Bear with me, this is my first book review since high school when the majority of the work was summarizing parts of the book and how you liked it. I feel that a book review at this age should be add in a critique about the book’s topic, strengths, and shortcomings. (Numbers in parenthesis are page numbers.)

A bus in Karachi carries more passengers than seems safe. The photographer’s accompanying essay is worth reading. Photo by Ejaz Asi. 

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The premise of the book is that it’s about an “instant city”, one that grows from 500,000 to 13 million in 50 years – probably what you thought it would be like. I felt that the author never defines the instant city in a single sentence, paragraph, or page*. He instead uses the stories and interviews and little explicit mentions here and there. His approach, though, is more interesting and readable than what you might find in a book about urban planning or theory.

The instant city Inskeep refers to is Karachi, Pakistan, on the Arabian Sea. It used to be the capital of Pakistan until an army general tried to create his own Brasilia at Islamabad (no word in the book on if this was accomplished).

The first 60 pages are spent describing and constantly referring back to a Muslim minority group’s memorial event in a certain neighborhood. It’s certainly not a boring account of the bombing of a Shia procession on Ashura (a Muslim holida) or the people involved in the events leading up to it, but I was bored reading it. I wanted to get to the city stuff. I wanted to read about as much urban planning, zoning, casino developments, housing projects, population growth, squatting, road building, and neighborhood disagreements as possible (yep, that’s all in there). However, as much as this section fatigued me, I did appreciate the “refresher course” on Pakistan and Islam.

My only experience with the history of Pakistan and Islam were taking two classes in undergrad. In “Sociology of Religion” we had to write several papers (of course) but also visit several religious events. I checked out a Friday Muslim prayer at a makeshift mosque in the basement at the UIC student center, a baptist megachurch on the South Side of Chicago, with a majority Black congregation, and a non-denominational megachurch in South Barrington. The other class was a “Sociology of South Asia” class. (Can you tell what my major was?) That class was a wakeup call: on the first day, the teacher quizzed us on what countries are considered to be in South Asia. The majority of us said China and countries that are considered East and Southeast Asia: Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Koreas. Well, it wasn’t, she told us. We were going to study India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (countries that formed only in the last 65 years, Inskeep book reminded me ).

In those 60 pages, Inskeep refreshes readers on their knowledge of Pakistan independence history, and the relationship between India and the two Pakistans (west and east, now Bangladesh). Part of what made Karachi an instant city (it seems it’s still becoming the instant city, though) is the high rate of incoming refugees moving from Hindustan to Pakistan after the two countries divided on their religions: “Karachi was one of many urban areas that received people fleeing some political nightmare.

References to other instant cities are rare and brief.

“India’s partition was not the only event to transform a city in the 1940s In China, for example, the civil ware that ended with a Communist takeover sent masses to British-controlled Hong Kong. That city, was was partly emptied during the war, refilled beyond capacity, climbing in a decade from 600,000 people to 2.5 million; the overflow filled refugee camps.” (60)

The United Nations, he notes, counts millions of refugees and displaced peoples. The UN reported that “instability, civil war, and repression” are “among the factors prompting people to migrate to cities”.

Karachi is linked to Amman, Jordan, and Kabul, Afghanistan, both receiving displaced people from Iraq War II. But it wasn’t just civil instability, Inskeep writes. “People followed the money: metropolitan Lagos exploded from 267,000 people in 1952 to more than a million in 1963. Cities all across Nigeria grew as migrants left behind a depopulating countryside” of dereliction. “A Ford Foundation report from the era called [this] an ‘urban revolution’ unequaled in Africa’s history.” (75)

Korangi Road, taken in 2007, despite its sepia appearance. Photo by Hassam ul Qayyum. 

Urban planning aspects

In the developmental history of Karachi, there was a Pakistani version of New York’s Robert Moses (General Ayub Khan, 81), Chicago’s former Mayor Daley (Mustafa Kamal, 162), Donald Trump (the playboy casino developer Tufail Shaikh, 113), and humanitarian Jane Addams (Perween Rahman, 106, and Dr. Seemin Jamali, 148).

The first bombing story – there are many – evolves into a story about real estate and land mafias. The bombing of the religious ceremony led to enraged residents to burn a prime piece of real estate (Bolton Market) that some thought wasn’t working its potential. “Shias were always being killed in Pakistan. But real estate on Jinnah Road did not become available every day” (36). Donald Trump is a different story (that I haven’t included here yet). The politics and fighting between opposing parties in the city and province, along with the easy and fluidity with which conspiracy theories spread, led many people to blame Mayor Mustafa Kamal on being behind the bombing (read more about him below).

History of planning

General Ayub Khan hired Greek city planner Constantinos Doxiadis, and the two had great intentions for Karachi and the future Islamabad. “Ayub was about to apply the world’s cutting-edge thinking about cities…” But Khan started off on the wrong foot (forcing Doxiadis to plan for an already determined site), and led the city through a series of “unintended consequences”.

For example, to solve the problem of housing (many people lived in tents, without roofs, or on someone else’s land), Khan was going to build a satellite town, or as Inskeep put it, “The general was planning to solve one of the city’s enduring problems by building what Americans called a suburb” (87). Nice.

“Groundbreaking” (chapter 6) is one of the most interesting parts of the book. Inskeep recounts Doxiadis’s hands-on involvement with design and construction and examines the failures of the two planners to meet their goals. The comparison to Robert Moses is my own. The general and the planner dreamed of the future Karachi but it seemed they wanted to ignore the current Karachi, of shoddy construction, electricity theft, religious strife, and low literacy.

Comparison to Chicago

This always piques my interest!

Inskeep compares Karachi and Chicago, describing that both had similar “turbulence” because of ethnic politics. He quoted former columnist Mike Royko and explained how the Dan Ryan expressway “was routed to serve as a wall between black and white neighborhoods, a line to defend against the growing population of black migrants from the South” (168).

The last mayor of Karachi (the post has been abolished) reminded me a lot of Richard M. Daley, the previous mayor of Chicago. Here’s why:

  • Kamal traveled widely outside Pakistan, “looking for business opportunities” – Daley traveled to China and hosted representatives of China.
  • “Kamal produced a promotional booklet full of color photographs entitled ‘Karachi Calling! Explore the Heaven for Investment'”. – Daley never missed an opportunity to international promote Chicago, with the bid for the 2016 Olympics being his final calling.
  • Kamal “borrowed ideas from other cities…emulating the storm drains he found in London, and seeking to adapt techniques of garbage collection in Shanghai”. – Daley tried to bring bike sharing to Chicago after experiencing it in Paris (there are other examples I’m forgetting).

” ‘We are cutting and pasting things from different parts of the world,’ Kamal told me.” There wasn’t enough evidence in the book to know if Kamal ruled with the same iron fist as Daley.

Eventually, instant city means

  • A place that grows rapidly largely because of violence and civil war
  • Haphazard development and expansion

The subheadline makes clear that this book is about “life and death in Karachi”. More so than it being an instant city. I feel that to appeal to more urban planners, Inskeep should give less attention to the specific bombing on the Ashura holiday and Islamic history and more on the role Ayub Khan played dictating how Karachi and Islamabad should be built. And while the brief references to “sister” instant cities is helpful, the lack of details on how those cities developed similarly or differently means I can’t fully understand what an instant city is: a good story about one city (even with the brief references to others) is not sufficient to prove/support Inskeep’s point/position/argument (?). But it’s still a really good story.

If you are interested in an easy to read account of Pakistan and Karachi history, especially as it relates to city development, I recommend this book. If you are looking for something to read about how instant cities start and how they grow, I cannot recommend this book. In that kind of book, I would look for more information on the cities Inskeep mentions (Lagos and Hong Kong) as well as cities in China that only started growing in the 1980s (like Shanghai).

There is a diversity of Muslim denominations and groups with shared beliefs – I’m not sure what to call these – there are Sunnis, Shias, Sindhis, Mohajirs, and all of the terrorism groups, student activist groups, and political parties – all of them seem to revolve around their specific and unique beliefs in Islam. And with my lax education on Islam and South Asia history, it’s hard for me to keep track. The author does a pretty good job reminding us who they are. He does the same for all the characters he interviews.

Aside from the source material for my two sociology classes, this is the only major work I’ve read about Pakistan. From my perspective, Steve Inskeep, who’s reported for NPR on Pakistan, the Middle East, and South Asia for a decade, is a good person to write this book and has a good command on the religious, civil, and urban history of the region.

Regarding those interviews, he never made it clear if he speaks any of the local languages. Sindhi is the regional language, Punjabi is the most common first language, Urdu is the national language that a majority of Pakistanis speak, or English, the second national language).

*He does, actually. On the third page, he writes, “I define [instant city] as a metropolitan area that’s grown since 1945 at a substantially higher rate than the population of the country to which it belongs.” But this is flimsy: He doesn’t explain why 1945 matters (it’s two years before Pakistan’s independence), nor that thousands of cities around the world would meet this definition because their growth is faster than the country at large. Few of these would merit their own inspection and book.

Note: I haven’t finished the book; I have 60 pages left and then I have to read the appendix about his sources. I may update the review when I finish. Also, the book was given to me for free by Penguin Press and TLC Book Tours. I will be giving it away to a reader as soon as I complete it.

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