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Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan
By Mary Anne Weaver
Farrar Straus & Giroux
HC, 320 pgs. US$24/C$38.95
ISBN: 0-3742-2894-9

A land of hope and fear

By Steven Martinovich
web posted November 18, 2002

It is perhaps impossible to underestimate the importance of Pakistan, a nuclear armed state in what seems a perpetual war dance with India and which also serves as the primary gateway to Afghanistan. It is at once one of America's closest allies in the war against terrorism and yet also home to many of the same groups U.S. President George W. Bush has pledged to destroy. To add to that boiling pot, Pakistan's future as a cohesive state is being tested by several religious, ethnic and tribal conflicts. It literally has the potential of making war-torn Rwanda look like a dry-run for the real thing.

It is that Pakistan and many others that The New Yorker correspondent Mary Anne Weaver explores in Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan. Less a scholarly study than an informed travelogue, Weaver's journeys brought her into contact with noted and multifaceted figures like Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto and a whole collection of interesting figures from both the worlds of Pakistan's elite and underground. Weaver is a capable journalist, her A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam released in 1999 was justly acclaimed for her ability to lay out the players and issues in another troubled state, but it's easy to believe that the mess that Pakistan is beyond her long reach.

The book's strength, as well as its weakness, is that it is more a collection of essays than it is a single cohesive work. That allows Weaver to expound on the various issues and people that make up the story of Pakistan without becoming overly mired in minutiae. Of course, that approach also glosses over the enormous complexity that Pakistan is and threatens to impart a superficial knowledge to the reader. For the most part, Pakistan avoids that problem and at its best possesses a deep insight into Pakistan's story.

One of those better chapters chronicles the hunting of the houbara bustard, a shy desert bird that can be found across the Middle East. The hunt, pursued by the rich sheiks of nations like Saudi Arabia and Dubai, imposes a tremendous toll on both Pakistan and the bird itself. Equipped with tens of millions of dollars in the latest custom built vehicles and radar, and carefully trained – and enormously expensive – prized falcons and handing out bribes when necessary, the powerful Arabs live in elaborate tent cities while they bring down hundreds of birds each before departing all in the belief that the houbara, an endangered bird, serves as a powerful aphrodisiac.

The hunt serves as a powerful allegory for Pakistan itself. Like the houbara bustard, Pakistan too has been the prize in many people's elaborate games. It has been used by the Gulf States to house and train their Islamists, the fodder for the war in Afghanistan, and by the United States as a conduit for arms and money for anti-Soviet forces. It was given the cold shoulder by both once the last Russian tank departed. Like the devastated desert after a houbara hunt, Pakistan was left a wasteland of heavily armed and angry militants and a socio-economic situation that threatens to turn the country completely towards militant Islam.

Of course, allegories can only go so far. Weaver also makes it clear that Pakistanis themselves bear much of the blame for the situation they find themselves in. Although pinning the blame for the existence of the mujahiden on the U.S. and the Gulf states may make Pakistanis feel better, the fact is that successive political leaders – including Bhutto and Musharraf – supported militant Islamists for decades. It's simmering ethnic and tribal animosities are as much or more a result of Islamabad's corrupt and inept governance as they are of outside influences. Its continuing dustups with India seems more an issue of saving face as it does with promoting its interests in Kashmir.

While some may find Weaver's treatment of the subject to be more wide than deep, Pakistan nonetheless paints a remarkable portrait of the problems that Musharraf must solve if his state is to survive in its present, or hopefully more improved, form. With over two decades of covering Pakistan and the wider Islamic world, few are more capable or well-placed to translate their expertise into a readable and enjoyable experience than Weaver. Her account is filled with a sense of immediacy for a nation which serves as a nexus for the west's hopes and fears, and is a story that few could have told better.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

Buy Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan by Mary Anne Weaver at Amazon.com for $16.80 (30% off)

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • America's Middle East linchpin under siege by Steven Martinovich (September 18, 2000)
    Think the Shah of Iran's fall created problems for the West? Steve Martinovich reviews A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam and comes away real worried
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