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BOOK REVIEW: Playing with fire: Pakistan at War with Itself / By Pamela Constable

Published in Daily Times / Monday, September 05, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal


So this is where your people retreat from fundamentalist kind?”

It was not, but to the nice American perhaps that golf course appeared like a sanctuary in a land riven by violence. While it is true that every day something new drives a stake in this illusion of security, that day — at least — there was not a single fundamentalist in sight.

Today, such private islands are under threat alongside everything else. Pamela Constable, foreign correspondent and former deputy foreign editor at The Washington Post, puts the nation under intense scrutiny, identifying the war for Pakistan’s soul “with one set pulling it forwards towards a modern international era, the other back toward a traditional and ingrown world”.

Her new book knits disparate elements of Pakistani society extracted from various testimonies into a grotesque tapestry littered with bloodcurdling tales of injustice and violence. Segments from crisply titled chapters — Hate, Khaki; Talibanisation; Honour; Siege — read like a dystopian novel where a society is slowly being unravelled by its own prejudices and “where no cause (is) too noble to subvert, no beneficiary too humble to cheat and no martyr too scared to exploit”.

A smorgasbord of issues like social injustice, intolerance, corruption, and class warfare are served up with relish. Some, like terrorism, are given ample coverage in the media. Others that touch upon the inherent bigotry or gender politics get sidelined by security issues. Here she moves from stately corridors of power to the saintly looking houses of worship — already fractured before the Taliban made an appearance; where people are shown to be complicit, squandering away their hard won freedom in a hundred different ways — collectively caught in the crossfire.

This rendition generates a mix of fear and loathing — with some pity thrown in for the common man caught in a vice. The upper crust, which cannot carry out a polite conversation for more than a few minutes “without the host/hostess interrupting to order about some servant or the other to do tasks they are perfectly capable of performing themselves” invoke her contempt. Her point is that “these requests, no matter how politely framed, no matter how genteel the patron, reinforces the gulf of class and place that has long kept Pakistani society stagnant and stratified instead of allowing it to become dynamic, creative and diversified”. She adds a chorus of voices to her own like Roedad Khan’s who believe that a major obstacle to democracy “is not the anger, frustration and religious activism of the poor but the passivity, silence and cynicism of the elite”.

About the diversity she fixates on the contrasts between the women from different backgrounds that in her opinion “are so stark that women of Pakistan truly might as well be living in several different nations and centuries”. About the bosses she speaks of Washington and Rawalpindi (home of the army) in the same sentence, while Islamabad (the Presidency) recedes into the background.

Then there are the Taliban whose behaviour, according to her, is not that far out of line. Why? Because Pakistanis are accustomed to living with a brutal police culture, “a domestic spy apparatus that used slander, lies and espionage techniques as political weapons, topped with a ‘tradition of tribal codes that mandated harsh punishments for moral offences”. This argument is repeated ad nauseam. “There is very little liturgical space between the demands of the Taliban and calls by other conservative Sunni groups for a total Islamic state,” she adds. Citing a poll that shows 80 percent of the population in favour of harsh punishments drives the point further home. Yet, many would argue that were this true then the outrage at the infamous Swat video would not have sent the army to liberate Swat; or kept religious parties at bay (so far).

But at the same time it is hard to deny the disturbing trends where “an accusation of blasphemy — however vague and unsubstantiated — has the power to sweep away reason and objectivity even among officials charged with enforcing law and administering justice” or the closet Taliban mindset that allows the real deal to thrive. Or the fact that the sole noble laureate Abdul Salam, an Ahmedi, is seldom mentioned and whose achievements she insists “were an embarrassment and a glitch in the official narrative that Ahmedis are enemies of Islam — infidels to be avoided, mistrusted and despised”.

There are minor corrections — August 14 is Pakistan’s Independence Day and not its Defence Day. True, Karachi is home to a “volatile mix of criminals, business mafias, political shock troops, Islamic sects, militant factions and warring ethnic enclaves” but to state that Afghan migrants fleeing invading Soviets built the city is a stretch. The sole comfort in this miserable scenario — the writer does not think Pakistan is a failed state;: fake yes; failed no — agreeing with Roedad Khan’s assessment that it is “one that has means, opportunity but no moral values/political will to use them”.

For her the single greatest political achievement in this nation’s entire 64-year existence will be “ensuring that an unpopular corrupt and indifferent leader stayed in office for his full term”. For Pakistan’s sake, one hopes she is wrong. The book sums up 64 years of mistakes, misdemeanours and masquerades and delivers it with merciless precision. The one person who comes out with his dignity intact is Edhi — a man who she says “has always perched from an unassailable perch on the lowest rung of the ladder; who “runs far more than an ambulance service”. In her words, “It was a philosophy of life.” Fortunately, there are many such voices of reason. They just tend to get lost in this din.


Random House; Pp 352; Rs 1,495

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