Book review: Provocation without persuasion —by Saleem H Ali
To Live or To Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan
By Nicholas Schmidle
Henry Hold & Co. 2009; Pp272
Journalists who cover Pakistan have a certain bravado to their demeanour that is understandable at one level. Covering the tribal areas of the country is dangerous for foreigners and they certainly have to be credited for undertaking such assignments despite all the travel warnings.
However, when the assignment to cover the story is somewhat undermined with a reporter’s impulse to “become the story”, then the reporting becomes problematic. This seems to be the problem with Nicholas Schmidle’s To Live or to Perish Forever. As the rather pretentious title suggests, there is a perplexing fatalism in Schmidle’s view of the region while the narrative is speckled with disturbing frivolity. Clearly the author is trying to draw a popular audience from within the United States that always seems to necessitate a humorous style. However, for most Pakistanis who are the subject of the book, the text will not be very amusing.
While Schmidle’s book has some good insights about the Taliban’s roots in Pakistan, there is a persistent self-indulgence in the narrative. This tendency can be seen right at the start of the book which recounts the author’s expulsion from Pakistan — an episode that he portrays as a mysterious plot by the intelligence services against him.
With the help of the Pakistani ambassador, Husain Haqqani, he is able to return in 2008 to cover a more benign story on Sufi dervishes for the Smithsonian magazine. Again he claims to be shadowed by the intelligence services and leaves the country under security provided by the US consulate in Karachi.
Schmidle seems very self-absorbed about his own importance in the narrative which I found troubling, and it detracts from the seriousness of the topic being covered. Schmidle makes his interaction with Pakistan “personal” but in a more self-centred and negative way. At once he says that he pities poor Pakistanis who can’t leave the country like he did under US escort while he also envies other foreign reporters who were able to continue to work there.
It would have been useful if Schmidle had also included some self-reflection about why he may have been singled out. One of the reasons may be that his reporting style is caustic and condescending (as exemplified by his little piece for Foreign Policy titled “An Idiot’s Guide to Pakistan”), and his prose is provocative without persuasion. He also has a tendency to amplify rebellion and dissent to magnify chaos that meets his story line.
The epigraph at the start of the book, from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, is also a bit enigmatic. The statement offers a critique of religious nationalism on the one hand but in correspondence with me via email, Schmidle indicated that he intended the quote to show how reporters need to be embedded in the field rather than sitting quietly on their desks (which underscores my earlier point about bravado).
While the issue of Pakistan’s complex identity should be challenged by scholars and reporters, it needs to be done with nuance, and an appreciation of how the convoluted identity of this country has still endured against many odds over a period of more than sixty years. In these troubled times, reporters have a duty to go beyond writing entertaining stories about their travels and to unravel the causes of conflict with care rather than comic relief at the expense of a stressed community.
One could give the book a pass as a travelogue of an itinerant adventurer but the author’s base as a researcher at a Washington think tank (The New America Foundation) indicates that his aim with this book was to establish himself as a policy analyst. This book clearly does not meet those standards and media outlets should recognise the distinction between anecdotal travel writing, peppered with self-selected interviews, versus carefully fact-checked research.
In contrast to Schmidle rough narrative, a book that has more analytic value and is on a similar topic is Gretchen Peters’ recent publication Seeds of Terror which provides a detailed account of the heroin trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Her fieldwork as a journalist is impeccable and the book is written with great care and sensitivity towards the subjects of her narrative. There are some important revelations in this book such as the use of the Karachi Stock Exchange for money laundering of drug profits as well as the role of the UAE and other Gulf states as transit centres.
The book also clarifies the very common misperception among many Muslims that the Taliban had an unequivocal position on eradicating drugs during their rule. The duplicity of the Taliban puritanical ideology on drugs is evident empirically through Peters’ interviews with Afghan farmers. Peters also bases some of her analysis on a structured survey of 350 people “who work in or alongside the opium trade in southern Afghanistan”, and presents some of the raw data in an appendix that is very valuable. This book should be considered in earnest by NATO and US policy-makers as they reconsider their strategy for reconciliation in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. Throughout the narrative Peters is careful to not mock her subjects for the sake of literary amusement as Schmidle tends to do. Rather she weaves the story with care and candour without compromising objectivity — a rare accomplishment in the racy world of journalistic books about our troubled region.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and Asian studies at the University of Vermont and the author of Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassas (Oxford University Press, 2009) www.saleemali.net