A less dangerous place; Munis D. Faruqui reviews Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time.
Article Type:
Book Review
Books (Book reviews)
Faruqui, Munis D.
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Name: Harvard International Review Publisher: Harvard International Relations Council, Inc. Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business; Economics; Law; Political science Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2005 Harvard International Relations Council, Inc. ISSN: 0739-1854
Date: Wntr, 2005 Source Volume: 26 Source Issue: 4
NamedWork: Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (Book)
Reviewee: Casey, Ethan

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Curiously, the story of Alive and Well in Pakistan does not begin in Pakistan. Its starting point is mid-1990s Kashmir and an attempt by the author to retrace V.S. Naipaul's steps in the same region (during the early 1960s and late 1980s). It does not take long, however, for Ethan Casey to turn his yatra to Naipaul's memory into something far more substantial. Where Naipaul was oblivious to the simmering political tensions in Kashmir, Casey, a former freelance journalist with a keen interest in place and politics, engages the Kashmiri rebellion head-on in an ambitious approach that personalizes the conflict.


In fact, the first few chapters are devoted to capturing the volatile mixture of euphoria, ambivalence, and hopelessness afflicting a memorable cast of Kashmiris. What emerges is a wonderfully poignant set of vignettes of the lives of individuals desperately engaged in making sense of the violence that has engulfed them. These chapters are powerfully written; more than that, they suggest a warm sympathy for a people who, to quote one of them, "are hungry for peace. But at the same time ... want to live with honor."

As a result of his time in Kashmir, Casey is moved to consider Pakistan. In Kashmir, he arrived at a crucial realization: the Kashmiri conundrum could not be properly studied without a more complete understanding of the role of Pakistan, one of the important protagonists in the conflict. Through the mid-to-late 1990s, Casey therefore undertook a series of visits to Pakistan. These visits, coupled with a stint in 2003 to 2004 as a journalism teacher at a university in Lahore, provide the backdrop for Casey's attempts to make sense of Pakistan.

To Casey's credit, he does not make grand claims for his book; instead, he asserts it is only intended to represent a "thin and arbitrary slice" of life in Pakistan. However, the book paints a multi-layered portrait of a country that is uncomfortable in its own skin, unable to live up to its founding ideals, and desperate to improve its image in the world. Yet it is also a country that is proud of its achievements, good-humored about its foibles, and hopeful that the future will prove better than the past. This complex picture challenges the all too common impression of outsiders that Pakistan only qualifies for our sympathy or fear as a failed state with nuclear weapons or as a country that cannot decide whether to explode or implode.

Alive and Well in Pakistan's greatest strength lies in its ability to humanize Pakistanis by letting them speak for themselves. This yields important lessons for the reader. We learn, for example, that the average Pakistani is keenly aware of the political and economic winds buffeting his or her nation. We learn that this generally produces pragmatism, not anger. We learn that Pakistanis admire the United States for its political and economic strength but simultaneously resent it for using those same attributes in pursuit of its own narrow and often selfish objectives. We learn that most Pakistanis have forged complicated and sometimes testy relations with Islam, fellow Muslims, and even members of other faiths. We learn that Pakistanis worry about such things as the education of their children, the climbing rates of drug addiction, deteriorating living standards, the environment, human rights, the performance of their sports teams, crime, sartorial fashions, and relations with the opposite sex. This leads to the most important--if also the most obvious--lesson of the book. In their everyday concerns and long term aspirations, Pakistanis today are not unlike people elsewhere in the modern world, making sense of their lives against the backdrop of national and international problems. Alive and Well in Pakistan serves us well in rescuing the very ordinariness of life in Pakistan from the sensationalism and scare-mongering of self-interested pundits, the media, and even politicians.

If there any quibbles to be had with this book, they are few. Nevertheless, the logic of dividing the book into sections entitled "Before" and "After" is unclear. What event is meant to divide the "Before" and "After" secctions? Is this a reference to September 11, 2001, and how the world supposedly changed after it? Or is this intended to separate Casey's first extended stay in Pakistan in 2003 from his previous short-term visits? The answer is not explicit. The scant attention paid to Karachi--Pakistan's largest, richest, most vibrant, and deeply troubled city--is also disappointing. If ever there was a place that could have benefited from Casey's lyricism and humanistic touch, Karachi is it. Assuredly, the view of Pakistan from down south is also very different from that of the Punjabi heartland or even the fringes of the frontier.


On a different note, Casey engages in occasional sloppy generalizations. One, when he suggests that Kashmiris "sometimes" seem to only engage two emotional possibilities: "fierce anger--even hysteria--or else complete indifference." Two, the suggestion that Pakistanis, like tennis coaches, tend to be hustlers. Is the author trying to be witty? Finally, someone with little background in Pakistan may be confused as to why extremist Sunnis and Shi'a are battling one another, who the Sunni sectarian group Sipha-i-Sahaba is, and what--given the virtual absence of Jews in Pakistan--feeds the broad-based anti-Semitism he describes. All said and done though, none of these comments detract from the remarkable qualities of Alive and Well in Pakistan.

When I first agreed to review Alive and Well in Pakistan, my expectations were primarily skeptical. In the days before my copy arrived, I wondered, with suspicion: Who is Ethan Casey? What motivated him to write a book about Pakistan? Will his understanding of Pakistan move beyond the tired cliche of the failed state? And what of Pakistanis themselves? Will he be able to provide any real insights into the ambivalent relationships Pakistanis have to one another, to the Pakistani state, and also to the rest of the world? Or, will his pages speak only of caricatures--the mullah, the peasant, the landlord, the army colonel, the bureaucrat, and the urban-based, liberal professional? Can much be expected from someone who likely neither speaks a Pakistani language nor has any extended experience of living in Pakistan?

Thankfully, these concerns proved to be false. Alive and Well in Pakistan is a wonderfully evocative book that combined pathos with wit, accessibility with complexity, and empathy with critical honesty. This book should be compulsory reading for anyone visiting Pakistan. Even for those who never intend to visit Pakistan, but are curious about a region that former US President Bill Clinton hyperbolically described as "the most dangerous place in the world," Alive and Well in Pakistan will assuredly provide a great deal of food for thought.

MUNIS D. FARUQUI is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Dayton. Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time, by Ethan Casey (Vision Paperbacks, 2004) can be found at www.hir.harvard.edu.
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