More Than a National Pastime
Overtaken By Events: A Pakistani Road Trip
by Ethan Casey
(Blue Ear Books 2010)
In early 2009, journalist Ethan Casey returned to Asia, specifically India and Pakistan, after a five-year hiatus. His trip, a six-week journey beginning in Mumbai and ending in Karachi, aimed to capture the conversations and character of what, in many texts, headlines, and analyses on Pakistan, is fingered as the “world’s most frightening state.”
That the bombing on the Sri Lankan cricket team occurs shortly after Casey arrives in India seems to underscore this point. Casey tears himself away from the news coverage to attend a launch party for a film about the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. The director, an Indian, has recently traveled to Pakistan with a peace delegation. The irony, he tells Casey, “is that any attempt of the Pakistani establishment to forge friendly, non-confrontational ties [with India] makes India vulnerable to terror attacks.”
Overtaken By Events is a sort of second act to Casey’s 2004 book, Alive and Well in Pakistan, which focused on his travels in Kashmir and a semester spent teaching journalism in Lahore. In Alive and Well, Casey chose to “write about everything else and let the politics seep in.” Five years later, conversations are still drenched in the political, although the national discourse goes beyond U.S. drone attacks and the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. While the Pakistanis with whom Casey speaks certainly share their tart opinions about both, they are also concerned about human rights abuses, brain drain, medical care, and electricity rationing—and they dislike the fickleness of the Western media, who send film crews to capture footage of the Taliban but not the success of the 2009 Long March, in which mass protests restored the country’s chief justice to the Supreme Court after he and other judges were disbarred by then-President Pervez Musharraf.
As Casey aims to be a “stenographer on the streets,” his journey is a series of discussions held in sitting rooms over cups of tea, in the press of tap-taps and city buses, and during drives through the countryside. The topics are as varied as Pakistan’s urban and rugged, rural terrains: A city planner observes that 80 percent of Pakistan’s urban population relies on public transportation, yet roads are unsafe for pedestrians and bicyclists. “Everything is dictated by the car,” says the urban planner. “Where is the democracy?” Later, when Casey travels along the Grand Trunk Road, his ad hoc tour guide muses, “Every beautiful and good place is under custody of the Pakistan Army.” Near the end of the trip, Casey tours the waterfront in oceanside Karachi with a documentary filmmaker concerned about urban sanitation and animal welfare. She has found that both Pakistani and foreign viewers have little interest in her work. If the foreign news channels want a human-interest story, she says, they go to India.
Unfortunately, Overtaken By Events is overtaken by the writer on more than one occasion. Casey clings too tightly to an allegiance to his subjects’ precise words—truthful paraphrase requires a nimble hand, but is an indispensible tool for long trips or equally winded subjects. Casey’s reportorial effort is not matched by editorial restraint. Certain details, such as an awkward aside about “serendipitously meeting an attractive woman who not only had read my book, but had enjoyed it for specific reasons that she took the trouble to explain, and who happened to be the sister of a Booker Prize-shortlisted novelist,” should remain strictly in the lines of one’s travel notebook.
Of course, travel writing is partly about a writer’s personal journey in lands not one’s own, and, ultimately, Casey’s curiosity is both genuine and outward. Despite the brevity of its six weeks, his trip is an argument for complexity, for individuality instead of caricature, and a plea for an ongoing interest in the contemporary narrative of Pakistan: “Most books treat it less as a place where people raise children and suffer and listen to music and attend weddings than as an issue or conundrum for makers of U.S. foreign policy.” (A valid, worthy point, although one wishes that Casey had stopped there, rather than stepping closer to the microphone to tell us: “I find such books tedious to read, so I avoid reading them if I can.”)
To travel is to recall home. Casey comes to believe that “Americans and Pakistanis strikingly share several national traits; both countries are self-consciously settler societies with artificial borders, founded on unattainable abstractions. One of these is disappointed idealism shading into embittered paranoia.” He wonders at the Pakistani trait for hospitality, which is both abundant and surprisingly indiscriminate, and arrives at this conclusion:
Their country was perpetually a cauldron of schemes and theories; and their families, army batches, and alma maters encompassed everyone from ardent democrats to religious nuts to pro-military authoritarian nationalists. They knew from experience that until the day one or another faction finally prevailed, which would probably be never, somehow they had to live with each other.
In Pakistan, it seems, Casey has unearthed more than one lesson for the Western world.