Songs of Blood and Sword

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.

About the Columnist
Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth-Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, and The Nation, among others. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

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