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In His New Book, Declan Walsh Tells Story Of Pakistan Through Lives Of 9 Individuals


How do you tell the story of a country? For years, journalist Declan Walsh narrated the story of Pakistan through his reports for The Guardian and then The New York Times. After about a decade doing that, he was abruptly kicked out of the country, which is where his new book begins. It's called "The Nine Lives Of Pakistan: Dispatches From A Precarious State." And for this project, he tells the story of the country by focusing on nine individuals, nine lives.

DECLAN WALSH: When I started to write the book, I thought, of course, about the big characters, the Pervez Musharrafs, the Benazir Bhuttos, the people that I had really covered intensively over the years. But then I realized that I had learned most, actually, in a way from what I called the sort of second-tier characters of the country's dramas - police chiefs, spies, a tribal chief. These were people who lived dramatic lives and were willing to open up those lives to a stranger like me.

SHAPIRO: Declan Walsh told me he happened to be in Pakistan during a particularly explosive period. But then, the entire history of the country is a parade of fragile episodes.

WALSH: There have been these questions about Pakistan and its survival really right from the very beginning. The country, of course, was formed in 1947 when then-British India was cleaved in two. And so Pakistan ever since then has faced one crisis after another. And the crises have been the product of identity issues, problems about the role of religion in the country, power struggles between the military and civilian leaders. So Pakistan has really struggled since its creation to have one long period of stability and calm. And for better and for worse, the period that I was there was really one of the most turbulent periods.

SHAPIRO: Would you tell us about one of the nine lives that you describe in the book? How about - there's a chapter titled "The Fabulous Senorita: A Human Rights Heroine Versus The Generals." Tell us about her.

WALSH: So that's a chapter about Asma Jahangir. She was Pakistan's most prominent human rights activist. She came from a fairly well-to-do family in Lahore but had spent her life on the streets of the country, standing up for the dispossessed, for minorities who are being discriminated against, for women who had suffered and still suffer heinous crimes. And more generally, she stood for civilians against the country's military. This is - Pakistan's a country where the army has been in charge directly for about half of the country's history. And for the rest of the time, frankly, the military has pulled the levers of power, indirectly.

And so Asma Jahangir with this small, formidable, fiery woman who was willing to stand up for the most dispossessed people in her country and was also willing to stand up loudly to the most powerful ones.

SHAPIRO: So what does her story tell you about the ability of civilians to stand up to the military in Pakistan?

WALSH: It pointed to this idea that even though Pakistan was this country that had a very turbulent history, you still had people who not only were willing to stand up to the military but also had the space to do so. I think that's one of the most perplexing things about Pakistan. When you come at it in the beginning, you think that maybe this is this country that has this history of military domination, and, therefore, people are unable to express themselves. But when you get there, you realize that people have carved out this space for themselves. They leverage what they have going for them in order to make this stand.

SHAPIRO: Now, the book begins and ends with your unexpected ejection from the country on short notice, which points to the central role of the ISI, the spy agency. At the end of the book, you finally learn more about the reason for your being kicked out. What does this personal experience that you had tell you about the way the country operates more broadly?

WALSH: Well, it was this - you know, it was a mystery. When I was being expelled, I remember sitting in a hotel in Lahore. The intelligence service had posted people outside my door to make sure I didn't leave until I was driven to the airport later that night. And even though it was this moment of democratic flourishing for Pakistan - they just had an election. The vote had gone fairly smoothly. The results were coming in. People were hailing this as a milestone for the country. I realized that despite all of that, at the end of the day in Pakistan, the military and its intelligence services - on certain issues, at least - ultimately call the shots. And no matter who I tried to get to help me, no matter what position they occupied in the country, how senior they were, what sort of influence they had, they were unable to reverse that decision. And for me, that was a very striking moment. It really taught me a lot about how the country really works.

SHAPIRO: You know, beyond the violence and struggle that you chronicle in the book, what made you love Pakistan enough to devote a decade of your life to telling its story?

WALSH: Oh, there were so many things. You know, one of the most extraordinary things about being a reporter in Pakistan is the sort of access that you get to people across society. This - here was this country where ministers would, you know, return my phone calls, even late at night and personally. But more than that, when I went out traveling around and turned up in any random village, people really wanted to speak. They wanted - not only were they generous with their hospitality and welcoming in but they wanted you to step into their lives. And they wanted to at least give their point of view or even more.

SHAPIRO: I'm just thinking - it takes so little to make a journalist happy. Just return our phone calls. Talk to us. That's all we ask.

WALSH: Well, you know, I've just spent a five-year assignment in Egypt. And on the basis of that, I can certainly tell you that every country is not the same. And there are countries where people are really afraid to speak out and really feel constrained. And it can be much harder to be a journalist. But in Pakistan, even though there were a lot of forces that could threaten people's lives or that exerted a lot of pressure on them - and yet there was this natural impulse to speak.

SHAPIRO: Declan Walsh's new book is "The Nine Lives Of Pakistan: Dispatches From A Precarious State." Thank you for talking with us about it.

WALSH: It was a pleasure, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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