Penning a portrait of Pakistan

Asma Jahangir (Photo: JEAN-PIERRE MULLER/AFP via Getty Images).
Asma Jahangir (Photo: JEAN-PIERRE MULLER/AFP via Getty Images).

By Amit Roy

DECLAN WALSH hopes his new book will give British Pakistanis, especially the younger generation, a deeper understanding of a troubled country that has, at times, been bracketed in the interna­tional media with North Korea or Iran.

Walsh was based in Islamabad for the Guardian from 2004 to 2011, and then for the next two years for the New York Times until he was expelled in 2013 for “unde­sirable activities”. This was a reference to his reports on insurgent movements in Balochistan, which clearly the Pakistani military and the ISI (Inter-Services Intel­ligence) did not like.

Since 2015, Walsh has been reporting from Cairo in Egypt for the New York Times, but he is about to move again, this time to Nairobi, Kenya, to be the paper’s chief Africa correspondent.

At first he considered writing about Pakistan in a thematic way, but decided to make it more personal by sketching the portraits of nine people – hence the title of the book, The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Divided Nation (Bloomsbury; £20).

His characters include Asma Jahangir, “doyenne of Pakistan’s human rights movement”; Salmaan Taseer, the gover­nor of Punjab who was shot by his own bodyguard; Chaudhry Aslam Khan, “Ka­rachi’s most famous cop”; Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who died in the siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad; the Pakistani intel­ligence officer Sultan Amir Tarar, better known as “Colonel Imam”; and the Pash­tun politician Anwar Kamal Khan.

Walsh writes: “Pakistani journalists who helped me had been abducted and beat­en by the security forces; one had been forced into exile. But I had grown to love Pakistan – a country of hidden delights, endearing absurdities and some of the closest friendships I had ever experienced. My work took me to corners of heart-stopping beauty and plunged me into strange, inspiring or heart-rending situations.”

He laughs when he is reminded that the New Yorker described him as a “tall, rakish, handsome Irishman”.

Asked what it was that drew him close to Pakistan, Walsh tells Eastern Eye: “I just met so many fantastic people. It was the richness of its people. It was everything except for the things that are in the news. It’s a society and a culture very much rooted in south Asia, despite efforts to introduce a more Saudi or purist tinge in the 1980s.

“I was there during this really explosive period, where so many dramatic events happened. And, as a reporter, I found myself getting swept along in those events. But at the same time, I also found myself getting enmeshed in the lives of the people I was writing about. I found that in Pakistan, there was an unusual degree of ingress into the lives of the peo­ple. They were really willing to open up and talk. I suppose, as an Irish person, I come from a culture where we certainly share some of those values.

“Our culture has a very oral tradition as well. And perhaps Pakistanis felt an iden­tification with me, as an English-speaking outsider coming from Europe, without the same kind of baggage as a British or an American journalist.”

Walsh explains: “We are a country that experienced a bitter conflict in Northern Ireland that deeply affected the Republic, where I grew up. We experienced a very traumatic partition at the birth of our country as an independent nation. Like India and Pakistan, the reverberations of that partition are still being felt. The other thing is, politically, Ireland is a neutral country. I felt certainly during my time in Pakistan that applied to my advantage.”

He recalls the reaction of British Paki­stanis, especially the younger ones, that he met on flights between London and Islamabad. “They were incredulous as to why I would want to be based in Pakistan at all. They had to go to Pakistan to see their relatives or to get married – or avoid getting married. One man started laugh­ing at me, saying, ‘Why the hell do you want to live in Pakistan?’

“I understand where they’re coming from – a diaspora community. You see this particular generation straddle, this huge distance, where dad might be work­ing as a taxi driver or a trader or a busi­nessman in England, but a large part of the year is spent in Azad Kashmir or go­ing some place in Punjab and buying a house and setting up there and then go­ing back to make money.

“I saw this generation, older than me, of British Pakistanis who are really split between the two countries. And then I saw the younger generation that was dragged along for the ride in some cases, people who want to shout their Pakistani heritage quite strongly but are very Brit­ish as well.

“This is not to excuse militancy, but you can see that this identity clash pro­vided a fertile ground for people who wants to take advantage of confused peo­ple in that community and recruit for vio­lent groups. And, of course, Britain al­lowed preachers from violent organisa­tions that promote violence to tour the UK and fundraise and so on. You saw this community caught between two cultures.

“By the same token, I would say that I have also met an awful lot of British Paki­stanis who’ve done a much better job of battling that divide. I see people who are incredibly successful as journalists, as writers, in many fields such as medicine. You see politicians, we see Mishal Husain who works at the BBC.”

Walsh was in Pakistan at the time of the Mumbai massacre in November 2008. “It’s proven that people who were run­ning the group that carried out the attack were linked to the intelligence services.”

The biggest story he had to cover was when US Navy Seals located and killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011: “Oh, my God! I remember sitting in my living room, writing a tweet, using an expletive.”

By the time he and other journalists arrived in bin Laden’s compound in near­by Abbottabad, “one could see bits of helicopter spread on the field and intelli­gence people trying to chase the report­ers away. It was chaos.”

The question to which Walsh has not yet found a definitive answer is whether the ISI is in complete control of the terror groups it has created.

“Are the puppet masters in full control of the puppets? Do they know everything that’s going on? Are they turning a blind eye to certain things? Or do they subcon­tract policy to a group or an individual or an officer who’s in charge and let them use their own initiative; whether these tools that they have created are entirely in their control? Internally, the intelligence services are probably not as coherent as you might think.”

Walsh suggests Imran Khan’s erstwhile supporters will probably be disillusioned that the prime minister’s Naya [new] Pa­kistan just hasn’t happened. “He’s sur­rendered control of a lot of issues to the military. And he’s been no friend to the press at all. Things are worse for journal­ists now than they’ve been in decades.”

He reckons ordinary people in India and Pakistan “want to build bridges, share popular culture, movies, songs, all that obvious stuff. Whenever cricket matches took place, there was always a great sense of rivalry but also camaraderie. The sad thing is the way the politics have gone, the opportunities that people see of those kind of things have really reduced.”

For him Pakistan remains unfinished business: “I’d love to go back but can’t – I am on the blacklist.”