Dispatches from Pakistan: Book Review

Dispatches from Pakistan. Edited by Madiha R. Tahir, Qalandar Bux Memon, and Vijay Prashad. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. Pp. 288, with index. $69.00 (hardback); $22.95 (paperback). ISBN: 9780816692231; 9780816692248.

Description: Journalists, poets, and academics from Pakistan and its diasporas describe Pakistan through the lives of its labor leaders, farmers, women, and artists. Their goal, which they achieve, is to move the discourse beyond the usual depictions of violence and religion towards a deeper understanding of Pakistan. In the essays violence and religion are examined through alternative perspectives designed to guide a global audience towards a more nuanced understanding of Pakistan. The beginning dispatch, Habib Jalib’s poem “What does Pakistan mean?” asks the question these essays explore. The use of poetry as the first and last dispatch and in the essays guides the reader towards understanding the breadth and depth of Pakistan’s culture.

Several authors explore the effects of the actions of the government and military on the civilian population. In “New Wine in Old Bottles,” Aasim Sajjad Akhtar describes the impact of the underground economy, cash flow, and neoliberalism on a changing society. Saadia Toor analyzes the military’s control of the country and economy, its conflict with Okara farmers and organized labor groups, and support for Musharraf’s governance and policies by liberal progressives and NGO’s in “The Neoliberal Security State.” Ayessha Siddiqa focuses on the military’s impact on politics and its economy in “The General’s Labyrinth: Pakistan and Its Military.” The U.S.-Pakistan quid-pro-quo relationship of Pakistan’s support of the U.S.’s War on Terror in return for U.S. economic aid is described in Junaid Rana’s “The Desperate U.S.-Pakistan Alliance,” which includes a chronicle description of the alliance. Readers unfamiliar with the history of U.S. involvement in Pakistan may be surprised by its negative description in these essays.

Topics not covered in Western media’s coverage include essays on populist leaders, women, economics, and labor leaders. Madiha R. Tahir traces Imran Khan’s career as a politician, party leader of the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI), and hero in “I’ll be your Mirror: The Politics of Pakistan’s Populism.” The growing role of women in civic positions is the focus of Amina Jamal’s “Feminism and ‘Fundamentalism’ in Pakistan,” which includes the history of the Family Muslim Laws and the Hudood Ordinances, the growth of Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal groups, and the tension between upper-class feminists with women in Jamaat-e-Islami. Two essays examine different aspects of labor: Maliha Safri’s “The Modern Mixed Political Economy of Pakistan” reviews the economic impact of feudal and capitalistic practices of bonded labor (peshgi) and sharecropping; Qalandar Bux Memon describes the experiences of four labor leaders in “Blood on the Path of Love: Faisalabad, Pakistan.” These essays provide the reader a deeper understanding of Pakistani society.

Readers gain a better understanding of Pakistan’s diverse regions and ethnic and political groups in the following essays. Humeira Iqtidar’s “Punjab in Play” answers a frequently-asked question about the prominence of the Punjab in Pakistan which includes its history, comparison of its urban and rural communities, and recognition of its diversity. Mahvish Ahmad recounts the four betrayals of the Balochistan community by the government in “Balochistan Betrayal,” including the community’s hope for independence, the promise of self-organization, out-sourcing its resources to international companies, and governance and policing by outsiders. Sultani-I-Rome’s “Swat in Transition” relates the region’s history and governance, the judicial system, the enforcement of Islamic law by the Tahrik Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), and the creation and role of the Taliban in SWAT. “A Tempest in my Harbor: Gwaden, Balochistan” by Hafeez Jamali describes the takeover of Gwadar, Balochistan, by the Pakistani government to “modernize” the region as a deep water port, and the loss of land, homes, fishing rights, and freedom that occurred, resulting in the Fisherfolk’s Movement. Iqbal Khattak’s “Inside Militancy in Waziristan” reviews various tribal leaders and Taliban factions in Waziristan whose inter-group alliances and competing goals illustrate this region’s complexity. “The Nature of Conservation: Conflict and Articulation in Northern Pakistan” by Shafqat Hussain outlines the conflict around the Khunjerab National Park, sited on the traditional hunting and grazing lands of the Shimshal. At issue are opposing views on who owns the land—the Shimshal community or nature and its creatures—as advocated by George Schaller, an American naturalist who worked to protect its wildlife.

Poetry and art, important aspects of Pakistani culture, are explored in several essays for internal and external meaning. “Poetic Reflection & Activism in Gilgit-Baltistan” describes poetry by local activist poets on the government’s intervention in their lives. Nosheen Ali shares a goal to bring Shiite and Sunni clerics together at a Mushaira gathering to share poetry and to create peace between them. Zahra Malkani’s “Several Dawns over the Indus: Three Maps” includes hand-drawn maps and poetry that illustrate different perspectives on Pakistan’s political and geographic boundaries. Hammad Nasar’s “The Art of Extremes” provides an overview of contemporary art (1950s–) by Pakistani artists abroad and at home, the development of its art schools and teachers, the miniature art focus, and its extension by these artists. Dispatches from Pakistan ends with Fehmida Riyaz’s poem “Will You Not See the Full Moon = Kya Tum Poora Chand Na Dekhoge,” a parallel to the beginning poetry by Habib Jalib and Ahmad Faraz. Readers interested in learning about Pakistan’s art and literary cultures will enjoy these essays.

Evaluation: A good introduction to Pakistan’s history, people, and geography. Some essays contain notes and works cited.

Library specific: Public libraries, academic libraries with South Asian collections.

Final judgement of the work: Dispatches from Pakistan is an excellent compilation of poetry, art, and essays by Pakistani journalists, writers, and academicians to guide readers to a deeper understanding of Pakistan. The use of poetry and art in Dispatches reveals Pakistan’s deep artistic heritage for the reader. Often critical of Western influence and Pakistan’s military and government, Dispatches from Pakistan conveys the hope for a more global understanding of Pakistan.

Peggy Cabrera
San Jose State University