November 15, 2011

Special Abu Muqawama Q&A with Steve Inskeep

On a recent plane ride home from Germany, I finished Steve Inskeep's Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, which I can recommend to all of you with confidence. I was, as I mention in my interview with Steve, happily surprised by this book. It's a really great introduction to both the mess that is Pakistan and the greatness that is the Pakistani people. It's also an interesting reflection on urban planning and the rise of mega-cities. Interviewing Steve bleeping Inskeep of all people can be an intimidating experience, but as with all of these things, I just posed some questions and let the man himself take it away.

I was happily surprised by this book. It's multidimensional: on the one hand, it tells the story of Karachi, but on the other hand, it also succeeds in telling that story within two broader contexts. First, it places Karachi within the context of Pakistan's history and politics. Second, it treats the development of Karachi as one example of what you see as a global trend: the rise of "instant cities." (I'm married to a woman who works on development in South Asia, so this is that rare book that we can read together.) Explain to the blog, though: what is an instant city?

Thanks for your generous comments. An instant city is a metropolis that’s grown so swiftly that a person who knew it at the end of World War II would scarcely recognize it today. I keep this definition impressionistic, because I’m not sure I fully trust all the statistics I’ve seen. But to be a little more precise, I define an instant city as one whose population has grown since the war at a substantially higher rate than the country to which it belongs. Those cities tend to be destinations of the greatest mass migration in human history, the worldwide move to cities in recent decades. As different kinds of people concentrate on a city, they mix together, trade ideas, or clash.

In an instant city, the new overshadows the old—as in Karachi, which has at least 30 residents today for every resident at war’s end. In historic terms, the city has appeared in an instant. It can change in an instant. Or turn deadly in an instant. In these respects, Karachi is normal in the developing world, as you both know from experience.

For American policymakers, our swift evolution into a mostly urban species affects everything from economic plans to foreign aid strategies to the battlegrounds of future wars. Or current wars: see Baghdad, ten times larger than in 1950 and a nightmarishly complex killing field for several years. Yet for all the horrors of such swiftly changing places, they’re also expressions of hope. People moved there seeking better lives.

The story of Karachi, meanwhile, as told in the book, is in many ways the story of the state of Pakistan. For an American audience, what does Karachi tell us about Pakistan today?

Pakistanis call Karachi a microcosm of their country, and they’re right. People have migrated from all over the country, as well as every other part of South Asia, to form Pakistan’s most diverse city. And so you see microcosms of Pakistan’s great conflicts between different ethnic groups who speak different languages, between religious groups, between rich and poor, between the military and everybody else. The military’s economic power is spectacularly on display along the waterfront, where they own many square miles of land near the beach, and have been developing luxury apartment towers, a “six-star” club, and a golf course. At the same time, far-flung neighborhoods have hardly any electricity or other services, and the real estate market thrives on unauthorized development on government land. It’s an impossibly complicated and stressful place. Yet there is a certain endurance in the people that keeps things moving, as does an eye on the main chance—you can make money in a growing city. Karachi still functions as the economic heart of Pakistan, which is one reason I don’t agree with those who describe Pakistan as a failed state. When I think failed state, I think Afghanistan in late 2001: little armies wandering around, burned-out tanks along bomb-cratered roads, scarecrow men trying to hand-crank the last dregs of fuel out of a gas-station pump. Pakistan is not that bad yet, although in all fairness the electricity does go out daily, and citizens use words like “crazy” or “mafia” to describe their government, and I do think large swaths of Karachi have evolved beyond conventional government control.

Middle Easterners and South Asians often tell me they "love Americans but don't very much like the United States." I sometimes feel the same about Pakistan -- a nation that has, at the very least, sheltered so many enemies of the United States over the past decade and has frustrated our efforts in Afghanistan. But I have so many wonderful Pakistani friends, and there are so many great Pakistani heroes in your book. The Edhi family -- "passionate, witty, resilient, and gloriously strange" in your words -- stands out in particular. At the nadir in U.S.-Pakistani relations, who are some other Pakistani heroes Americans should know about?

Let me call your attention to Dr. Seemin Jamali, a woman who for years has run the emergency department of a major public hospital in Karachi. On February 5, 2010, her emergency department was flooded with victims of a bombing and their families. A Shia procession had been struck—an attack on a religious minority, which is normal in Pakistan. And then a second bomb exploded at the entrance to the emergency department. Many people were killed, the windows were blown out, and the medical equipment was looted in the panic that followed—yet Dr. Jamali and her colleagues had the emergency department running again the next day. (Note: this fairly incredible story of courage and duty is told at greater length in the book.)

She told me afterward that she believed in treating every person the same, regardless of color, caste, or creed. It was a statement echoing an old speech by the founder of Pakistan. For all the awful things that some people have done over the years in Pakistan, the country also has a different and more honorable tradition. Some people struggle to uphold that tradition, even though many have been beaten, intimidated, silenced, driven into exile, or killed. This book will be worth the time and effort if I manage nothing other than to introduce Americans to a few such people.

My wife and I, like many thousands of other Americans, wake up to your dulcet voice every morning. Which begs the question: how the hell did you find the time to research and write this book while fulfilling your duties at NPR?

Thanks for listening. The short answer is that I missed a little work, lost a lot of sleep, and will forever be grateful for the forbearance of my family and friends. The longer answer is that I first reported Karachi in 2002, and did a series of reports on the city in 2008, so I had some history with the place. Then I took a series of trips expressly for the book in 2010, burning vacation time I had accumulated. Between trips I was gathering archival information from the Library of Congress and several other archives. And of course Pakistan has been constantly in the news, so I was regularly covering and learning about the country for my day job.

You report mostly from Washington. Does this book -- and the reporting from Pakistan that inspired it -- make you want to report more from abroad? Do you, like some think tankers I could name, sometimes feel chained to your office in the 202 area code?

I try not to be. Just before taking host jobs at NPR, I reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and knew I needed that to continue. I would not have accepted the Morning Edition job had it not included the freedom to travel and see things for myself. NPR embraced that idea and didn’t want it any other way. So I’ve been over the years to Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, and many other places at home and abroad. Every trip abroad informs interviews I do later from the studio. It’s true that I never travel as much as I think I should, and that I have to keep my trips very focused and hurry back to the show. Sometimes it kills me – I was in Egypt last spring, for example, but never made it to Libya. But there is some compensation. I work a job where, in the course of a few months, I might talk with a general, a novelist, an economist, the President, the governor of my home state, a poor laborer in a Cairo cement factory, voters in Ohio, and a widow outside New Orleans. It’s this wonderfully broad education. If you feel that I ended up writing a “multidimensional” book, maybe it grows out of my multidimensional job. It encourages broad thinking, and seeing the connections between seemingly unrelated stories, and feeling the sweep of history.

And here I was, thinking I had a pretty sweet gig myself. I end each of these things with a question on food and drink. What are the top three restaurants in Karachi, and why?

I’m delighted that you asked. If you visit friends in Karachi you will almost certainly be taken to Barbecue Tonight whether you ask to go or not. Nor should you mind. If you arrive early for dinner—and by early, I mean Pakistan early, about 10:00—you can get a table on the rooftop, looking across the harbor toward the central business district. Everything on the menu is outstanding. The restaurant is several floors high, and as you walk downstairs to leave at midnight you will notice that every table is filled and there is a line of people at the door.

I recommend the surreal experience of eating at Shaikh Abdul Ghaffar’s Kabab House, which is on a pier at the harbor known as the Native Jetty, now rebranded as “Port Grand,” a heavily guarded row of upscale shops. The meat here is so finely ground as to be almost creamy, but the real reason to go is the craziness of the setting. In one direction you see the harbor cranes; in the other, a waterside Hindu temple.

You will find some middlebrow choices if you venture through the chaotic traffic on Burns Road, or out in the industrial zone called SITE Town, where a gigantic madrassa makes some extra money running a rather clean and formal restaurant. But if you have a basic faith in the safety of cooked food, then I suggest that you bypass these choices and pick out one of many simple restaurants that are open to the street, with no front wall. They may serve only two or three dishes, cooked in metal pots by the entrance. The restaurant you want is probably not spiffy: a certain level of dilapidation often signals comfort food, sort of like when you arrive at an older American diner. In the book I feature one such restaurant called the Delhi Darbar, near the old city hall. The menu does not include much beyond soft drinks and biryani, hunks of meat and other ingredients mixed into rice. I have always found it to be excellent, although it is so powerfully spiced that in all honesty, if it wasn’t any good, I would never know.

Thanks for the tips! Steve can be heard each morning on NPR's Morning Edition, and his book can be bought here