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).

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University. His work deals with media, law, and the political culture of the modern United States. He has previously received a Consortium for Faculty Diversity fellowship, an ACLS-Mellon postdoctoral fellowship, and the American Baptist Historical Society’s Torbet Prize. His work has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, Technology and Culture, and the edited volume Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

71 thoughts

  1. Awesome information on Karachi and art. Love your pictures. Have you been to the VM Art Gallery which was founded on the experience of a community centre providing education to women?

  2. Being an Indian feel sad how once such a beautiful nation with so much diversity was divided into these many parts. If only the entire sub-continent was a single country, i can honestly say that it would’ve been the best place.
    Handful of people for their own personal gain destroyed lives of a country.

    But really amazing information you’ve put up.
    Loved the pics, love your writing.

    1. Thanks so much! I often wonder how history may have been different if India were not partitioned — my gut tells me it would be a better, more pluralistic, and peaceful country than the South Asia we know today, but it’s hard to say — an unpartitioned India could have also been wracked by communal violence and even civil war on a scale we haven’t seen in the past 60 years

  3. I feel ashamed I did not know that Karachi was such an important city. I thought it was much smaller than 20 million people. The global south is growing bigger without us even noticing it. Your photos show a great mixture of western and eastern influences. I would love to see some drone pictures from above. I cannot imagine how it could look.

    1. Hey John, thanks for checking it out! East and West are very much entwined in Karachi — I think people sometimes assume that there is a stark divide where Pakistanis must reject American culture and reflexively hate the United States because of US foreign policy and other issues, but it’s really not the case for most people. People watch American shows, buy American brands, and so forth, but it all exists alongside pop culture that originates in South Asia, Turkey, Arab countries, etc.

      1. Not only is American influence thru media prevalent in Pakistan, but it is a phenomenon throughout the world. Let’s admit it-the USA is tops in terms of creativity, and people of all races, realize that.

  4. Nice post. Karachi fascinates me (Tom), I’ve been fascinated by Pakistan in general since I read Midnight’s Children. Maybe you could do a guest Snippett on Karachi or other Pakistan-related material!

  5. Great post! I really like the variety in the pictures.
    On a more personal level, what is your favorite part of the city to explore? What are its can’t-misses and must sees?

    1. Hi Into the Mild! I’m not enough of an expert to really say, but I think you can’t go wrong visiting the Saddar commercial district, which has some of the older British colonial architecture, and the famous Zaynab market, where you can haggle over beautiful Sindhi tapestries, shawls, scarves, tchotchkes of various kinds, and many other things. Empress Market (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empress_Market) and Rainbow Centre are also interesting in terms of shopping. I think the Qaid-e-Azam mausoleum (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazar-e-Quaid), a monument to the founder of Pakistan (Muhammad Ali Jinnah), is definitely worth checking out, and Frere Hall (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frere_Hall) is a beautiful landmark

      1. It’s too bad we don’t have a better grasp of the history of that region. I would love to understand India in the early British days and what it was like. Can you recommend any realistic historical novels of India in 1650? Great pictures and info, though. Are you still teaching at Georgia?

  6. This is the first photo essay I’ve ever seen, and I love that you described it as a “phenomenological portrait” of the city. I don’t know why, but that phrase is just exactly what you delivered. My favorite has got to be either the Lisa Frank book or the crazy plant.

    1. Thanks so much, Safakokab! I wasn’t trying to go for a truly representative portrait of the city, since I as an outsider would probably not be able to accomplish that, but I wanted to give a little slice of life

      1. No it was really a great pic of my city.. and you as an outsider praised it so it was more of pleasure to read that other people find it a good place as against all the news in the media..

  7. This is a very interesting piece. I wish I was taught more about Asian history during my public school education, because the cultures of India and Pakistan are so complex and important. They are two of the most populous nations on Earth, and they are in the midst of their own cold war. Pakistan’s foreign policy is almost entirely based around India, and the Earth would benefit greatly if these two nations could come to peace. However, the West relies on Pakistan to be a stable force in the War on Terror, and they rely on India for its factories so it’s unlikely they will want to get involved.

  8. I was born in Karachi but left before my first birthday. I then returned at the age of 16 and lived there for a year. My father’s family roots belong in that city so I also went on many holidays there. There’s so much more to that city than what the western media show.

    Great post. The pictures bring back many memories and definitely capture a small amount of the real essence of the city.

  9. As a former Karachiite, I love your photo essay. I just went about my daily life of being raised there, and it’s amazing now to see the perspective of a visitor like yourself. I must say that you now seem to visit my city more than I have lately…….

  10. I see what you did there in pictures. A really good description of Karachi, most of which amused me. I’ve been there once and looking at all these images felt like visiting it again.

  11. Wow. When I clicked on the article, I thought the author might be someone native. Glad to be wrong.

    You know, there’s no “lavish” mall here, lol. I was going through the pictures and I saw a menu from Lahore. Did you visit Lahore as well? I’m from Lahore but I live in Karachi now. The pictures are good, they pretty much sum up our culture. A lot of people are fascinated by the truck art!

    In your photos, there’s a picture of a building that is very near to the hotel I work at! Great work, great post!

  12. This is so interesting, my parents are originally from Karachi, I just visited Karachi last month and the infamous “dolmen mall”, its so interesting seeing an outsider`s perspective of Karachi.

  13. Wow.. great to see a nice blog on Karachi. I am from Hunza but living in Karachi.
    Guys, if I would be of any help. Please let me know. 🙂

  14. Good writing. Indeed, Karachi is a wonderful city often ignored due to the fragile political climate in the country. Once in the past it was like today’s Dubai, people from all around the sub-continent moved to Karachi for better future. It has always been a stopping point for people moving from Africa to the sub-continent and vice versa. This is why in Karachi you will find people with different origins and a mix of cultures they brought with themselves.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I have often heard locals compare the Karachi of yesteryear to the Dubai of today. It is a shame that mullahs and dictators had to stifle the city’s culture in the years since

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