When the Pakistani Army fired mortars at Lal Masjid in July 2007, I could see the helicopters hovering from the balcony. Staying at a friend’s place, watching Wimbledon I switched to CNN or GEO once in a while to see what unfolded outside my window. Days before I had returned from Peshawar, with an Afghan refugee who, expelled from Germany, dropped by German police in Kabul with a devalidated passport had just crossed illegally into Pakistan and was now trying to get back home (to Germany). I was the link between his caretakers in Germany and embassy staff. Some weeks before I had travelled by car and foot from Peshawar to Chitral passing the Korengal valley in eye sight – American troops were at that time entangled in heavy fighting there to eventually give up. Two days after the Lal Masjid siege, I travelled to AJK for work, where I sat with family of some of the female talib who were inside during the standoff.
I was busy with work most of the time (watching Wimbledon was a perfectly dull recreation) and not bothered at all with what happened geo-politically around me. I was also convinced – and still am – that it was really not my business and I was and am still far too ignorant (in history especially) to explain what happened around me on a wider scope to a Western audience. But when in 2009 my uncle pointed my attention to a guy called Nicholas Schmidle, whom he had just heard on a radio interview promoting his new book, To live or to perish forever – two tumultous years in Pakistan (Henry Holt, 2009) I was quite stupefied. A guy, just some years older than me who had lived in Pakistan at the same time I had, had written a book about that experience and was being highly succesful with it – I had to make fun of that. After all he did live in Islamabad – us Lahori goras always despised those expats who lived in some posh place on a chessboard, hopped from paddock party to American club and thought they had gone native after a trip in their Land Cruiser to get a new wooden couch table from Chakwal. The fact that his endorsments were from Fick, Coll and Khanna left me sure that he was just some rich kid who had the right connections. So I considered him irrelevant without having read his book. Until at some point I did buy it (the articles he wrote turned out to be quite good) and had it lying around for some more time.
When I finally got around to the first few pages, I was convinced that my stereotypic labelling had not been unjust. Schmidle starts his account of his time in Pakistan at the end of his sojourn, when a police officer confronts him with an official letter that asks him to leave the country – his Visa had been revoked. At that time I had just finished Brandherd Pakistan by Christoph Hoerstel (which I reviewed here), who starts his book in a nearly identical way – watching TV in his Islamabad home in 2008, the police shows up with a letter asking him to leave the country. I figured that was considered a good ouverture to make oneself sound important and immediately present one’s personal fiercest opponent – the well known ISI. Who gets picked up by the ISI, must have some seriously exciting stories to tell (I had hour long interrogations with them regarding women they spotted in our house, they withheld my Visa for 10 months, I had a fake article after a bomb attack in Lahore published about myself, something which Schmidle took as a warning, and at times I had a guy who followed me obviously for days in Kashmir – my ISI experience would make a good Punjabi stage play, not much more.)
To bring it to a point – Schmidle had a lot of prejudice to master, if his book was going to leave me with a positive impression. I wasn’t even half way through the book when I felt that my private mocking of him based on nothing but assumptions was deeply unjust. His book turned out to be the standard on which I will henceworth judge travelogue-cum-current-affairs-writing by foreigners on the country. Unlike Oskar Verkaaik, who equally approaches the country without longing to satisfy what the public wants to read to satisfy it’s pre-conceived stereotypes, Schmidle does not come up with novel insight or personal theories. But he did not set out to do that. His attempt was to realistically portray the country to a Western reader, with a focus on current affairs that mattered in Western media narratives. While doing so he covered issues that are indeed covered dimly even in Pakistan itself – some of which caused his eviction in the end. His travels to the FATA, Balochistan, Swat shed light on little reported or understood conflicts, his trip to Bangladesh completes his observations also back into the history of todays’ conflicts. His close relationship to Abdul Rashid Ghazi may indeed be something that very few journalists managed to achieve. His writing is witty, his observations personal and relateable and while making sure to back his narrative with ample secondary literature he never stumbles into self-assured policy statements from the top-down Western perspective, nor is he trying to put himself on an equal level with locals that can never be achieved.
In my eyes this is the most remarkable aspect of this book – in a time where he can be sure to sell adventure stories easily (and the title of the book pointed in this direction) to media that wants its chliche-lust satisfied (Greg Mortenson is, I think, the best latest example), he stayed sober and reported what was to report. On the other end, his trip to Sehwan does not turn into a cheap defence of Pakistan as a sufi-not-terrorist country and while travelling he does not see the need to exaggeratedly portray that beauty of the country at which foreigners marvel who expected Pakistan must look like hell considering what they read in the daily news coverage.