‘The Nine Lives Of Pakistan’: A Profound Description Of The Land Of Uncertainties
It’s a scene full of despair and frustration. Lying in the comfortable bed of a five star hotel and hoping to be reprieved by the farishtay for any lines crossed by a Western journalist is agonizingly painful especially when you know your time is up in the country while mindful of the fact that a few prominent people before you had met the same fate. Declan Walsh knew there was never a second chance if the boys felt they had been rubbed up the wrong way by a foreign correspondent.
Nine Lives is doubly exhilarating considering it’s the account of someone who would ordinarily be classed as an average Irishman feeling at home while sending dispatches from the sleepy and tranquil shores of a European country, and not from a turbulent, exotic and an undecipherable kaleidoscope of colour, heat, sqalour and cultural diversity that is Pakistan with its unique civil/military blend of politics to boot. Having ‘put down his roots’ by investing in a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle, renting a spacious house in the verdant Islamabad and finally adopting a few stray puppies, a deportation looked a millennium away in 2004-5. Like most out of favourite politicians of Pakistan, Walsh is bitter at being discarded just upon the whims of an anonymous, in the shadows intelligence operative(s) without due process of law. He never wanted to leave his second home – much like Christina Lamb who suddenly went out of favour for playing a prank when she had bought a plane ticket to fly out of Quetta in the name of U.B. Laden. Focusing too closely on Quetta was his crime, it seems, as was Lamb’s. Then there was physical violence Robert Fisk and Daniel Pearl had to face, with fatal consequences for the latter.
According to Walsh, although a seemingly abject failure as a state, the Inshallah nation always finds a way to resurrect itself out of the ashes of each and every disaster, mostly self-created and later carefully nurtured – as if to enact the worst Greek tragedy ever if and when required — of which there have been several examples ever since British India was partitioned in 1947.
The most striking aspect of Declan Walsh’s understanding of Pakistan is his recognition of a system that is in place – albeit dysfunctional – a bit like the way Anatol Lieven has described in Pakistan A Hard Country. But unlike Lieven, Walsh is not prepared to offer the country another chance to improve upon the dysfunctional system that Pakistan’s elite seems quite content to live and prosper in. He, on the other hand, is critical and unforgiving of the mistakes made by the all powerful military establishment but, at the same time, is fascinated by the system’s infirmities, paradoxes and, above all, its resilience, to repair itself owing to a built-in mechanism much like the immune system in human body. Apparently no damage is mortal and hence permanent when it comes to Pakistan but even human body breathes its last if subjected to repeated and needless experimentation.
In a nuanced and riveting account of his few years in Pakistan, it is hard to ignore Walsh’s superlative ability of storytelling, a style combined with a rare quality to interweave the cultural attributes of a people into the personalities and notable events under discussion. His punchy description of the tribal Pushtun culture, for instance, set in almost Biblical times (minus vehicles, electronic gadgetry and, above all, the ubiquitous mobile phone) is enough to overawe and enchant the reader especially while describing the nonchalance shown at taking revenge; cold and clinical, to be precise.
In the land of fantastic uncertainties and, indeed, perplexing inconsistencies, his description of the role of religion, militancy and the military is quite accurate and profound. Islam and the military might be reasons the country has not already been wiped of the face of the earth and, quite puzzlingly and paradoxically, it’s the above three which have tended to tear the fabric of unity apart in Pakistan, historically speaking. Like any traveler would, Declan Walsh seems head over heels in love with the land, its cultures, cuisine, the people and, above all, the buoyancy of its people who seem to take its failings into their stride quite gladly and seemingly without any complaints.
His romance with the country is not extinguished by Christopher Hitchens’s uncharitable but not far off the truth description of Pakistan when he famously said, “If Pakistan was a person, he would be humourless, paranoid, insecure, eager to take offence and suffering from self-righteousness, self-pity and self-hatred”. Nor is he deterred by Thomas Friedman’s quote when he complained of cold stares and steely eyes he encountered in the streets of Peshawar.
That Pakistan is a conundrum given the fact that extreme approaches and beliefs jostle for legitimacy within and outside the country, both confident that the other side is wrong has the potential to make any lucidly-written book a page turner. Nine Lives of Pakistan is no exception. Moving effortlessly from Colonel Imam’s (notwithstanding the reason for his brutal end) firm belief in destiny when he talked endearingly of his political progeny, the Taliban and Mr Jinnah’s deliberate ambiguity regarding the political contours of Pakistan is what Declan Walsh rightly points out as the defining feature and, quite bewilderingly, the basic flaw of Pakistan’s ideology.
The battle for Pakistan’s ideology is raging again these days and the democratic forces in an umpteenth attempt at wresting control from a military dominated regime are making considerable gains. If they win in the current season of protests there is a distinct possibility that Declan Walsh would be allowed back to be a witness to history again and be able to chronicle it in his inimitable style. The engine of his vintage Foxy won’t be starting on the first ignition on the cold and frosty Islamabad mornings but he will learn to live with it.
Tariq Bashir is a Lahore based lawyer. Follow him on twitter @Tariq_Bashir