Songs of Blood and Sword. A daughter's memoir by Fatima Bhutto
|November 21, 2010||Posted by Roger Gordon under History, Memoir, Non-fiction|
The influential and politically active Bhutto family of Pakistan carries an unenviable history. The author of this book, Fatima Bhutto, is the granddaughter of former Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed in 1979 by the government of military dictator General Zia ul Haq. Fatima is also the niece of Shahnawaz Bhutto, who was murdered in 1985, the daughter of Mir Murtaza Bhutto, assassinated in 1996, and the niece of Benazir Bhutto, assassinated in 2007. Fatima undertakes to recount and offer explanations for these shocking killings in her four hundred and fifty plus page memoir. It is a grim story and frankly, grim reading. It would be hard to be otherwise from a strictly factual perspective.
When reading the book, one has to be careful to recognize that the narrator is not an impartial observer, so whether all of what is contained in these pages is accurate, just as it happened, is not known. For the most part, I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and accept that it is an honest portrayal by someone from within the family. Fatima’s grandfather, Zulfikar, was the first recipient of the bloodshed. He founded a grassroots populace party known as the Pakistan People’s Party and presided over Pakistan, first as President, then as Prime Minister, from 1971 to 1977.
Fatima lauds the principles by which her grandfather governed, as he pursued a path that was independent of the West and developed closer ties to Third World Muslim nations. Domestically, his land reform and industrial nationalization measures were a step toward a more equitable distribution of resources. But, when the forever restless province of Balochistan started on a secessionist track, the Pakistani army supressed the rebellion with ruthleseness and a nod of the head from Zulfikar. Toward the end of his governance, Zulfakir began to curry favor with the religious political parties and his hold on power diminished to set the stage for a military coup. When General Zia arrested Zulfikar on a trumped up charge of murder and set up a kangaroo court to make sure that he was convicted and sentenced to hang, the whole world was outraged. Fatima’s recollections of these events are shocking but unsurprising.
Fatima spent her childhood in Afghanistan and Syria, as her father Murtaza and uncle Shah were in exile, to escape what the the regime of General Zia may have in store for them. After Shah and his wife moved to France, Murtaza and Fatima decided to visit them. It was during that visit that Shah was discovered dead due to poisoning. Suicide did not seem to offer a plausible explanation. Fatima grew up believing that Shah’s wife, Raehana , may have been involved in his death (they did not have a blissful marriage), but as she grew older she began to believe that Benazir, Shah’s sister and Pakistan’s future Prime Minister, was behind the murder for political reasons. In fact, Benazir, who has been eulogized with reverence internationally, comes across as a scheming, uncaring, despotic aunt who levelled charges against her relatives, jailed them, plotted their murders, and fomented corruption to feed her obsession with political power.
After the military dictatorship had stepped aside and Benazir assumed the reigns in what was supposed to be a democracy, Murtaza returned from exile to Pakistan to enter an election that was underway. After a political rally, he and several of his supporters were killed by police gunfire outside of the family home. Fatima makes the case that Benazir’s husband, current President Asif Zadari, may have been behind her father’s assassination.
This is a story that has much to tell. It is a story of a family’s never ending tragedy, a nation’s inability to escape from oppressive rule and of a child who was caught up in all of this. It is a story that needed to be told and is worth reading. I recognize that with so many family members as key players, it presents the author with a difficult challenge to arrive at a flowing narrative. In this endeavor, I do not think that Fatima succeeded, as I found the switching back and forth between first and third persons to be too frequent. Also, the chopping and changing of times when various events took place was jarring. The text I found to be overly detailed and read very much like a personal copy that could benefit from further editing. A slimmer, crisper re-write would have been a much better read.
That said, there is a lot of historical information contained in this book, together with valuable insights from a player caught up in the drama.