I wrote this book review for the Brown Alumni Magazine, Nov 2011 issue, and didn’t get around to posting it earlier. This is a slightly longer version than the one BAM published.
Playing with Fire: Pakistan at War with Itself by Pamela Constable (Random House, 2011).
When it comes to Pakistan, veteran journalist Pamela Constable certainly ‘gets it’. Her latest book, ‘Playing with Fire: Pakistan at war with itself‘ is readable, thoughtful and nuanced. A veritable ‘Pakistan 101’ with much to offer even insiders like myself.
As Kabul bureau chief and then deputy foreign editor at the Washington Post, Constable travelled extensively around the country. Her interactions with ordinary folk and newsmakers yield empathy and human faces often missing from discussions about Pakistan.
She is a gifted storyteller with a solid historical perspective, an eye for detail and an ear for quotes that encapsulate major issues. At a camp for flood refugees, a mother of eight tells her, “If this flood has brought us to a school, then maybe it is God’s plan.” Her words echo aid workers’ observations that flood-relief camps provided education and health-care—often to people who never had access to those services before.
Describing the complexity of this “nuclear-armed, Muslim-majority nation” (as western reports often describe it) of over 175 million, Constable observes that it has “a thousand separate worlds that may coexist and in close quarters but never intersect.” It is also “a country of existential as well as cultural contradictions”. The book “is an attempt to explain to Western readers what Pakistani society is like today… not an investigative work… Rather, it is an attempt to create a backdrop for a dangerous and fluid moment in the history of a troubled but important country, to explain what is enduring and changing in its life as a nation”.
As she examines the contradictions that make up Pakistan, Constable delves into behind-the-scenes stories, providing details and insights that rarely make it to the mainstream media. Each chapter focuses on a different theme, but the human stories we encounter, that highlight issues of gender, gender violence, education, feudalism, economy, agriculture, politics—and, increasingly, hatred and violence in the name of religion – are often inter-linked.
Moving from microcosm to macrocosm, Constable reveals a larger, often multi-dimensional picture. Take the story of Rukshana, a young woman who eloped with her cousin Amir to avoid being married off to an older man in compensation for a legal dispute, a traditional way of resolving such matters. When Constable meets the couple, they are in hiding from villagers who want to kill them for violating the tribal code of honor. Educated and aware, they fear for their lives and for the retaliation their families face – relatives are being arrested, their crops burnt, marriages threatened, girls forced to leave school.
“Was all of this an acceptable price for love, or for a lonely crusade against the seemingly immovable forces of tradition?” wonders Constable.
Amir’s response is tragically realistic: “Both of our families have suffered terribly because of us. All our dreams have been reduced to the single wish to stay alive.… We are just two people against an entire system…. From now on, no girl in our family will be allowed to continue her education, because of what we have done.”
All this is linked to the need to overhaul Pakistan’s cumbersome legal system and enforce law and order, as Constable consistently emphasizes. “Major assassinations are rarely solved,” she comments early on. “… it is convenient for them not to be solved. Court cases are chaotic affairs with myriad versions of events, suspects pressured to confess or recant, and innocent people charged or released through bribes.”
Military dictator General Zia’s imposition of controversial “Islamic” laws made matters worse, especially for religious minorities and women. Over decades, the “counterproductive cycle of political or military intervention” has interrupted Pakistan’s political process and prevented a democratic culture from developing. Now, as Constable acknowledges, tolerating the current elected government until the 2013 election is the only way to break this cycle – even if that means putting up with the much-maligned (often, but not always, with good reason) President Zardari.
She also has a fine eye for the class divisions and distinctions in Pakistan and a disconcerting ability to see through the sophisticated veneer of the ‘Sahibs’ (gentry – the title of one chapter) she encounters. The book is organised into chapters with evocative, staccato-like titles: “Hate”, “Khaki”, “The Girl from Swat” and so on. The narrative dips into the past and moves to the present, providing a “gritty” (one of Constable’s favorite words) context to complex issues. The “Epilogue” could have been titled “Hope”, focusing as it does on Abdus Sattar Edhi, the octogenarian social worker who is often called Pakistan’s Mother Teresa. Constable makes an interestingly observation about Edhi, referring to him as subversive (because of his egalitarian, humane outlook that counters dominant narratives), countering a widespread perception that he just administers ‘band-aid’.
Overall Playing with Fire is such a good read that pointing out spelling mistakes in names or local words, or Constable’s reference to the rabidly right-wing Lahore-based newspaper The Nation as “pro-government”, is being nit-picky. So perhaps is noting the omission of some prominent organizations in an otherwise well-researched narrative that includes the positive work being done in Pakistan. Still, it’s hard to discuss human rights and the blasphemy law without mentioning the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, or Pakistan-India relations without mentioning the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy.
But ultimately those are quibbles. This is a compelling book that provides important insights into the hearts and minds of the people of a country caught up in a war brought on by policy decisions they didn’t have a say in.
My verdict: if you read one book on Pakistan this year, make this the one.