The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches From a Precarious State. By Declan Walsh.Norton. 337 pp. $30
In December 2007, a 15-year-old Taliban suicide bomber assassinated former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi as she drove away from a campaign rally. Her murder and the ensuing political chaos sent shock waves through Washington corridors. It was a clear indication that nuclear-armed Pakistan was in free fall despite the U.S. alliance with President Pervez Musharraf.
That fall I had begun my journalism career as a reporting fellow at NPR’s headquarters in D.C. On the day of Bhutto’s assassination, as Pakistani cities exploded into chaos, I was asked to help work the phone lines to the country of my birth. A few days later, I was on a plane to Islamabad to contribute to aftermath coverage for a short stint. I may have known the language and culture as a Pakistani American, but for invaluable research on the current situation, I carried clippings from Irish journalist Declan Walsh, then writing for the Guardian as its regional correspondent.
It is strange to revisit that time now given that Pakistan, once at the center of the “war on terror,” has largely receded from international headlines and certainly from my own journalism career. In his book “The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches From a Precarious State,” Walsh returns the focus to the troubled Islamic republic and delves into his reporter’s notebook to explore Pakistan in the years after 9/11. Walsh first covered the country for the Guardian and later for the New York Times, reporting on what he describes as its “multi-ringed circus of violence.” He was there for every major story, including the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound and the endless wars along the country’s frontiers. Now the Times’ chief Africa correspondent, Walsh contributed dispatches that pulsated with urgency and empathy. In a few words, he could distill layers of history and culture into vivid brushstrokes of narrative. But as his writing became essential reading for both international and Pakistani readers, it earned the wrath of the country’s security establishment, which revoked his credentials and expelled him in 2013. It is on the eve of that expulsion that “Nine Lives” begins, as Walsh reflects on a country he spent a decade trying to untangle.
The late British essayist Christopher Hitchens once described Pakistan as a “humorless, paranoid, insecure” nation. Salman Rushdie has called it “insufficiently imagined.” But Walsh writes that once he settled in there, “a more complex and interesting country came into view, softer around the edges than its dour image suggested, where people love to let their hair down.” Walsh is an engaging guide, reminding us that “Pak is Urdu for ‘clean,’ so Pakistan translates literally as ‘Land of the Pure.’ ” But he discovers that life there is not always as pure as the phrase implies.He finds a country of contradictions, a deeply conservative society where foamy home-brew flows freely, as does Scotch at stylish soirees where cocaine-snorting “women in slinky dresses weaved between the tables as inebriated men traded sloppy punches on the dance floors.” Doors open endlessly for Walsh, as Pakistan’s drawing-room elite and its politically connected offer him meals accompanied with spicy analysis and powerful introductions. “The key to meeting the right people was sifarish, an intercession from a well-connected friend. Sifarish was a kind of magic carpet in Pakistan. With the right push, it could take you to just about anywhere – to distant tribal forts, to army bases in Waziristan and to hidden corners of the cities.”
As a Pakistani reader, I found that some of the book’s cultural generalizations and summations tended toward exotica cliche, but the country’s contradictions have always ignited writers’ imaginations, and Walsh has an impeccable eye for detail. In a section on visiting the war-torn frontier provinces, he writes: “My first glimpse of Waziristan came through the pothole-shaped window of a clattering Pakistan army helicopter. Below, a breathtaking vista stretched in every direction. Castellated houses clung to vertiginous slopes. A jeep scrambled, insectlike, across a desiccated riverbed. Giant shafts of sunlight pierced the clouds.”
Walsh’s expulsion by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies illuminates what is arguably the most important fault line in Pakistan: the divide between its military establishment and fledgling civilian leadership, largely drawn from a dynastic feudal class. “If maps evoked Pakistan’s external insecurities, its most sensitive borders lay inside the country, which was riven by ethnic, tribal and sectarian fault lines, a place of head-spinning contradictions.” The political infighting has produced a violently divisive public sphere that persists to this day. “More concept than country, Pakistan strained under the centrifugal forces of history, identity and faith. Could it hold?” Walsh asks. Based on his own unceremonious exit, he arrives at the conclusion that regardless of democratic forces, “it seemed to boil down to one hard truth: the military always wins.”
“Nine Lives” is an unquestionably illuminating and engaging book, but arriving in 2020, its insights feel dated, given the dramatic shifts in South Asia since Walsh reported from the region. While his 2013 expulsion may have affirmed the military establishment’s paranoia, Pakistan has surged into a new semi-democratic era with the 2018 election of former cricketer Imran Khan and his populist promises of a “new Pakistan.” The military’s campaign to rout the Pakistani Taliban – a Frankenstein’s monster of its own making – has succeeded in eliminating the attacks that had once turned the country’s cities into killing fields. As Walsh acknowledges, “In 2013, Pakistan had forty-six suicide attacks and 2,400 deaths from militant attacks; in 2019, there were four suicide attacks and 350 deaths.”
The Khan government is also orchestrating the current U.S.-facilitated peace talks to finally end the war in Afghanistan. And perhaps the most important development that only receives cursory attention is the unraveling relationship with neighboring India. While Walsh waxes philosophical about the ideological grounds for a separate homeland for India’s Muslims that led to the creation of Pakistan in 1947, he departed the region before the rise of what is arguably the single greatest political force in South Asia today: the ardent Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi in India. The well-documented marginalization of India’s Muslim community and its deep enmity with Pakistan have further emboldened the Islamic republic’s military hard-liners.
In postcolonial societies like Pakistan, the credentialed Western foreign correspondent (largely White) cuts a powerful figure – that journalist is granted access to gatekeepers and the narrative privilege to be read as an impartial observer with a bird’s-eye view. In that regard, “The Nine Lives of Pakistan” feels like a throwback to a waning era of the authoritative journalistic account of an exotic elsewhere. This is not only because of crumbling international norms of journalistic access, as Walsh experienced, or shrinking foreign bureaus, but also because of the decentralizing and anti-establishment mood of the socially networked age. In an increasingly globalized media landscape, American readers could benefit from supplementing Walsh’s dispatches with local voices and more diverse sources. One of the blurbed reviewers on the book’s cover describes it as the single book one needs to read to understand Pakistan. It certainly succeeds as an elegantly crafted memoir of a gifted journalist, but in a shift from my own younger admiration for the grizzled foreign correspondent, I’d hesitate to call it a definitive account of a country very much still in motion.
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Qureshi is a culture writer and radio journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times and Newsweek, and on NPR.