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Saturday, August 10th, 2013

Time Event
11:39a
You sometimes wonder ...
Yet another dollar store find, Nicholas Schmidle's To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan is a dense, fascinating read. Unfortunately, I'm getting around to reviewing it over a half a year after reading it, and much of the details have faded for me, leaving me with certain impressions, but not a lot of specifics still in my head. I had a couple of little bookmarks in there, which should have pointed me back to key passages, but upon re-reading those pages I'm not sure what I was intending there.

So, my apologies for this not being one of my better review efforts.

Schmidle's story is another of those that probably had better chances of ending with a bullet in the head than a book ...

      I went to Pakistan in February 2006, hoping to learn something about this troubled, nuclear-armed country, and about myself. I wanted to become a journalist, but most newspapers were closing their foreign bureaus, not opening new ones. And with next to no formal experience, magazine editors weren't exactly lined up outside of my door, eager to dish out international assignments. In the rapidly changing landscape of American journalism, it seemed the only way for an inexperienced hack like myself to try to make a name – and potentially a career – was by patching together fellowships and grant money, going somewhere newsworthy, and then praying for good luck.
      The Institute of Current World Affairs was my ticket. ICWA, as it is better known, is a foundation that sponsors two-year writing fellowships around the world. … In June, 2006, the ICWA board selected me as a Phillips Talbot Fellow. …
      I arrived in Pakistan by accident; my fellowship was intended for Iran. … But shortly after the ICWA granted the fellowship, the people of Iran spoke, and chose … a hard-liner whose vitriolic anti-American rhetoric dwarfed even that of his predecessors … Overnight, the prospects of the Iranian government giving an American a two year-visa to … write about the country's ethic problems seemed, well, pretty dim.
He managed to re-write his fellowship proposal for Pakistan (which has its own ethnic conflicts), and got approval from the foundation.

The years he was in Pakistan were particularly unsettled. Pervez Musharraf's Presidency was faltering, being threatened by the resurgence of Benazir Bhutto, and the whole country was thrown into chaos when pro-Taliban insurgents assassinated her.

And Schmidle was walking right into the middle of this. He'd been steered toward pro-Taliban leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who a Pakistani journalist suggested would likely be the leader of the country, were the Taliban come to power there. He'd managed to get introduced to an Osama bin Laden confidant who had been in the Pakistani intelligence service and airforce, Khalid Khawaja, who had previously been involved with Daniel Pearl's unfortunate attempts are penetrating the world of radical Islam in Pakistan. Remarkably, these chains of introductions worked, and soon Schmidle was bouncing around from one group to another, trekking across the country, and pretty much always being one wrong glance away from being summarily executed.

One thing he had in his favor (his physical attributes didn't help, being tall, blonde, and clean-shaven) was that he could speak Urdu … and he was warned to, in nearly all situations, not speak English in public. A leader of one jihadi militia with whom he'd obtained a meeting “considered Americans, Canadians, and all other 'crusaders' legitimate targets, but he saved most of his vitriol for Shi'ites”, thereby fitting into the “ethnic conflicts” intent of his fellowship.

Frankly, much of the book is a whirlwind of Islamic personal and place names, with the author being handed off one to another, and the story arc blurs a good deal in the reading. However, his activities with the insurgents, naturally enough, draw the attention of the government, and he (with his wife, who was inexplicably along for the initial visit) get deported. Amazingly, he managed to get back into the country.

Some of the more memorable parts of the book are his journeys out of the capital and into the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, or to the coastal region where Gwadar, a planned deep-water port (for some more stable time), is. For the tenuous position that he was in for most of his time there, the author does managed to cover a lot of territory, including a side trip to Bangladesh … on one level To Live or to Perish Forever is a bit of a travel book … albeit one featuring a lot of Kalashnikovs.

An interesting data point that I did not previously know about Pakistan is that its name was an artificial construct from the 1930's, which came from P-unjab, A-fghan Province (North-West Frontier province), K-ashmir (which never officially left India), S-ind, and Baluchis-TAN … making PAKSTAN, and “Pak” in Urdu means “pure”, making the cobbled-together country name mean “land of the pure”. Odd, but interesting.

At this point To Live or to Perish Forever appears to be out of print, but the new/used guys have “new” copies for a penny (four bucks with shipping), so if you're looking for a rollicking adventure story full of exotic locales and Bond-like narrow escapes from chaotic environments, this is something that you should consider picking up.


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