Friday, October 28, 2011

Book Review: Instant City by Steve Inskeep


So I received an advanced copy of the book Instant City by Steve Inskeep in exchange for doing a review of the book. This is that review:

Steve Inskeep is co-host of Morning Edition on NPR, a journalist. And like a good journalist, in Instant City Inkseep details the events of a single day in Karachi, Pakistan. A horrible day that should have been a solemn and spiritual one for people of Karachi, instead marred by bombings and arson destroying the center of the city. He unpacks the events of the day by following the threads of Pakistan's history, the central figures involved in the formation and duration of the country until those threads intertwined on December 28th, 2009.

And perhaps the most honest part of the book and Inskeep's reporting is that he doesn't fill in the missing expository gaps that remain inexplicable with editorializing. He'll leave that to the people he interviews trying to explain accounts of the often similarly inexplicable, or at least unjustifiable. Pakistan and its capital city Karachi remain a mystery, a Wild West, where millions just try to live their lives and make a living, while global economic forces, geopolitics, and sectarianism collide in one place, with the vast majority of the citizenry simply an innocent bystander between the colliding forces and impersonal forces. In many ways, the humanism gets lost, by the most fervent dogmatists, religious and economic.

Instant City, the name and the book, is about the cities of the world that have grown and expanded so quickly as to have grown beyond all boundaries, order, or control - organized or otherwise, like a wild fire. He delineates the history of Karachi, its evolution and the division of India and Pakistan, Hindus and Muslims, and the effects dramatic convulsions has upon people, much like an anthropologist might

He gives the best account I've come across describing the differences between the various Islamic sects - which I shamefully admit didn't know the various distinctions between the Sufis, Shiites, Sunnites, etc. despite our country's military involvement in the region over the past several decades. And when reading Inskeep describe what might seem rather harmless to my secular self, you're left to wonder, "seriously? That is what they're fighting over." The reality, as Inskeep discovers, is that for the most part, they're not. The underlying forces are typically about land, money, power, etc. You know, the usuals. The religion is simply a vessel, a convenient way to martial the anonymous into unspeakable actions.

During the book, I often found myself certainly without sympathy, but perhaps more frightening, occasionally without empathy either. Perhaps it was the structure of the book, which mostly consisted of flashbacks, jumping around in time rather than a linear, chronological narrative. Or maybe even that I, as the reader and a similarly disconnected individual within a globalized world, am no different than the various investors with economic stake in a city so far away from effecting their daily lives. There is no motivation to help those who kill and be killed because they're unknown. I didn't grow attached to the characters (real people) and at times didn't care what happened. Just like the shareholders whose economic interests are tied into maintaining the disorder that plagues most of the 3rd world. If that is even a term anymore.

It tells a story of all "Instant Cities" in this globalized world. Cities so young and volatile, that goes a long way to explaining the various motivations, actions, anywhere else, even our city. What can be explained, and perhaps even more importantly, what can't, is a lesson worth reading.