Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter's Memoir


In September 1996, fourteen-year-old Fatima Bhutto shielded her baby brother while shots rang out outside the family home in Karachi. This was the evening that her father, Murtaza, was assassinated. It was the latest in a long line of tragedies for one of the world’s best-known political dynasties.

Songs of Blood and Sword tells the story of a family of feudal landlords who became power brokers in the newly created state of Pakistan. It is an epic tale of intrigue and the ...

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In September 1996, fourteen-year-old Fatima Bhutto shielded her baby brother while shots rang out outside the family home in Karachi. This was the evening that her father, Murtaza, was assassinated. It was the latest in a long line of tragedies for one of the world’s best-known political dynasties.

Songs of Blood and Sword tells the story of a family of feudal landlords who became power brokers in the newly created state of Pakistan. It is an epic tale of intrigue and the international political elite, the making of modern Pakistan, and, ultimately, tragedy. It is also a book about a daughter’s love for her father and her search to uncover the truth of his life and death.

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Editorial Reviews

Thomas W. Lippman
…[Bhutto's] book will be valuable to readers who want to understand why Pakistan is such an ungovernable mess. In her account, the country's entire political culture is based on corruption, violence, opportunism, mendacity and a feudal economic system.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
"Bhuttos very rarely, even then, died natural deaths," Bhutto writes, speaking of her great-great-grandfather. And so it seems in this family history lived on a stage of national and international intrigue. A grandfather, Zulifar Ali Bhutto, executed; an uncle, Shanawaz Bhutto, murdered; a father, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, assassinated; and an aunt, Benazir Bhutto, assassinated; all inhabit this utterly fascinating blend of intimate but diligently researched family memoir and complex political history. The four decades from Fatima's grandfather's service as foreign minister in the 1960s to her aunt's assassination in 2007 encompass most of the history of Pakistan. Fatima covers its alliances, its wars, its coups, its treaties, its corruption, its inefficiency, its repression. The family's public political triumphs and tragedies are set within their private pleasures and painful quarrels--a life of power and a life in exile, falling in love and being imprisoned, the ease of wealth for happy childhoods and the anguish of adult separation so severe that Fatima holds her aunt Benazir culpable in her father's assassination. Partisan and controversial as aspects of it are, Fatima Bhutto's book is a lucid and engaging account of a nation and a family. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

William Dalrymple, Financial Times
“Moving, witty . . . a uniquely fascinating, wonderfully well-constructed memoir.”

Sir Bob Geldof
“The Bhuttos are an Asian Borgia or Plantagenet dynastic family. This then is an important and timely book offering a rare insight into the violent world of Pakistani politics told by a direct witness. It’s also the story of a daughter’s love for her murdered father and many other members of her family. Power not only corrupts—it kills.”           
The Independent
“A story with dazzling twists and turns told by a true-blue member of the Bhutto fold.”
Irish Times
“Political intrigue, administrative corruption and widespread avarice, refracted through a narrative of family history and sibling hostilities, make Songs of Blood and Sword read like a darker version of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy.” 
Charles Glass, former ABC News Chief Middle East Correspondent, author of Tribes with Flags and Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation.
"Fatima Bhutto writes a compelling account that is both political and personal. Her life is proof that in Pakistan, torn apart by American diktat and local avarice, the political is the personal. Her passion and integrity ring out on every page. If you don't understand what is happening to Pakistan and Afghanistan, you soon will."
Roderick  Matthews, The Guardian
“In clear and unpretentious prose [Songs of Blood and Sword] gives a vivid impression of the brutal and corrupt world of Pakistani power politics, which has resulted in the violent deaths of four members of the Bhutto dynasty in the past thirty-one years.”

Library Journal
Writer and poet Fatima Bhutto is a member of one of Pakistan's most newsworthy and controversial political families. As niece to former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and granddaughter to former president and prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, she has witnessed her relatives' tumultuous rise to political power and their violent, sudden deaths. Now Bhutto attempts a memoir framed by the assassination of her father, former foreign minister Mir Murtaza Bhutto. Yet what she creates is less of an autobiography and more of a sweeping political history and biography of the Bhutto family (with a special emphasis on her father's life). Bhutto assumes her readers possess a certain degree of knowledge of Pakistani politics and her family's public life. As a result, her book can be a bit laborious at times, particularly when she works through the intricacies of Pakistani government and foreign relations. Thankfully, her family portraits are engaging enough to keep her story moving forward. VERDICT Although not ideal for lovers of memoirs, Bhutto's book will appeal to those familiar enough with world politics to have an interest in the intimate details of Bhutto family life.—Veronica Arellano, California, MD
The Barnes & Noble Review

From Brooke Allen's "READER'S DIARY" column on The Barnes & Noble Review

America has its Kennedys, Britain its Windsors. Pakistan has its Bhuttos. Each of these three dynasties has provided a rich dramatic spectacle, but perhaps the Bhutto story is the most theatrical of them all: a family drama of Greek-tragedy proportions, complete with assassinations, betrayals, mysterious murders, terrorism, and revenge. Fatima Bhutto, an outspoken young Karachi journalist who is one of the last living members of this embattled family, often makes the story's inherent drama rise to high melodrama in her mesmerizing but passionately partisan and probably unreliable Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter's Memoir.

The Bhuttos were great feudal landowners in the Sindh province, where Fatima's great-grandfather, Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto, was enriched by the British with titles and land as a reward for services rendered under the Raj. His son Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1928-79) was post-Independence Pakistan's greatest figure. Brought in as Foreign Minister in 1963 under President Mohammed Ayub Khan, he helped found the Pakistan People's Party four years later. Elections in 1970 brought his PPP to power in West Pakistan 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 in 1972 and launched a programme of strengthened ties with China and the Soviet Union, independence from American influence, Third World solidarity, and extensive land reforms. As his granddaughter Fatima writes, "Zulfikar condemned Pakistan's 'monstrous economic system of loot and plunder' that guaranteed that the rich few (twenty-one families at the time of Partition, twenty-seven families by the millennium) got richer while the poor of Pakistan sunk into desperate poverty." (Zulfikar's land reform measures would ultimately be revoked by his daughter Benazir.)

In 1977 Zulfikar's democratically-elected regime was overthrown by his apparently mild-mannered Army Chief of Staff, General Zia ul-Haq. Zia imposed martial law and, using trumped-up charges, threw Zulfikar into prison, where he languished in miserable conditions for two years before being executed on April 4, 1979. Zulfikar had been a secular leader; Zia was an ultra-pious Muslim, and dragged Pakistan's social legislation back several centuries. Sharia courts and military tribunals replaced civilian courts; under the infamous Hudood Ordinances (which remain in place today), public floggings and stonings were introduced. Zia even tried to enforce amputations for convicted thieves, but Pakistan's medical establishment refused to cooperate in this atrocity.

What was happening to the Bhutto family in the meantime? Zulfikar's wife Nusrat and daughter Benazir spent several years in and out of detention, at the dictator's whim. Benazir's brothers Mir Murtaza (Fatima's father) and Shahnawaz went into exile; first to London, where they founded the Save Bhutto Committee; then, after their father's execution, to Kabul and finally to Syria, where they created the Al-Zulfikar Organization, a militant group designed to fight the Zia regime and avenge the death of the martyr, or Shaheed, Bhutto. Fatima was born in Kabul in 1982 to an Afghan mother; three years later Murtaza left his Afghan wife and removed his little girl to Syria. Shahnawaz died mysteriously in France in 1985, probably murdered. Benazir, as all the world knows, became Prime Minister in 1988 and had an eventful career in and out of office until her assassination in 2007. Murtaza, who faced some eighty charges of treason made against him by Zia's junta, remained in exile until 1993, when he finally returned to Pakistan to assume his deferred role as Zulfikar's political heir. Though his sister was now Prime Minister he went directly from the airport to jail, where he spent eight months, winning a seat in the Sindh Assembly while still imprisoned and starting a splinter group from the PPP. Two years later he was gunned down in the streets of Karachi, leaving the fourteen-year-old Fatima bereft and vengeful.

Songs of Blood and Sword is passionate, it is romantic, it is colorful -- but it is strictly one-sided and it is definitely not history. As her aunt Benazir did with her memoir Daughter of the East, Fatima highlights only the facts and the quotes that suit her own scenario. According to this, Zulfikar and Murtaza were not only martyrs but practically saints, Benazir an evil demon whom Fatima holds responsible, through the manipulation of her sleazy husband Asif Ali Zardari, for the murders of both Murtaza and Shahnawaz. Now, Benazir undoubtedly had her unpalatable and even sinister sides. Both of her governments (1988-1990 and 1993-6) fell amidst charges of gross corruption, after all, with Zardari, popularly known as "Mr. Ten Percent," infamous for graft and kickbacks. But by most accounts she was not a monster, and it's very hard to believe 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 he was autocratic and power-hungry and no objective observer ever called him a saint. Murtaza seems to have been an attractive character, but Fatima's uncritical adoration cannot keep the reader from perceiving, between the lines, a naïve and possibly weak young man. Tehmina Durrani, one of Murtaza's fellow-exiles during the London years, wrote in her memoir, "To me, the Bhutto boys seemed like mixtures of Che Guevara and characters that had stepped out of a Harold Robbins novel." Fatima remembers the Che part very well, but she omits the Robbins. Readers will notice the Robbins touch anyway. Like his father before him, Murtaza was what might be called -- in the spirit of the American limousine liberal -- a Savile Row socialist: while fighting the good fight for Pakistan's downtrodden workers and peasants he retained the style of an anglicized feudal lord, wearing wore only Turnbull & Asser shirts, silk suits, and Geoffrey Beene cologne. His "armed struggle" seems in retrospect to have been highly quixotic, and he never stood a chance against his country's ruthless army and secret services. Benazir and Zardari were made of tougher stuff.

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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781568586762
  • Publisher: Nation Books
  • Publication date: 9/6/2011
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 470
  • Sales rank: 824,543
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

An acclaimed poet and journalist, Fatima Bhutto writes for the Daily Beast, Guardian, and New Statesman. She lives in Karachi.
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 8, 2010

    Beautifully written story about a daughter's love for her father. But subjective nonetheless.

    I purchased this book to try to understand Pakastani history and to read about this father/daughter relationship. Given the multiple tragedies this young woman has suffered, it is easy to understand the subjective nature of the memoir. But, I was astonished that the author used this forum to condemn U.S. policies in the Middle East especially given the fact that she so well documents the complicated nature of various tribal cultures and the treacheries that exist in Pakistan and throughout the MIddle East. Why would someone so sophisticated and enlightened not realize that the United States also walks a very fine line and has the right to defend itself. It is more interesting that most of the Bhutto family has been educated in the United States and has enjoyed quite a bit of success as a result.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2011

    Not recommended!

    Worst book I ever read! Does not deserve even 1 star

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 6, 2010

    Highly recommended

    Articulate and knowledgeable, Ms. Bhutto's book provides a keen insight into Pakistan and its troubled relationship with the United States.

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    Posted August 12, 2011

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