith and its traditions. Ahmed calls attention to Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 speech in which Jinnah called upon his people to set aside “color, caste, or creed.” And then there is Ardeshir Cowasjee, the great Parsi newspaper columnist, who in his mid-80s is a kind of living history of all of Pakistan, old enough to have known Jinnah himself. Cowasjee’s Parsi father, a shipping magnate, was asked for help in creating a national shipping line in 1947. I can imagine no clearer evidence of Jinnah’s intentions, or of his views on diversity, than sitting at Cowasjee’s table in Karachi and listening to this man from a religious minority who was a witness to what Jinnah did and to all that has happened since.

Photograph courtesy of Amar Guriro

Correction: This article originally reported that the attack on Shia pilgrims coincided with reporting on the shoe bomber in December 2008. It now correctly references the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly attempted to blow up a commercial airliner in December 2009.

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