Book Review: Playing with Fire
By C. Naseer Ahmad
Veteran Washington Post correspondent Pamela Constable's recent book "Playing with Fire - Pakistan at War with Itself"" is a book worth reading. The first words that the reader will notice are that "a volatile nation at heart of major cultural, political and religious conflicts in the world today, Pakistan commands our attention".
It is a page turner by an author, who has done her homework, knows the subject and just has importantly empathy. Before one even gets to the table of contents, the reader will find Maulana Jalal al Din Rumi's quote "God's purpose for man is to acquire a seeing eye and an understanding heart".
Through the eleven chapters, the reader will get an educated view about the lives and suffering of ordinary Pakistanis during the epic flood that not only destroyed a large part of the country but also exposed the weaknesses of both the government and the society. The author documents the yearning for stability in times past. For example, on Page 21, she narrates the story of Bashir who at sixty is still a day laborer. "Ayub Khan was an honest man, but we have not had one since", she quoted Bashir, who went on to say that "this bunch are all liars and thieves, and they don't care about the poor".
Through the chapters that follow, she vividly describes the inequities in Pakistani society which should provide some warnings of the kind of upheaval that has upended the strongmen in the Middle East. On page 24, the author tells the heart wrenching story of a man who sold his kidney for 80,000 rupees and who remains shackled by debt.
The affliction called the "Sahib" - a sense of superiority and entitlement - culture is viewed by many as the deadweight holding the country down. In this chapter, one will find a businessman saying openly that "in some places some people steal 10 percent, but in Pakistan people steal 90 percent and they don't care what happens to anyone else".
Discussing the role of the concept of "Honor" in the Pakistani society today, she writes on Page 58, "Here everything is about how you look and what you have, not who you are. Everything is for show. People are complacent and apathetic". These are pretty damning words - but there appears to be much truth in them - for a country that has drifted so far away from the vision of the founding father Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
The book addresses the environment of "hate" that is tearing the country apart. Each subsequent chapter illuminates subjects like the overbearing role of the military, the Talibanization and the damage caused by extremism.
What is different about this book is that the author has been to more parts of Pakistan than those who foment instability from the comforts of their luxurious dwellings. Moreover, the author seems to have talked to people who are in the know as well as those who literally live in the ignored streets of Pakistan. So for anyone, whether born in Pakistan or not, who wants to learn about this country at the crossroads of history, this book is a must read.
Ms. Constable, after all, is also the author of "Fragments of Grace: My Search for Meaning in the Strife of South Asia." The reader will find plenty of grace in the three hundred plus pages, in which she caringly talks about a country and its people with noticeable affection. Those who are fortunate to meet the author will find she is also a very graceful lady.