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Pilgrimage to nowhere

A year on from Benazir Bhutto's assassination, Fatima Bhutto visits the family mausoleum and reflect

The old Bhutto mazaar, or graveyard, is in a small town called Garhi Khuda Bux. It is not fair to call it a town; it’s a hamlet really, nestled between swaths of fertile agricultural land and small town centres that cater to travelling traders and produce distributors. When I was younger, I used to know we were close to the mazaar as we drove by the old paan wallah. He was a geriatric who sold betel-leaf paans, conical beedi cigarettes and a pack or two of Gold Leaf extra-strong smokes from the table he sat on. The mazaaritself was hundreds of years old and is where the Bhuttos have been buried since they settled in Sind. Wooden pillars, carved with lattice designs, marked the absence of the four walls that would have enclosed the open-air burial site. It was a sombre resting place: four corners of Sind lay open around you, and the dusty smell of the air in Garhi Khuda Bux’s desert climate surrounded mourners who came to mark death anniversaries and birthdays.

It's all gone now.

It was torn down by the last member of the family to be buried there, Benazir Bhutto, and rebuilt as a mausoleum. In a country where politics has always orbited around personalities, she was determined that hers would be the largest and the grandest. Benazir rebuilt the old family mazaar in the manner of an Aladdin-style castle. The structure has a domed roof, four minaret-like points facing in different directions, a grand driveway so that no one need bother to walk, and elaborate staircases which lead nowhere. It's revolting. It looks like the Disney version of the Taj Mahal.

A visiting journalist once asked me what was going to be built on a second storey of the grandiose mausoleum, the one the staircases presumably were erected for. "A gift store, probably," I answered. I was joking. But there is one now - actually, there are plenty, they're just not on the second floor.

Outside the mausoleum there are juice sellers, men with portable pakora and popcorn machines, stalls selling pictures of all the dead Bhuttos and more stalls selling posters and tapes of the dead Bhuttos' speeches. It's macabre, but this is the shrine that Benazir built for herself; this is the afterbirth of her death.

Now her posters, in the manner of those at Sufi shrines, hang inside the mausoleum, over the graves even. There is no space for the sacred, there is no space for grief, only space for advertising and political grandstanding of "Look whom I'm related to"-type posters, "Vote for my children, they're next!" warnings, and so on.

One year after Benazir's assassination, this is what her legacy has come down to. And it is fitting that in her death, like in her life, there is no talk of principles or ideology, only of personality and genealogy.

There is, however, a small matter to contend with: the larger legacy, so to speak. Two months after her violent death, the party she headed as chairperson for life (an actual title) - the Pakistan Peoples Party - came to power on a sympathy vote. The people voted for a ghost and they ended up with her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and her cronies in power. Pakistan is, to date, the only nuclear-armed country in the world led by two former criminals. And as the new PPP's first year in power comes to a close, coinciding with the death of its chairperson, I feel compelled, as a Pakistani, to recap what all this means and to ask, "What legacy have we been left with?"

Legacies are insulting in the face of mass suicides, carried out by members of the poorer classes because they simply can no longer afford to live

Clearly, it is a legacy with no sense of irony. In the United States the Pakistani diplomatic mission to Texas is hard at work raising funds for a Charlie Wilson Chair of Pakistan Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. Out of all the people in the universe who should have a chair in Pakistani studies named after them, the American congressman who funded the mujahedin (now Taliban) through Pakistan’s secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence, is the stupidest person to choose. Remember how well Wilson’s efforts turned out? Well, right here in Pakistan we have daily reminders. In the last week of December, a branch of the Peshawar Model School was attacked. The school, which offers private education to 12,000 of the poorest children in Peshawar, North-West Frontier Province, was targeted by the Pakistani Taliban – thanks, Charlie Wilson – because it teaches girls and boys together. Two buses were burned to a crisp and ten others were quite seriously torched. A parcel of dynamite that exploded in the principal’s office maimed several staff and groundskeepers.

US drones continue to breach Pakistani sovereignty, with the blessing of President Zardari, who proclaimed to those being anonymously killed that "the air strikes will go on". Somebody told him that was a bad PR move, so he quickly rescinded the proclamation.

The front page of a leading English-language daily last month carried a statement by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of army staff, in large, bold letters, "Kayani pledges matching response to India strike in no time". The story directly opposite read, in a con siderably smaller font, "US missiles kill seven in South Waziristan". This referred to civilians killed on 22 December, but, in fact, the unmanned drones have been killing since the autumn.

While it remains acceptable for Americans to come and kill our citizens, Pakistan's government has issued bombastic and seemingly harsh statements to counter the threat of a possible Indian air strike following the fallout of the Mumbai massacres. It's nice to be distracted from an actual daily death toll, after all.

There's more, lots more legacy to contend with. At a mid-December Asia Society panel in New York, grave charges were placed against Pakistan. Salman Rushdie, no fan of Pakistan (and why would he be, when the country's parliament pledged its continued desire to prolong his fatwa and allowed several members publicly to offer to kill him after he was knighted in 2007), summed up the way people are now looking at Pakistan: "The headquarters of al-Qaeda, the headquarters of the Taliban, the headquarters of Lashkar-e-Toiba, the headquarters of Jaish-e-Mohammad is in the world centre of terrorism - Pakistan." For emphasis, he added, "All the roads of world terrorism lead to Pakistan."

For those Rushdie bashers who would be quick to fatwa him for that statement, it is worth remembering that he is as Pakistani as he is Indian, his family having moved to Karachi and lived and died there.

But it is not just Rushdie who lacks faith in this new Pakistan. A poll conducted in the country in October by the International Republican Institute showed that 88 per cent of Pakistanis think their country is heading in the wrong direction. Fifty-nine per cent said they felt their economic situation would worsen in the coming year and the PPP received a rating so unfavourable that the pollsters compared it to former President Pervez Musharraf's figures last January. Why should Pakistanis have any confidence in their government? Recently it was made known that the puppet prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, had spent 50 million rupees on five foreign trips over the pre vious four months. That's something close to £450,000 - for one man (and his very large entourage, apparently). I smell corruption. You'd have no sense of smell if you didn't.

Legacies aren't enough in Pakistan. They never were, but now we have ample proof why. Personalities and dynasties are meaningless in a country where, every day, gastrointestinal disease kills children because they have no access to potable water. Legacies are insulting in the face of mass suicides, carried out by members of Pakistan's poorer classes because they simply can no longer afford to live.

Mohammad Azam Khan worked for a private cable channel. He killed himself in early December, having not received a salary for five months. His colleagues held protest rallies around the country, but no one - especially not the media - wants us to remember his name or why he felt he had no choice but to take his own life.

Pakistanis have bigger problems to contend with, bigger causes to grieve for than Benazir Bhutto. And yet, a year on from her death, we are still at the mercy of our ghosts.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The destruction of Gaza

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood