INTERVIEW: Steve Inskeep and his INSTANT CITY

Written by Arsla Jawaid  •  November 2011 PDF Print E-mail

Steve Inskeep, (Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, Penguin Group, 2011) talks to SAGlobal about Pakistan and its people, their current challenges, and their future outlooks. He helps us dissect and peel back the layers of a metropolis like Karachi.


Photo credit: Linda Fittante

SAGlobalAffairs: Your recent book: INSTANT CITY, delves deeply into the issue of minorities in the ethnically divided city of Karachi. What were your observations on the matter and how seriously do you think Karachiites treat ethnic differences?

Steve Inskeep: Much of Karachi's history since 1947 has been written in the tension between two schools of thought. One is represented by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, who for all his faults gave a speech in August 1947 calling on Pakistanis to live as equal citizens, overlooking "color, caste or creed." The details of his own life suggest he meant it. The other school of thought was expressed last summer, when battles between political parties, many of which claim to represent ethnic groups, left several hundred people dead. There is a broad strand of tolerance in Karachi, which remains a very diverse city in many ways. That tolerance is embattled and endangered. But what could save the situation over time is actually Karachi itself. It remains a very diverse city, with a wide range of religions, ethnic groups, and languages. If more people could insist on embracing this diversity and protecting it, they would lead Pakistan in a new and better direction; and they would even force the rest of the world to think differently about Pakistan.

SA:  Were you ever surprised or shocked by anything in particular as you researched for your book?

SI: The march of history has surprised me. Several times over the past couple of years I have assumed that things are about to improve in Pakistan, simply because it seems like it's time for an improvement and things cannot get any worse. Then things do get worse. In spite of that, I continue thinking that the Pakistani people have vast resilience and that they may catch a break one of these days.

SA:  Is religious tension truly as integral to the city’s social fabric as it is depicted through the media?

SI: This is still in many ways a tolerant place. Women can still dress in a variety of different ways, at least in the more upscale parts of the city; Hindus can worship at a temple a block from a Muslim shrine; elite parents proudly send their children to a Catholic school. Other tensions matter more in Karachi-- ethnic differences, language differences, or just the naked desire for money, land, and power. But with that said, religious tension is there. It can't be otherwise, given that Karachi is in Pakistan. The bombing of the Shia procession in 2009 was one of many, many instances of sectarian violence against that religious minority. And other minorities face different kinds of discrimination as well.

SA:  What drew you to Pakistan and why did you decide to write a book on Karachi and not any other Pakistani city?

SI:  Two things combined in 2008. First, I did a series of radio stories on Karachi, my deepest reporting on the city up to that point, and became convinced that this one city could represent and explain a great deal about growing cities around the world, especially in the developing world. Why have cities grown so massively? How do people manage the conflicts that develop as a result -- global versus local, secular versus religious, old timers versus newcomers, rich versus poor?  Soon after that, my NPR colleague Michele Norris and I collaborated on a series of stories about race in America-- just getting different kinds of people to talk with one another. This very much influenced my thinking and added to my already strong motivation to learn the stories of people on the other side of the world and bring them to my fellow Americans.

Karachi is a microcosm of Pakistan in a way that other cities are not because more than other cities it has drawn people from everywhere. It is also a microcosm of our urban world in a way that other cities are not. Most of all, Karachi is its own world, which is what compelled me as a storyteller. It is connected to other places, of course, yet has a unique sensibility, a unique rhythm and its own special obsessions.

SA:  Your book includes numerous encounters you have had with Karachiites. Can you narrate one particular experience that had a profound effect on you?

SI:  There are so many, but let's consider this one. I reported on the story of Nisar Baloch, a political activist who became involved with an environmental group that tried to preserve a park - the city was sponsoring an effort to build housing on it. The day after Baloch held a press conference on the issue, he was murdered. A few months after that I met his widow and their adopted daughter and learned the widow's story. This was one of many moments in which I felt, even more powerfully than usual, my duty to bear witness, to get the story and get it right. This always motivates my reporting, but even more so when I have encountered people in extreme situations in various places around the world -- and I met many such people in Karachi. You get to feel that you have an obligation that is almost sacred. Other people will decide if I fulfilled that duty, but I felt very strongly about what the duty was.

SA:  What impression do you currently hold of the people of Karachi?

SI:  In the book, I dwell on Abdul Sattar Edhi and his wife Bilquis. He came to Karachi in 1947 and eventually founded an ambulance service that is seen all over Pakistan; his wife helps to run his charities, which include medical services and an adoption service among other things. I describe the Edhis as "passionate, witty, resilient, and gloriously strange." They have endured so much, yet continue insisting on doing things their own way. I think that is a fair description of the city at its best and may explain why so many people love it in spite of its troubles.

SA:  What in your opinion is the city’s biggest strength and biggest handicap?

SI:  As with many cities in the developing world, the biggest strength is the endurance, ambition, and energy of the millions of people who have moved there seeking a better life. The biggest handicap is simply the lack of law and order and a basic degree of stability. It would be nice if Karachi had a brilliant government; but I suspect that the city would thrive under a government that simply managed to be less than shameful--a word I've heard many Pakistanis apply to their government. The rules are constantly changing in Karachi; some stability would help too.

SA:  How do you see the future of Karachi, ten years from now?

SI:  I think it depends on the stability I referred to in the previous question. There will never be perfect stability and order in a place that grows and changes so swiftly. But if there was just a little more of the rule of law, a great deal could improve very quickly. The great danger of a city like Karachi is how swiftly it evolves; but the speed of its growth can become its strength. The city could change very quickly for the better. alt

Steve Inskeep is co-host of “Morning Edition” on National Public Radio (NPR). After the September 11 attacks, he covered the war in Afghanistan, the hunt for Al Qaeda suspects in Pakistan and the war in Iraq. He has won a National Headliner Award for investigating a military raid that went wrong in Afghanistan. Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, is his first book.

Arsla Jawaid is Associate Editor at SouthAsia. A Boston University graduate, she holds a Bachelors degree in International Relations, with a focus on foreign policy and security studies.

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