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Book Review — Right to the City: Travel Guide to Karachi

In 1968, French philosopher Henri Lefebvre published Le Droit à la Ville (The Right to the City), in which he argued that it is the right of citizens to have not just access to urban space, but the right to transform and inhabit that urban space.  If the ‘everyday’ is where forces of power and control insert themselves, it can conversely also become a site of resistance and revolt. One of the chief concerns of this Travel Guide is precisely this: investigating how urban space is controlled and by whom, and the possibility of regaining or establishing alternative lines of control.

In the West in the 1960s, art started moving off the wall, breaking the confines of the canvas and entering the ‘real’, lived space of the viewer. This new engagement with bodily, lived space triggered a reconceptualisation of the relation of an artwork to its audience. No longer was the viewer a distanced, neutral observer; now, she was an active participant in making sense of the work. The interpretation of a work of art became destabilised, and had to be constantly renegotiated in a particular context, as interpreted by a particular individual.

Following that theory of audience participation, the six projects in this book all seek to inscribe the human subject as the centre of public space, arguing against an official history or singular narrative of the city in favour of multiple histories and multiple ways of engaging with a living, breathing space. Shahana Rajani, the editor and ‘curator’ of this fascinating spin on the traditional guide book, provides an essay that explicates the theoretical concerns of the book, situating it within a long line of colonial-era guidebooks to India and the Middle East that sought to both ‘exoticise’ yet make familiar these lands to the colonial traveller. Rajani wishes to wrest the guidebook, and thus the narrative and depiction of Karachi, away from that sort of totalizing vision and recover the city for its inhabitants.

Is to the city provides a of Karachi through the lens of art. The first chapter, by Sara Khan, an artist based at Karachi University, is nostalgic, employing folk music and reminiscing about places and figures long gone. The second, by Manizhe Ali, is more of a straightforward account of sectarian violence. Ali centres her account around the mausoleum of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan and the difference between the nation he envisioned – welcoming of all castes and creeds – and the current state, which

Bani Abidi’s project in this book is a taxonomy of the type of security barriers seen in Karachi. Removing them from the context of the street, she presents them as stark digital renderings of twelve types of barriers and the locations where they are found (near a naval base, Iranian Consulate, American Consulate). Anyone who has lived in Karachi will be familiar with the rerouting, the zigzagging associated with barriers, the intricate obstacle-course formations formations they can take when the security forces are in a fanciful mood.

The security barriers highlight the ability of the state to reconfigure the physical reality of the city at a moment’s notice. Karachi is a city that is in a constant “state of siege” and the barriers are physical manifestations of the strategies of control literally shape the ebb and flow of the city, forcing onto it new rhythms of movement, creating new spaces. Through the indeterminacy and indefiniteness of the constant “state of siege” imposed upon the city, new spatial practices are created.

In direct contrast, the next chapter, by Seher Naveed, describes the leisure space of Karachi’s coast, a place where “people feel safe and comfortable.” The seafront at Clifton Beach is one of the city’s most prominent public places, a space where the public can reassert itself in the face of authority, even if in ways that may prove detrimental to themselves: “You will most likely find people flocking to the sea during days of red alert.” The traditional idea of the sea, an open space ready to be inscribed with people’s longings for freedom and fear of the unkown, still prevails in peoples minds. Most interestingly, Naveed delves into a vernacular history that ascribes Karachi’s safety from cyclones to four major Sufi saints who protect the city from disaster. The space where the lawless sea and heavily circumsbribed city meet becomse a common space which residents can truly inhabit, both bodily and narratively.

Shayan Rajani takes a historical approach that pivots on the intersection of politics and image, history (Syed Ahmed Khan, a 19th century North Indian Muslim scholar and reformer) and ‘modernity’ (a hand drawn map of locations where the city’s better off congregate, centred around food and shopping). The most striking – in its near banality and everydayness that will be familiar to anyone who has lived in Karachi – is a page of snapshots of text messages between friends and family describing a bomb blast here, an assassination there. The disruptions these incidents cause are paradoxically a part of daily life in the city.

After travelling through Karachi on historical, religions, and artistic routes, the book ends on a personal note with Roohi Ahmed’s “Homing In”, a series of sepia-coloured maps interspersed with quotations from  Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography. With hand drawn arrows and directions, and quotes formatted to fit shapes on the map, the map brings to the front the improvised, unfinished nature of the city. The quotations, seemingly organically arising from the map, hint at untold stories, ghosts haunting the city: there’s an archaeology here waiting to be uncovered, one begun by the artists the six artists featured here and collected in this fascinating book.

Right to the City: Travel Guide to Karachi
Curated and Edited by
Shahana Rajani. Published by 221A
ISBN: 978-0-9865732-6-2

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