Karachi: A Sensory History

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A roaming band of musicians who arrive at weddings to seek donations, tips in Karachi’s Defense Phase Six

Karachi is one of the world’s largest cities—by some measures, the second largest in terms of population, and likely the world’s biggest “Muslim” city. (In this way, it is like the Indonesia of cities.) More than twenty million people live in this messy, dynamic, fractured megalopolis, the center of Pakistan’s financial and media industries and a major commercial entrepôt on the Arabian sea. Pakistan itself has a population of close to 200 million people, making it sixth in the world, just behind Brazil and ahead of Nigeria. This fact reveals a sobering reality: as Bangladesh places eighth in total population, the Indian subcontinent of the former British Raj counts some 1,611,000,000 souls—more than China (about 1.4 billion).

In other words, despite the subcontinent’s ethnoreligious and linguistic diversity, what once was “India” today comprises a unit that surpasses all others in population. If partition had never occurred, Karachi might have looked like a mere port on the periphery of a vast Indian nation—akin to a regional city in China, where “towns” of millions rank as provincial capitals, the Denvers to Shanghai or Beijing’s New York. But with the influx of Muslim migrants from India (known as Muhajirs) after 1947, and its own centripetal force as a commercial center within the new nation, Karachi became Pakistan’s dominant city—commercially, if not politically, as Islamabad (the seat of political power) and Lahore (the capital of the most populous and politically influential state, Punjab) arguably hold greater sway in national affairs. It is faster, franker, and more diverse than many of these other Pakistani cities, a place where Urdu—the lingua franca of Pakistan—is spoken among migrants from interior Sindh, the provinces of Punjab, Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and India itself.

I’ve visited Karachi a number of times over the last ten years, and it has always presented itself as a fascinating puzzle that simply cannot be solved by an outsider with limited knowledge of the city’s politics, history, and language(s). (Of course, in many ways it seems like a puzzle that can’t be solved by its own residents, who are perpetually distressed by the city’s inability to realize its own immense potential, but that’s a story for another time.)

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Not actually lavish

Pakistan is a country haunted by the specter of car bombs and assassinations, ingrained corruption and political gridlock, even as a growing middle and upper class shops for Crocs and Swarovskis at sumptuous new shopping centers such as Dolmen Mall and an almost incalculably vast, working-class group of strivers serves tea and biscuits, sweeps the floors, sells in shops, and chauffeurs cars in an effort to better their children’s prospects in a hoped-for future of continued growth and prosperity.

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Rather than trying to parse the byzantine politics of Karachi, with its innumerable sectarian, ethnic, economic, and ideological conflicts, and its tortured place within the larger War on Terror, I decided to take a sort of phenomenological portrait of the city—a look at its distinctive textures, sights, tastes, and smells—the unique expressive characteristics that make up the warp and woof of life in Karachi, the dimensions and shapes and patterns that might stick out to an outsider, but that might seem ordinary and quotidian to an everyday resident. Here are tiles, textiles, paintings, and sculpture; glass, trucks, stairs, and floors; bags, lights, paper, clocks, plants, playing cards, and the illustrious signage (often neon, from the 60s, and too little represented here) of Karachi.

For our earlier photo essay on Pakistan, check out “The Best Style: Car Culture in Pakistan.”

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Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of History at Georgia State University and author of the book Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century (2013).