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NPR’s Inskeep Explores Megacity Karachi’s Vibrancy, Violence

November 1, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Margaret Warner gets Steve Inskeep's take on one of the world's fastest growing cities, Karachi, Pakistan, by way of his new book "Instant City."
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, an author’s take on one of the world’s most vibrant and violent mega-cities.

Margaret Warner has our book conversation.

MARGARET WARNER: Dec. 28, 2009, it was a shocking episode of violence, even by Pakistani standards.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A suicide bomber killed at least 30 people and injured dozens more in Pakistan today. This security camera video captured the moment the bomber blew himself up in Karachi.

MARGARET WARNER: The explosions, aimed at a Shia religious procession, were followed by massive arsonist fires through the heart of Karachi’s merchant district. Scores were killed and millions of dollars in property destroyed.

Greater Karachi, with 13 million people, is the 10th largest city in the world, the U.N. says. Over the past 60 years, this city on the Arabian Sea has become the economic engine of Pakistan.

Steve Inskeep, the host of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” has made numerous trips to Pakistan. His new book is “Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi.”

Steve Inskeep, thank you for coming in to talk about your book.

STEVE INSKEEP, “Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi”: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, of all the places and stories you could tell trying to understand Pakistan, why did you choose Karachi?

STEVE INSKEEP: I could have chosen a lot of cities actually around the world, because I was interested in growing cities in the developing world. They’re growing everywhere.

But Karachi is huge. It’s grown at incredible speed, from a few hundred thousands to 13 million people at least, maybe more. And the story is fascinating and the people are fascinating. It grew on me over a number of visits over a number of years. And I just kept going back.

MARGARET WARNER: And Karachi, just give us a quick little history lesson here. It’s a really volatile mix of all these ethnicities, religions, even languages, really coming out of the way Pakistan was formed out of British India, right, from 1947.

STEVE INSKEEP: Oh, absolutely. Yes.

If you go back to 1947, when India and Pakistan were divided into two different countries from British India, Pakistan was to be majority Muslim. India was to be majority Hindu. But, of course, they were not unanimously so. Karachi was actually a majority Hindu city on the Pakistan side. And so you immediately had massive migrations

Hindus fled, some at the beginning, then more over the next several months.

And hundreds of thousands of Muslims came. They ended up living in tent cities, there were so many of them. And that’s part of the reason the city began growing so explosively. And it’s continued ever since. It’s taken in migrants from all over the country and from other countries as well. It’s the New York of Pakistan in that way.

And there are cities like this all over the world that attract people because they want an opportunity for an education. They want an opportunity for money or they’re desperate because things are disastrous in the countryside.

MARGARET WARNER: So why did you focus on this particular day, Dec. 28, 2009, that saw this attack on this Shia religious procession through Karachi?

STEVE INSKEEP: Because it was a very complex day which helped, to me, to reveal and boil down an incredibly complex city.

You had the conflict between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. You had this killing. You had the events that followed, in which a substantial part of the business district of the city was burned down. You had the mystery of who did that. And then you had the obsession over real estate. How is the property going to be used now? Who is going to benefit from this?

Conspiracy theories flying everywhere, politicians outraged at each other, rhetoric everywhere — it was an incredible day, as well as a tragic day. And it was a day that everyone in Karachi that I met seemed to remember where they were that day, what they were doing. It was a momentous day among many momentous days in that city.

MARGARET WARNER: And as you were peeling back the layers of the onion, it seemed to me you really revealed a city that is, above all, driven by the struggle for power and money rooted in the land, this very precious resource.

STEVE INSKEEP: Yes. Yes.

We think about religious conflicts in Pakistan especially. And we should, because they’re huge. But sometimes even the religious conflicts are about something else. A city like this at its heart is about making a living for the ordinary people and making a fortune for some people.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you also had a poignant story about a man who — a developer, really, who dreamed that Karachi could be the Paris on the Arabian Sea and like so many well-minded people in this city, ends up getting thwarted.

STEVE INSKEEP: Oh, this is one of my favorite things that I discovered.

This is a story that people in Karachi knew the outlines of, but I don’t think many people knew the details of. Tufail Shaikh, Tony Tufail, was a nightclub owner in Karachi in the 1960s and ’70s, dancing girls. It was a totally different city than you would imagine in the Muslim world today, a much more open city, for better or for worse.

And Tufail, who was politically connected because the prime minister at that time had been a customer in his nightclub, had a dream to open a gigantic Wal-Mart-sized casino on the seashore. He got the property. He built the building. He found a guy from Macau to bring in the roulette tables and all the other equipment. It was all set up and ready to go.

They were waiting for approval in 1977. And then there was a military coup. And it was a moment when Karachi changed, Pakistan changed, and in the long term the world changed, because the guy who took over was General Zia-ul-Haq, who is famous, among other things, for being a devout Muslim who wanted Islamization in the country.

And the casino was never allowed to open, which is symbolic of many things that have happened in Karachi and in Pakistan since.

MARGARET WARNER: Then you also have some wonderful mini-portraits in this book of people who are trying to do the right thing. I mean, they’re in this just chaotic and power- and money-driven stew, but they are trying to do the right thing, whether it’s in business or altruistically.

STEVE INSKEEP: Oh, absolutely.

Think about someone like Dr. Seemin Jamali. She is the director of the emergency department at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center in Karachi, this big public hospital. And because she directs the emergency department, that means that her department receives the wounded and the dead again and again when there are bombings in the city.

In February of 2010, there was a follow-up bombing to the attack that’s at the center of this book. And the wounded and dead were brought to this hospital. The families, as they always do in these situations, came rushing in. There were hundreds of people crowding the hospital. And then a second bomb exploded there — what an incredibly horrible situation.

And yet they reopened that emergency department without much better security in less than 24 hours. And she sat with me. And she quoted — when explaining what motivated her life, quoted some words actually of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, who actually wanted a country where people overlooked color, caste or creed and treated each other at equal citizens.

And she said that was something that she wished more of her countrymen knew and learned.

MARGARET WARNER: Do these people trying to do the right thing or operate as if they’re in a normal city, do they have any real impact?

STEVE INSKEEP: I think that if you spend a little time with Karachi residents, someone will tell you, this place is crazy.

They know it’s crazy, even though they love it, even though they embrace this city. They understand the craziness of its politics, the violence of the place, the danger of speaking out, the danger of offending the wrong person. And yet they keep adjusting. And they keep going on and finding ways to live their life.

One of the most remarkable things about this city is the way that it springs back to life after a violent incident and the way that, after someone is killed, people will bury them and go on. It sounds brutal, but people have adjusted to that life. And they keep pushing, they keep pushing to make their lives just a little bit better than they were.

MARGARET WARNER: Steve Inskeep, thank you very much, and congratulations on your book.

STEVE INSKEEP: Thank you so much, Margaret.