Home Art & Culture ‘The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches From a Precarious State,’ by Declan Walsh: An Excerpt

‘The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches From a Precarious State,’ by Declan Walsh: An Excerpt

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An early revelation was Basant, Lahore’s spectacular spring fiesta. Kites filled the skies over the Old City, where giddy boys coursed through the narrow streets, in the shadow of the ancient Lahore Fort, tugging on strings as they did battle in the sky. On the rooftops, I mingled with city grandees who chewed kebabs at lavish parties in traditional haveli mansions. The forbidden pleasures were at street level. One night I attended a rave party at an abandoned bakery, where young Pakistanis high on the drug Ecstasy bopped to a throbbing techno beat. Another time, I ended up at a party hosted by an underground gay collective. Hot Boyz read the sign on the door. Outside, several hundred men danced to the top Bollywood hits, some in dresses and lipstick, others with heavy moustaches. I lingered awkwardly on the edge of the crowd, until a man in a sequinned dress – a hijra, as Pakistan’s third sex are known, who make money dancing at weddings or begging in traffic – beckoned me onto the floor.

Pak is the Urdu word for ‘clean’, so Pakistan translates literally as ‘Land of the Pure’. But the pockets of permissiveness, at odds with the country’s reputation, weren’t limited to the party scene. I visited art exhibitions that explored Islamist violence or the intimacies of the heart. In the countryside, I visited religious shrines where Hindus and Muslims worshipped side by side in a tradition that stretched back centuries. Climbing to a remote valley in the Hindu Kush, I met the Kalash, a tiny tribe of animist believers supposedly descended from Alexander the Great, who carefully guarded their traditions.

My story on the Murree Brewery was a cliché of foreign correspondence – nearly every newly arrived reporter had covered it – but the company’s unlikely success spoke to a broader truth about Pakistan. Despite its harsh Islamic laws, every neighbourhood had a semi-official bootlegger, which made it as easy to order a bottle of whisky as a pizza. (The whisky usually arrived more quickly.) Newspapers carried advertisements for clinics that treated alcoholism. Nobody had been lashed with an oil-soaked whip for decades. At Murree Brewery, Minoo Bhandara led me to a first-floor window where he pointed to a grand, white-columned house across the street: the residence of President Musharraf who, it was widely known, was partial to a dose of Johnnie Walker premium blend Blue Label in the evening.

I rented a house on the Islamabad chessboard, a four-bedroom villa with a capacious garden, bought a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle (of a marque known to Pakistanis as a ‘Foxy’) for scooting around the city, and acquired three dogs, all strays. Spike and Luna came via friends; Pookie straggled through the front gate as a puppy. When I told a visiting American diplomat, who was versed in the ways of the intelligence world, that Pookie was a ‘walk-in’, he shot back: ‘Well, I hope she brought some useful information.’

I hired a housekeeper named Mazloom Raja, a gentle man in his fifties with speckled hair that he frequently dyed black, in the style of Musharraf. Mazloom meant ‘The Suffering One’, which was apt. He seemed weighed down by the tribulations of a working-class life: squabbling relatives, scheming young men seeking to bed his daughter and regular attendance at funerals for unfortunate relatives struck down by disease or accidents. When I was out, I realised, he sneaked into the TV room to catch up on Bollywood movies. He could be excessively deferential. When Mazloom started to call me ‘sir’, I asked him to use my name. He shuffled awkwardly.

‘Yes, sir,’ he replied.

Autumn arrived, and with it Ramzan, as Pakistanis and Indians call the Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer. Pakistanis advertised their piety with long faces during the day, when restaurants were closed, and donned their finest duds at night, when they gorged on rich food and socialised until it was time for suhoor, the predawn breakfast. As my car idled at a traffic light, a young man on a bicycle – a student at a madrassa religious seminary, judging from his wiry beard and hitched trousers – rapped on the window of my Beetle and proceeded to admonish me for chewing gum. I told him I was a Christian. No matter, he shot back testily. ‘Pakistan is a Muslim country.’ A rule was a rule.

Or was it? The country’s most notorious madrassa was the Darul Uloom Haqqania, a vast complex near Peshawar whose 4,000 students were taught a harsh, fundamentalist brand of Islam. In the 1980s, when the madrassa churned out radicalised students who later crossed the border to fight in Afghanistan, it was informally known as the ‘University of Jihad’. Its head was a stern, henna-bearded cleric who liked to claim that his students included the Afghan Taliban’s top leaders. But he also had his mortal weaknesses. I heard accounts that, some years earlier, the Pakistani intelligence services had caught the cleric on camera at an Islamabad brothel with two other people, at least one of whom was a prostitute. Subsequently, the cleric, Maulana Sami ul Haq, was informally known in political and media circles as ‘Sami the sandwich’.

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