I'm sorry nowadays that I didn't see more of Pakistan, when I was there in the 1970s. I took the train up from Zahedan in southern Iran, through Baluchistan to Quetta, where I broke the journey for a night, before continuing to Lahore and the Wagah border. It would have been interesting to see Waziristan and Chitral, back in those safer times.
Now, when I read a book about Pakistan it is with the knowledge that I'll probably never set foot there again. Partly because I have too many connections with Israel, partly because visa applications to India come with pointed questions about visits to Pakistan and a few other countries.
But Pakistan interests me none the less, and when I heard about a new novel by Fatima Bhutto, I pre-ordered it. Though only finished it now. It's a fairly slim volume, but extremely well-conceived and written. It tells the story of three brothers and two women residents of the town of Mir Ali, in northern Waziristan. The storyline takes place in the space of a morning before Eid, though with many flashbacks to earlier times. It appears at the start to be a fairly routine morning for the brothers, with the one exception that they have decided to pray in different mosques, for reasons of safety. But gradually we are brought into a story of love and betrayal, desperate acts and crude compromises. Painful questions that hang over this fiercely independent border town are expressed and work themselves out through the lives of the characters.
There's much in Mir Ali that resembles Palestine, or many another area of the world that deals with occupation, and the difficult decisions it spreads before the occupied. Whereas the menfolk, realizing the impossibility of their goals, falter, only the two women in the story preserve their bravery and self-respect, even if grief, horror and broken promises have made them crazy. It's a sad tale, a hopeless reflection. Mir Ali may have been exploited and abused by outsiders, but ultimately what unravels its proud independent spirit is the desire for riches from outside: for cellphones, consumer goods, business deals and foreign study. The alternative to being co-opted is to match the enemy in ruthlessness and inhumanity. Either way, the battle is lost. Only the green pine-fragrant forests surrounding the town, themselves rustling with cells of violent jihadists, offer any intimation of integrity.