10.14.11

The Perils of Karachi

In an excerpt from his new book, Instant City, NPR host Steve Inskeep travels to the massive, messy, violent city at the heart of understanding Pakistan today—and explores the events leading up to a day that tore it apart.

A short walk from the old city hall, beside the faded crosswalk and the memorial stone, a banyan tree spreads its branches over a patch of dirt. The dirt fills a triangle where two streets intersect. Somebody must have planned a park there long ago, judging by the battered iron fence, but street hawkers occupy the space today. They sell shoes, spread on wooden carts or hung from a rack like prize fish. Sometimes a man sits with his back to the fence, mending a castaway shoe he’s plucked from a pile on the ground.

The vendors work at one of the city’s more colorful corners. Shops on all sides sell curtains, clothes, and ceiling fans. A restaurant facing the banyan tree serves biryani, a spiced rice dish commonly cooked with meat such chicken or beef, stirred in a pot by the entrance. The owners call their restaurant the Delhi Darbar, in honor of their ancestors from nearby India. When I have eaten there the manager has waved me toward a table at the back, near the wall fan; but I have preferred the table at the front, where I can see outside past the cooking pots, looking back toward one of the onion domes atop the old city hall.

Anyone who looks closely at city hall will notice that city hall is looking back. A security camera hangs on the corner of the building.

It was aimed down here toward the banyan tree on December 28, 2009.

On that day an annual procession was scheduled to move through Karachi. It was a religious march, affirming an historic faith: Muslims from the Shia sect were mourning the killing of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson more than 1,300 years ago. But the procession also reflected the present. It put the whole community on display, much like parades in America. Although Shias are a minority in Pakistan, the shops along the route were closed that day, a national holiday known as Ashura. People climbed on their rooftops to watch, and some of the city’s majority Sunni Muslims always held their own march following the Shias. Pakistan Boy Scouts led the way—local youths who were part of the same worldwide movement as the Boy Scouts of America. Politicians and celebrities showed up, while police and paramilitary forces provided security.

The procession route led past the banyan tree, where on that morning the shoe vendors were temporarily replaced by Boy Scouts running a first-aid station. An ambulance was parked a few feet away.

The procession could almost have been designed to offer a tour of the changing city. The marchers planned to begin near the great white dome of the tomb of Pakistan’s founder, who grew up in Karachi. They would pass near Empress Market, its stone tower built to honor the 19th-century empress of India, also known as Britain’s Queen Victoria; today the market is notable for rows of caged birds for sale in the back, as well as the acrid smell of hashish that men smoke in dim corners. Surrounding streets form the heart of an area called Saddar, once a great cultural district including nightclubs and bars, now shabby but dotted with billboards featuring Bollywood movie stars. Farther along, past the banyan tree, rose the redbrick minarets of a mosque called the Memon Masjid, and the spire of a Hindu temple. The route ended in one of the oldest sections of Karachi, several blocks from the waterfront where ships regularly glide into the harbor and the city’s elites enter children in rowing competitions at the Karachi Boat Club.

Each of these landmarks hints at the city’s past and present. The harbor and the old signs of empire remind us how this city has been shaped by different forms of globalization. Other landmarks might puzzle a newcomer. What caused all those old bars and nightclubs to close? And why, in a city that’s overwhelmingly Muslim, would a Hindu temple occupy such a prominent place near the old city hall? The answers to these questions are revealing, as we will see, and also relevant to the fate of the Shia procession.

The Boat Club is the most revealing landmark of all. Club members meet for dinner on a terrace by the water, men in suits and ties, women draped in brilliantly colored cloth. Everything about their surroundings—tables overlooking a placid channel off the harbor, a perfectly tended garden, uniformed waiters delivering deliciously cooked fish—serves as a reminder of Karachi’s wealth. Those who imagine masses of poor people in a metropolis like Karachi have an image that is accurate, but incomplete: the laboring poor can make a fortune, even if they make it for somebody else. The marchers on December 28 were walking through the economic heart of one of the world’s most populous nations, home to textile mills and a vast steel mill. The last part of the procession route ran parallel to the financial district, within sight of office towers and the red neon sign of the Karachi Stock Exchange. Nearby are the offices of several media empires, with newspapers and television channels serving the entire country, in English, Urdu, and several regional tongues. Karachi’s seaport is a gateway to Central Asia, one of the few harbors within range of Afghanistan and other fabled lands over the mountains to the north. At the waterfront piers, truckers load supplies for shipment to American forces fighting in Afghanistan. Other shipments move contraband: drugs, weapons, fugitives. And for almost any business transaction there may be a local port official, policeman, or politician who quietly extracts a share of the profits in exchange for his invaluable cooperation. Measured by their income, education, and health, Karachi residents are living better than people almost anywhere else in Pakistan.

Of course, prosperity is not spread evenly. In poorer neighborhoods, some within a few blocks of the procession route, textile workers commonly bring home the equivalent of a few dollars per day. Many people have no jobs at all. And millions live with the consequences as well as the benefits of Karachi’s economic activity. Pedestrians dodge streams of reddish liquid in the streets, said to be pollution from tanneries. The crowded neighborhood called Machar Colonyis bisected by an open sewer the size of a river, its surface clogged with so many plastic bags and other debris that it almost seems possible to walk across the water. The sewage flows untreated into the same coastal waters where Karachi fishermen cast their nets.

“We’re not a poor country,” a Pakistani businessman once told me over dinner at the Boat Club. “We’re a poorly managed country.”

“We’re not a poor country,” a Pakistani businessman once told me over dinner at the Boat Club. “We’re a poorly managed country.” To find evidence of this we need go no farther than the nearest electric light. Karachi, like all of Pakistan, has so badly outgrown its electricity supply that the power must be cut off for hours every day; this suggests the struggle for basic resources that threatens the future of many an instant city. To spend time in Karachi is to know the change in a room when its ceiling fan slows down and stops—and you feel it instantly, because the local weather combines the withering heat of the desert with the humidity of a swamp. Then again, the daily blackouts also demonstrate people’s adaptability. They ignore the heat, or cover their windows to keep out the sun, or just wait. And Karachi rewards their patience. The temperature drops when the sun sinks low, and a cool ocean breeze blows on soaked shirts. By evening boys are playing cricket in the street, bouncing the ball off the asphalt in total disregard of traffic, while lovers discreetly encounter each other in the lengthening shadows of the park surrounding the tomb of Pakistan’s founder. City life expands as the mercury contracts: ten o’clock, or even midnight, is not too late for friends who can afford it to meet for dinner at a rooftop barbecue restaurant.

If only it were so easy to find relief from the violence that stalks the city. Much of the world knows Karachi as the scene of the videotaped murder of the journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002, but Karachi residents are intimately familiar with many other killings—1,747, by one count, in the year 2009. Karachi is hardly the deadliest city in the world, but it’s notable for spasms of political killings that can shut down parts of the city for days. Gunmen on motorcycles commonly weave through traffic, shoot a man in the head, and roar away. Armies of security guards watch over the wealthy and powerful, but when people move about the city they have reason to wonder if they will return home alive.

Everything that makes this instant city vibrant can also make it violent. Its swift and disorderly growth creates room for corruption and organized crime. Ethnic groups migrate here from different places, speak different languages, and coalesce into rival political parties that battle over money, power, and real estate. It’s notable that most of Karachi’s violence is not blamed on Islamist extremist groups. But extremists have established a presence in Karachi, attracted by many of the same factors that make the city rich. Karachi’s commercial connections with northern Pakistan and Afghanistan also link the city to the region’s wars. Migrants move south from the war zones seeking work, making it easy for militants to blend in with them. Taliban fighters are believed to visit Karachi when they need places to hide. In the years before al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden was found and killed in northern Pakistan in 2011, several of his associates were based in Karachi or arrested there; al Qaeda used the city as a receiving station for militant recruits and a base for attacks outside Pakistan. This should be no surprise; the international airport and financial system offer links to the outside world, while some universities and religious schools have become centers of Islamist political thought. If militants merely hid out in mountain caves, they would only be a local threat, but like so many people they have seized the global opportunities of the instant city.

Karachi residents used to speak of their city as a back office for militants, who unfortunately made use of the metropolis but fortunately did not attack it. To believe this comforting thought, however, people had to overlook a variety of extremist attacks within Karachi itself. On December 26, 2009, an explosion injured people at a Shia religious procession. The next day an explosion struck another procession. They were small explosions, killing no one; but the city was on alert as marchers formed the procession on December 28.

The ambulance parked by the banyan tree had a word in red on the side, in English and Urdu: “Edhi.”

Identical ambulances were parked some distance down the street, in front of a shabby suite of offices. Telephone and electrical wires spread like vines over the office walls; men studied newspapers and waited by the phone in case anyone should dial an emergency number. This was a station of the Edhi ambulance service, which for more than half a century has served the sick and the poor.

Faisal Edhi, son of the old man who founded the service, sometimes settled behind a desk in these rooms; but Faisal would have little use for a desk on the day of the Shia procession. He would be out riding ambulances, as he commonly did, coordinating the response should anyone need medical attention.

Faisal, a thin man in his late thirties, was easily recognizable with his black-framed glasses and close-cropped beard. He had a trait that I found often in Karachi: he laughed when talking about disasters. He needed this trait, because when he heard reports of gunfire, his job was to take the wheel of an ambulance and drive toward it. Faisal hadn’t always lived this life. In his late teens he moved from Karachi to New York City. He slept in other people’s apartments and got a job. He stood in traffic in Brooklyn, hawking the newspaper Newsday.

By moving to New York, Faisal put some distance between himself and his dominating father; but in one of our conversations he told me he always knew that duty would call him back to the family business. His father, Abdul Sattar Edhi, was renowned in Pakistan and abroad. The Edhi ambulance fleet provided cheap service—and it had to be cheap, since very few people had health insurance in Pakistan. An Edhi ambulance was a simple white van with one driver, two gurneys, and not much medical equipment; its virtue was not its level of sophistication, but that it showed up. Edhi drivers were poor men who were given a little training, paid a modest wage, and sent out to respond to almost anything that went wrong in Karachi. More than Karachi—the service had spread outside the city to other parts of Pakistan.

In his eighties, the elder Edhi still ran the service. Wearing black clothes, a white beard, and a wry expression, he suffered from many ailments but still looked spry when climbing a flight of stairs. And the ambulances were only the most visible part of his dominion. The family ran two blood banks and a home for poor children and runaways. Edhi offices were equipped with cradles, where unwed mothers could give up their babies for adoption. Edhi operated a graveyard in a distant sector of the city; it was said that he had personally washed thousands of bodies in preparation for burial. And sometimes he still climbed into an ambulance to catch a ride to a crime scene.

Instant City
“Instant City” by Steve Inskeep. 304 p. The Penguin Press. $27.95. ()

The old man was one of the migrants who turned Karachi into an instant city. He’d arrived with his parents in 1947 and went to work as a street peddler. He was part of a mass move to Karachi, which more than doubled the population within a few years. The growth never stopped. And so Abdul Sattar Edhi had witnessed the creation of one of the larger cities in human history. It happened within the span of his life. He also had a front-row seat, or more precisely the front seat of an ambulance, to witness the violence that had grown along with the city. Karachi had suffered spasms of political killing and warfare for the past twenty-five years, and was known for rebelliousness and riots long before that.

Edhi thrived in this environment—he once described himself as being “obsessed with self-imposed discomfort”—and built a service meant to alleviate his city’s sorrows. Now that he was older he leaned on his wife, his daughter, and his son to continue his enterprises. His son Faisal would be filling a critical role for the ambulance service on busy days like December 28. Thousands of people gathered that day at the start of the procession route, intending to promenade for miles through the dilapidated grandeur of the old downtown. They were marching in the direction of the banyan tree.

It grew in an area called the Lighthouse Bazaar.

Excerpted from Instant City by Steve Inskeep. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Steve Inskeep, 2011.