There are a number of common ways to structure books that tell the story of one particular country. An author might choose to do so geographically, moving from region to region, or chronologically. Journalist Declan Walsh has taken a more unusual route by loosely focusing each chapter of his book about Pakistan on one of the country’s key figures, from the most famous: founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto; to the less well-known businessmen, human rights leaders, warlords and religious figures who have nevertheless played a huge part in shaping the country. In doing so he tells, in a particularly character-driven way, the story of an undeniably fractious, corrupt and sometimes brutal land, a place that has never been able to live up to the promises of its creation. ‘In my darker moments it seemed that the only thing holding it all together was blind faith. “Insha Allah it will happen,” people said, all the time,’ writes Walsh. If God wills it.
As a journalist for the Guardian and The New York Times, Walsh covered Pakistan for more than a decade until he was expelled by the authorities in 2013 for ‘undesirable activities’. (The book starts and ends with this expulsion, leaving the reader guessing in the way of a good thriller). The Nine Lives of Pakistan therefore focuses most on the period during which Walsh was present in the country, although it also dips into history and briefly touches on events since that time.
I have come to hugely enjoy books written by foreign correspondents. Journalists tell good stories and they make good guides, determined as they are to worm their way into the centre of the action and unafraid to ask some of the more tender questions. Walsh is no different. In chapter two he witnesses the 2007 siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad – a deadly confrontation between a group of jihadis and the government of Pakistan, during which Walsh watched the military pummel the mosque with rockets and bullets from a nearby Holiday Inn. The event actually marked the end of that particular story as far as Walsh was concerned. He had already become well acquainted with the jihadi leader at the centre of the incident – the cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi – sharing tea with him just four months before the siege. ‘Jihadi puffery aside – I rather liked Ghazi,’ writes Walsh – a rather brave admission, given the circumstances.
Ghazi is not the only controversial figure Walsh got to know well. He recalls time spent with Anwar Kamal Khan, the Pashtun politician known for his flamboyant nature and his fight against the Taliban. He travelled with Khan to Lakki Marwat, an impoverished district within the somewhat lawless land to the northwest of Pakistan known as the ‘frontier’. Walsh watched Khan – a chieftain of one of the Marwat tribes – settle blood disputes and mete out a dubious form of justice (it could cost a family US$1,000 to settle a murder dispute. The alternative would be to give a daughter in marriage to an opponent).
Walsh also spent time with veteran spy Colonel Imman, later killed by the Taliban; the spectacularly brave and outspoken human rights leader Asma Jhangir; and, in Balochistan – Pakistan’s largest but most sparsely populated region – the poetry-loving tribal leader Akbar Bugti, a man determinedly holding on to the Baloch insurgency, which has existed in some form or other ever since the country was founded. While some journalists who make the leap from newspapers to books maintain the objective distance they have been trained to treasure, Walsh shares his opinion of those he meets, making this a more intimate portrait of both the author and the famous figures in question.
Of course, it was all this poking around that finally did for Walsh – by 2013 the government could no longer tolerate his presence in the country. It’s a great shame, because Walsh’s account of Pakistan is particularly engaging and far-reaching. On finishing the book, I was desperate to know the rest of the story and see it brought up to date. Many, if not most of the people Walsh got to know so well are now dead – this is largely the story of people long gone.
Nevertheless, the legacy of Walsh’s nine lives lives on. He was present in Pakistan at a particularly formative time, one that saw the rise of militant Islam and the growth of the Pakistan Taliban. It was a decade that sowed the seeds for many of the problems still faced by the country. As a means to understanding those problems, The Nine Lives of Pakistan is a fascinating guide.