Wednesday, 28 March 2012
Book Review: Songs of Blood and Sword by Fatima Bhutto
Fatima Bhutto’s younger half-brother Zulfi was born in Damascus on 1 August 1990. At that time, Fatima’s father, Mir Ghulam Murtaza Bhutto was in exile in Damascus, trying to organise resistance against the Zia-ul-Haq regime. Fatima tells us about a particular morning, a few weeks before Zulfi was born, sometime around early July 1990. Eight year old Fatima is being woken up by her father, Murtaza. ‘Hurry up, Get up. Get up!’ Murtaza yells and runs out of the bedroom. Fatima gets up and drags herself out of her room. As soon as she goes through the door, Murtaza dumps a bucket of water on her. Fatima bursts into giggles, as she stands in the doorway near her father who is holding the empty bucket. Many months later, on a lovely spring afternoon, Murtaza takes his family to lunch at the Elba Hotel. Fatima’s friend Nora goes along. Nine year old Fatima has been dressed by her Syrian stepmother Ghinwa and is wearing nice shoes and little earrings. As they walk past the Elba’s elegant swimming pool, Fatima notices a mischievous gleam in her father’s eye and warns him off with a sharp ‘don’t’. After lunch as Fatima walks back with her friend Nora, Murtaza distracts Fatima with a ‘Fati! Look!’, picks her up and hurls her into the water. Fatima is furious, but Murtaza laughs his trademark Khe Khe Khe laugh. An angry Fatima tries to extract a promise from Murtaza that he will not throw her into a pool till she is fourteen. ‘But Fatushki, what if I am not alive then?’ Murtaza asks. Fatima bursts into tears.
In between my tears, I shouted at my father. ‘Fourteen isn’t far. Of course you will be alive. You have to live till I am a hundred! I wiped my nose on his shoulder. Papa kissed me and continued to rock me. ‘I hope so,’ he said.
Fatima turned fourteen on 29 May 1996. A few months later, on 20 September 1996, Murtaza was killed in a police shootout in Karachi. The fatal shot was fired at point blank range into Murtaza’s jaw when Murtaza (nursing bullet wounds) was being driven to a hospital in a police vehicle. The vehicle was at that time very close to Murtaza’s house and Fatima tells us that she heard that fatal shot.
At the time of Murtaza’s murder, Benazir Bhutto was the Prime Minister of Pakistan and she was already married to Karachi playboy Asif Ali Zardari. Fatima firmly believes that Asif Zardari and to a lesser extent, her aunt Benazir were behind the pre-planned execution of her father. Songs of Blood and Sword runs to 470 pages (including its end notes, references and index) and the entire book, though it begins even before Grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s time, is an attempt to explain how and why Murtaza was killed. The events on the evening of 20 September 1996 which led to Murtaza’s murder are covered at the beginning of the book and later towards the end in greater detail. On the whole, I would say that Fatima has built a reasonably plausible case to show that Murtaza’s killing was a pre-planned execution. A few of the men who were with Murtaza that night survived the shooting and their testimony sounds credible. There are a few odds and ends which don’t fit in. For example, we are told that two policemen, who were later rewarded with awards and honours and elevated to very high positions, shot themselves in the foot and leg to make it appear to be a shootout rather than a one-sided attack on Murtaza’s party. I find it difficult to believe that any policeman would shoot himself to make a false encounter look genuine. I also couldn’t understand why someone would fire into Murtaza’s jaw rather than his forehead or chest. Also, if the murder was well planned, the fatal shot should have been fired from a distance to make it appear as if it was a part of the shootout. Also, the fact that Murtaza was taken by the police to a hospital where he died on the operating table tilts the balance a little bit away from Fatima’s avowed belief, though Fatima tells us that due to road blocks in place at that time, prompt medical assistance was not likely.
When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was arrested, Benazir and Murtaza were both studying at Oxford, while Shanawaz was studying in Switzerland. Zia-ul-Haq released Zulfikar after a few weeks and Zulfikar launched a whirlwind campaign against the military regime, rallying crowds and garnering support. Murtaza and Shahnawaz returned to Karachi and helped their father in his campaign. When Zulfikar was re-arrested, the sons, at their father’s instruction, fled overseas and started to lobby for Zulfikar’s release, travelling to various countries and meeting many a Head of State. Fatima tells us that if the US wanted to, it could have saved Zulfikar Bhutto. A single word would have been enough. But the US didn’t. Many years ago when Zulfikar was in power, his socialism and non-alignment had irked Henry Kissinger so much that Kissinger had apparently promised to make a horrible example out of Zulfikar.
Murtaza met Della Roufogalis, a Greek beauty, in London sometime in May 1978. Della was also lobbying – for the release of her husband, General Michael Roufogalis who was serving a life sentence. General Roufogalis had been the head of the State Information Department, the most dreaded department in military ruler Papadopolous’s regime. A change of regime saw him being carted off to jail. The romance between Murtaza and Della is described in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in a Mills and Boon novel, with numerous rendezvous and trysts in exclusive hotels and night clubs all over the world. I was reminded of Judith Krantz’s novel Princess Daisy where Stash Valensky, a rich Russian prince living in exile romances Francesca Vernon, an Italian actress. It goes without saying that neither Della nor Murataza was particularly successful in obtaining the release of their respective loved ones. Fatima makes Murtaza sound very earnest in love and in fighting for his father’s release, and I was sure he was all that, but to a neutral third party, he doesn’t appear to be doing the right thing as he chases the much married Della across the world, madly in love with her, as his father and General Roufogalis languish in jail.
On April 4, 1979, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged on the orders of Zia-ul-Haq. Was Zulfikar Bhutto really hanged until dead or was he tortured to death? Fatima would have us believe that it was the latter.
After Zulfikar’s death, his children reacted in different ways. Benazir and her mother Nusrat Bhutto shuttled between house arrest and jail for a few years. Zulfikar’s sons Murtaza and Shahnawaz started to organise resistance against Zia’s regime. Apparently Zulfikar had commanded his sons to avenge his impending murder. Fatima tells us that Della told her that she had read Zulfikar’s last letter to Murtaza ‘go to Afghanistan. Be close to your country. If you do not avenge my murder, you are not my sons.’ Murtaza and his younger brother Shahnawaz lived in Kabul for many years, under the protection of Soviet puppet Najibullah. Later, they moved to Damascus. It was while they lived in Kabul that Murtaza broke off his affair with Della. Very soon Murtaza and Shahnawaz got married to Afghan sisters Fowzia and Rehana. Fowzia is Fatima’s mother, but after Murtaza and Fowzia got divorced, Fatima chose to be with her father and even now considers her step-mother, Murtaza’s second wife Ghinwa, to be her mother. Murtaza’s resistance movement Al Zulfikar does not seem to have achieved much or at least Fatima does not tell us much about any successes it may have had. There is a mention of an attempt to shoot down Zia-ul-Haq’s plane, Pak One, with a shoulder to air missile, but that attempt failed.
Fatima keeps references to her biological mother Fowzia to a bare minimum. There are few details of Murtaza’s courtship of Fowzia, which happened at the same time as Shahnawaz’s courtship of Fowzia’s sister Raehana. We are told that Fowzia and Raehana came from a diplomatic family, that Raehana was a Mujahiddeen supporter, that Fowzia was pregnant with Fatima when she married Murtaza and that Najibullah tried to stop the weddings on account of the Mujahiddeen connection. The brothers had a joint wedding reception as they married the sister duo, dressed in khakhis and keffiyehs. Murtaza and Fowzia separated when Fatima was only three. We don’t really get to hear a coherent reason why Fatima doesn’t want to have anything to do with her biological mother, even after her father’s murder or why Fatima has to say that she is ‘scared, frightened even, of my biological mother’.
The struggle between Benazir and Murtaza for the Bhutto legacy started when they were both very young. Both siblings were at Harvard and later Oxford at the same time. Benazir was the aloof, haughty and proud one, always conscious of being a Bhutto and wanting her two younger brothers and younger sister to toe her line. Obviously Murtaza too wanted to be Zulfikar’s heir, though Fatima doesn’t spell it out in as many words. Rather, she says that Murtaza deferred to his elder sister until their ideological differences became too great for them to work together, which happened after Zulfikar’s execution. In Murtaza’s eyes, Benazir was wrong to start participating in the democratic process, something she started doing even before Zia-ul-Haq died. Fatima remembers the conversation. ‘What do you mean, “take part”? Papa said, almost shouting. “You are willing to be Zia’s Prime Minister’. To an outsider, it seems obvious that Benazir did the right thing by taking part in the democratic process rather than fight to oust Zia-ul-Haq, but Fatima genuinely finds so much wrong with so many of Benazir’s actions that at times one gets the feeling that Fatima is nitpicking. Relations between Murtaza and Benazir worsened after Benazir married Asif Ali Zardari.
Nusrat Bhutto sided with Murtaza as he campaigned for a seat on his return from exile, fighting against his sister's PPP. Loyalty to the leader of the clan is one of the key attributes of a feudal society and Fatima celebrates the loyalty shown to Murtaza and his family by various die-hard Bhutto supporters. Was Benazir entitled to take over Zulfikar’s mantle? Fatima doesn’t think so, especially after Benazir reversed so many of Zulfikar’s policies, in particular his policies of non-alignment and socialism. Though Fatima doesn’t spell it out as such, one gets the distinct feeling that Fatima believes Zulfikar’s politicial lineage ought to have passed only through his eldest son and his descendants. In Fatima’s eyes, her Syrian stepmother Ghinwa who can’t speak Urdu has a greater right to the Bhutto lineage than Benazir! One of Fatima’s biggest grouses is the use of the Bhutto name by Benazir and Zardari. Also, there isn’t a single reference to Fatima’s cousin Bhilawal Zardari Bhutto in the entire 470 page book. I am sure that Fatima doesn’t consider him to be a Bhutto.
Fatima tries to keep her narration neutral and unbiased and she succeeds to a large extent. However, her descriptions of her grandfather Zulfikar Bhutto and father Mir Murtaza Bhutto are a wee bit too flattering. Neither man is shown to have a single blemish, though Fatima does concede that Zulfikar was wrong to have cracked down so hard on Balochi nationalists. Combined with Fatima’s anger towards Benazir and Asif Zardari, such a partisan account at times sounds like a diatribe.
Other than Murtaza’s murder, there are two other events detailed in Songs of Blood and Sword which fascinated me. One was the death and possible murder of Murtaza’s brother Shahnawaz. Fatima tells us that she grew up believing Shahnawaz’s wife Raehana was responsible for Shahnawaz’s death in France. However, Fatima suggests that now she thinks it is possible Shahnawaz was killed at Zia-ul-Haq’s behest. The second event which piqued my curiosity was the hijacking of a PIA aircraft by one Salamullah Tipu and two other hijackers. The hijackers demanded the release of 55 prisoners, most of them PPP activists. Since the hijacked plane ended up in Kabul where Murtaza was living at that time, Murtaza ended up interceding for the release of the passengers. Fatima rightly says that the hijacking turned out to be a good excuse for the military regime to clamp down on the opposition. Fatima tells us that ‘Salamullah Tipu, in time, began working openly for the Pakistan government. His role in leading the hijacking operation didn’t seem to stand in his way at all.’ I believe Fatima’s claim that Murtaza was not involved in this hijacking at all.
Fatima might have lived a substantial part of her life in Damascus, but doesn’t seem to have suffered much on account of it. We are told that the Sheraton in Damascus was almost a home and there never seems to have been a shortage of money. This is not very surprising since the Bhuttos have been for many generations one of the richest families in Pakistan, though I did find it interesting that even after Zulfikar’s execution, Murtaza and Shahnawaz never lacked for money.
As expected, Songs of Blood and Sword comes with so many anecdotes about the Bhuttos and the rest of Pakistan. The best (and most hilarious) story is how when Zulfikar Bhutto decided to marry the Persian (and Shiite) Nusrat against the wishes of his Sunni family, he managed to find a Maulvi after so much trouble, only to have to turn him away because he was a Sunni Maulvi and Nusrat’s family wanted a Shiite Maulvi and they had so much trouble getting hold of a Shiite Maulvi. There is another story of how just after Murtaza landed at Harvard, he dumped his suits and shoes into the washing machine, expecting them to come out neatly pressed. Period! I will say no more.
Fatima’s Songs of Blood and Sword are the songs of Pakistan. There is unbelievable arrogance, pride, anger, extreme pain and suffering, excruciating agony and fear for the future. Hope is also in short supply. Despite the numerous and obvious flaws in Fatima’s personality, this reader ended up with a huge amount of sympathy for this brave lady who suffered so much at so young an age.