7:30pm, May 18, 2011
The Bhuttos are to Pakistan what the Kennedys are to the United States, it is said.
Installed in 4-inch heels, seated opposite SBS journalist Anton Enus in Melbourne’s opulent Athenaeum Theatre, Fatima Bhutto described the comparison as strange and unfair – a mythology that solemnises a false distinction between her family and her fellow citizens. Despite being wreathed in Kennedy-esque power, wealth and tragedy, Fatima’s elegant insistence that her (assumed) political birthright is more albatross than advantage, ‘I didn’t choose this life, it chose me’, underwrote the next seventy-five minutes. And it underwrites her new book.
Bhutto was present to discuss Songs of Blood and Sword, her second semi-autobiographical title, published last year. Fatima Bhutto, daughter of murdered Murtaza and niece of the slain Benazir, was 14 years old when her father was shot in custody – in cloudy circumstances – by the Pakistani police, the military wing of his sister’s parliament.
Her descriptions of, and speculation about, the government whose main political party, the PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party), is exclusively manned by members of her own family and is internationally renowned for its corruption – including direct implication in her own father’s death – is incredibly measured, eloquent and circumspect. Though when she speaks of the Bhuttos (and the Zardaris), she speaks in third person.
Accustomed to having her volume turned up by national and international media, Bhutto’s modesty crystallised in the frank explanation that she and her brother ‘were never raised to think of the country as our family business’. The Karachi-based writer tells us that her advocacy of truth, justice and democracy is not exclusive to her, but representative of much of her generation; a strikingly large majority of Pakistan’s population are under thirty.
Cynical about the unsought attention, Bhutto may be wry, but she knows her opinion bears weight.
In response to audience questions of how she plans to ‘assist democracy’ and ‘fix the political problems’ of Pakistan, Bhutto, in composed self-deprecation, answered that she would not run for office and said simply, ‘It is easy to get rid of dynasties – just don’t vote for them’. It is difficult not to see her dismissal of a political career as a dismissal of her own possible demise.
Marvelling at Pakistan’s ‘aplomb’ in denying any collusion with Osama Bin Laden’s cabal or presence in Abbottabad (one of Islamabad’s most ‘banal provinces’), Bhutto characterised both the denials and the continuing compromising relationship with the US as ‘ridiculous’, intoning the commonly held opinion that US foreign aid provided to Pakistan is nothing more than the President’s personal stipend and mirthfully surmised that any halt in US economic aid would negatively impact on Asif Ali Zardari’s impressive real estate portfolio.
Bhutto’s book may serve to mollify some of the West’s optimistic adaptations of recent Pakistani domestic politics. Primarily: Benazir Bhutto was not a liberal, pro-democracy, feminist Jacqueline-Onassis-in-a-sari. Fatima spoke summarily of her childhood deference for Pinky (Benazir’s familial nickname), but reserved her severest condemnation for her Aunt’s contrary politics – beginning with her (patently undemocratic) self-appointment to the chair of the PPP, and ending with her firm belief that Pinky’s government was the architect of her father’s untimely death.
All of this is in the book.
Perhaps Fatima’s candour, her facility in articulating scepticism of Bhutto Inc. and US–Pakistan relations, was reared in Afghanistan during her father’s exile and refined in the universities of the United States and the United Kingdom, or perhaps it is that sanguine strain of hope singular to those whose lives have been intimately wed with bloodshed.
In the year elapsed since its publication, Songs has amassed much acclaim, and some criticism – mostly levelled at the memoir-ish transmission of the narrative, the uncritical vantage of the adoring daughter. More magnanimous assessments see Bhutto’s preference for ‘justice over revenge’ as the mature (if not ambitious) response of a young woman, who, after tallying up years of tragedy and trial, has decided to lay down the sword.
Jessie Borrelle is a New Zealand writer, editor and producer currently based in Melbourne, Australia.