Pakistan: a Hard Country

A huge amount has been written about Pakistan, most of it very negative - not least since the killing in Abbottabad of Osama Bin Laden by American special forces. I recently visited relatives in Karachi, and most people warned me beforehand to be careful. Even after I returned unscathed, some seemed surprised that the worst thing to have befallen me was a dodgy stomach - not a bomb blast or a rabid mullah in sight.

In this timely book, Anatol Lieven turns on its head the conventional wisdom that Pakistan is caught in an existential battle between western-style modernity and an increasingly powerful Taliban insurgency. In fact, he argues, the likelihood of extremist groups seizing control of the country and its nuclear weapons is vanishingly slim and the question we should be asking is not why support for Islamist groups is so strong in Pakistan, but why it is so weak.

This does not detract from the country's immense problems, which the book analyses in detail. Lieven's thesis centres on Pakistan's social conservatism and tight structures of kinship, which engender the "tragic tension" between "the needs of modern progress and the needs of political and social stability". This explains the corruption that is endemic in public life - the obligation to give your kinsman a helping hand always comes first. However, it also explains why the state is unlikely to fall into the hands of extremists who might pose a challenge to ingrained power structures. Consequently, the country is in a double bind: the same traditions that prevent civil war or Islamist revolution stymie Pakistan's development into a thriving, modern state.

By analysing several rulers, Lieven shows that the Pakistani nation state is in fact stable, if ineffectual. Periods of civilian government differ very little from those of military rule - both are constrained by the prevailing social structures and traditions, the true source of power in Pakistan.

That Lieven has spent considerable time in Pakistan - first as a foreign correspondent and then as an academic - is evident not just from the long quotations from his conversations with original sources inside the country, but also from his elucidation of a non-western perspective, explaining what many people in the west perceive to be support for extremism. While I was there, I was struck by the strength of feeling against the western intervention in Libya and the public sympathy for Muammar al-Gaddafi, based not on his actions, but on his defiance of America.

The same is true of the apparent support for Afghanistan's Taliban - it is prompted mostly by deep-running anti-Americanism and fellow feeling with those who refuse to give in to the west. It is not the same as wanting them to implement their harsh version of Islam across the country (another point the book makes is that the versions of Islam practised in Pakistan are too various for Islamist parties to take hold nationally). Members of the westernised upper classes with whom I spent time in Karachi shared this anti-Americanism but jested disdainfully about "bearded fundos".

Lieven lays bare the scars left by colonialism, particularly the imposition of structures that have little meaning in the context of the culture. The justice system is a case in point. Ludicrously, it functions in English - even though many lawyers and judges don't speak the language fluently, and most plaintiffs and accused speak no English at all - and is beset by delays and vast costs. The appeal of the Taliban in the rural tribal areas thus becomes apparent: their justice, though rough, is efficient and accessible. Here, as in other areas, the state is largely powerless. The central justice system has passed several laws promoting women's rights, yet it has no means of upholding them.

Crucially, Lieven sets out clearly the difference between sharia law and the more publicised, often very brutal customs of the Baloch and the Pathans. Many of these practices are repugnant to urbanised or educated Pakistanis and are contrary to Islam. The section on sharia law and the Pashtunwali (the tribal code that informs much of the Taliban's ideology) provides an insight into extremism on both sides of the Afghan border.
A Hard Country portrays Pakistan as a tribal society at heart that is resistant to western modernisation and to radical Islam. It is written with huge affection and often with humour - especially where the national pen­chant for conspiracy theories is concerned.

But in some ways it is quite negative: it shows how the country's predicament has come about and why the problems it faces are
seemingly so intractable, but does not offer any solutions.

Lieven insists that Pakistan is tough and is unlikely to become a failed state, unless America invades or climate change causes collapse. During my trip, there was news of a bomb attack somewhere in the country nearly every day. Yet the notion that it is "the most dangerous country in the world", so frequently put forward in western newspapers, felt ridicu­lous from the vantage point of a comfortable Karachi suburb. For the upper echelons, who hold the balance of power, terrorism has little impact, because they have the luxury of avoiding crowded areas where attacks are likely; life is as it always was. Corruption and politi­cal instability are visible everywhere, but the country is clearly very far from becoming another Somalia.

Though remaining acutely focused on Pakistan's problems (including that divide between the elite and the masses), this book does much to counter lazy assumptions about the country that proliferate elsewhere. l
Samira Shackle is a staff writer for the NS

Pakistan: a Hard Country
Anatol Lieven
Allen Lane, 576pp, £30

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide