Monday, June 08, 2009

Book Review: "To Live Or To Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan" By Nicholas Schmidle

We here at Rs.5 love to point and make fun of foreigners (journalists, academics, think tankers) who, despite knowing nothing whatsoever about the country, feel perfectly willing to opine and prognosticate about the country and its people. Earlier today, Bubs blogged about Bruce Riedel and his silly op-edism, and readers can peruse our archives for many more examples.

With that said, there are a number of excellent journalists from outside Pakistan who understand the country and the people in a more than superficial way. One of these is Nicholas Schmidle, a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Pakistan for almost three years now for various publications.

In fact, Schmidle would rank very high on my admittedly short list of favorite foreign correspondents who have written on Pakistan and South Asia. Owen Bennett-Jones would be ranked first. Schmidle would be second. Carlotta Gall would be third, and Steve Coll would be fourth. David Sanger would be last -- if Pakistan-based journalism was football, Sanger would be Papua New Guinea.

Schmidle practices journalism of the best kind, and this is evident in his fascinating and arresting portrayal of Pakistan in his recently released book, To Live Or To Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan. Schmidle does not rely on hearsay or rumors. If he hears something, he tries to corroborate by going to the source, even if doing so represents real physical danger. Schmidle does not rely on a handful of sources in air-conditioned drawing rooms or foreign embassies or alarmist think tanks or compromised intelligence agencies. He meets anyone and everyone willing to talk, including terrorist mullahs and naswar vendors. Schmidle is not a drive-by expert, whose interest and study of Pakistan is a passing fad -- he speaks Urdu, conducted almost all his interviews in the national language, and wore shalwar kurtas whenever the situation demanded it. He is basically an anthropologist masquerading as a journalist.

Once you pick the book up, you will not be able to put it down. It's written very lucidly and features in-depth interviews and stories featuring anyone and everyone you've ever heard of. In a way, being in Pakistan as a journalist is easy -- as long as you ignore the threats to your physical safety and life. Why? Because Pakistanis like to talk. Have you ever met a Pakistani who could keep a secret? Me neither. No one is shy, and if there's one thing that stands out in Schmidle's book, it's the sheer number of people who chose to go on the record, despite some highly sensitive information being proferred.

Schmidle's book is exactly what the title suggests: an account of his time in Pakistan, perhaps the most tumultuous two year period in the country's history other than 1970-1972. Just count the game-changing events and processes that we witnessed from mid-2006 to mid-2008: Chief Justice controversies (dismissed in March '07, reinstated in July '07, dismissed again in November '07); assassinations and assassination attempts (BB, Sherpao, Fazlur Rehman); the Presidency changing hands (Mush to Zardari); the Army changing hands (Mush to Kayani); the lawyers' movement; the Taliban violence (2007 had a suicide bombing once a week on average, and claimed more than 1000 lives); the May 12 violence; ethnic tensions rising between the MQM and ANP in Karachi..the list goes on and on. In fact, reading this book gave me a sense of just how crucial the year 2007 really was. It's the type of year that historians will be talking about for a long, long time. Sometimes while we're in the middle of it, we sometimes lose perspective. But you gain it right back when you read Schmidle's work.

But forget the history for a second -- if there's a reason to read this book, it's the stories. Oh, the stories. You want conversations with the infamous Ghazi Abdul Rasheed of Lal Masjid? Schmidle basically became his best friend (I exaggerate, but only a little). You want an insight into Taliban- and militant Islamist violence? Schmidle talks to Maulana Fazlullah and an assortment of radical elements, traveling to places where, forget journalists, the friggin' Pakistani military doesn't have the balls to go. You want to know more about Shia-Sunni tensions in the big cities? Schmidle goes to a 10th of Muharram procession, and even gets invited to Shia Islam by an adolescent. You want to know how many buttons Asif Zardari unbuttons to play with his chest hair? Schmidle will tell you. What about the Balochi low-level insurgency? Schmidle spends days in Gwadar and Quetta, talks to Balochi politicians and locals, and gives you his impressions. What does Farooq Sattar eat as he is driven from Karachi to Hyderabad, and what happens to his mood as they go through Sohrab Goth? Schmidle will tell you. I can't emphasize this enough: Schmidle talks to everyone. E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E. In this respect, it really is a top-notch book, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

This does not mean I don't have criticisms. I do. Two are primary. First, there is no overarching theme in the book. Schmidle jumps from crisis to crisis, issue to issue, and doesn't really give us any insight on a central thesis he may have. One doesn't know if this was intentional or not, but it doesn't matter, because the reader is often left feeling like (s)he is on a roller-coaster. In many ways, Pakistani society and politics does mirror a roller-coaster ride. But it should be up the author to ground the individual issue areas into a grander narrative, and Schmidle fails to provide us one. In the end, only readers already somewhat familiar with Pakistan will be able to keep pace as Schmidle jumps from Balochistan to FATA to Islamabad to Dhaka in the blink of an eye (the chapters are only about 20-25 pages long on average).

The second criticism centers on the acute pessimism reflected in Schmidle's book. I am in two minds whether this constitutes a valid criticism or not. On the one hand, there is an awful lot wrong with Pakistan, and none of what Schmidle says or reflects is untrue. On the other hand, I think if one were to land on earth from outer space and read Schmidle's book, one would have expected Pakistan to collapse a long, long time ago. To reiterate, none of what Schmidle says is untrue. But in a book -- as opposed to a journalistic article or report, where writers are often constrained by editorial requirements and word limits -- Schmidle should have told us a little bit about how, despite the many challenges Pakistan faces, it continues to trudge along, just barely. In social scientific terms, Schmidle's account overpredicts state collapse.

That said, Pakistanis and followers of Pakistan could do worse than pick up Schmidle's book. Considerably worse. He weaves history into his excellent work as a journalist, and I for one am thankful to him for writing this book. I am also thankful for the following sentence, which to my mind summarizes Pakistani society better than most articles or books:
Connections were a double-edged sword, and knowing the wrong people could land you in more trouble than knowing the right people could get you out of.

Reading To Live Or To Perish Forever, you realize that Schmidle speaks from experience, a quality that underlines the entire book.

Now, if only we could get him to organize a workshop, and have David Sanger attend.


Kalsoom said...

I haven't read his book, but he did do a book event last week in DC. I didn't go, but did hear about how he did from a friend who organized the event. What's interesting is that I had a similar opinion of Schmidle as you, Ahsan, but my friend told me that Schmidle actually has a very simplistic view on Pakistan, and responded very poorly to questions that addressed issues slightly outside the realm of his book.

I'm now curious to read his book after reading your review of it to form my own opinion of him, but just thought I'd share what a few ppl had to say about how he spoke last week.

Oh and Sanger is def low on my list too. Bleh.

Ahsan said...


I don't expect journalists to be historians or political scientists or area specialists -- by his own admission (he says this in the book), Schmidle only started caring about Pakistan once his chance to work in Iran went up in smoke (after Ahmadinejad got elected). So we can't expect the man to know stuff outside his purview the way Bennett-Jones does (who, if I recall correctly, has a PhD in South Asian/Pakistan history from Oxford).

But as a journalist, he's top notch, because he's very curious and tries to figure out things for himself.

Kalsoom said...

Fair enough. Again, I haven't read the book, and I didn't attend the event where he discussed his book so my opinion wasn't really impacted. And actually even in his FP piece, "The Idiot's Guide to Pakistan," Schmidle did note, "I lived in Pakistan throughout all of 2006 and 2007 and only came to understand, say, the tribal breakdown in South Waziristan during my final days."

If you are interested, here's the link to the video of the event I was talking about (I haven't had a chance to watch it yet):

snikometer said...

Schmiddle did a fun little bloggingheads episode with rob wright:

Unlike many other foreign journalist, he doesn't take Pakistan too seriously (jokes about the ISI trying to kick him out the country, for instance). Sure, he probably thinks Pakistan will collapse in on itself, but his observations lack the eschatology paranoia that pervades the writings of, say, Carlotta Gall, or even the well intentioned William Dalrymple.

Also just sounds like a really cool guy.

bubs said...

Schmidle is an excellent journalist and I'm really looking forward to reading his book. When he was in Pakistan, even his wife learned Urdu. I think he also picked up some Balochi and Pashto in his time here.

Anonymous said...

i would highly recommend steve coll's 'on the grand trunk road.' it was re-released in paperback a few months ago, and although a bit out dated, it is both informative and entertaining in its sweeping overview of south asia.

Anonymous said...

'Connections could take you deep into a situation, or be able to get you out of one'

Don't you think sometimes, these risks are worth taking.

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karachi khatmal said...

this is an absolutely bullshit book, a bullshit blog review, and a bullshit blog comments board.

how have none of you noticed that this jackass missed out on the biggest, most definitive event of 2007?


Ahsan said...

Hahaha yeah I noticed he did not ONCE talk about cricket in the entire book. I should rewrite this blog post and be more critical.

Didn't the whole ICL controversy and the decimation of our cricket team also happen in 2007? God, that year is shaping up to Pakistan's equivalent to Europe's 1919.

Anonymous said...

I am reading the book now. I was a little disappointed when Schmidle wrote in one of the first chapters about Iran being VERY anti-american. That is true, but Schmidle never points out how America is VERY anti-Iran. Everything in America is anti-iran. Schmidle often takes the American administration's propaganda journey. Yet, other times he demonstrates a reality of the facts regarding Muslim countries outside of the American propaganda machine. Too bad it was hit and miss regarding regurgitating American propaganda.

Nabeel said...

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Ethan Casey here - he's doing some absolutely fantastic journalistic work for Pakistan. A rare breed...indeed :P
His take is grassroots - he interacts with everyday people and is, in his own words, trying to show America the Pakistan they never see. An absolutely fantastic initiative, I think. His first book was Alive and Well in Pakistan, published in 2004. He's writing a second right now after his latest visit to Pakistan earlier this year.

I realize I sound like an evangelist right now so why don't you just open the links: