Sunday, 24 April 2016

Non-Fiction Review: Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi by Steve Inskeep


At a basic level, I don’t really need to provide a synopsis for Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, because the title does it for me. As the name conveys, it is the biography of a city that has undergone rapid and haphazard expansion, and of its citizens. But it’s more than that, because Inskeep has used Karachi as a microcosm to to explore many broader phenomena. Firstly, there's the history. Just like the country as a whole, Karachi's physical and social landcape has been shaped by Jinnah and the Partition, by military coups and the Bhuttos, by growing Islamisation and conservatism. However, as much as the story of Karachi is linked to its national context, it's also a remarkably universal one, of refugee crises, housing insecurity and unchecked and uneven development, of division along ethnic lines and of partisanship and corruption.

Inskeep tells these tales with unerring compassion and insight, which is why the trigger-happy quote given pride of place on the dust cover makes me so angry. It says:
[This book] will interest anybody who wants to understand the wars the United States is fighting, as well as anyone worried about the future of Pakistan, which may be the most important question facing the world today. Impressively structured and briskly told, Instant City is the Friday Night Lights of terrorism.
I’m sorry, but that guy did not read the same book I did. The book I read mentioned the US’ military entanglements maybe twice, and while Islamic extremism is woven throughout the book, Inskeep handles it very judiciously. His treatment of it is an exercise in perspective, a reminder that only tiny percentage of terrorism spills over into the West. Like the 2009 Ashura bombing that opens the book, or the bombings that happened in Lahore over Easter, the vast majority of terrorism is citizens of a country killing citizens of the same country who are ideologically, ethnically and/or religiously different (or sometimes people who aren't, but who simply get caught in the fray). 

In the Note on Sources that concludes the book, Inskeep writes: if this book succeeds at all, it lets the city speak for itself and be judged on its own terms. And it does. It doesn't buy into the problematic discourses that the West constructs around Pakistan, the Muslim world and the Global South, but neither does it pull its punches. Inskeep is present throughout as a narrator, but he makes few judgements or conclusions, prefering instead to let his interviewees speak for themselves. Where things are contentious, he provides all interested parties a chance to give their side of the story.

Ultimately, it's these traits that take Instant City out of the realm of simple biography, and make it into a discerning analysis of the complexities and contradictions of Karachi, and Pakistan as a whole. I have a policy of not rating non-fiction, but if I did, Instant City would be a definite 5 stars.

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