the nine lives of pakistan

Written by Aamina Binte Khurram 11:47 am

The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State (Book Review)

In “The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State,” Declan Walsh unravels his findings and life in Pakistan. He explores a nation that is full of turbulence and divide, and yet so resilient.
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Ms Aamina Binte Khurram is pursuing a Bachelor's in Software Engineering from NUST.

A Resilient Nation

In his book, “The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State,” Declan Walsh attempts to trace back his nine years in Pakistan to discover what it was that led to his expulsion; in the process presenting a historical, political, and sociological analysis of post 9/11 Pakistan.

Declan Walsh is an Irish author and journalist, having worked in many papers of repute, including The Independent, The Guardian, and the New York Times. He served as The Guardian’s chief correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan, based in Islamabad, from 2003 up to 2013, when he was expelled from the country on the charge of conducting “undesirable activities”.

A country long viewed globally as terribly volatile and ever on the brink of collapse, Pakistan is, in fact, despite all odds, incredibly resilient and has proved much tougher to disintegrate than was believed. This is the idea Declan Walsh attempts to drive home in the Nine Lives of Pakistan.

The People of Pakistan

Instead of writing explicitly about historical events, Walsh has divided the chapters in his book into accounts of some of the personalities whose lives and work he feels greatly shaped the country into its present-day state. From political leaders to military rulers, lawyers to policemen, he has attempted to analyze the cross-section of Pakistani society he feels can most aptly describe the current Pakistani political and social order.

He goes into the details of these individuals’ lives and their work. Some of them he met in person and directly observed, including Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf, while others, like Quaid-e-Azam, passed away long ago. Chapter by chapter, he attempts to break down the religious extremism, terrorism, and parochialism Pakistan has long been plagued by.

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He discusses at length everything critics say is wrong with Pakistan, arriving at the conclusion that despite all its faults, this country has far more lives than it is credited for. The prologue gives a description of the day Walsh received his expulsion orders, amidst the backdrop of the 2013 general elections. Perplexed, he gets ready to leave the country but decides to get to the bottom of why he has been declared undesirable.

Walsh’s Work

He then presents his ruminations on some of the touchiest subjects in Pakistan; from the military’s involvement in politics and the intelligence agencies’ activities to the delicate religious fault lines that are ever-present yet often obscured. Among the many themes discussed, he dissects the Red Mosque seizure, gives accounts of tribal leaders and their ways of war and life, and the many unconventional stories of Pakistanis he stumbled upon during his time here.

Bit by bit, he builds the narrative of a country as diverse as it is tumultuous. Near the end of the book, he reveals meeting a man he describes as an “ex-spy”. Presumably, this former ISI officer contacted Walsh and offered to share the disclosed reasons for his expulsion. Ultimately, he puts it down to Walsh’s reporting in the tribal areas. While this turn in the book certainly made for intriguing reading, it creates many questions.

Was the person in question truly a former agent? If he was and did have a grudge to hold, why did he choose Walsh’s case out of all the others? Are there more people like him? And then how much credibility can we ascertain to Walsh’s account? Walsh’s writing demonstrates his years of journalistic experience. He manages to make each account incredibly descriptive, riveting and engaging, keeping the reader completely invested from start to finish.

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Sociocultural Discrepancies

Readers, especially local readers, who are more aware of the cultural particularities of Pakistani society may recognize that some of Walsh’s accounts, while incredibly descriptive, lack actual credence in our sociocultural circumstances. Another aspect of his writing, which is once again indicative of his journalistic aptitude, is how evocative it is.

You may agree with Walsh, or you may disagree, but one thing is certain: the Nine Lives of Pakistan will leave you grappling with your previous interpretations of this region’s politics. The ability of Walsh’s words to stick in the reader’s minds even after they’ve put the book down is a testament to his written prowess.

However, the Western prism through which the author portrays events from Pakistani history is an aspect of his writing that one must keep in mind when reading the Nine Lives of Pakistan if one wishes to gain a thorough understanding of the book’s context – not only is this Western-centric interpretation of Pakistani history glaringly obvious throughout the book, but some may also allege that at times, his analyses carry within them hints of the white-savior complex.

There are many cultural nuances specific to Pakistani society, which although the author admits he does not completely understand due to their intricacy and complexity, he nonetheless paints in a misconstrued and sometimes even inaccurate light. Local people, their customs and beliefs are described through the eyes of someone who does not have a complete comprehension, and frankly cannot be expected to have complete comprehension, of the deeply ingrained societal customs and traditions that govern them.

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An Outsider’s Perspective

Pakistan is an Islamic Republic and religious considerations permeate all aspects of Pakistani society. Thus, failing to view the country from a religious lens, and rather attempting to keep the religious aspect completely disconnected from all other aspects is not very practical for a society like ours. This is not to say that all aspects of Walsh’s reporting and analyses lack credibility or substance.

In fact, he must be credited for bringing to light themes and topics local authors for one reason or the other usually refrain from highlighting. In order to rectify issues, their presence must first be acknowledged. Though at times jarring and uncomfortable, Walsh’s book sheds some much-needed light on the cultural and ethnic divides which are unfortunately still very much a reality in Pakistan.

They provide readers with the chance, if they are willing to read with an open mind, to deeply introspect on their individual and national lives and reflect upon where and how they need to make amends to progress collectively. The Nine Lives of Pakistan is worthwhile reading for those looking to understand an alternate viewpoint and gain an outsider reporter’s perspective on the multiple complexities that make Pakistan, Pakistan.


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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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