Optimism about Karachi

August 3 2007

There isn’t much official optimism in the West about Pakistan now, where the army stands guard against the Islamist tendency, as it does in Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Afghanistan.

I have already described Toynbee as a poor prophet, with a small p. He never foresaw modern Islamic fundamentalism. He thought that mainstream Islam was becoming permanently progressive. There are passages on this from the ’20s. Many of his travel pieces from the ’50s and ’60s, written for The Observer, not only from the Islamic world, have the jauntily optimistic tone of Pathé newsreels: “the new spirit is infectious”, “more power to their elbows”.

He was no political prophet, but he did know historical Islam and was sympathetic to its spiritual content.

One of his last heroes was Konstantinos Apostolos Doxiadis, who coined the word “ekistics”, which sounds like a private word invented by an adolescent, but means the science of human settlements.

Doxiadis was one of a group of post-war architects who were commissioned to do a certain amount in the developing world, before the brave new age of Emaar. Le Corbusier worked in Chandigarh – where Emaar has already arrived. Brasilia was developed by local modernist talents: Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer. Niemeyer is still alive, at the age of 99.

I will trace Toynbee’s relationship with Doxiadis in detail later. It led to the folio-sized volume he edited with Thames & Hudson in 1967, Cities of Destiny, and to his Cities on the Move in 1970. He called him “my last Greek education”. Doxiadis was responsible for the Master Plan of the University of the Punjab in Lahore in 1960 and also for the plan of Islamabad. See www.doxiadis.org. Islamabad, a pleasant city, set in green, and close to the mountains (you can begin to smell the snow there; it is almost a base-station), formally took over from Karachi as Pakistan’s capital in 1966.

Some years ago [I think this means 1960] I was at Karachi, the old capital of Pakistan, and I was taken out to see the housing estates outside Karachi, in which the Muslim refugees from India were being housed. (No doubt round New Delhi I could have seen the Hindu refugees from Pakistan being rehoused: I just happened to see the re-housing near Karachi.) These housing estates were laid out in small groups. They were planted on a large level plain, and they stretched away and away, one group after another. Each group had a school and a mosque and a place for washing clothes and a little market-place where people could all get together and talk. This lay-out had been deliberately designed by a Greek town-planner, Dr. Constantine Doxiadis, who had been invited by the Government of Pakistan to plan the re-housing of the refugees. He found a way in which it was possible for them to strike root again, and, when I met Dr. Doxiadis afterwards and asked him how he had known how to make this possible, he said: “Because my family were refugees, and I have had the experience.” He knew about this at first hand, so he knew what needed doing.

This means during the Italian and German occupation during the Second World War. Doxiadis’s father had been the Greek Minister of Refugees, Social Welfare and Public Health.

I doubt that much evidence of this planning can still be discerned. Visually, Karachi is a mess, like most ex-colonial cities. Karachians aren’t devoid of visual sense, since it has an impressive arts scene (walk around some commercial galleries if you don’t believe this), but planning got lost, as did all macro-sense of direction except the radical Islamist one, in a world lurching between brigadiers and Benazirs.

Surviving the Future, OUP, 1971

3 Responses to “Optimism about Karachi”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    I am not suggesting that most Pakistanis are would-be Islamists. Merely that the army stands guard against this tendency, and that political parties offer no other vision.

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