Although Karachi lost its crown as Pakistan’s capital to upstart Islamabad and the country’s cultural elite look towards Lahore, Karachi is the undisputed heart of the nation’s economy. A true world mega-city, greater Karachi is spread over an ever-expanding 3500 sq km, perpetually sucking in workers from across the country. If you want to make it anywhere, the saying goes, you have to head for Karachi.
As a result, Karachi is one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan cities in Pakistan, with ethnic Sindhis matched by large numbers of Punjabis, Pashtuns and other nationalities. After Partition, Karachi received significant numbers of Mohajirs, who have since become the key players in Karachi politics under the MQM party that dominates the city. Karachi also has significant Christian and Hindu communities, and is a centre for Zoroastrianism.
This diverse mix doesn’t always rub along well, and has given Karachi an unenviable reputation for civil unrest and communal violence. The 1980s and ’90s were punctuated by regular outbreaks of rioting, and although these are now largely a thing of the past, real tensions still exist. The shadow of 9/11 has also fallen on Karachi, with attacks on Western targets and minority Shiites from Al-Qaeda–inspired extremists.
Few travellers choose to visit Karachi these days, and the insane traffic and frequent power cuts from an overstretched infrastructure can make any stay a challenge, particularly in the stifling heat of summer. But there’s a definite buzz here, and a few days in Karachi can tell you more about life in modern Pakistan than any number of historic mosques or mountain treks.