An Hour With Fatima Bhutto

ARTS, Books

The names march down the book’s cover in bold white print: “Granddaughter to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, executed 1979. Niece to Shahnawaz Bhutto, murdered 1985. Daughter of Mir Murtaza Bhutto, assassinated 1996. Niece to Benazir Bhutto, assassinated 2007.”

But when Fatima Bhutto took the stage at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, casual in jeans and a loose white blouse, she seemed determined to resist that introduction. “It’s not on my business card, actually, who I’m related to,” she joked. “You could just say Writer.”

It’s a fitting contrast. Fatima’s memoir Songs of Blood and Sword is a political history of the Bhutto dynasty in Pakistan, but it is also an expression of grief and an act of political defiance. In promoting the book, she is attempting to tear down the myths and deceptions that have defined her family for the last four decades.

The book recounts the history of the Bhuttos’ rise to power, summarising the wars with India over Kashmir, the development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, the election of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as prime minister, the military coup by General Zia ul-Haq and the aftermath of Zulfikar’s execution.

Family documents and interviews with political colleagues shine new light on the power struggles between Zulfikar’s children after his death, as Murtaza and Shahnawaz plotted armed resistance against General Zia from Afghanistan and Benazir declared herself the political heir to the Bhutto legacy. Fatima doesn’t hesitate to accuse Benazir and her widower President Zardari of orchestrating Murtaza’s assassination, which she remembers in gut-wrenching detail in the opening and closing chapters.

At the same time, Fatima retraces her journey to gather up the scattered memories of her father’s life. The book chronicles the four years she spent studying old diaries and newspaper clippings, writing letters, collecting photographs, and travelling through Pakistan, Europe and America to speak with old friends and lovers. Writing Murtaza’s story allowed her to reconnect with the father she lost and discover the idealistic young man he once was.

“Bedtime stories were also about exile; they were also about dictatorships. I knew words like ‘junta’ in the first grade.”

At the festival, Fatima talked with Treasa Dunworth about her memories of Murtaza when they were living in Damascus. “He was a wonderful parent because it wasn’t just fun and games,” she said. “He also taught me about where I was and what had happened to Pakistan. Bedtime stories were also about exile; they were also about dictatorships. I knew words like ‘junta’ in the first grade, and I thought other children knew them but they didn’t.”

Growing up, her political awareness was heavily influenced by the populist ideals of her grandfather Zulfikar. “He was a part of the great promise for the country,” she said, acknowledging that he strayed from many of those ideals when he became prime minister. (Treasa suggested a parallel with President Obama, drawing a short laugh from Fatima.)

“The Bhuttos started politically as being very leftist and very socialist, about endogenous economic development and bilateral foreign relations, all these things that make young nations proud. And then somewhere along the line they went the other way and became sort of corporate and almost right-wing about where money went and how it was used, if in fact it was ever used.”

Her opinions of her family and of Pakistan have only been reinforced by her liberal education and the geopolitical events of the last decade. “I was in my second year of university in New York when 9/11 happened, and I was about to start work on my Master’s dissertation in London when 7/7 happened,” she remarked. “It’s amazing they let me through airports.”

Though she seems to rule out a career as a politician, Fatima is an outspoken critic of President Zardari and his exploitation of the Bhutto name. She explained that this one of the reasons she wrote such a revealing book. “We’re still living in their shadows in Pakistan; we still live based on how people think of them. The last elections that happened, I did a lot of door-to-door work. This woman said to me, ‘I’m voting for Benazir.’ And I said, ‘But she’s gone, she’s not here anymore.’ She said ‘Yes, you’re right, but I always voted for Bhutto.’ I said ‘Why?’ and she said ‘I don’t know. I just always did.’”

Fatima is also relentless in her censure of the United States for their interference in Pakistani politics since the Cold War, whether through defence agreements like SEATO and CENTO or developmental aid packages like the Kerry-Lugar Act of 2009, which provides $7.5 billion to Pakistan over five years.

“The list of conditions of what Pakistan has to do to get this money is humiliating to the extreme,” she said. “Richard Holbrooke, when he was still with us, used to come to Pakistan every three to six weeks just to check in on us and make sure we were doing what we were supposed to be doing. When the Kerry-Lugar bill started to become public, Pakistanis were very upset: ‘How can you impose these conditions on us to give us money? We don’t want it.’ He said, ‘Those who speak against this bill are against democracy.’ It sounded so… Bushian, if that can be a word.”

“Richard Holbrooke said, ‘Those who speak against this bill are against democracy.’ It sounded so… Bushian, if that can be a word.”

Less than two weeks after Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, the discussion seemed especially relevant. During the Q&A session, Fatima pointed out that the mainstream press were largely ignoring the fact that America is allowed to launch kill and capture operations on Pakistani soil whenever it likes.  “Instead of talking about that,” she said, “we can’t turn around for stories of what Osama kept in his bedside table and what kind of videos he watched online and how many cricket balls were lost over the wall of his compound.”

It’s the latest in a long list of conflicting narratives that she grapples with in her political writing. There is the corrupt, paranoid government from the recent headlines of the War on Terror; and then there is Fatima’s Pakistan, a young nation fighting for true democracy. There is Benazir Bhutto the tragic icon, honoured and mourned as the first woman elected to lead a Muslim country; and then there is the power-hungry Benazir who colluded with Western powers and wore a hijab to curry favour with religious extremists.

The tension between the different roles Fatima plays—family member, witness, activist, journalist, historian—is the most compelling thing about Songs of Blood and Sword. Her powerful storytelling can make her life seem like a cross between a legend and a political thriller, but she leaves no illusions about the violence that tore her family apart. It gives her a perspective that can be challenged but must be considered.