Samira Shackle | 'I enjoyed writing in a more descriptive way than you would in journalism'

Samira Shackle | 'I enjoyed writing in a more descriptive way than you would in journalism'

Pakistan, and particularly her mother's home city of Karachi, have long held a fascination for British journalist Samira Shackle. In fact, in 2012 she quit her job at the New Statesman and for a year became a Karachiite. Shackle says: “I had an urge to reconnect with this heritage—this was partly personal, and partly because I was working as journalist and wanted to know more about Pakistan.”

She has continued to visit the city since moving back to the UK, where today she is the editor of New Humanist and a regular contributor to a number of outlets, including the Guardian and Al-Jazeera, reporting on a range of subjects but focusing global politics, terrorism, inequality and gender issues. It seems almost inevitable that Shackle’s first book, Karachi Vice, would delve deep into the corruption and contradictions of Pakistan’s largest city—a beautiful sprawling metropolis of close to 20 million people, but riven by historical and ethnic tensions, where incredible wealth sits next to abject poverty, and the threat of deadly violence can feel ever present.

The kernel of the idea for Karachi Vice and its structure—exploring the city through the lives of a handful of Karachiites as they experience a huge wave of urban violence—developed out of Shackle’s journalism. She says: “In 2015, I pitched a story to the Guardian about Karachi’s crime reporters. In the process of looking into that story, I met Zille.” Zille hails from Landhi, the eastern district of the city, working for Geo, one of the television channels launched in the early 2000s by private media companies as censorship laws loosened. His work is incredibly dangerous and high-risk, with frequent forays into the “no-go” zones in Karachi—such as Lyari, Kiamari and Orangi—to hunt down exclusives.

A year after meeting Zille, Shackle came across Safdar, an ambulance driver also based in Landhi. But unlike the more middle-class Zille, Landhi grew up in a predominantly poor Pashtun neighbourhood. Safdar works for the Edhi Foundation, the world’s largest volunteer ambulance network, set up in 1951 to provide a quicker, more easily accessible service than other state aid organisations. Safdar’s brother Adil was diagnosed with polio at a young age, and his family relied on the Edhi ambulance service for his brother’s care. Safdar was transfixed with the ambulance drivers after witnessing their efforts to save people after a bomb blast in the city, and soon after started working as an Edhi driver.

The other main narratives centre around Parveen, an activist and teacher who strives to make education accessible for everyone; Siraj, director of an architecture practice which works on many infrastructure projects, from improving sewage systems and increasing accessibility to clean water; and Jannat, the first girl to finish school in her village on the outskirts of Karachi.

Though the people in the book represent a diverse spread, there is a thread in that all are perhaps on what you might call “the frontlines” in improving Karachi—and doing so at considerable risk—such as Parveen facing down militias and street gangs in her activism, or Jannat using her education to combat powerful and corrupt land developers. Although all the people in the narratives “experienced the same dramatic events in the city”, and some attended the same scenes of certain major terror attacks, none of them knew each other. Shackle was intrigued with their different perceptions and personalities. She says: “It was after several years of reporting on the stories of people who were at once very ordinary and astonishingly brave that I thought I would like to write a book, to try and portray the place and the people within it as best I could.”

A natural path
That Shackle landed in journalism and books seems almost preordained. She grew up in a mixed English and Pakistani house in London, the daughter of academic and writer parents, and always wanted to be a writer. As a child, Shackle “used to fold bits of paper in half and scribble on them, and then tell my parents I’d written a book”.

She began working in journalism after a degree at Oxford University, with a particular speciality on overseas work: Pakistan, of course, but she has also reported from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Kenya and Nigeria. In 2018, the manuscript for Karachi Vice was the winner of the inaugural Portobello Prize, set up by Granta to find unpublished literary non-fiction voices, with Shackle getting a book deal and representation from C+W’s Sophie Lambert. Shackle was able to concentrate on completing the book with a six-month fellowship at MacDowell, the legendary New Hampshire-based American artists’ residency programme whose many famous fellows over the years include James Baldwin, Willa Cather, Jeffrey Eugenides and Alice Sebold.

One of the things Shackle points out in Karachi Vice is that history as much as recent geopolitics plays a part in its current tensions. As Pakistan formed out of the Partition of India in 1947, huge numbers of Muslims took refuge in Karachi and became known as the Mohajirs, a migration that caused tension with the native Sindhis. Later, another wave of migrants followed into Karachi from Afghanistan, known as the Pashtuns.

Shackle’s coverage of conflict-ridden parts of Karachi paints a rather bleak picture, one in which danger and death are ever present. Although Shackle was never directly in harm’s way, she describes one incident in the book when members of the MQM, the political party which represents the Mohajir community, drove past Shackle firing into the air to indicate they were shutting the city down. Shackle recalls that it was “terrifying”. She said: “I took extra security measures, such as changing hotels, changing vehicles, and varying my timings. This is to safeguard against the threat of kidnap. It’s nerve-wracking to feel the risk so acutely.”

The impact of the violence on those interviewed presented some difficulties: “Trauma has a strange effect on memory; sometimes people would describe an incident from their past to me in great detail, but if I returned to the subject in a later interview, they would end up giving a really different account.” In order to overcome this, Shackle fact-checked people’s stories, checking whether dates and times matched up with the contemporaneous news reports, and verified their accounts through their friends and family. 

But she did have a lot of material, and grappled with which stories to keep: “Inevitably, you can’t include everything you gather. You have to select and shape the material into a narrative, which can feel ethically complex when you are working with someone else’s experiences and memories.”

Shackle would like to write another book soon. She says: “I enjoyed writing in a more descriptive way than you would in a work of journalism, even long-form journalism, and using some devices of fiction—description, metaphor, and so on. I would like to write another book soon, but I would need to find a subject I cared just as deeply about as this.”

Book extract 
In the autumn of 2012, while Safdar was wading through the wreckage of the Baldia Town fire, I was adjusting to life in Karachi. Earlier that year, I had quit my job at a London-based politics magazine and flown halfway across the world to make a go at freelance journalism. I was insulated from the worst of the violence and infrastructure issues because I was living with relatives who could afford a private supply of electricity and water. The TV news channels were always switched on in the house. The scenes of violence they played all day sometimes seemed like they could be from another world. Everything was escalating – the gang war, the fighting between political parties and ethnic groups, the terror threat. People were desensitized; an attack that killed just two or three people barely seemed significant. Long-term residents were used to changing plans because of street violence, avoiding going out on Fridays when the risk of attack was higher and having no phone signal on religious holidays—a government measure to reduce the chances of a bomb being detonated using a mobile phone.