Excerpt: Karachi and the Paralysis of Imagination, by Mahim Maher

Illustration of person casting voting ballot

“Five years ago, the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Just City Lab published The Just City Essays: 26 Visions of Inclusion, Equity and Opportunity. The questions it posed were deceptively simple: What would a just city look like? And what could be the strategies to get there? These questions were posed to mayors, architects, artists, philanthropists, educators and journalists in 22 cities, who told stories of global injustice and their dreams for reparative and restorative justice in the city.

Front cover for "The Just City Essays" volume one which shows a drawing of a cityscape with people walking outsideThese essays were meant as a provocation, a call to action. Now, during these times of dissonance, unrest, and uncertainty, their contents have become ever more important. For the next 26 weeks [starting June 15, 2020], the GSD and the Just City Lab will republish one essay a week here and at We hope they may continue conversations of our shared responsibility for the just city. 

We believe design can repair injustice. We believe design must restore justice, especially that produced by its own hand. We believe in justice for Black Americans. We believe in justice for all marginalized people. We believe in a Just City.”

Toni L. Griffin, Professor in Practice of Urban Planning, founder of the Just City Lab, and editor of The Just City Essays

Karachi and the Paralysis of Imagination

By Mahim Maher

You want to read about a vision of a just Karachi? The contract killer ($50 a hit) ripping up the road behind Disco Bakery on his Honda 200CC and the secret service colonel cracking skulls in a Clifton safehouse will both cite one vision: Dubai. This happens to also be the vision of the one-armed Afghan refugee selling Beijing socks off a cart in Saddar bazaar and the unsexed Karachi Port Trust shipping agent waiting for shady clients to cough up cash so he can escape to Phuket. To borrow from an old Urdu election rallying cry: Chalo, chalo, Dubai, chalo. Come, come, let’s go to Dubai.

Vision presupposes the ability to see what is in front of you, and based on the understanding this seeing yields, you can plan with some measure of wisdom to create what you do not want to see in the future. And so, it is noble to ask what could be a vision of a just Karachi—except that this is an unfair assignment given that this city completely confounds the senses. Just when you think you have some idea of what Karachi is, the landscape will chimerically shift. It is small wonder that the people who live here are forever trying to explain Karachi to themselves and to each other, to define it and even try to form some vision of what it should be. But the city is elusive. In our desperate attempts to exercise some control over this kind of existence, we tend to do two things in reaction: look outwards or backwards.

Those who look outwards have fixated on Dubai, a long-time employment destination for the Pakistani laborer who idealizes it as a city where the streets are paved with gold. Given that Dubai is a 90-minute flight away, the elite and upwardly mobile middle classes of Karachi exalt it as an escape from Karachi’s filth and madness. Dubai fits their vision of a shiny, clean, crime-free metropolis where you can exhaust yourself in air-conditioned malls with their Nine West stores, JC Pennys and Starbucks. Dubai assuages our near-Catholic sense of Islamic guilt of enjoying things too Western; not only is the city Arab but if it is kosher for the sheikhs to order hickory barbecue (chicken) bacon cheeseburgers at the Hard Rock Café, so can a Muslim from Karachi without going to hell in a breadbasket. Stories of Dubai’s real estate bust or the effects of its sterile soullessness and hidden human rights violations don’t figure much in conversations in Karachi.

So, one vision of Karachi is to become a Dubai. Sadly, this is the vision of policymakers in Karachi and the powers that be in our federal capital of Islamabad, who hold the purse strings to our infrastructure development. You can see this vision manifest on our streets in the 44 pro-car and anti-pedestrian overpasses, the new malls, the gated communities. We look outwards when we want to envision Karachi. We would rather mimic instead of indigenously assessing what Karachi is and what its people—rich or poor—need. Continue reading on…