Karachi: Dystopian Modernity?

It’s a child’s memory. After a three day journey, our family had arrived in Karachi, Pakistan the day before. The final leg of our journey lay before us. As we were driven to the airport I looked out the window at a landscape unfamiliar to my consciousness. Camel caravans, water buffalo, men wearing traditional chameez and pants walking beside the animals on their way to the fields or market. My father talked with the driver while my mother minded the younger children. I peppered an American airman with questions about what I was seeing. He answered me as best as he could. The year was 1963 and our family was on the way to a small US installation near Peshawar in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier. My memories are faded and sketchy, but the unfamiliarity of the Karachi landscape with its wide avenues in some places and narrow alleys in others, people and beasts of burden seemingly everywhere is chiseled into my memory.

A recently published book titled Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Contested City brought this young person’s memory back. The text, written by London-based Pakistani journalist Samira Shackle, describes a sprawling city divided by ethnicity, religion, politics and class. It also describes a city as vibrant and inspiring as New York, London, Beijing or Berlin. Written over the course of several years, Shackle tells a story of city struggling through crisis brought on by poverty and capitalist greed, foreign wars and international drug trafficking. Shackle warns the reader her text is not a history., yet her narrative invokes the history of Karachi and of Pakistan itself. The reader is brought into the lives of at least eight residents of Karachi via Shackle’s stories; stories which vibrate with the immediacy of the streets and the integrity of her subjects.

There is an ambulance driver who sees his work as a mission, a crime reporter whose ego is fed by his work even while he reckons with its dangers in a city where the criminal underworld is a powerful political and commercial presence. There are a young man and a woman who is his elder whose work involves both community organizing and the daily grind of individual social work. A young woman whose education is curtailed when she gets married, despite her grandfather’s desire to see her continue school no matter what custom demands. Instances in each of these individuals’ lives are chronicled in a manner that reads like the topnotch journalism it is. Individual acts of courage are contextualized within the reality of Karachi’s gangland warfare and tense politics of the period Shackle was composing her book. She writes of the connections between political parties and various criminal overlords. She describes ethnic rivalries between neighborhoods and, in doing so, summarizes the history of a nation birthed in conflict from a ravaged colony.

Shackle’s writing is simultaneously personable and objective. Her physical descriptions of Karachi’s districts brings the reader into the alleyways and avenues that compose the city. Likewise, her profiles of the book’s protagonists allow the reader glimpses into their hearts—perhaps even their souls. These glimpses complete their personas and make this often incredible set of stories believably human. There’s tragedy, sorrow, joy and determination on every page of this text. There is also a resignation present in the lives described that is also particularly human. One cannot help but be reminded of Gramsci’s statement regarding the pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will when considering the narrative of this text. The individuals who make up this book are not naive. They are, however, hopeful that their lives and their work is not in vain. The line they walk is uncertain and occasionally dangerous. They face opposition from governments, financiers and developers, criminals, politicians and police. As in much of the world, religious and cultural differences are manipulated by the powerful and their allies in an attempt to consolidate power and disrupt the potentials of solidarity across the lines drawn by such differences.

Karachi Vice’s characters have first hand knowledge of all of this, sometimes in a bloody and graphic way. One aspect of the story in these pages is how those characters respond. Another is why they respond the way they do. In a manner that is never dry, yet never sensationalist, the author Shackle reveals these truths. In doing so, she has created a document of a city and a time that is as riveting as a crime novel and as telling as a confessional.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com