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BOOK REVIEW: Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Author: Fatima Bhutto
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Published in Daily Times / 10 Apr 2010

Google Fatima Bhutto and George Clooney’s name comes up — the Daily Telegraph thinks they are an item; peruse her new book and the journey through the wonderland with its glitz and glamour takes an unexpectedly macabre twist. Her family history is to blame for blighting the sunny landscape. Bhuttos are the ruling elite. Every so often they run for office. This quest leaves a bloody trail and each attempt almost always ends badly. But their political aspirations override self-preservation. The Bhutto family name is as much a liability as an asset, and each generation manages to find itself contributing to a gruesome storyline.

If there is anyone born to write this story, it is Fatima, proclaims William Dalrymple on the cover of her new book Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir. When it comes to invoking pathos, romanticising her father’s life, glorifying his (questionable) legacy or retelling grandpa’s political history, the daughter of Murtaza Bhutto is, no doubt, the perfect candidate. Her unconventional family history of murder, mayhem and political misdemeanours makes for an incendiary tale. Murtaza was gunned down in a ‘police encounter’ during Benazir Bhutto’s regime. He is not the first Bhutto to have met a violent end. The circumstances of these deaths are a matter of record; scandalous details of their lives are public property. And if their continual bid for a stake in power, notwithstanding a host of pending court cases and/or sedition charges, elicits howls of disapproval, they are no longer audible. Little can be heard above the din of the raging insurgency these days.

Fatima Bhutto’s book is a cautionary tale designed to give the more controversial members of the first family a makeover and an aura of respectability. The writer unveils an intimate family portrait by piecing together fragments of her father’s life scattered across continents. She has unearthed a time capsule of valuable memories and ample tender family moments are effectively used to burnish Murtaza Bhutto’s reputation.

This was probably necessitated by the fact that Zulfikar Bhutto’s death prompted his sons to form a resistance movement. Pakistanis know Murtaza as the founder of Al-Zulfikar (AZ), a militant organisation based in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, whose subversive activities against the state included hijacking, heists and dispatching hit men to target key figures in Pakistan. Failed attempts to seize the Pakistani embassy in Athens also made the list. The book admits AZ’s most daring attempt at confronting the regime by trying to blow General Zia’s plane, Pak One, out of the sky, and yet tries to shield the masterminds from taking the rap for the hijacking of a Pakistani airliner that resulted in the death of a young officer (page 237). It refers to nefarious activities against the Pakistani establishment as romantic but misguided efforts (page 243), but other than the hijacking (which Murtaza does not own any more) and attempted murder of General Zia (which he gleefully accepts), it avoids going into details. Accusing the Pakistan Army of doing unspeakable acts of violence in East Pakistan in 1971 and challenging their human rights record in the ongoing Swat operation, however, is given special attention.

It depicts Murtaza as a paragon of virtue who balked at his brother-in-law’s (Benazir’s husband’s) attempt to lure him as an accomplice in bribery yet whose organisation, according to Tariq M Ashraf’s article ‘Terrorism in Pakistan: Emerging Trends’, is said to have ushered in political terrorism in Pakistan. Strewn along the way are constant reminders showcasing Murtaza — the loving father, family man and principled politician. Yet, all the light-hearted moments — and there are plenty — or the brilliance of story telling cannot salvage his reputation.

While people who disagreed with her grandfather’s politics do find a voice within these pages, thereby lending a semblance of objectivity to her work, but nothing, not even Murtaza’s dangerous alliances, distracts her from the original intent of honouring her father’s memory. Her pen indicts her deceased aunt (ex-prime minister) and uncle (current president) for criminal behaviour and minces no words while criticising her aunt’s brief sojourns in government. She compiles a list of names responsible for her father’s murder, holds Benazir morally responsible for one brother’s death, at the same time assuming her guilt in the uncle’s ‘suicide’.

Pakistan seen through Fatima’s eyes is a lawless frontier used to settle old scores and exact vengeance where her feuding family provides most of the action. The portrait born of love stops just short of conferring sainthood on a man who may well have deserved ‘father of the year’ award and who, given his rap sheet, should have been convicted but in a proper courtroom and not dealt with on the streets of Karachi. Fatima admits that her father’s “...choices remarkable and dangerous, honourable and foolish are not mine but I lived them”, and goes on to lament that she has lived with an incomplete picture of a murdered man (page 437). That picture has now been completed with a little help from Harvard Class of 1976 alumni, party loyalists, letters and an old flame. This spruced up image bears little resemblance to the shadowy figure of lore. This time it is Murtaza the magna cum laude from Harvard, heir apparent to the throne who is supposed to capture the public’s imagination, not Murtaza — the fearsome don. One can be forgiven for being a little dazed by this abrupt transformation.


  1. Very well written review. I'm borrowing this to re-post it at Book Reviews with due credits :)

    BookReviews is a forum for all of us who believe that books can change us for the better. You can write about any book that you enjoyed reading and motivate people around you to read it. By this, we can help spread the joyous habit of reading, in our own little way.


  2. Dear Booklover,

    I'm flattered by your interest. I have a weekly gig with Daily Times(newspaper), & feel like a reviewing factory...churning out fresh reviews every Saturday.

    Just checked out your site. Gr8 job bringing book lovers together. Best of luck to you..:)



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