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Reporting the Apocalypse
Karachi, population about 14 million (because of the prevailing anarchy, no census has been taken since 1980), is the port city in southern Pakistan through which most of the country's foreign trade must transit. In March 1995 I met a young employee at a local magazine there who had been assigned the task of combing through back issues of Pakistan's dailies and adding up the deaths by violence reported. Covering Karachi (briefly on the world's front pages at the time, following the deaths of two American diplomats) had become a matter of toting up figures, doing a body count.
Like our world at large, Karachi is a victim of its history; the complexity of its present plight aptly reflects all the past crises and migrations that have contributed to it. One can ask what Karachi would be like today if any of several recent Pakistani governments had been more attentive to its obvious problems; or if the Mohajir Qaumi Movement had thrown up a leader less demagogic and unprincipled than Altaf Hussain; or if refugees from the 1971 Bangladesh war and the long-festering Afghan war had not swollen the city out of all proportion; or above all, if the wrenching Partition of 1947 had never happened. But such questions are excruciatingly rhetorical.
Karachi gets about as much coverage in the Western press as does, say, Liberia, which is in the news as I write. By the time you read this, doubtless the American attention span will be glancing at one or another "new" crisis elsewhere. But that will not mean things have improved or been settled in Liberia. As Robert Kaplan told an interviewer in 1993: "The hard-news media does not cover the world; it covers the foreign extensions of America's domestic obsessions." Liberia, it so happens, comes up very early in The Ends of the Earth. "I tell you, it's a tribal war," a local man says to Kaplan. "There are no ideas, no politics, just tribe." Shades of Bosnia, of course, and of Karachi.
The Ends of the Earth is less a "travel book" than a guided ...