The following is an excerpt of a conversation between the novelist fatima bhutto and imran ali malik.
This transcription has been edited for clarity.
In a year of pandemics and protests, so many of us are reckoning with old ghosts— inheritances we’ve lived with all of our lives, but have thus far been able to put off examining too closely.
Whether it’s the inheritance of capitalism or white supremacy, or of family history and our relationships, being inside and being slowed down has given us time to reflect, to remember, and reckon with our language and our culture. We are all forced to look at ourselves and our surroundings anew. How are we to make sense of the beauty, the pain, the overwhelming sense of loss, and of powerlessness?
This is what the Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto has done all of her life: making sense of her many inheritances—a powerful political legacy, both generative and dark, and at once both painful and powerful, and the life of exile with a father who loved and raised her dearly and was gunned down by the police. She found a way to break through her sorrow and confusion by creating language to eulogize the dead and frame the unframeable. But most of all, she found a way to make sense of the senseless inheritances of violence and politicized cultural artifacts that enshrine not just her life, but the lives of the countless whose world is shaped by the militant politics and religious cultures of Pakistan.
The last time I saw Fatima was in November of 2012. We sat in the 20,000 volume library of her grandfather, the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the famous home on 70 Clifton Road, in Karachi, Pakistan. The walls lined with shelves, with books that Fatima tells me makes up what we might call a ‘decolonized library.’ He had sections devoted to Africa, Asia, and South America, along with a relatively smaller section dedicated to America, where you’d find the works of James Baldwin– one of his favorite writers.
On the wall outside of the library hung a plaque bearing the slogan of the Pakistan People’s Party: “Islam is our religion. Democracy is our polity. Socialism is our economy. All power to the people.”
The books, photographs, and plaques all intimated a portrait of a man who dreamed of a collective, free future not just for Pakistan, but for the Global South. His efforts were cut short when a CIA-backed military coup was staged in 1977 to overthrow the democratically elected Bhutto, and General Zia ul-Haq was put in power, ushering in Pakistan’s third military dictatorship in its short history. The dream experienced its first death when, in 1979, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged, three years before Fatima Bhutto was born.
When she was three years old, her uncle Shahnawaz was poisoned. When she was fourteen years old, her father Murtaza Bhutto was gunned down in the driveway of that house that still holds her grandfather’s library. Some twenty years after that, her aunt, Benazir Bhutto, a former Prime Minister of Pakistan, was assassinated.
In her early years, Fatima was raised in exile in Damascus, and later returned to Karachi, where she still lives in the house of her grandfather. Her first publication, a collection of poetry, was published the year of her father’s murder, when she just 15 years old.
Her first major book came twelve years later— a memoir about her father and her family, titled Songs of Blood and Sword. She has since published two novels, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, and her latest, The Runaways, as well as a work of cultural journalism titled New Kings of the World, an investigation on the intersection of culture and geopolitics, focusing on Turkish Dizi (Ertugrul, et al.), Bollywood, and K-Pop, tacking the decline of the centrality of American culture.
Throughout her life, Fatima Bhutto has lived in the shadow of a powerful and bloody political dynasty, but vowed early on never to take a literal political stage herself. Rather, she sufficed herself to live as a figure in the corner, thinking her dangerous thoughts, and writing her dangerous books. As a result, Fatima Bhutto is a person today whose language, in whichever medium her pen chooses, serves to contain the raw emotion and power of someone catapulted by this unbelievable history that precedes her. Below is an except of our conversation, which can be listened to in its entirety here
We’re in our third month of quarantine. The nation has erupted in protests that have been met with near military force. There’s a resurgence of political consciousness. I was hoping you could tell us how you have been viewing things from your own perspective these past few months.
It’s incredible that this virus would hit at exactly the time when so many countries were pushing these separatist, xenophobic ideas. All these people winning elections, saying foreigners out, locals in, we’re not going to allow migrants. We’re not going to do this. We’re not going to do that. And then you get a virus that affects everyone on earth, that moves with no respect to borders and your walls and your visas and your myopic ways of deciding who belongs where.
It really enforces the point that we can’t live in silos, where the West can thrive, at the cost of the rest of us. This virus has shown very clearly that if we are to survive COVID-19, we’ll only be able to do it if everyone is given a chance to survive.
The US is trending towards fascism, India is trending towards fascism, the United Kingdom, the entire world seems to be going in this direction. With that in mind, I want to ask you to reflect on your grandfather, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who he was, what he represented.
He was part of the generation that was coming out of the shadow of a brutal and degrading colonization. I mean, I say coming out of the shadow, we’ve never left the shadow, but he was of that generation that believed the Global South had a right to a dignified, free future.
They understood deeply that all these battles are connected. So in the first manifesto of the Pakistan People’s Party, which was written in the late sixties, they addressed the Vietnam War and affirmed their solidarity with the people of Vietnam against their occupiers. I think that’s quite profound. And I think it speaks to what that generation envisaged.
But I think that period of my grandfather’s history, I don’t see it in Pakistan anymore, and I’m not sure you see very much of Nehru’s India anymore next door either. Certainly, you see great efforts to dismantle Nehru’s India and one hopes against hope that whatever seeds that generation planted, I don’t know that they remain somewhere in the soil.
Last time we met in person actually was in your home and your grandfather’s home, in his library, and you showed me some of his documents. You’ve lived amongst this legacy. It was such a different promise that Pakistan could be, and the idea of what even Islam was to be.
As a scholar of the region, as a writer, and also from the personal perspective, being amongst his shadow and writings, what was his vision for Pakistan?
The original slogans of the people’s party that my grandfather led was “Democracy is our policy. Socialism is our economy. Islam is our faith. All power to the people.” You know, [now] these things sound incredibly romantic when you hear them. His vision was very tied up to the politics of his time– to coming out of a country that had been suppressed and in every single possible way, where its people were not allowed to learn in their own language all across the British Raj. English was the language of instruction, and still is because of a minute on education written in 1836 or something like that.
An Englishman Thomas Macaulay was charged with picking a language. He goes to Mumbai and says Arabic? No, nothing profound has ever been written in Arabic. Sanskrit?
No, that’s a laugh. Persian? All the great Persian literature can’t fill one shelf. It will be English because that is the most “civilized” language. So we talk about this now from a great distance and, you know, we speak in English obviously. So that says its own thing.
But my grandfather was of the generation that lived very close to those decisions. They lived through the degradation of empire and imperialism, up close.
I didn’t know my grandfather, I only knew him through my father’s memories, and really through his library.
What I always found fascinating about his library was that it was, to use the parlance of the day, a decolonized library.
James Baldwin was one of his favorite writers and that’s where I discovered Baldwin. He had sections devoted to Africa, to South America, to Asia, and the section devoted to America is a sort of small shelf. It’s just a moment, you know. So he was someone very much geared towards third world unity and solidarity, in a rising up of the Global South.
There’s a link to be made with the structuring of American society where you have this historical class of people who were enslaved and are still fighting for recognition. There are two Americas. There are two polices. One class calls the police for help and the other runs from the police.
Yeah. Absolutely. In Pakistan, I can’t ever say I’ve ever met a policeman with anything but fear. People don’t call the police for help. They call their neighbors for help. They call their friends from home.
The police are a mercenary force. I think this is a global thing. I think so many of these things are global. And one of the things that really struck me about watching the protests in America was that some of the predator drones that ordinarily surveil the U.S. Canadian border were called back and were brought to surveil the protests and were flown over cities where you had big protests. And to me, that was just such a revealing news story.
That’s exactly why Americans should care about predator drones that are sent to fly over Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Somalia because you know, they’re not just using them against us.
They’re going to use them against you, too.
And the same rules of violence, the same tools of surveillance, the same tools of oppression, those are not going to be restricted to places far away from home. They use them at home if they need to as well.
Tell us a little bit about the hopeful work happening in Pakistan.
I think, in a strange way, it’s always going to come out of turbulence. It’s always going to come out of ugliness. If we just look at the War on Terror, which I think people in America– and correct me if I’m wrong — kind of have forgotten.
But if you look at it, the disappearances, if you look at the people picked up in the middle of the night and sent to interrogation bases, rendition, you know, there are still families grieving with those losses. While that was going on, it wasn’t journalists that were breaking those news stories for us. It was the families of the disappeared.
It was the sons and the brothers and the sisters and the daughters and the wives of those men, who stood at roundabouts and who stood outside the Supreme Court with the pictures of their loved ones. They stood outside press clubs.
The dictatorship took free reign and was using those blankets [from the War on Terror] to do their own work. I think those families were incredibly brave to do what they did.
If we look at stories like the story of a woman who was gang-raped by the powerful men in her village, it wasn’t the New York Times who broke that story, it was, it was the local Imam who had heard about it and spoke to his mosque about it.
He spoke to how it was not just a sin to have done, but it was the greatest crime that those men had acted upon. That’s why we know what happened to them. We only hear the bad stories that come out of mosques. We don’t hear the good stories and that’s certainly one of the good ones.
I think that there’s a lot of young women who are trying to build connections through things like the Aurat [Women’s] March. There are women in Lahore and Islamabad and Karachi, in the major cities, who are trying to reach out to other cities, to women who live in other neighborhoods who speak other languages than them, and try to come together to build some kind of discourse of what it means to be women.
So I think all those things are incredibly hopeful. I mean, I find them very sustaining, even if they’re set against the backdrop of raging inequality and fear.
I’m reminded of the quote: “The struggle against a man’s struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” from Milan Kundera.
I’ve always thought that [quote] said so much. I think, unfortunately, we live in a culture of amnesia, a culture that supports forgetting, that of distraction. And a culture of the self that’s always pushing us to some kind of performance, some kind of public performance or visibility.
I think part of it is an understanding or empathy for the difficulties of others.
I think that one of the weird things of lockdown and this social distancing is that it’s going to have to make us much more tender in our speech, in our conversation.
I hope it makes us more tender.
I hope it makes us think more about what others go through, and how we can reach out to others without proximity, without closeness, without things like that. And just going back to where you started, one of the things I always liked about Malcolm X is when he was asked, when he was becoming more and more of a political figure rather than a spokesman, what qualified him.
And he said that he had no special education to be a politician. He said he had no special training. He had no university degree in politics, but he was sincere. And that his sincerity is this only thing he could offer is his credibility. And I think that’s important.
I do think sincerity counts for something. I think the ability to learn counts for something. And I guess that’s what I try to hold myself accountable to in whatever way I can.
I’m curious about this period of your life, because you grew up in Damascus, a place that is now in a type of cultural and religious milieu that is no longer there for people, but it lives in the memory. What was that like for you, from your perspective growing up there just as a child?
I always say I was incredibly lucky to have spent my childhood in Damascus because what a gift it is to spend your early years in the world’s oldest, continually inhabited city. Every stone is rich with legacy and with heritage and with beauty.
But at the same time as that was true, I was there as an exile. And so that colored some of that. I was too young obviously to fully understand what it meant to be an exile, but my father was incredibly homesick. And in the 16 years that he was an exile, most of which was in Damascus, but some enough in Afghanistan too, he always carried his home heavily.
And so I understood there was something sad about exile. And I absorbed that sorrow of his, even if I didn’t understand fully what it meant. So there was a shadow over it.
You have been through so many varied experiences and seen so many different things, tragedies and just culture and society. How, how do you make sense of the world?
To tell you the truth, I’m still learning how to make sense of the world. I haven’t found the way of making sense of what is so unfair and so cruel about the world. I think when the world is hard to you, you can understand it more easily and adapt yourself to new ideas and submit yourself to new ideas in order to survive.
But when the world is cruel to others, it’s so much harder to bear. I mean, the idea of what we’re all living through now, it seems so incredibly cruel: that half of us can afford to lock down at home and the other half of the world, if they don’t work one day will starve.
Part of surviving my pain was to understand that it was not unique, that it was not singular, that it belonged to pain everywhere.
And when I understood the loss that I faced and the grief that I had as something much larger, as pain that was felt by many others outside of myself. That allowed me to see it differently in some ways.
I think also in letting go of the idea of the self. Sorry to sound kind of abstract and annoying, but I think there’s so much pain in the idea of the self because it forces us to defend this abstract, intangible thing that we think means something or is significant and has to be propped up all the time.
How do you let go of your sense of self? Or how do you understand your sense of self?
I think by understanding that there is no self. I mean, I’m not the same person I was 10 years ago. I’m not the same person I was 10 days ago. I’m not even the same person I was 10 minutes ago because what I am is just a confluence of different thoughts that are swirling around at any given time. And if I attached to one of them, that’s what causes pain.
If I attach to the idea of myself as someone who suffered, then I’ll always be suffering.
I’ll give you an a less abstract example. I suffered a very long time with the idea of justice because of what happened to my father, who I adored and who was killed outside of my front door.
My father was killed on the road that, anytime I leave my house, I’ve got to walk on that road. I can’t escape the memory of where my father was killed and I suffered for so long because his killers were free.
I kept suffering because I believed in this idea of justice as singular, as one kind of justice. And actually at some point it occurred to me that if I was to have the justice I felt I deserved, then someone else’s daughter would suffer.
And I thought there is one difference between me and the men who killed my father: I would never do that to someone’s daughter.
And so I had to change my way of thinking and eventually I realized, quite belatedly, but thankfully, so long as I’m here, my father’s here and that will be the justice I have while I’m alive. While I’m talking and walking and speaking, he’s speaking, and his killers would have to face that in places that they don’t expect.
They didn’t erase him. I’m here. So these little things. These little insights, which take untold amount of time, have helped me make sense of things, but I’m not done. I’m still learning how to make sense of lots of things.
There’s a metaphysical idea at the heart of it, which is that you are not yourself or that you’re doing these actions in the world, and the second you attach yourself to a certain idea of yourself, you’re essentially destroyed.
It’s like a weight, you know, it’s like putting a weight on your shoulders.
Yeah. And I imagine for you that that weight is such an unbearable weight to hold. But then to take this idea of justice and to land on mercy is another deeply religious idea. And I think it’s interesting. One of the great injustices of the colonial cultural project is that they took away humanism from us, you know, but we were the great humanists. We gave them their colleges. George Makdisi, in The Rise of Colleges, The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West, kind of points us to this fact that you took it from us and then you make us feel like we’re the barbarians.
That’s the lasting scar of colonialism. The way in which they degrade your memory and your understanding and the heritage of your people. But I think, really one of the profound lessons of religion is that surrender. I think all religions ultimately ask us, whatever religion we’re talking about, to surrender that trophy of the self, that idea of ourselves as significant.
They ask us to surrender that to much larger, more encompassing, beautiful ideas. I wish that was clearer. I wish we knew how to do that better.