Fatima Bhutto Q&A: “I miss Damascus more than any place on Earth”

The writer on Syria, The Sopranos and memories of her father.

 

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Fatima Bhutto, who was born in Kabul in 1982, is the relative of two former Pakistani prime ministers. She published her first book at 15 and has since written six more.

What’s your earliest memory?

Being with my father, Murtaza, in a hotel or an airport. Somewhere busy, loud and alien to me, holding on to him and wondering when we were going to get home. 

Who are your heroes?

My father. He raised me as a single parent and was kind, funny and brave. We lived through a period of intense political turbulence and danger but he gave me my love for the world. He was hopeful and idealistic and believed deeply in justice and service. He was killed when I was 14 years old but his love sustains me still. 

What book last changed your thinking?

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey. It’s a beautiful, jagged little book about insomnia and so many unknowable things: life and death, Buddhism, and how language alters our thinking. But I was most struck by its form and structure. 

Which political figure do you look up to?

Aitzaz Hasan Bangash, who was 15 years old when he stopped a suicide bomber approaching his school in northern Pakistan by embracing him with his own body. He gave his life to save 2,000 students and is the epitome of courage. 

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Pop culture. 

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

In Karachi in the early 1970s, because it was a time when Pakistan was full of possibility and hope and seemed like it might become the country it was destined to be. 

What TV show could you not live without?

The Sopranos. It’s the best TV show ever made, full of pathos and blade-sharp observations about the struggle of modern life, family and power.

Who would paint your portrait?

Anyone, but I’d like it to look like a still from a Wong Kar-wai movie.

What’s your theme tune?

Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Everything is connected. Hearing that when I was going through an anxious period of life allowed me to think outside of myself, to let go. I had lived as though I was constantly in combat. Then I stopped fighting and spent more time observing.  

What’s currently bugging you?

The glow of my computer screen, which is too bright and keeps attracting a relentless, vicious mosquito to my face.

What single thing would make your life better?

I know, but you’ll never understand. 

When were you happiest?

Living in Damascus, Syria, as a child. Pakistan was under the brutal, CIA-backed dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq and my father was in exile. I miss Damascus more than any place on Earth.

In another life, what job might you  have chosen?

I recently saw my favourite professor, who reminded me that while I was at university I wanted a profession connected to looking after dogs. Dog sitter? Dog shelter owner? I’m not sure. 

Are we all doomed?

Probably. So we may as well live hungrily, fully and spectacularly now. 

“The Runaways” by Fatima Bhutto is published by Viking

This article appears in the 20 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning

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