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Exclusive: NPR's Steve Inskeep Talks About His New Book on Karachi: Can Pakistan Turn the Corner?

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Steve Inskeep, co-host of NPR's Morning Edition, has written a most readable, informative, entertaining, and provocative narrative of contemporary Karachi (Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, Penguin Press, October 13, 2011)--one of the best in existence, connecting Karachi's misty origins and murky midlife to its present befuddling crisis in a book that clearly reveals his affection for the people of Karachi and Pakistan.

Insiders and outsiders can both learn a lot from Inskeep's memorable interactions with a gallery of idiosyncratic, irrepressible, never-say-die characters who typify Karachi's spirit of getting along pragmatically despite obstacles that would kill another city and people.

Once upon a time it used to be Brits like Emma Duncan and Christina Lamb, with their accounts of feudals and generals, who used to write sympathetic accounts of Pakistan, and now it's the Americans' turn, as Inskeep takes on the land mafias in Karachi, the "instant city" that's grown too fast for infrastructure and governance to keep pace.

The difference in aesthetics is instructive: the Brits, former direct colonial masters, genial and forbearing, easily mingling with Pakistan's upper crust, given to wry humor, honorary participants in Pakistan's famed fatalism; the Americans, on the other hand, giving full voice to individualism, private initiative, heroism, the average person, trusting a democracy of values that just might overcome the bitter legacies of history. Whereas Duncan might have been most comfortable with a Ghulam Mustafa Khar or a Benazir Bhutto, Inskeep is most comfortable with Seemin Jamali, or Faisal Edhi, the maestro Edhi's equally driven son.

Inskeep centers his narrative around the events of December 28, 2009, when the Ashura bombing created an almost unprecedented aura of mistrust among the city's various ethnic and religious groupings. Mayor Mustafa Kamal famously indulged in a television outburst against conspiracy theorists, after his protests that the MQM had nothing to do with the fires at Bolton Market were dismissed by cynics.

Inskeep embarks on an ever-widening search probing the seductions of land--building up and tearing down, planning nightmares without an end in sight, bureaucratic compulsions disrespectful of citizens' needs, and intricate webs of patronage and corruption.

Instant City is a committed democrat's passionate call to the people of Karachi to give up the prejudices and irrationalities that prevent good public policy from becoming reality. Karachi started off on the wrong foot when despite Jinnah's exhortations, Hindus felt pressured to leave, as Inskeep movingly documents. That was a terrible beginning, and a microcosm of all the self-created tragedies that prevent this particular instant city from realizing its natural potential.

I recently had an email discussion with Inskeep about the turmoil in Karachi, and his estimation of the future prospects for democracy in the region.

Shivani: How long have you been covering the region, and when did you decide to write the book? It seems, from your acknowledgments, that it didn't take you long to write Instant City.

Inskeep: It took about twelve months from the time I contracted to write for Penguin, and the time that I turned in the manuscript--plus a few months of edits and changes after that. Some people have said that's really fast. But I had been visiting Pakistan from time to time since 2002, have reported from many places in the Muslim world since 2001, and have been reporting on cities for almost all my career as a journalist. I felt this was a project that drew on a lifetime of experience.

Shivani: The notion of using the December 28, 2009 Ashura bombing in Karachi as a device to structure the narrative seems very inspired to me. It allows you to bring in the victims and possible victimizers, the various shades of activists and terrorists, with the government, mostly as passive or helpless observer, caught in the middle. Did this strategy appear to you right after the bombing?

Inskeep: Some weeks afterward. The bombing hadn't even happened when I began to research and write; but it gradually became apparent that this one incident offered a window into the complexity of Karachi.

Shivani: I found your discussion of Jinnah's conciliatory moves toward Karachi's native Hindu population, right before and after partition, one of the most revealing parts of your book. And the migration of Karachi's Hindus to India, despite their desire to stay on, a tragic event which continues to reverberate. Jinnah may have wanted to tamp down religiosity in public life, but he was caught in a logical cul-de-sac with the very notion of Pakistan as a separate state based on religious identity. I still don't see a way out of this conundrum. Do you?

Inskeep: Well, you can't "change your past," as Jinnah urged people to do in his famous speech of August 11, 1947. But people can live the life they have. In that 1947 speech, Jinnah called on the people of his new nation to treat each other as equal citizens, regardless of "color, caste, or creed." His admonition has not often been followed: but it is remembered. And that means people of this generation or the next can stand up and insist on following that spirit, the same way that many generations of Americans have insisted on closer attention to the Declaration of Independence. It's possible for liberals in Pakistan to read that speech and position themselves as conservatives, the ones who favor the true, original vision of the founder of the Islamic republic.

Shivani: In Instant City, you keep coming back to land as a resource around which much personal and political struggle centers. Aside from the private land grabbing mafias, every political party, from the Pakhtoon ANP (Awami National Party) to the MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Party), seems to have its own land grabbing apparatus. Why is land so central to Karachi's struggles? Why is this so even though the supply of land in Karachi, because it is not bound by any natural barriers, would seem to be potentially infinite?

Inskeep: Real estate is an obsession for people in cities around the world, especially growing cities. We pour our wealth into our property; we measure our own security by the value of our homes; and more than that, we attach part of our identities to our homes, our neighborhoods, our cities. You have written me, I believe, from Houston, which is also a swiftly growing city. My past reporting in Houston suggests to me that people there also get emotional over land. The difference, of course, is that in Karachi these disputes have evolved far beyond the reach of the law, which makes them dangerous and destabilizing.

Shivani: In the early 1990s, violence in Karachi had reached almost civil war-like proportions. Benazir called in the army to quell the violence, and dealt with the terrorists (the factions of MQM fighting it out with each other, and with other political parties) in almost a terrorist fashion herself. Yet compared to what appears to be going on now, that earlier violence from twenty years ago seems almost ordinary and containable. You describe a gun battle for control of the main airport road. You met with Altaf Hussain, the MQM leader, in London, and though he publicly disavows violence to achieve political aims, one can hardly take this claim at face value. You conclude that ethnic parties have been bad for Pakistan. I would vigorously agree. In the 1990s the MQM seemed to be taking the separatist Bangladesh movement as a model. Do you see any signs that young Pakistanis are turning away from ethnic parties? How can Pakistan put this genie back in the bottle?

Inskeep: Efforts are made. Even the MQM seems, in recent years, to have realized that its ethnic group is no longer a majority of the city and that it must reach out to other kinds of people. The MQM has in fact included members of other ethnic groups--but then in 2011, it was once again alleged to be involved in some of the political violence that left hundreds dead. In the end you need to have political parties that are based on ideas rather than, say, languages or some other marker of personal identity.

Shivani: The MQM mayor, or nazim, of Karachi--Mustafa Kamal--was an executive-type, with feverish energy and a can-do attitude, who during his reign from 2005 to 2010 engaged in a continuous frenzy of infrastructure improvements. On the whole his attitude, despite blind party loyalty, seems to have been beneficial. He had to leave office in 2010 because the provincial law governing local government expired. This seems like the kind of absurdity that could only occur in Pakistan. Why did this happen, and why didn't the MQM fight for the law to be retained? What has been the performance of the caretaker city administration since it took over in mid-2010? Do you feel sorry Mustafa Kamal is no longer there? How do the citizens of Karachi feel about his administration now? Do they miss him?

Inskeep: Kamal is a member of a political party that many people intensely dislike and distrust. Still his administration managed to build some infrastructure and make a full-court sales pitch for his city. It is not my job as a journalist to endorse or not endorse any politician; but I would note that Kamal was effectively replaced by nobody--the elected offices all expired, and their occupants were replaced by bureaucrats. In the long term you'd rather have a democratically elected official than not.

Shivani: While I admire the NGO movement in general, I think reliance on NGOs beyond a certain extent reflects a failure of government. Beyond that, I think the number of players and their impact, given the scale of the population and the problems, is still minuscule. The people you often interact with or discuss--Abdul Sattar Edhi of the Edhi Foundation, Amber Alibhai of Shehri (Citizen), Akhtar Hameed Khan of OPP (Orangi Pilot Project), Arif Hasan the architect and city historian--are mostly the same figures that were prominent two decades ago. They and their organizations all do yeoman's work and are beyond doubt responsible for whatever optimism the people of Karachi can derive about their future. But at the same time, I think of them as "clean-up guys"--sorry to use this expression. They try to recover from the damage after the government has messed up things. What if all that energy went instead into reform of politics instead? The denigration of politics as a profession seems to reveal a distrust of democracy as opposed to technocratic elitism. Someone like Ardeshir Cowasjee (the newspaper columnist whom you interviewed) is generally first in line to greet the newest military government as a break from messy democracy. What are your thoughts on this line of criticism?

Inskeep: I would agree with your general proposition that many of the things that work in Pakistan are actually "work-around" solutions, meaning that people find a way to work around a state that does not function well, or at least to survive its failures. The government should deliver more law and order, stability, basic services. People should have politicians that they trust more than they seem to trust the politicians they have now. But with that said, a city (or a nation) needs many, many actors in order to succeed. Not all the ideas or energy can come from the government. It wouldn't hurt Karachi to have more entrepreneurs, as well as more NGO's and civil society, relative to what exists now.

Shivani: A reform of Pakistani government would entail a reform of the Pakistani military, the most powerful player in Pakistan. And this cannot come about without rethinking the client-patron relationship between the U.S. government and the Pakistani military, don't you think?

Inskeep: As a journalist I'm not going to voice a strong opinion, but I can note the fact that what you say is what many thoughtful people in the U.S. government have said. The Kerry-Lugar bill, for example, is an effort to get more civilian aid into Pakistan and rebalance a relationship that relied too heavily on the military.

Shivani: You make little mention of Pervez Musharraf, the last military ruler. Yet it was during his time that many of the present intense contradictions you point out in Instant City accelerated to a frenzied point. Public-spirited citizens in Karachi may want a better future for their city, but larger geopolitical events determine whether they have much relevance. The wave of suicide bombings in Karachi is hard to imagine without Musharraf's alliance with the U.S. in the war on terror.

Inskeep: Really? With respect, Karachi suffers more kinds of violence than suicide bombings. And what I learned of its history suggests its divisions run deep. The ethnic divisions became more and more pronounced in the years after 1947; and they started becoming especially violent in the 1970's, for example the conflicts between Sindhis, Mohajirs and others that became known as the "language riots." Religious intolerance also predates the U.S. alliance with Musharraf; prominent Shias were being assassinated in Karachi for quite some time before 9/11. You are absolutely correct that the wars of the past decade have added enormous stress on Pakistan, and that U.S. involvement had harmful side effects on several occasions before that. But let's remember also that it was already a place under enormous stress.

Shivani: Your interaction with Tony Tufail, whose dream it was to build a casino on Clifton Beach, to attract Arabs during the elder Bhutto's time, is most poignant. You discuss several megaprojects--one next to the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine, another a series of towers built on reclaimed land on the beach--that might or might not see completion. Major building projects are liable to be disrupted at any time when a fearful foreign investor pulls out, or when political parties change. Can you see institutional reforms that might avoid the stop-and-go, unpredictable, often unaccountable building booms?

Inskeep: Simple, boring law and order would go a long way. That and a stable government in which the rules were not forever being changed. Even in such a circumstance, of course, there would still be corruption as well as tremendous pressure to house people. But every city faces those problems; the point is to get them down to where they're tolerable.

Shivani: I like PPP (Pakistan People's Party) spokesperson Taj Haider's idea that the government itself should get into the business of selling land at very cheap prices, as a way around the whole idea of "illegal" land ownership. But as you also point out, it's difficult to see this becoming anything but yet another avenue of government corruption. The same can be said of any number of rational policy schemes to alleviate Karachi's problems. Without good governance, policies don't amount to much.

Inskeep: Good governance would help.

Shivani: Your book is also a tragic story of urban planning gone haywire. Ayub Khan's sponsorship of the Greek urban planner Constantinos Doxiadis, who in the late 1950s had a great vision for a clean, orderly, sustainable, peaceful Karachi, came to nothing. The city still lacks a master plan, mayor Mustafa Kamal's feverish efforts notwithstanding. What do you think would be a comparable grand vision for Karachi today, something Doxiadis could be proud of? Could it be that Karachi needed then and needs now a more comprehensive plan than Doxiadis was able to muster?

Inskeep: The key is for any planning to take account of human needs and human nature--recognizing, adapting to, and enabling the ambitions of millions of people, including millions who are poor. Doxiadis, the great planner you mention, knew this and did his best. But his plans were overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the challenge. His successors could do better--if they are patient, if they are thoughtful, if they have some resources, and if they keep their ambitions modest.

Shivani: It's hard to think of Abdul Sattar Edhi as anything but a modern-day saint. He comes across as idiosyncratic and very funny. You relate talking to Bilquis Edhi, his long-suffering wife, in their bare single room at Edhi Tower. Bilquis begins by saying, "Anywhere in the world a woman is a slave," and then tells you about Edhi's love affairs with his secretaries and nurses. Yet both Bilquis and Abdul Sattar--and I suspect you--seem to believe that the younger generation will get past the political divisions. The activists you interviewed are mostly of an older generation--sometimes very old. Where is the younger generation? What are they doing? What are their interests? Are they consumerists or idealists? What is their political thought?

Inskeep: Some of the younger generation are working like hell in factories; others are being drawn into political conflicts; still others are attracted to extreme brands of religion; and many of the younger elites have been getting second passports in case they must retreat elsewhere. Still, it's not too hard to imagine good leadership that would encourage enough young people to push in a new direction. Look at the revolutions in the Arab world. Look at Pakistan's own revolution in 2007-2008. The country is living in the long, bitter backwash of that last upheaval; it can be a dispiriting time. But if they manage to get democracy on a firmer footing--say, make it to the 2013 election and actually have an orderly transfer of civilian power--much could change.

Shivani: What is the single biggest misunderstanding Americans have about Karachi and about Pakistan in general?

Inskeep: That they all hate Americans or that they all want to kill Americans. They don't, and they don't. We need to recognize Pakistan as a country at war with itself. We have friends in that fight as well as enemies.

Shivani: Will you continue going to Pakistan, or is your work there finished?

Inskeep: I do not have plane tickets, but hope I do return. It's been rewarding, as a journalist, to go back and back again.

Anis Shivani has just finished a novel, Karachi Raj. His other books are My Tranquil War and Other Poems (May 2012), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009).