Monday, March 17, 2008

Daughter of the East by Benazir Bhutto

Daughter of the East: An Autobiography is an uneven book—370 pages which tell of Benazir Bhutto’s life up to 1988 and then another 60 pages, added to make the 2007 edition and race over the last two decades. As a consequence, many basic details about Benazir’s life are not included in this volume.

This is a dense book, written largely as therapy to while away the time when Bhutto was under house arrest. The daily journal entries, along with snippets from other key players, provide valuable information for students of the Bhutto dynasty and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) but the average reader is likely to find the book a hard read and could easily drown in the detail. Nevertheless, one appreciates the detail of the reflections when Benazir Bhutto describes some significant moments. These include the period leading to the hanging of her father, the moment when she was first inaugurated as Prime Minister of Pakistan and the sudden death of General Zia.

While the book is comprehensive it sometimes has a poetic touch as evidenced by this journal entry in March 1980:

“Time, dripping grain by grain through a bottomless hourglass at Al-Murtaza [prison]. I feel as if I am a living grave, cut off from all human experience.”

“My mother passes many of the endless hours of detention playing Patience. But after five months of being locked up at Al-Mutaza, I am more restless than ever. I have no idea when and if we’ll be released. It all depends on Zia.” (p112)

While entitled ‘Daughter of the East’, this book could just as fittingly been called, ‘Daughter of my Father’. It is a book about Benazir’s adoring father—former Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—and his adoring daughter who was living out the dreams and destiny of her father. The author often acknowledges the influence of her father’s example and stories. She says, “My father’s imprint on me, however, keeps me going. Endurance. Honour. Principle.” (p114) The book also captures the significant contribution of Benazir’s mother who continued to fight with courage and endurance after her husband was assassinated.

‘Daughter of the East’ highlights the values of upholding the dignity of the family and retaining personal honor in the face of injustice. These values proved to be a source of strength, for writing during one of her many periods of detention, Bhutto said:
“‘These days will pass’, my father had told me in prison. ‘What is important is that we pass them with honour.’” (p199)

The book is a record of the ‘judicial murder’ of her father, a defense of his life, work and innocence and a revelation of the lies involved in his trumped up murder case. The author almost admits that the title of the book is a misnomer and not a true autobiography when she admits that it is “the record of the brutal Martial law regime of General Zia ul-Haq.” (p374)

This is a deeply sad book that is mostly written from behind prison bars and one which is a catalogue of death threats, detentions, violence and injustice. It describes the relentless momentum towards her father’s death, the death of Benazir’s brothers and the loss of countless supporters. It is all the more painful when one reads the book following the assassination of the author.

This book is about Pakistan and the fight for a sustained democracy. In the period of time in which Bhutto writes, peace and democracy appear so fleeting and fragile. Yet the securing of democracy is the major motivation for Benazir Bhutto. Writing soon after the unexpected death of General Zia she says:

“You can’t be fuelled by bitterness. It can eat you up but it cannot drive you. The task—and my motivation, remained the same: to return Pakistan to a democracy through fair and impartial elections.” (p380)

This book gives a powerful insight into a person living out their destiny. The author reveals that the pain and loss of the Bhutto family has been seen by many, through the lens of Islam, as ‘the Karbala of our generation’—a reenactment of the tragedy that befell the family of the Prophet Mohammed, after his death in 640 A.D.

Benazir Bhutto’s personal sense of destiny comes to her mind when she takes the oath of office in 1988, at the age of 35, as the first woman Prime Minister elected in the Muslim world:

“I had not asked for this role, I had not asked for this mantle. But the forces of destiny and the forces of history had thrust me forward, and I felt privileged and awed.” (p392)

Benazir Bhutto, Daughter of the East: An Autobiography (London: Simon & Schuster, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 80.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Daughter of the East.