October Issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 15 years ago

“Is your book going to be against Pakistan, like all the others written by Americans?” asked a police officer during the middle of a riot in Lyari on May 13, 2007. Nicholas Schmidle was used to people viewing him with suspicion by this point in his stay here. He had already been in Pakistan for a year, travelling the country as a journalist.

Even though he has returned home and his book To Live or to Perish Forever is complete, people here will still find reason to doubt him. In Pakistan, denizens often dislike outsiders coming in and analysing the state of affairs. Locals question their expertise and agenda. Schmidle experienced this first-hand: he was often labelled a US spy.

Schmidle never claimed to be an expert on Pakistan. In fact he knew very little when  he arrived here as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs — he admits the organisation’s name does sound like a cover for the CIA — on a two-year stint to learn about this troubled country. And that’s what he did. He learned the language, met locals, read as much as he could, and travelled the country. He was an observer, not an expert. His travels and writings, though, eventually got him kicked out of the country.

Still, one thing is for sure: his timing was excellent.

From 2006 to 2008, Pakistan stumbled through a series of momentous events and crises, and Schmidle was witness to all. His account is different from that of most other outsiders, though. For he didn’t solely rely on fixers, nor did he station himself in a plush hotel room and report from his desk. A novice journalist, he proved that he had the skills and personality to be an expert foreign correspondent. He got up and got out there: he travelled on buses and talked to everyone he could (shopkeepers, Taliban fighters, militant leaders, intelligence officers, religious leaders, politicians and newspaper columnists). The list of people he spent time with is so impressive, it is amazing he is actually alive. He befriended Lal Masjid’s Abdul Rashid Ghazi (whom he visited repeatedly and who proved to be his best resource), met Baloch nationalists (who didn’t hide their hatred for the Punjabi establishment and told him that if he waited too long to visit Balochistan, he “might need a visa”), travelled through Taliban checkpoints, met Mullah Fazlullah and attended MQM rallies. In fact, he admits to being scared. In the first two chapters, he makes repeated references to another foreign journalist: Daniel Pearl. “His ghost hovered over the city,” Schmidle writes about Karachi. His fears were not unfounded. Even the ISI was on his tail.

Nonetheless, Schmidle proves himself to be both a courageous and astute reporter. He asks the right questions, seeks out the right people, and always has his notepad ready and his eyes and ears open. More importantly, he travelled the country with one burning question in mind: Why did Pakistan still face an existential dilemma? This is why the book carries the title it does. To Schmidle, Pakistan is facing the same question it did when Rahmat Ali wrote his famous treatise over 60 years ago: Now or Never: Are We To Live or Perish Forever?

Schmidle writes in an easy, descriptive style. He has done his homework and it shows. He provides accurate, pithy reductions of history (even though at one point he refers to the break-up of the country in 1971 as “Bengal’s secession”). Much of his background is for the benefit of western readers, but he deserves marks for keeping it concise and putting everything he sees in context. Pakistani readers will benefit from his personal first-hand descriptions of some of the country’s most interesting newsmakers. We see Farooq Sattar changing his socks in the back of his chauffeur-driven Toyota Camry, Abdul Rashid Ghazi smirk while listening to the unworldliness of his brother Maulana Abdul Aziz, and Mullah Radio offer his bodyguard to protect the foreign journalist and then preach before overseeing a public flogging. It is colourful and insightful.

While everything he observes and describes may not be good for Pakistan’s international image, it is still accurate. More importantly, he brings some clarity to a very complicated country — a country more complex than many outsiders realise. And at the same time, by going to every corner of the country and sitting down with people of every stripe, he humanises Pakistan. That is something the Pakistanis who doubted, and still doubt, him should thank him for.