Read: “To Live or to Perish Forever”

09 May 2010

Schmidle is a brave journalist who got his start on a two-year, all-expenses-paid fellowship in Pakistan. He made the most of it, traveling to remote regions of the country and hanging out with some of the country’s notorious opposition leaders.

He used to make regular visits to Lal Masjid (the Red Mosque), just down the street from his house in Islamabad, to hang out with its leader. But then, in the summer of 2007, it became international news when then-dictator Musharraf decided he’d had enough opposition from Lal Masjid, where they were preaching against the government and stocking up arms.

Schmidle gained access to people in Pakistan that few foreign journalists have, and in To Live or to Perish Forever, he uses it to give a fascinating look into the stories behind the bombings and conflicts that get reported in the western press. One quibble about the reporting, however, is that he mainly seems to hang out with the leaders, and doesn’t talk to average people as much. If he did talk to average people much, it’s not clear it influenced his ideas.

Toward the end of the book, it might seem a bit disappointing when he writes: “I thought back to the question my grandfather had put to me more than a year earlier, when he asked, genuinely curious, ‘What’s wrong with that place?’ I realized that I was no closer to offering a comprehensive answer now than I had been back then. That bothered me. The political, social, economic, and religious dynamics embedded in Pakistan seemed to become more and more complicated—and volatile—with time, and less and less solvable.”

But I’ve lived in Pakistan nearly two years now, and although I haven’t spent time with the kind of people that Schmidle has, I have the same feeling as he does. There’s no clear answer about where things are headed, or what to do about it. When I’ve gone back to the U.S., people want to know what I think about Pakistan, what should be done. But it’s really hard to say much.

Perhaps the best answer is simply to curb corruption, to help make development faster, and much more fair. That’s not the kind of answer people are looking for, though, because it’s a solution that would take decades, and no one can see the benefits on the horizon, it seems.

I also think Schmidle is on the right track when he writes: “I disagreed with those who said that ethnic tension, the Taliban, economic crises, years of military dictatorship, the lack of a cohesive identity and so on would eventually lead to Pakistan’s breakup. That would almost be too linear and neat: creation, extended crisis, and then dissolution. It seemed more likely that Pakistan would continue to exist in a perpetual state of frenzied dysfunction; alive, but always appearing to be on the verge of perishing.”

I wish he’d backed this up a bit more, since statements like this can seem like little more than personal bias. Some people see looming collapse everywhere—not just in Pakistan—whereas others see things stumbling along indefinitely. I do think he’s right, though, to argue against Pakistan’s collapse. People talk about that a lot—to the point where it made headlines when the President said the government is not going to collapse. What President would say that it would?

I don’t think it will collapse because things are still developing. In the western press, all you hear about is things being blown up. But new buildings are going up. Pakistanis place a high value on education, and even the very poor still pay to send as many of their kids to school as they can.

It’s true that not everyone in the country identifies as Pakistani first—they might have more allegiance to their sect of Islam, or to their tribe. But there’s still a fair amount of people from the tribal areas who think of themselves as Pakistani first. No one seems to know what to do about the rampant corruption, but most do recognize it a big barrier blocking improvement here—and recognizing that is a crucial first step.

Average Pakistanis still have hope for the future, and that’s the most basic reason I can see why the country isn’t going to collapse any time soon.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »