At the start of The Nine Lives of Pakistan, Declan Walsh is locked in a hotel room in Lahore. Outside stand agents from the feared Inter-Services Intelligence. Although Walsh can hear the “honks, hoots and cries” of the build-up to the 2013 election outside the window, he will not be able to cover it. The ISI officers – known as “angels” on account of their white robes and formidable powers – will, within 72 hours, force him out of the country he has reported on for nearly a decade, with The Guardian and The New York Times. This thrilling, big-hearted book is, in part, Walsh’s attempt to understand how his relationship with a country he clearly adores reached such a pass.
Diplomats often joke that Islamabad is so clean and orderly that its true location is “10 miles outside of Pakistan”. Walsh, for his part, plunges into the messy country beyond and, in The Nine Lives of Pakistan, threads the nation’s recent history into the biographies of some of the extraordinary people he meets.
The scale of the struggle for women’s rights is encapsulated by Asma Jahangir, a crusading lawyer whose first client – an eloping lover – is murdered in Jahangir’s office by her own mother. (In “our folklore… the man who stops two lovers from meeting is evil,” yet in real life they “may be killed”, Jahangir wonders in sorrow.) Through Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a preacher whose company Walsh “enjoyed, jihad puffery aside”, you learn of the rise of the Pakistani Taliban. In a chapter entitled “The Good Muslim”, Walsh contrasts the life of the senator Salmaan Tasser, a “hard-charging, money-grubbing sinner”, with the bodyguard who assassinated him for trying to save minorities who had been sentenced to death on dodgy blasphemy laws.
These are not lives told from afar. Over his decade in Pakistan – far longer than most foreign correspondents – Walsh puts himself at the centre of the nation’s affairs through the small favours and courtesy calls that grease the wheels of Pakistani life. One subject he meets by dressing in a burka. Another he hears has been kidnapped by the Taliban because the kidnappers, for some reason, choose to email him their demands.
He is particularly good with rogues. In one rollicking chapter he rides along on the campaign trail with Anwar Kamal, a politician in Pakistan’s tribal north-west with a pocked face, a “theatrical, loquacious” demeanour and “a maddening disregard for precision”. (Kamal would say of a friend: “He has killed, six, seven, EIGHT men!”)
Many Pakistanis assume Pashtuns of the north-west align instinctively with the Taliban. Here we learn of Kamal’s stubborn refusal to let the Taliban cause trouble in his territory. At a midnight meeting, he stands up to Baitullah Mehsud, the movement’s leader. One year later, almost 100 residents of Kamal’s district are killed in a horrific suicide bombing at a volleyball game, in apparent revenge. When the stakes are so high, it is no surprise that many of the contacts in Walsh’s phone book, he notes, are now dead.