In the middle of an Islamabad night, just before the Pakistan election of 2013, the Irish journalist Declan Walsh was visited by "angels".
These angels, as Pakistanis call the members of the military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), served Walsh with a letter of expulsion. After nearly a decade as a correspondent reporting on Pakistan's politics for The Guardian and then the New York Times, Walsh was given 72 hours to leave the country. The only reason that the ISI offered: he had taken part in "undesirable activities".
Released in 2020, The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State (WW Norton & Company) is the story of how Walsh came to learn what these "undesirable activities" had been, though it takes its time getting there. It's only at the very end that we, and Walsh, discover what he had done to upset the ISI. To understand the reason, we need to first go on a journey through the political history of Pakistan as personified by the titular nine lives: Pakistanis whose life stories bring shape, depth, and clarity to a country that stands as an international enigma. All but two of these lives are people Walsh had previously covered in his reportage, and so we are launched into a narrative that is part history, part memoir, and part travelogue, as Walsh goes from the frontier of Waziristan to the sluggish coast of Sindh, from the anodyne mansions of Islamabad to the bleak fortresses of Balochistan.
Walsh's chosen nine lives are all key players in singular moments of Pakistan's history and its present political landscape. Starting with a character portrait of Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a liberal, "Westernized" man who becomes radicalised and dies in a military crackdown on his Islamist movement based in Islambad's Lal Masjid, we see Walsh's method of showing people in crisis—in "precarious states"—and using them to launch into an explanation of the history that brought them to that moment.
We learn through Ghazi about the impact of American foreign policy and Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban. Through a chapter on Jinnah, we see Pakistan as a country born through identity crises. We meet Asma Jahangir, a lawyer and human rights activist who defends Pakistan's minorities and calls the country's indomitable generals "useless duffers" on television. The cast goes on. Walsh portrays them all with insight and empathy without condoning their often detestable actions, and the reader feels they understand even the most outlandish, dislikeable of these nine lives.
Walsh was able to write directly from situations only accessible to a writer with outsider status, media connections, and years of experience in the country. And these same experiences that pepper the book, are what ultimately led to him being evicted from Pakistan. In this last respect, Nine Lives stumbles somewhat in that Walsh disappears so well into the background of his chapters that it feels almost anticlimactic when the focus shifts back to his own story at the end of the book. Yet it cannot be disputed that he is an expert on the subject he tackles, and to his first-hand experience and deep outsider knowledge of Pakistan, he adds a clear, graceful writing style. Imagery is kept short but evocative—often efficiently poetic, often wry.
While Walsh takes great pains to portray Pakistan as a tantalisingly complex, bewildering country that defies easy stereotyping—and explicitly condemns the reductionist, Orientalist takes many writers adopt for Pakistan—it has to be said that this is primarily a book about Pakistan's politics and its security apparatus. International readers—not just Western, but South Asian—who are used to seeing Pakistan as a security problem and a dysfunctional state will find their views enriched, but not contradicted or terribly complicated by Walsh's work. To an extent he can be a victim of his own success; he humanises Pakistan's political instabilities enough that readers may come away feeling they really understand Pakistan now, which is a task no one book and no one author can ever accomplish.
Bangladeshi readers will also be disappointed to note that he does not really delve into the relationship between Bangladesh and Pakistan, and in his occasional references to the former East Pakistan and the 1971 war he seems to buy into the narrative of an Indian-instigated uprising, and a final Indian victory. Of course, Walsh never claims to be the definitive voice on Pakistani politics, much less on the country itself, so these are more words of caution to a reader rather than a critique of what is, finally, an excellent book.
Zoheb Mashiur is a doctoral researcher on race and the British Empire. He is based at the University of Kent's Brussels School of International Studies. Twitter: @ZMashiur