Inside Story

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Karachi’s gravitational pull

A journalist returns again and again to Pakistan’s largest city

Samira Shackle 9 July 2021 2501 words

On the front line: children listening to music in the notorious Lyari district. Rizwan Tabassum/AFP via Getty Images

I moved to Karachi in the aftermath of riots, arriving to smashed shop windows and the smell of burning tyres. It was 2012 and the city had been engulfed by protests against a YouTube video that made offensive statements about the Prophet Muhammad. The city’s few remaining cinemas had been attacked and churches had taken extra security precautions lest the mob hold Pakistan’s Christians accountable for the crimes of the American filmmakers. The scale of destruction was disproportionate to the offence itself. I was a Londoner moving to my mother’s hometown, a place I had visited only once since childhood.

I walked out of the airport into a heavy, humid night and was collected by my mother’s cousin, with whom I planned to stay. We got into the back of the car; up front was the driver. (This felt unnatural to me to begin with, although I knew that it was common for well-off families in Pakistan to employ a full-time driver; many companies do the same for their office staff.) Karachi is a web of flyovers and highways, the sides of the roads dotted with battered colonial facades, concrete monstrosities, improvised shacks and half-built shells of buildings. Ornate plasterwork sits below poorly constructed high-rises designed only to maximise the space. To travel on these roads is to be confronted with the massive population of this heaving city.

We drove through traffic sprawling into multiple lanes. Motorbikes, sometimes bearing up to five family members, wove in and out between the cars, and men clung to the tops and sides of minibuses. As we drove, my aunt dispensed some safety advice. If a man on a motorbike stops by your car window and flashes a gun, don’t ask questions, just hand over your cash and phone. Change your timings, routes and vehicles frequently to minimise the risk of kidnap. If you pass through a dangerous district, don’t stop — not even if someone crashes into you.

Over the following weeks, I realised why most of this advice was predicated on being in a car: travelling around the city was when Karachi’s wealthier citizens were most vulnerable to the violence that surrounded them.

Like most affluent residents of the city, my relatives were somewhat insulated. They lived behind high walls, protected by twenty-four-hour armed guards. Even the cafes and shops they frequented were surrounded by metal detectors and bored security guards with AK-47s slung over their shoulders. There was good reason for this. Karachi was in the throes of one of the worst outbreaks of violence it had seen since the 1990s. Every day, some fifteen to twenty people were killed in targeted attacks by rival ethnic groups or political parties, and whole neighbourhoods were frequently off-limits because of rioting or running street battles.

But the city was so big that even as this was happening, life in the more affluent districts could go on more or less as normal. The areas of Clifton and Defence, where most of my relatives and friends lived, formed a city within a city, their wide streets, lush greenery and palatial houses a world away from the urban warfare of Lyari or Orangi. Here, the backdrop of violence quickly became mundane: perhaps a day trip to the beach would be made impossible by a security alert, or dinner plans would have to be rearranged because of a city-wide strike. For all Karachi’s vast sprawl, most of its citizens live in a tightly constricted geography, not venturing too far from their locale lest they stray into danger.

Each morning, I sat with my aunt in a marble-floored living room overlooking a luxuriant garden where blooming coral trees spilled over a pagoda. The pet parrot, who was loud and surprisingly vicious, squawked in the background, picking up the odd word from conversations. Tellingly, one of his favourites was tamasha, the Urdu word often used to mean “commotion,” referring to a protest or riot.

Over breakfast I would look through the English-language newspapers, reaching first for the Express Tribune. It published a crime map every day in its Karachi edition, under headings like “Shootings and Raids” and “Mishaps and Bodies Found,” a half-page infographic mapping out the violence consuming areas of the city. I would skim through the daily accounts of targeted killings of political workers and gang battles, the latest convulsions in the multiple conflicts that have racked Karachi for decades. From the vantage point of the comfortable living room, the street war unfolding a few miles away felt unreal and distant, just a headcount on a page.

The violence had deep roots. Karachi’s history is one of migration and rapid expansion. In 1947, it was a port city with a population of fewer than 500,000 people. Today, the number is closer to twenty million, more than triple the population of London. When Pakistan was formed out of the bloody Partition of India, trainloads of Muslims crossed the border in search of a new homeland, arriving exhausted and brutalised. Karachi was the final stop, and as the refugees were turned away from everywhere else along the line, it was their destination by default. These migrants, who became known as Mohajirs, settled first in sprawling refugee camps and then took up the government jobs left vacant by the Hindus and Sikhs who had fled in the other direction.

My grandparents married in 1948, a few months after Partition; the wedding celebrations had to be scaled down because Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated that week. Soon afterwards, my grandmother left her home in a Muslim part of northern India to live with my grandfather’s family in Karachi. Immediately, she began to volunteer in the refugee camps that engulfed swathes of the city. Two years later, in 1950, my mother was born.

Despite these harsh beginnings, Karachi was infused with a feeling of hope and possibility. Pakistan was a new country, forging a national identity, and this was the city at the centre of it all. This was the Karachi that my mother and grandmother had told me about: a cosmopolitan place full of energy and action.

In the decades since Partition, Karachi has been home to a series of complex and ever-evolving conflicts, with sectarian and ethnic resentment mingling with politics and organised crime. First was the tension between the Mohajirs and the local Sindhi population. The Sindhis were broadly less educated and resented the newcomers dominating them in business and public sector jobs. The optimism that was Karachi’s mood music in the early days of nation-building hardened into mutual suspicion, hostility and aggression.

In the 1970s, my grandparents and their four children — my mother, two aunts and my uncle — moved to Britain, making a new life among the tree-lined avenues of northwest London. It was after they left, through the 1970s and 1980s, that the tensions between Karachi’s different groups flared into riots and led to the formation of noxious ethnic political movements. Later, people flooded into Karachi from Afghanistan, displaced by the war, and from Pakistan’s northwest and elsewhere in the country because of violence or natural disaster.

These subsequent waves of migration followed the same pattern, with a growing number of ethnic groups fiercely competing for physical space and economic resources. Even today, when earthquakes or bombs, floods or gunfire have displaced people from their homes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Balochistan, they still flock to Karachi, attracted by that sometimes arrhythmic but perpetually beating heart of economic promise. All of Pakistan has converged here, along with the tensions and rivalries that automatically follow.

Many of the parties that dominate the political landscape today have their roots in ethnic identity. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which has long dominated Karachi’s politics, represents the Mohajir community. It evolved from an angry student movement during the riots and ethnic tension of the 1970s and 1980s. The Awami National Party represents Pashtuns from the northwest of the country. The Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP, traditionally one of the main parties of national government, is grounded in the heartlands of Sindh, the province in which Karachi sits; while it aspires to speak to a wider audience with its message of social justice, it relies on rural Sindh for its core support. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML-N, the other main party of government, barely features in Karachi because it focuses almost entirely on its ethnic Punjabi base.

In recent years, there has been some disruption of this old order. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf was elected to national government in 2018, its anti-corruption message appealing to young and upwardly mobile city dwellers rather than to any single ethnic group.

Compounding the pressure of multiple migrations and deep-rooted ethnic allegiances is the fact that the city can barely keep pace with its constant, dizzying expansion. Buildings, half-buildings and makeshift shacks have sprung up to accommodate the steady stream of newcomers. Services have not developed quickly enough. Vast areas of Karachi have no proper sewerage system, no connection to the mains water supply or electricity, and scarcely any police presence.

Always ready to fill the gaping holes left by the state are criminal gangs, with mafias trading in these utilities as well as in weapons, extortion and drugs. Many of the gangs are intimately connected to political parties, which are active participants in the street wars that afflict their constituents. Most have militant wings that, at different points, have brutally intimidated opponents — through abduction, torture and even murder — and ties to the criminal gangs that for a long time ran the city. Extortion, after all, is a handy way to raise funds, while controlling the sale of land is an efficient way to shore up your voter banks.

Karachi’s politics have particularly high stakes, but they play out against a tumultuous national backdrop. Successive politicians and military rulers have sought to exploit the nation’s ethnic divisions for their own gain, the consequences of which are marked in blood on Karachi’s streets. Pakistan has spent almost half of its seventy years under military dictatorship, with successive elected governments overthrown by an army that plays a disproportionate role in public life. Even when civilian politicians are in power, the army and intelligence services continue to pull the strings. This means that many state institutions are weak and ill-equipped to meet the needs of a wildly expanding population. And the army is capricious, sometimes supporting violent movements, sometimes brutally suppressing them.

When I moved to Karachi, the country was experiencing a new democratic moment. In 2008, the most recent military leader, General Musharraf, had stood down after losing public support following a clash with the judiciary, and called an election. During the campaign that followed, Benazir Bhutto was killed by a suicide bomb at a rally in Rawalpindi. But her party, the centre-left PPP, went on to win a majority and her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, became president. They were Karachiites, but also — like every mainstream politician in Pakistan — notorious for corruption.

As far as I could see, their government hadn’t brought any tangible improvements to the city. I covered the 2013 election, when power swung back to the other main party, the centre-right PML-N, headed by Nawaz Sharif. With every other elected administration in Pakistan’s short history having been ousted by the army, this was the country’s first-ever democratic transfer from one civilian government to another. This was cause for celebration, as was another election and change of government in 2018 — but certain factors remained constant: the dominance of the military in public life, and the nexus of corruption and power that controls basic resources such as water, electricity and land.

The city I moved to in 2012 bore little resemblance to the one my family had left behind in the 1970s. I spent months disoriented by its scale, trying to understand not only the physical web of streets but also a second layer of geography — the corners where one set of allegiances switches to another, the blocks where hostile forces huddled. It would take more time to fill in the blanks, to turn the pencil outline of the city’s layout into a shaded image in full technicolour, showing where each of its multiple warring elements sat.

In 2013, after a year in Pakistan, I returned to London. But I continued to make regular visits to Karachi, drawn back by its complexity. At home in Britain, people saw Pakistan as a lawless, terrifying place. That feeling was there in the awkward silences when I discussed upcoming trips, or in well-meaning comments about my “bravery.” Travelling around Pakistan, I noticed that many people elsewhere in the country had a similar feeling about Karachi: that it was lawless, dangerous, impossible.

On the face of it, they had a point. Karachi is polluted and violent, and in many ways a difficult place to live, or even to visit. But despite these challenges, the city has an almost gravitational pull. Rightly or wrongly, millions of people around Pakistan continue to see it as a place where they can make their fortune or at least escape the inequalities of their rural homes.

Like the vast numbers who pack up and move to the city every year, I found myself unable to escape Karachi’s orbit. My urge to return, and to keep returning, was not just about family ties. Sometimes I told my relatives I was coming, sometimes I didn’t — my work as a journalist was not always compatible with their safety concerns. For people who had no option but to live among the threats and try as best they could to avoid danger, it was difficult to see why I would choose to spend time in the very localities that had become synonymous with violence, the slums whose names appeared in news broadcasts and on crime maps.

But to me, understanding Karachi felt crucial to understanding Pakistan. The gang wars and political battles may be geographically contained, but they reflect and anticipate nationwide shifts. Unpicking the minutiae of the daily struggles on these dusty streets reveals something about Pakistan and its place in the world.

Over the decade that I have gone regularly to Karachi, the city has changed. The violence reached a terrible crescendo when the international airport was attacked in 2014. After that, a paramilitary-led security crackdown reshaped the lines of power in the city. As people in different parts of Karachi shared their stories of conflict and crackdown with me, I began to understand how they found snatches of normality in extreme circumstances and reserves of courage in the face of fear. Karachi’s citizens have had to learn to navigate a complicated and ever-shifting web of criminality and violence, of state neglect and police brutality, and to build their own networks of humanity and community. This is the front line of global urbanisation at its most unforgiving. •

This is an extract from Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Contested City, by Samira Shackle, published by Granta.

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