Songs of Blood and Sword

Americahas its Kennedys, Britain its Windsors. Pakistan has its Bhuttos. Each of thesethree dynasties has provided a rich dramatic spectacle, but perhaps the Bhuttostory is the most theatrical of them all: a family drama of Greek-tragedyproportions, complete with assassinations, betrayals, mysterious murders,terrorism, and revenge. Fatima Bhutto, an outspoken young Karachi journalistwho is one of the last living members of this embattled family, often makes thestory’s inherent drama rise to high melodrama in her mesmerizing butpassionately partisan and probably unreliable Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir.

The Bhuttos were greatfeudal landowners in the Sindh province, where Fatima’s great-grandfather, SirShah Nawaz Bhutto, was enriched by the British with titles and land as a rewardfor services rendered under the Raj. His son Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1928-79) waspost-Independence Pakistan’s greatest figure. Brought in as Foreign Minister in1963 under President Mohammed Ayub Khan, he helped found the Pakistan People’sParty four years later. Elections in 1970 brought his PPP to power in WestPakistan and precipitated the bitter secessionist war of East Pakistan,resulting in India’s armed intervention and the founding of Bangladesh. Zulfikar,a progressive socialist, assumed the presidency of a now-reduced Pakistan in1972 and launched a programme of strengthened ties with China and the SovietUnion, independence from American influence, Third World solidarity, andextensive land reforms. As his granddaughter Fatima writes, “Zulfikarcondemned Pakistan’s ‘monstrous economic system of loot and plunder’ thatguaranteed that the rich few (twenty-one families at the time of Partition,twenty-seven families by the millennium) got richer while the poor of Pakistansunk into desperate poverty.” (Zulfikar’s land reform measures wouldultimately be revoked by his daughter Benazir.)

In 1977 Zulfikar’sdemocratically-elected regime was overthrown by his apparently mild-manneredArmy Chief of Staff, General Zia ul-Haq. Ziaimposed martial law and, using trumped-up charges, threw Zulfikar into prison, where he languished in miserable conditions for twoyears before being executed on April 4, 1979. Zulfikar had been a secularleader; Zia was an ultra-pious Muslim, and dragged Pakistan’s sociallegislation back several centuries. Sharia courts and military tribunalsreplaced civilian courts; under the infamous Hudood Ordinances (which remain inplace today), public floggings and stonings were introduced. Zia even tried toenforce amputations for convicted thieves, but Pakistan’s medical establishmentrefused to cooperate in this atrocity.

What was happening to theBhutto family in the meantime? Zulfikar’s wife Nusrat and daughter Benazirspent several years in and out of detention, at the dictator’s whim. Benazir’sbrothers Mir Murtaza (Fatima’s father) and Shahnawaz went into exile; first toLondon, where they founded the Save Bhutto Committee; then, after their father’sexecution, to Kabul and finally to Syria, where they created the Al-ZulfikarOrganization, a militant group designed to fight the Zia regime and avenge thedeath of the martyr, or Shaheed,Bhutto. Fatima was born in Kabul in 1982 to an Afghan mother; three years laterMurtaza left his Afghan wife and removed his little girl to Syria. Shahnawazdied mysteriously in France in 1985, probably murdered. Benazir, as all theworld knows, became Prime Minister in 1988 and had an eventful career in andout of office until her assassination in 2007. Murtaza, who faced some eightycharges of treason made against him by Zia’s junta, remained in exile until1993, when he finally returned to Pakistan to assume his deferred role asZulfikar’s political heir. Though his sister was now Prime Minister he wentdirectly from the airport to jail, where he spent eight months, winning a seatin the Sindh Assembly while still imprisoned and starting a splinter group fromthe PPP. Two years later he was gunned down in the streets of Karachi, leavingthe fourteen-year-old Fatima bereft and vengeful.

Songs of Blood and Sword is passionate, it is romantic, it is colorful—butit is strictly one-sided and it is definitely not history. As her aunt Benazirdid with her memoir Daughter of the East, Fatima highlights only the facts and the quotesthat suit her own scenario. According to this, Zulfikar and Murtaza were notonly martyrs but practically saints, Benazir an evil demon whom Fatima holdsresponsible, through the manipulation of her sleazy husband Asif Ali Zardari,for the murders of both Murtaza and Shahnawaz. Now, Benazir undoubtedly had herunpalatable and even sinister sides. Both of her governments (1988-1990 and1993-6) fell amidst charges of gross corruption, after all, with Zardari,popularly known as “Mr. Ten Percent,” infamous for graft andkickbacks. But by most accounts she was not a monster, and it’s very hard tobelieve she could have connived at her brothers’ deaths.

As for the hagiography:Zulfikar was during his years of power undoubtedly Pakistan’s best hope, but hewas autocratic and power-hungry and no objective observer ever called him asaint. Murtaza seems to have been an attractive character, but Fatima’suncritical adoration cannot keep the reader from perceiving, between the lines,a naïve and possibly weak young man. Tehmina Durrani, one of Murtaza’sfellow-exiles during the London years, wrote in her memoir, “To me, theBhutto boys seemed like mixtures of Che Guevara and characters that had steppedout of a Harold Robbins novel.” Fatima remembers the Che part very well,but she omits the Robbins. Readers will notice the Robbins touch anyway. Likehis father before him, Murtaza was what might be called—in the spirit of theAmerican limousine liberal—a Savile Row socialist: while fighting the goodfight for Pakistan’s downtrodden workers and peasants he retained the style ofan anglicized feudal lord, wearing wore only Turnbull & Asser shirts, silksuits, and Geoffrey Beene cologne. His “armed struggle” seems inretrospect to have been highly quixotic, and he never stood a chance againsthis country’s ruthless army and secret services. Benazir and Zardari were madeof tougher stuff.

Which brings us to thepoignant conclusion. Asif Zardari, Mr. Ten Percent, is now Pakistan’spresident, having cannily hijacked the PPP and capitalized on the Bhuttopolitical legacy and his relationship with the Shaheeds Zulfikar and Benazir. (He has even changed his children’snames from Zardari to Bhutto—can one doubt that he would change his own name toBhutto if he could get away with it?) Fatima has been his media gadfly,appointing herself in characteristically self-dramatizing mode as the family “blacksheep and naysayer to hereditary politics.” She is correct to decry thekind of cynical hereditary politics practiced by Zardari, who won office byidentifying himself with a father-in-law who would probably have despised him. ButFatima herself tacitly approves hereditary politics when she writes of herfather and grandfather in messianic terms and talks about “the Bhuttolegacy” rather than “the PPP legacy.” Is this just a daughter’shomage, or a bid for political legitimacy? It would be most surprising ifFatima herself did not decide to run for office in the not-too-distant future.