“The bugs seem to be everywhere in every neighborhood, bazaar and shop, sparing no one. They’re a bullying force on sidewalks, flying in and out of stores and cars and homes, and settling onto every available surface, from vegetables to people.” Those were the words of New York Times reporter Saba Imtiaz, describing a 2019 fly infestation situation in Karachi.
What the citizens of all stripes endured in what is Pakistan’s foremost city came to mind while reading Samira Shackle’s Karachi Vice: Life and Death In a Contested City. As this very interesting book’s title makes plain, life isn’t easy in Karachi. Most Americans couldn’t handle it, regardless of income level. It’s a reminder that “poverty” brings new meaning to relative.
In this sprawling, yet packed city of 20 million, life absolutely screams dangerous. This is true even when the people aren’t theoretically threatened. Shackle describes a traffic norm in which motorbikes, “sometimes bearing up to five family members,” weave “in and out between the cars,” along with buses and minibuses where men cling “to the tops and sides.” Yet these people are relatively secure precisely because they’re moving.
This is important simply because it’s not safe to be immobile while on the move. Shackle, during an early visit to Karachi for reporting purposes (she’s based in London), recalls her well-to-do aunt telling her that “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.” She was also told to regularly change her travel routes to shrink the odds of being kidnapped. As for dangerous neighborhoods, don’t drive through them and certainly don’t stop in them, “not even if someone crashes into you.”
Shackle creates a fascinating portrait of Karachi through the eyes of an ambulance driver, a teacher, a community/lending organizer of sorts, a television reporter on the way up, a mother, along with the criminal types tied to the political classes who run the dysfunctional city. The view here is that Shackle’s portrait should be required reading for Americans who think they’ve been “left behind,” along with the well-positioned (economically and geographically) pundits who feign sadness for the Americans allegedly “left behind.” They have no idea how good “dispossessed” Americans have it. And that’s not just because the Karachi is so loud, and so unsafe. Living standards are tragically primitive.
From Shackle’s detailed descriptions, Karachi is a city where men are actually employed to go house-to-house to collect human waste given how common it is for the people to lack indoor plumbing, it’s a city in which people take “jerry-cans” to centralized, and often criminally operated water sources for supply of same, and it’s where electricity is a “maybe” thing. The power problem is true even in the good parts of the city (where Shackle’s relatives are from) like Clifton.
For women to walk Karachi’s streets is for them to routinely endure whistles and lewd comments, but that’s if they’re lucky. Groping is the other cruel norm for them to get used to. Some might ask why the police don’t protect the females. It’s a good question. According to Shackle, there are “30,000 of them to serve this city of over 20 million.” At which point it really wouldn’t matter.
The reality is that criminal figures largely run Karachi. They’re on billboards. They live in mansions paid for by the drug trade (among other income streams) while the typical – and lucky - family can quite literally lay claim to space within four walls; as in large, multi-children families residing inside a room. To be clear, this gangster/citizen economic disparity isn’t meant as a knock on inequality. Figure that wealth inequality is a consequence of the rich having most often mass-produced former luxuries for the typical person. Karachi quite simply doesn’t have enough inequality. Neither does India where half of its inhabitants lack indoor plumbing such that its women risk rape with each walk in search of privacy to relieve themselves.
Still, it’s remarkable to read in Karachi Vice how Rehman Dekait, the gangster “kingpin” of Lyari, which is Karachi’s most crime-infested area, had been “coordinating” security for Benazir Bhutto; Bhutto the assassinated-in-2008 member of one of Pakistan’s most prominent political families. About Dekait’s (also eventually assassinated) work for Bhutto, this wasn’t some hidden truth. There were pictures of the two together. Describing what would be a career-killing connection for an American politician, Shackle writes through the eyes of crime reporter Zille that he “was no longer shocked by the way in which crime and politics were tightly knotted together in Karachi. Every street criminal had a political affiliation; every political party had its fingerprints all over multiple criminal enterprises.” About this, the powerful ties between crime and politics aren’t brought up to in any way excuse the U.S. political classes. The damage they do is very real. At the same time, wow! When we complain about our politicians and their venal qualities, we most certainly do so from a position of privilege. What the Pakistanis would give for our politicians, and the problems they create.
Instead, and since power is largely in the hands of politicians and their partners in crime (literally and figuratively), all-too-many Karachi citizens are forced to make a choice. They do so in desperation. More than a few choose crime, or abetting it. From a very early age. As Shackle points out, kids can make “500 rupees a day keeping watch or delivering packages.” It’s not a great living, but parents are often “willing participants” owing to the economic desperation that defines life for an overwhelming majority. Parveen, the teacher featured in Vice, is terrified by the hold of criminal figures over society.
It proves even more agonizing for her when Nasir, who over time becomes a good friend of her family, accepts employment with Dekait’s relatively urbane replacement as Lyari’s top gangster, Uzair Baloch. Parveen had come to know the tough and very muscular Nasir when he aspired to a teaching position at the “street school” where she taught, but he didn’t make the cut given his own lack of educational attainment. Despite this, he accepted well his demotion to what reads as a more janitorial position.
The story turns happy in that the wannabe professional boxer in Nasir for a time morphs from Parveen’s co-worker into her escort home. He makes plain to all that harassing Parveen or members of her family is the same as harassing him. The American in your reviewer found himself imagining a happy ending in which close friends Parveen and Nasir would end up together, but this is Karachi. Please read Shackle’s book to find out how things wind up, but as previously mentioned, Nasir ultimately does as so many in Karachi do: he takes employment in the city’s criminal economy.
It all raises a question that would be interesting to pose to the more libertarian minded. As Shackle makes very apparent throughout, crime and politics are blurred in Karachi. About this, let’s please not insult the prosperous U.S. or suffering Pakistanis by pretending there are any similarities. By this, all-too-many misguided Americans on the Left and Right predicted a Venezuelan outcome for the U.S. if either Donald Trump (Left) or Hillary Clinton (Right) were elected president in 2016. Both sides thoroughly insulted the U.S. to pretend that either one could ruin such an amazing country. Our dysfunction appears heavenly relative to what others endure.
In which case, what to make of the prominence of criminal figures in Karachi? Is it a market or economic outcome? It would be interesting to ask libertarians if the gangsters are in a sense a market response to a city that is such a wreck. Do the gangsters at least to some degree bring order and shape in a figurative sense that otherwise wouldn’t exist, and that politicians most certainly aren’t capable of providing? Whatever the answer, crime provides in Karachi. Sadly it does.
Which bring us to Jannat. She is the first woman in her family to complete the 10th grade. Education for Karachi’s females is mostly a non-starter. In that sense, Jannat’s story is one of the happy ones in Shackle’s book. Though it would read as deprived stateside, Jannat’s life is relatively good. Still, it’s all relative. In the U.S., a 10th-grade education associates with a lack of brains, ambition, or both. Of downward mobility. After which, engagement for people like Jannat is “decided by parents, often when children” are very young. Jannat would be merged with Ghulam, ten or twelve years older than her (Shackle notes that age has a vague quality to it in Karachi), but who turns out to be a good person. He encourages her completion of school up to 10th grade, plus he eventually gets a job, in government. This is a big deal in Karachi. In Shackle’s words, it’s the “ultimate dream” for someone like Ghulam who comes from limited circumstances. Among other things, the employment offers better pay, and “permanent, reliable employment.” They always eat in government. Always. Even in Karachi.
As for the city’s regular people, it all reads as desperate. Particularly through the eyes of Safdar, the ambulance driver with “encyclopedic knowledge” of Karachi’s streets. Though ambulance driving doesn’t pay particularly well, though it’s very dangerous, Safdar views the difficult, sick-inducing work (yes, literally) as “earning my way into heaven.” Plus, his personality fits the work. Safdar is constantly on the move, his energy is endless, and this is necessary for an ambulance driver in a city that Shackle reports could claim over 3,000 murders in 2013 alone. Supposedly that number put Karachi at the top of a list that no city would like to be at the top of.
Safdar’s devotion to his job is also born of experience. While growing up in a seven-to-one-room living space, Safdar witnessed his brother Adil’s maladies from an early age, and the challenges of getting back to where they lived from interminable waits at hospitals. Polio had atrophied Adil’s left leg, such that he was routinely in agony with the “knee joint locked in paralysis.” Please think about this for a second, and maybe more. Particularly if you supported the lockdowns related to the coronavirus, and more tragically, hospitals gearing up around the world to deal with a virus that in a death and serious sickness sense is mostly associated with very old, and already very sick people. It’s important to contemplate simply because in the poor parts of the world, a focus on a virus that never threatened an overwhelming, 99%+ portion of it took priority over vaccination against polio, among other health challenges. It’s a reminder that reasonable history will bill the political and expert panic over the coronavirus as the biggest human rights tragedy of the 21st century.
Back to Safdar, Adil’s time in hospitals awakened him to the good he could do as an ambulance driver. And it all leads to one of the happy circumstances of the book: ultimately Adil sees his health take a turn for the better only for Safdar to be clear that his brother, “already so disadvantaged by his disability, should not have to take on the responsibility of caring for the family too.” Translated, his earnings would be his own. Eventually Adil starts his own business. It’s a triumph in a city full of losses.
Indeed, even the successes are born of awful things. The aforementioned Zille is a television crime reporter in a city defined by crime. Zille’s growing celebrity is a consequence of endless criminal warfare, terrorism, and the reporting on both. Life is so uncertain in Karachi. And it’s also so very cheap.
Mentioned earlier were the people riding five to a motorbike, of commuting workers hanging off of busses to get to work, and then there’s the scene in a hospital after a terrorist attack of “people howling in agony, limbs torn apart, clothing ripped and flesh ruptured…” “People were forced to share beds; some were on the floor.” At which point it’s worth returning to Adil. From the age of two he “suffered high temperatures, headaches, shivers, vomiting, skin so tender he yelped when he was touched.” Adil “squirmed in bed and bawled with discomfort” in a city and country largely bereft of hospitals or medical care. Figure that the ambulances his brother drives aren’t mobile medical units as much they’re “equipped only with a stretcher, an oxygen tank and sometimes bandages.” This is what poverty produces in a medical care sense. It’s important to remember this because with a virus spreading in 2020, politicians chose economic contraction as their virus-mitigation strategy. Historians will marvel.
As for politicians of the moment, they would do well to read Samira Shackle’s essential Karachi Vice. They should see how cheap life and health become where poverty and dysfunction are the dominant forces, when the “best” kind of work is either criminal or governmental. Life is hideous in places like this, which is why Shackle’s book is so important. A look inside a city the name of which never comes up in discussions of great ones, Karachi’s desperation is a reminder to the developed world of how amazingly good we all have it, and what we must avoid in order to maintain our staggeringly grand (at all income levels) living standards.