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Alive and Well in Pakistan Paperback – 23 Sep 2004
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The author's real journey is a search for common humanity -- Daily Telegraph, november 13, 2004
[Casey]...lets the complexities of a nation ... speak for themselves -- Daily Telegraph, November 13, 2004
Casey updates his understanding of the Pakistan experience and sets it within a context of recent and contemporary history. He humanises domestic politics, attitudes towards the West and India as well as the Kashmir and Afghanistan issues. His literary reportage demystifies the uneasy place Pakistan occupies in an uncertain world.
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It all started differently. "For me, journalism had started out as the next best thing to Writing. As teenager, I wanted to be William Faulkner" wrote Casey and most of the first part of the book is about Ethan's aspiration: a literary journey through Pakistan and Kashmir seen through the eyes of his muse, V.S. Naipaul. Casey visits Pakistan with An Area of Darkness as guidebook and Naipaul's memories and characters for tour guide.
It is a dry journey in search for the place visited by Naipaul - the Dal Lake, the Hotel Leeward and the people who Naipaul's met. Then, Ethan seems remote from what is going on around him, his main concern is "... to create [his] own virtual versions of [Naipaul] settings". In this first journey, he will meet the notable of the time, Amir Khan commander of a pro-Pakistan militant group, Abdul Qayum Khan, prime minister of Azad Kashmir and as a journalist will dutifully visit a refugee camp and dutifully but wryly take notes.
There is little here for those eager to discover Pakistan, its society, people, customs and little is provided that would help understanding the origin and evolution of the Kashmir conflict. But it would be unfair to say that Casey was completely unaware of what was happening around him. In that that he is a well travelled person and could relate to his American origin and past, and "As an American, [he] appreciated the pathos of a country trying, and usually failing, to live up to an ideal".
Casey shows a rare understanding not sahred with many travel writers who are "only passing through". "I spent a lot of time on the ground in Kashmir with Kashmiris, then later stepped back and looked at it again from afar". Often they consider that after a few weeks in a foreign country, they know everything that needs or is worth knowing about it and believe to have the expertise to write and lecture about it. Fortunately Casey does not fall for it because he knows that story telling "that are plausible are built not from guesses but from facts, painstakingly gleaned one by one"
At the end of this first journey to Pakistan, Ethan "would move [...] and life and death would go on in Kashmir as before. This was their life [...] I had no right to claim Kashmir [...]. I was not suffering and dying [...]. On the contrary I was literally making money from other people's suffering."
The would-be Pulitzer journo goes back to wire editing. A few years later, enters the writers
Invited by Isa Daudpota, oddly characterised as a Pakistani intellectual, Ethan will teach International Journalism at a new university launched by the Beaconhouse School system. Here he will meet some of the Pakistan "elite. His mission is unclear to him, but this time, Naipaul would not be part of it.
This time Ethan is re-discovering Pakistan for himself through tennis - played with a retired army major and film producer, a game of cricket - literally surrounded by village boys and a ride on a motorbike shared with 2 other people. He will notice the small things he didn't see during his first journey, drinking a glass of fresh lime with pepper or "A coke, in a glass bottle with a straw, as cokes are always drunk in the subcontinent".
Ethan will meet the real people of Pakistan, his students, their wealthy family but also the less well-endowed family running his guest house, the rich and poor, the powerful and the pariah such as Christian Pakistani essential part of the society as street cleaners. Through his numerous encounters he will expose the contradiction of a society with a politically exacerbated cultural protectionism. For example if there is only one Indian movie a day, it is because "they only spread sex, they have no morality", no matter that broadcaster screen Friends and the Fear Factor. Likewise, there is no contradiction in showing girls in bathing suits said Zarina Sadek from Beaconhouse, "They are not Pakistani so it's all right". A distinction is made between the barbarians and the civilised, but through the looking glass, the barbarians are the American girls fighting in bikinis for money.
During his journey through Pakistan and Kashmir, Ethan experiences how foreigners can be a source of admiration but can also crystallise all the hatred our western world generate. Ethan had sometimes to pretend that he is English and hide is American legacy in a country where many see Bush as a new Hitler.
It is in this second part that the writer really shows up, that the characters come to life, the atmosphere breathes out of the pages and that the human journey through troubled times is born into reality. He is here to find something different, probably prompted by his reading of Naipaul, but he quickly concluded that Islam is not different from Christianity or Indian secularism or the American way of life.
"Through the looking glass" chapter contains some of the best pages where Ethan allows himself to talk about his feeling. Ethan's recollection of his teaching provides some of the funniest parts of the book: the discussion following the screening of "The quiet American" to his student exposes, that being part of the "elite" does not extend to forcibly include the intellectual elite. Nothing new here, it is neither a specificity of Pakistan or of a Muslim country.
Ultimately, it is a book for two different public. For those who know about Pakistan or lived or have lived in a Muslim country it will conjure memories. For the others it will lift a veil that needs to be open individually and may tempt them to go there because there nothing better than the sniff of the ground.