Writing and rewriting Pakistan

Fatima BhuttoSongs of Blood and Sword (Nation Books, New York, 2010; 496 pages; $26.95)

Imtiaz Gul, The Most Dangerous Place (Viking, New York, 2010; 320 pages; $26.95)

Ed. John Freeman, Granta 112: Pakistan (Grove/Atlantic, New York, 2010; 256 pages; $16.99)

Iftikhar Malik, Pakistan: democracy, terrorism, and the building of a nation (Olive Branch, New York, 2010, 216 pages; $18.00)

One is constantly caught in a double-bind when one tries to write about Pakistan.  On the one hand, the most important problem confronting Pakistan today is easily American empire.  All of the attendant crises that have befallen Pakistan since its creation have been the result of it being a frontline state in the ever-protracted Great Game (militant Islam, a lop-sided economy with a parasitical defense budget, dysfunctional democracies, etc.) in both its Cold War and Global War on Terror phases.  But centering your critique on this problem ends up sounding like an apology for the social and political rot that is taking place in Pakistan.

On the other hand, critiquing the Pakistani establishment has become something of an easy hobby in the west and in Pakistan.  The media, always under attack during military rule, has never been an ally of the establishment, and 63 years of corrupt “democrats” and even more corrupt dictators have meant that it has trained everyone in Pakistan how to be simultaneously disenchanted with the powerful and frustrated with their own ability to produce change inside of Pakistan.  In the west, this takes the form of the most cynical critique of the putatively failed Pakistani state (with mullahs always on the verge of going nuclear), while in Pakistan, civil society vacillates between a defense of the ballot and the barracks (sometimes as a defense against the failing economy and sometimes as a defense against militant forms of Islam).  In any case, there is no way of expressing Pakistani frustrations without it seeming like understatement.

This double-bind is not merely one of calibrating a precise analysis of the Pakistani and American ruling classes simultaneously, but also of falling into cliché, or more precisely, of being unable to distinguish the incisive, the critical and the meaningful from the tired phraseology of middle-class dissatisfactions.  Every member of Pakistan’s middle class can at one point or another be unhappy about the situation in Pakistan – with the Americans, with Islamists, with Zardari, with the military, with the rich – but this never seems to transform itself into anything other than an already felt and generalized malaise, especially when it comes in English, especially when it comes from the intelligentsia in Pakistan.  The most decisive moment of this class was the defense of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in the heroic Lawyer’s Movement in 2009; this class’s inability to parlay that fight into a longer, more protracted confrontation (settling instead for a still deferred reorganization of the state) has also been decisive.

As a result, Pakistan is now synonymous with militant Islam, corruption, and violence.  Consider the following, probably penned by Daniyal Mueenuddin (but unattributed on the website hosted by Granta and elegantly titled “How to write about Pakistan”), about the perverse ways that Pakistan is rendered in the West:  “Anyway, the point is that people from all over the world have come to know and love brand Pakistan for its ability to scare the shit out of them. Whatever you write, please respect this legacy. We’re providing a service here. We’re a twenty-storey straight-down vertical-dropping roller coaster for the mind. Yes, love etcetera is permissible. But bear in mind that Pakistan is a market-leader. The Most Dangerous Place in the World™.”

This is all the more interesting and believable, perhaps even sympathetic, as an explanation for the problem of the Pakistani writer considering that it also happens to be the title of Imtiaz Gul’s handwringingly obtuse book on Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.  (One of the main features of most policy writing on Pakistan is how much of it is absolutely redundant, recycling as it does the most rudimentary facts and events of Pakistani history).  But consider what Mueenuddin (perhaps) is actually saying: that stereotype dwarfs any real understanding of the human (“love etcetera”) and by doing so fuels itself as marketable commodity (already two ideological hallmarks – aversion to stereotype and a distaste for while pleasurably consuming commodities – that define the mental landscape of every petit bourgeois irrespective of national origin).  This is the banal masquerading as the radical.  Incidentally, Mueenuddin’s own book, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, has no problem mobilizing the same brand (even as its depictions of Pakistan are hauntingly beautiful).

The point, here, is not to critique the Pakistani writer for failing to topple the Twin Towers of American imperium and the Pakistani state but rather to show how part of the persistent malaise of the Pakistani petit bourgeoisie stems from its consistent inability to see the failures of its own putative radicalism; in another context, we might consider the Pakistani penchant for the conspiracy theory as part of this problem.  The features of this cliché: a deeply felt anxiety about the long shadow of Zia (military-led political Islam) and Zulfikar (Pakistani populism) which is mapped on top of the national nostalgia for Jinnah and Iqbal; a critique of American meddling in Pakistani politics and economics alongside a deep desire for western patterns of governance in opposition to the naked graft and ethnic chauvinism of Pakistani politics; a hatred for the rich coupled with a deep immersion in conspicuous consumption; a view of the military as simultaneously predatory and salutary (against corruption and Islam); a critique of Islam; a baseline feminist politics that also masquerades as sexploitation; a perpetual chafing at every instance of Indian arrogance.  The best summary of these views and the Pakistani petit bourgeoisie is Iftikhar Malik’s Pakistan: Democracy, Terrorism and the Building of a Nation, an incredibly useful survey of the most important social and political moments in Pakistan’s modern history.

But there is a sleight of hand at work in the writing about Pakistan which has all the trappings of radicalism (a critique of the state, the rhetoric of anti-imperialism, a sense of the brutality of the rich and the powerful) but none of the content of it.  It is a vein that runs throughout much of the prose about Pakistan: literary, journalistic, policy.  And it has the distorting effect of leaving one with the impression that Pakistan is not on the verge of a Muslim takeover (thankfully) but of a socialist one (fancifully).

The clearest example of this is in Fatima Bhutto’s reminiscences of her father, the late Murtaza Ali Bhutto (the son of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the apparent heir to the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party), in Songs of Blood and Sword.  Penned as a daughter’s attempt to understand the life of her father who was taken from her too soon, the book also doubles as a damning indictment of the legacy of Benazir Bhutto, the recently murdered former Prime Minister.  In it, Fatima Bhutto both lovingly recreates the radical history of her family while exposing the internecine family warfare that led to Benazir’s (and then later Asif Ali Zardari’s) position at the head of the PPP.  The consequences of her critique of the venality (she calls it a “saprophytic culture”) of the current leadership of Pakistan is an overwrought nostalgia for the days of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, himself no friend to national minorities and no consistent opponent of landed and moneyed interests in Pakistan.

The debate over Granta 112, the anthology of new Pakistani writing, is also in many ways colored by the varieties of clichés-as-critique mobilized by the west and by Pakistanis: is the “discovery” of Pakistani writing, necessarily in English, proof of the arrival of Pakistan?  Does Pakistani writing in English always displace and erase its own “vernacular” origins in order to become an arriviste literature?  When one encounters “At night my lost memory of you returned” in a novella by Nadeem Aslam does (or even can) one immediately recall Faiz’s famous line –

رات یوں دل میں تیری کھوئی ہوئی یاد آئی

—or is one seduced into believing that the project for the revolutionary overthrow of the Pakistani state never had a lyric voice?  Is writing about violence pandering to Orientalist markets or delving into the soul of Pakistan?

None of this is meant to argue that the writing is not breathtakingly lovely, even at some points seductive or that one does not learn something of the circular logic of the Pakistani middle-class, frustrated, impotent, and angry.  Unlike a previous generation of writers who more deeply connected to and dependent on the kinds of mass agitations that forced Pakistan’s rulers to deploy the military in the first place, this generation of writing lives in the wake of those heroes, anxiously preserving their legacies.  And for this, at least, this body of writing is tremendously important as a reminder of the fate of a Pakistan caught in the crosshairs and bled dry by its own representatives.  But the radical nature of the critique has been evacuated (even as it can be discovered in the unreported fight of Telecommunications workers against privatization, of secularists organizing flood relief, of women combating the Hudood Ordinance) and one gets the impression that one is not really discovering Pakistan as hoping alongside its beleaguered ambassadors for something different.

There are radical movements underway inside of Pakistan but they have not yet found expression in the voices of the writers who have found audiences in the west; instead one is left with the odd feeling that everything must change and that one has heard it all before.  As Sarfraz Mansoor says about the cautionary narratives told to young Pakistani men about dating white women: “The location of the stories could vary but the narrative was suspiciously similar in every tale.”