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Division and misrule

‘The 20th century was not kind to Pakistan’, Tariq Ali says in the first sentence of his latest book on his native land.

29 December 2008

12:00 AM

29 December 2008

12:00 AM

The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power Tariq Ali

Simon & Schuster, pp.304, 17.99

‘The 20th century was not kind to Pakistan’, Tariq Ali says in the first sentence of his latest book on his native land.

‘The 20th century was not kind to Pakistan’, Tariq Ali says in the first sentence of his latest book on his native land. The glib opener is a taste of what’s to come. It is both annoying and accurate. The 20th century created Pakistan, after all, and — apart from eight most difficult years since the turn of the millennium — the country has known no other. But Pakistan’s first 50 years certainly were troubled and the knowledge that the emergent nation was badly treated (over the division of assets with its neighbour in 1947 and India’s grabbing of Kashmir) and has been unlucky (with the death of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the country’s founder in September 1948 and the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951) is deep in the nation’s psyche.

The Duel that Tariq Ali talks about is ‘between a US backed politico-military elite and the citizens of the country’. Pakistan’s crucial conflict, he says, is not the struggle against militant extremism that preoccupies Western observers. In his view the real divide is ‘between the majority of the people and their corrupt, uncaring rulers’. Complicity between the country’s elites — civilian and military — and Washington has consistently distanced them from the masses.

Ali believes that Pakistan’s current difficulties are ‘a direct result of doing Washington’s bidding in past decades’ and walks us through the country’s short history to demonstrate how America has backed the military and the feudal political families .

It is a chronicle of unremitting venality, incompetence and opportunism. In this, Ali is even-handed. He despises everybody and no one emerges heroically from his telling; the revered Mr Jinnah, the Quaid-i-Azam himself, is derided.

Even doctors of the Catholic church do not escape Tariq Ali’s contumely. The great St Teresa is (bizarrely) brought in to the brew, in passing, in the context of what the author describes as the ‘hallucinatory impact’ of faith. The author appears to be dogmatically anti-religion, prepared to be sympathetic to belief only when it whittles away at a greater faith (so the arguably heretical Ahmediyyas get a much better hearing than mainstream Islam).

Tariq Ali’s universal cynicism might have been oppressive, but in fact his narrative is funny and gossipy, the high points being his own encounters with key players, including Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir and Indira Gandhi. He believes that the country’s satirists, writers and poets serve as Pakistan’s collective conscience and uses writers and poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi, Habib Jalib and Ustad Daman to provide the moral compass for his wanderings.

Political turbulence has revived interest in stories from an earlier period of Muslim in the region, Ali says. He relates a 16th-century story that — with some modifications — sums up life in today’s Pakistan with painful accuracy. A man is seriously dissatisfied with a junior magistrate’s decision. The latter, irritated, taunts him to appeal to a senior judge.The man replies, ‘But he’s your brother, he won’t listen to me’. The magistrate says, ‘Go to the mufti’. The man replies, ‘But he’s your uncle’. The magistrate says, ‘Go to the minister’. The man replies, ‘He’s your grandfather’. The magistrate says, ‘Go to the King’. The man replies, ‘Your niece is engaged to him’. The magistrate, livid with anger, says, ‘Go to Hell then’. The man replies, ‘That’s where your esteemed father reigns. He’ll see to it that I get no satisfaction there.’

The government, the political parties, the civil service, the mullahs and the army all have reason to be angry with Tariq Ali and The Duel will outrage as many in Washington as in Islamabad. But Americans should read it for its explanation of why so many in Pakistan hate the US, blaming it for the dire situation in which they now find themselves.

In fact this sprightly romp should be read by anyone who wants real insights into Pakistan. It is as good a primer on Pakistani politics as you will find, with the caveats that it is not the whole story, it is not always accurate and Ali’s prejudices are his own.

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