Hazhir Teimourian

A Talent For Shrouds

Pakistan: Eye Of The Storm


Yale University Press 328pp £18.95 order from our bookshop

In the late 1970s, I had a colleague in the World Service of the BBC by the name of Feyyaz Fergar. We all loved him, especially in the basement bar of Bush House on Aldwych, but alas many of us did not discover until too late that, as well as being an uplifting companion, he was also a wonderful poet. A Turk of Armenian origin, he had hidden his heart condition from his family for years and died in a Greek restaurant in the early hours of one morning in April 1993. For his obituary in The Times, his publisher (David Perman of the Rockingham Press) sent me his collection of poems written originally in English. It was called A Talent for Shrouds and poked fun at societies in the grip of religious doctrine. (Another volume, published posthumously, has an even better title: The Bright Is Dark Enough. Both are now among my most valued possessions and are particularly effective in raising the morale of mourners at funeral services.)

The author of this much – needed book, Owen Bennett Jones, will probably remember Feyyaz, although he is of a younger generation of broadcasters at Bush House. He will also probably agree that the subject of the book is one of a handful of new states which, since their inception, have demonstrated a particularly vigorous talent for shrouds.

All the statistics show what an utter failure the state of Pakistan has been since it split from India in the wake of the Second World War. It could justifiably be described as a vast storehouse of human misery. Sixty per cent of its people are illiterate, a third of them are undernourished and more than half have no access to rudimentary sanitation. About five thousand people can be bought or sold as bonded labourers and are sometime kept in chains, while several thousand women have been imprisoned for complaining of rape without producing enough male witnesses to prove their claim.

Other statistics are more comical, but tell of the same tragedy. Some 60 per cent of the country’s electricity is stolen and, when they are discovered, the thieves merely receive a polite request to pay back some of the money. Much more important is that less than 1 per cent of the people who ought to pay tax to the government ever do so. Why should they, if their leader until 1999, the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, with a personal wealth of some £2bn, is found to have paid only about £7 in tax over several years? No one has ever been jailed for failing to pay tax since the birth of the state.

Almost every page of this book contains a number of such depressing shocks, yet I found it difficult to put down. This was not just because Bennett Jones has that rare objectivity and realism that are the fruits of many years’ reporting and presenting on Pakistan for the various current affairs programmes of the World Service. More to the point, it is because his book is not about some poor and remote country whose future would not, frankly, affect too many people outside. We are dealing here with a nuclear power that could go to war with India any day, and whose still rapidly rising population of nearly 140 million gets more divided and angry as it grows poorer. Furthermore, with large numbers of Pakistanis now living in Britain, Pakistan’s domestic passions, such as its displeasure with Salman Rushdie in 1989 and with the fall of the Taliban more recently, transmit themselves immediately to our inner cities. Since September 11, Pakistani immigrants have become a real and costly security headache for us all, and they are, as a result, becoming ever more alienated from their host country.

The book is all the more readable because it is not written in a continuous chronological manner, but divided into chapters that deal with particular subjects: for example, the misbehaviour of the army; the irrational obsession that is Indian Kashmir for Punjabi Pakistanis; the question of why a minority of mullahs have been able to impose their rigid interpretation of Islam on a largely heretical, but cowed, majority; the breaking away of East Pakistan to become Bangladesh; and the challenge that faces the country’s latest military ruler, General Parvez Musharraf.

Bennett Jones is concerned that the General, though a modern – minded sort of chap himself, will not prove any more successful than his predecessors in guiding Pakistan towards becoming a moderately well – functioning society at peace with itself and the world. He shows how some of Musharraf’s colleagues see themselves as ‘soldiers of Allah’ devoted to spreading Islam to the rest of the world, rather than to defending Pakistan’s borders. These other generals will probably fight any attempt to reach a sane compromise over Kashmir with India, and, furthermore, Musharraf has already abandoned some of the main aims of his coup of 1999: collecting taxes, fighting corruption, and forcing thousands of religious schools to put some modern content into their syllabuses.

But Bennett Jones does not totally dismiss Musharraf’s chances. He is, the author believes, aware of the failures of the previous periods of military rule, and the army is less likely to move against one of its own. Also, in the new war against terrorism, Musharraf has already received several billion dollars in extra Western aid to rescue his country from immediate bankruptcy.

A number of books on Pakistan have been published in English in recent years, but most were written by Pakistanis who are too close to the trees to see the wood. The others are more specialised and less well written than Bennett Jones’s book. For the general reader who expects Pakistan to give the world some hair – raising moments over the next few years, the cost of this book is justified by its introductory and concluding chapters alone. For presidents and prime ministers, it ought to be in the holiday luggage. General Musharraf ought to keep it under his pillow, beside his pistol. We need him to succeed.

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