KARACHI, Pakistan — Karachi may be a city in crisis, on the shore of a country in crisis, but people find ways to make money. If religious conservatism is spreading, that's no problem; new ads outside the airport promote "Pakistan's First Shariah Compliant Credit Card."
A closer look at Karachi from its slums to its skyscrapers
Karachi's political parties intensified their war for power this summer, killing well over 300 people in gun battles and assassinations -- but that's no problem either. The red flags of one ethnic party, which adorned light poles on a highway into the city's center, were recently replaced by banners promoting cell phones.
Along the seashore, where skyscrapers and a shopping mall are under construction even in this time of war, I went for dinner on a pier known since British colonial times as the Native Jetty. It was recently remade as "Port Grand," a row of upscale restaurants and stores on the water, like a Disneyland vision of Pakistan. I sat with friends outside Shaikh Abdul Ghaffar Kabab House, where smoke from the grill drifted across the jetty, and loudspeakers played a Muzak version of the theme from The Godfather. The kabab was excellent.
Karachi is the economic heart of Pakistan, its main port and financial capital, and an industrial center for everything from textiles to steel. Home to about 400,000 people upon Pakistan's independence in 1947, the city has since expanded to more than 13 million souls by the most conservative estimate, having taken in migrants from every corner of Pakistan and beyond.
The city has grown so swiftly that it evades all efforts to control it. Millions live in illegal neighborhoods, where developers seize and subdivide government land, bribing police not to notice as they sell tiny homes to the poor. Many residents get electricity by tapping power lines, adding stress to a grid that's already overwhelmed, with hours of blackouts every day. Karachi's Lyari River, which used to be a seasonal stream, now flows year-round with untreated sewage. Ultimately, the waste reaches fishing grounds in the Arabian Sea. "Thirty years ago you could drop a coin in the water and see it below the surface," a Karachi fisherman told me this month. "Now the sea is like a gutter." Local politics encourage even harsher metaphors. The city faces a political crisis so severe that it has gone more than a year and a half without an elected mayor or city council.