Karachi Vice
Life and Death in a Contested City
Samira Shackle

Like so much of the world, Karachi is a city of great wealth for a few and great poverty for the rest. While the elite luxuriate in secluded mansions with beautifully manicured lawns and ridiculously ornate water features, millions dwell in shacks with access to running water just once a fortnight. To maintain this blatant inequality, those at the top of society use every dirty trick in the book to divide and rule – racism, violence, sectarianism, gang rule, religious factionalism, corruption, media connivance and more.

In this gripping, enlightening and enraging book, Samira Shackle investigates the life of the city and its people. She does this through in-depth and detailed discussions with five of its residents, people who in their own ways have sought to improve the lives of ordinary inhabitants. So we are introduced to Safdar, an ambulance driver with the Edhi Charitable Foundation, who regularly faces danger, picking up patients and corpses; Parveen, an inspiring street school teacher and activist; Siraj, an obsessive and determined map maker, whose 'quietly revolutionary' work seeks to democratise the control of precious natural resources; Jannat, a woman traditionally married at sixteen, who ends up fighting land-grabbing property developers; and Zille, a TV crime reporter, addicted to danger as he exposes the corruption that binds affluent Pakistani society together.

Karachi Vice is non fiction, but it unfolds with the pace and compulsion of a novel. We are introduced to each character individually before we find how their lives overlap and intertwine, as they struggle to combat poverty, inequality and terror. We are drawn into their world and witness the contrast between the humanity and solidarity of normal people compared with the greed and violence of the ruling elite. None of the mainstream political parties earn much credit; they exacerbate divisions, take backhanders from developers and connive with gangsters and street gangs. In the environment of Pakistan, whoever controls the water and land will also have the power; the activists agree that the so called 'mafia' is in fact 'the government itself'. They create a city in which to stand for equality is to risk your life; in 2013, Karachi had the highest murder rate in the world, with over 3000 unidentified bodies delivered to the mortuary. The descriptions of the mayhem, murder and human heartbreak following regular bombings is especially harrowing.

Near the end of the last decade, Shackle's correspondents reported a distinct reduction in bloodshed; it again became possible for kids to play on the streets and people to gather at roadside cafes. However, no one is convinced that this truce represents a deep change; enforced by the 'Rangers', it relies on yet more suppression and terror. As the book closes, we see the luxurious lights of Bahria Town glowing in the distance, marking the stark and ever increasing contrast between life for the haves and the have nots. The opulent new town is built on land stolen from the poor, who witness their homes bulldozed to make way for it; the careless way the property developers destroy even a graveyard is a powerful symbol of the potency of money and force in modern day Karachi.

However, the author draws consolation from the fact that the previous, apparently omnipotent political elite is finally tamed, even if by a force as unreliable as the Rangers. The other power in the book are the workers, whose strike totally stopped the City, showing 'what power looks like'. The tragedy was that this was used to back one of the existing political dynasties; surely the hope for Karachi's future comes from uniting this potential power with the tireless idealism of the heroic activists, whose inspiring work this book so powerfully describes.

Rosey R*E*P*E*A*T

I originally wrote this piece for
Socialist Review