Book Review — The Nine Lives of Pakistan by Declan Walsh

'Tosin Adeoti
5 min readMar 21, 2024

Two days ago, I finished reading Declan Walsh’s “The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Divided Nation.” Walsh is an Irish journalist who currently serves as the Chief Africa Correspondent for The New York Times. Prior to that, he spent a decade in Pakistan as a correspondent for The Guardian and The New York Times. The book was published in 2020, seven years after he was expelled from Pakistan by its government.

Not many books excite me to write a review like this one did. It is one of those books that, had it been in my youthful days, I would have read in one sitting, but in these times of financial constraints, I had no choice but to read it in parts. Still, no matter what I was doing, I kept finding myself drawn to the gripping narration I had just read, to the extent that I constantly looked forward to what was next.

It is fashionable for Nigerians to consider their country as chaotic and exceptional, but have you heard of a country called Pakistan? This is a nation held together not by a common value or ideology but by the sheer force of its military. In this book, the author shares details that will make you wonder how this place still stands. From the raucous port of Karachi to the gilded salons of Lahore to the lawless frontier of Waziristan, Declan encountered Pakistanis whose lives offer a compelling portrait of this land of contradictions.

Is it about the founding where one man, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, is considered the founder of Pakistan but remains a mystery? While Indians generally perceive him as an agent of division for carving Pakistan out of India, his admirers who view his ideals as progressive are certain that the lack of progress in the Pakistani land stems from the inability of the Pakistani soil to absorb them, to the extent that in a school in Quetta, students learn A for Allah, J for Jihad, and C for conflict.

This religious extremism is something you will encounter frequently in the book. How Islamic sects unite against one another because they are not practicing the true religion. How a Christian woman who spoke ‘out of turn’ was dragged into the open, kicked, spat on, and given the death sentence. How a policeman assigned by the state to protect the governor of the largest province in Pakistan took out his gun and killed the governor because he disregarded Islamic tenets.

But what may concern you more is how women are treated in Pakistani society. How can you read this book and not be impressed by Asma Jahangir, the one-woman force whose fiery approach to justice won her admiration across the globe? I consider it almost a miracle that she died of natural causes, considering all she faced and all she witnessed others endure, including her friend, Benazir Bhutto, a former president who was campaigning for re-election when she was eventually assassinated.

But it is not always bleak. There is the account of Nawab Akbar Shahbaz Khan Bugti, who, to my delight, possessed one of the finest libraries in Pakistan. The author observed that he reads late into the night, devouring the works of English romantics, French philosophers, and Sufi masters. When he met him, he was rereading Homer’s Iliad. However, in many places, Western education was seriously avoided due to the ‘ills’ it purportedly brought.

“To his father, an uneducated man is an asset. You tell him to plow the land or kill another man, and he will do it. But if the son is educated, he will say, ‘I am too good for that.’ And if he cannot find a job, he will become frustrated. So the father prefers an uneducated man.”

And such are the kinds of people who are most easily manipulated, even across borders. Consider how Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian lawyer, anti-colonial nationalist, and political ethicist, was killed:

“On a cold January evening in 1948, Gandhi was shuffling across a lawn…when a Hindu supremacist…stepped from the crowd. Godse greeted Gandhi, touched his feet in a mark of respect, then produced a Beretta pistol and shot the frail 78-year-old three times in the chest, killing him. Godse, who belonged to a neo-fascist Hindu group called the R.S.S., was furious at Gandhi for his conciliatory attitude towards Muslims and for his insistence that Pakistan should receive its fair share of the assets of the former colonial state.”

Men like Godse, with such extremist views, were recruited en masse by the Taliban and their sister groups across Pakistan to carry out hundreds of assassinations and suicide bombings to press the demands of their lords. Pakistan’s secret intelligence agency, ISI, did its part to encourage and support this, owing to the love-hate relationship they developed with the shifty Americans, who were seen to have betrayed Pakistan in the past and could no longer be trusted not to do so again.

In the book, several questions were raised, and the author made spirited attempts at answering them. Why is the region of Kashmir so controversial? What is the root of the animosity between India and Pakistan (why can’t they cooperate more like the US and Canada)? What makes honor killing and revenge-killing so appealing in certain regions? Why is there a region where on Independence Day, August 14, flags are burned, and mayhem often ensues? And several others.

How can you understand and start working on the challenges of the Pakistani society without understanding all that Walsh has written? Declan Walsh’s writing style is artistic, loaded with details, and the stories read quickly, while his personal insights are funny and smartly crafted. When he used the word ‘quixotic,’ I smiled. With colorful prose and endearing empathy, Declan Walsh describes the many facets of Pakistan and its rich diversity through the compelling stories of nine of its citizens. The following description made me smile:

“Qadri, who was twenty-six, had grown up on a scruffy street in nearby Rawalpindi, in a poor family of twelve. He had a fleshy face and gleaming eyes that were framed by a neat beard, thick eyebrows, and a ‘prayer bump’: a brown bruise, from his five-times-daily prostrations, that adorned his forehead like an exclamation mark.”

The book is a work of art. My book of the year so far.

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