by Saffi Ullah Ahmad
In her latest book, Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir, journalist Fatima Bhutto — better known as the niece of the late Benazir Bhutto — takes us through the dark history of one of the world’s best known political dynasties.
Fatima’s grandfather, founder of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, Zuliqar Ali Bhutto, was sent to the gallows (1979) following a military coup orchestrated by General Zia Ul-Haq based on what were concocted charges, despite appeals for mercy from across the diplomatic world. As Henry Kissinger had ominously threatened some years earlier, a ‘horrible example’ was made of Mr. Bhutto. As the book’s cover informs us, in the years since Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s execution, all but one of his children have died; in circumstances mired in mystery, Shahnawaz Bhutto was poisoned in his flat in France (1985), Mir Murtaza Bhutto – Fatima’s father – was gunned down outside his home in Karachi (1996) and Benazir Bhutto was killed following a suicide attack in the garrison city, Rawalpindi (2007).
Above all, Songs of Blood and Sword is the tale of a grieving daughter’s frantic six year search for the truth surrounding her father’s life and death. Fatima describes a kind spirited and idealistic Murtaza, a man of the people, who had idolised Che Guevara in his youth, fittingly having adorned his bedroom walls with posters of the Cuban revolutionary. After completing studies at Harvard and an unsuccessful diplomatic battle to save his father’s life, Murtaza’s formation of a leftist guerrilla outfit bent on ousting General Zia earned him the title of a terrorist. Following the General’s own mysterious death (1988) and Benazir’s rise to power, Murtaza grew increasingly critical of his sister, who he felt had betrayed the socialist ideals upon which the PPP was founded. He eventually returned to Pakistan with political aspirations – having won a seat in a provincial assembly – only to face an uphill struggle against a hostile PPP government.
A tense personal account of history is interspersed with lighter intimate moments shared between Fatima and her father, and Murtaza and his father. In addition to as a strong sense of paternalism, the reader gets an idea of Murtaza’s indefatigable sense of humour; from shrieking with delight after having pushed his daughter in to a hotel swimming pool, to cheekily stopping closely tailing intelligence cars to ask for directions.
Murtaza’s famous and bitter rivalry with Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who he viewed as greedy, opportunistic and unsophisticated (regularly calling him a ‘chor’ (thief) in public) arguably sealed his own fate. With Fatima having always held Benazir and Zardari to be ‘morally responsible’ for her father’s murder, in the harrowing final chapter of the book the reader is transported to the crime scene and given a detailed account of the tragedy. Her take differs much from the official story and ends with a whimpering 14-year-old girl watching the failing spikes of an electrocardiogram in an ill-equipped clinic as doctors try to revive her bullet-ridden father, convincing herself that her hero will somehow pull through
Offering a compelling and fiery counter-narrative to that which we’re regularly presented with by western tabloids, Fatima speaks of a Benazir who became the antithesis of everything her father had originally stood for — an intolerant, manipulative, narcissistic and paranoid woman with an insatiable lust for power. She surrounded herself with sycophants, preached democracy but kept her own party undemocratic (she made herself ‘chairperson for life’), privatised when her father had nationalized, sided with Imperialists when her father had stood against them, jailed and assassinated opponents for political gain, presided over a brutal clamp down on ethnic militias in Karachi, and kept her brother in solitary confinement for months on, allegedly okaying his murder in the end. Criticism of the former Prime Minister becomes increasingly damning as the book progresses.
Perhaps most controversially of all, Fatima places a question mark over whether or not Benazir in fact had her youngest brother Shahnawaz poisoned in France in 1985; a murder long surrounded in obscurity but nonetheless historically attributed to either Zia’s regime or Shahnawaz’s then estranged wife, Raehana.
Although its international reception has been fairly positive, the book has also attracted much criticism – and not just from hard-line mainstream PPP supporters – with some objecting to what they feel is a hate filled rant. Among other criticisms made of the book include that of Fatima’s uncritical approach to her father and grandfather, the first of whom many maintain was a hardened terrorist and the latter of whom many argue didn’t practice the socialism he preached. Notably, detractors of the book feel Fatima attempts disingenuously to absolve her father of what was an aggressive role in his guerrilla outfit, Al-Zulfiqar (the sword), disagreeing vehemently with her claim that he did not play a central role in the famous Kabul hijacking of a PIA airliner in 1981 which resulted in the death of a senior military officer.
As to whether or not the young Bhutto plans to enter politics in the near future remains to be seen; although she regularly denies any will to enter the game, often speaking out against ‘birthright politics.’ Others meanwhile argue that it is only a matter of time.