Review

The Nine Lives of Pakistan by Declan Walsh review: the modern nation explained in biographies

5/5

A gutsy journalist – now banned – brings to life his decade of encounters with the country's activists, politicians, preachers and rogues

Fire and fury: A protest in Peshawar over Charlie Hebdo cartoons
Fire and fury: A protest in Peshawar over Charlie Hebdo cartoons Credit: ARSHAD ARBAB/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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.

Socially distanced prayers in Karachi in April Credit: Fareed Khan/AP 

If Walsh’s guts take him places others have not reached, his prose – vigorous, cockeyed and clear – brings it home to the reader. Stalls offer “dripping wedges of Ferrari-red watermelon”; beyond the walls of a rogue cop’s house lies the megacity of Karachi, “a slumbering expanse of shacks and mansions, ribboned with highways and bounded by the Arabian Sea, now twinkling in the night”. Even familiar passages of history rattle past with enjoyable detail: Walsh conjures up the moment hopes among Pakistan’s liberals were raised by General Pervez Musharraf’s first press conference since he had seized power in a 1999 coup, at which he was pictured with his wife and two Pekingese dogs, Dot and Buddy (enraging conservative clerics “who were unsure whether they hated dogs or women more”).

When I arrived in Pakistan in 2017, the subject of Walsh’s expulsion was still a source of much gossip. Here he makes some headway on an answer. A former spy assigned to his case gets in touch with Walsh, having sought asylum in Switzerland. The details of the ISI’s observation of Walsh, over his coverage of a nationalist insurgency in the dusty province of Balochistan, are gobsmacking.

This is not just a book for someone wanting to find out about Pakistan, although it performs that job admirably. It is also a richly observed study of how humans respond to the extraordinary pressures of a sometimes-choking society; empathetic, but hard-nosed and never veering into hagiography. If there is a flaw, it is simply that Walsh’s eviction has left him unable to cover the country’s shifts since 2013. It is a sadder place now, with the military controlling politics again, abducting critics with abandon and stifling the once-boisterous press. Perhaps The Nine Lives of Pakistan will inspire others to follow in Walsh’s footsteps. And if someone at the ISI reads it, they might wonder: is having a reporter like this around such a bad thing for the country, nosy and annoying as they may be?

The Nine Lives of Pakistan by Declan Walsh is published by Bloomsbury at £20. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books