To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan

By NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE

The cops came for me on a cold, rainy night. Such nocturnal visitations rarely bode well, let alone for an American journalist in Pakistan reporting on the country’s rambunctious politics, a job tailor-made to pique someone’s ire, that someone ever and always being the wrong someone. But Nicholas Schmidle doesn’t know any better, for he is young, and much of the beauty of his reportage comes from the fresh eye he brings to the flabbergasting array of forces contending for ascendancy. How are you going to get the Pakistan story unless you talk to radical Islamists — he seeks out jihadists in the same city as did Daniel Pearl — tribal insurgents, ethnic nationalists, old-school politicos, the military, the rogue intelligence agencies, the man on the street. Just so, and Schmidle will pay for it with his safety; if he doesn’t beat that drum, the narrative can’t help buzz with tension. But the tension does not obscure Schmidle’s illuminations: each chapter reads like a day trip that may happen to last for months, in search of political awareness. He doesn’t neglect an elemental sense of place and incident — the look of a village, a Sufi in a dancing trance, the play of a green kite against a periwinkle sky — yet he is hungrier for understanding why Pashtuns have a bad reputation, why Pakistan has more assassinations than a porcupine has quills, or what lies behind the rise of the insurrectionary madrassas. Always in evidence is Schmidle’s willingness to listen and then report, with polish but without varnish — thus the late-night knock on the door.