In the early winter of 2007/2008, assassinations were on my mind. I was about to play John Wilkes Booth in the musical Assassins at SUNY Geneseo, and one of the other characters in that musical, Sarah Jane Moore, who tried to kill President Gerald Ford, was released on parole. I had also recently taken a course on all of the stuff that had been going on in the Middle East for years, decades, and centuries. So when I heard on the news that former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto had been shot, I was in a weirdly appropriate place to take an interest in the assassination of this person I had never heard of. One of my first thoughts was, Pakistan had a female prime minister? Isn’t this the part of the world where women aren’t allowed to go outside, let alone lead the country? Shortly after her death, a book she had been writing called Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West came out, and it was something, after reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, that I was also very interested to read. More interesting to me, though, was her autobiography. Daughter of Destiny seems a very grandiose title, but for the life story of a woman who’s father was president and then prime minster of their country, who would spend much of her life a political prisoner or in exile before
being elected prime minister herself twice, and who defied dangerous regimes to keep returning to the land she loved, where she was ultimately killed and the murder covered up, it is perfectly apt.
Daughter of Destiny is the story of a woman, her country, and her region of the world. Bhutto was born in 1953, six years after the founding of Pakistan, and was a significant player in its history for most of her life. From meeting Indira Ghandi and becoming a minor celebrity while she stayed in India during her father’s diplomatic mission, to serving as an inspirational rallying point while being shuffled from house arrest to house arrest, to working as quickly as she could, twice, to undo the damage done during periods of Martial Law, Bhutto never gave up on Pakistan and most of Pakistan never gave up on her. Now, someone does not simply rise from obscurity to such a position, especially a woman in the Middle East. Bhutto was the daughter of an old wealthy family, the most significant of the Sindh region of Pakistan. Those houses she was being held in by the military dictator who had had her father killed, Zia ul-Haq, were enormous mansions that her family owned, which also served, at other times, as political headquarters for the Pakistan People’s Party and the site her own ‘arranged’ marriage. It was from this elevated position in society that her father was able to achieve political prominence, do all he could to modernize Pakistan, and it is a result of his own popularity, even after he was overthrown, arrested, falsely convicted of murder, and killed, that she, his oldest child and political heir apparent, was able to hold onto the support of her people even in the darkest times. If she hadn’t been descended from the progressive party, she may still be alive, but what kind of life would it be?
The vast majority of Americans, on television or not, never see what most of the Middle East is like. Everyone knows what happens at the highest levels of politics, what the armies are doing, what the guerilla insurgents are doing, but the majorities of the populations of these countries never really get seen. This book was written mostly about the seventies, eighties, and nineties, but that wasn’t that long ago, and I imagine it remains much the same. Bhutto depicts the people of Pakistan as mostly illiterate and very religious and traditional, but not as people who want the world to believe and practice the things they do. They just want opportunities, she says, opportunities she and her father tried to give them, which military leaders took away. These are people who celebrated the returns and releases of the daughter of their former prime minister and then went on to make her their prime minister, and this is the part of the world known for burqas. But I trust Bhutto that these are her people, and for all of the efforts of talking heads to convince us that not all Muslims are extremists, even in the Middle East, I never had so easy a time believing it as when I read this book. They are just like we were when our country was new, and but for some awful turns of fate, Pakistan might be a very different country today, in a very different region, in a very different world. That is what Bhutto believed, anyway.
And I’m inclined to agree. This book, a work of non-fiction, which beautifully interweaves accounts of some of the events by people other than Bhutto, reminded me of my favorite work of fiction that I read last year, The Mortal Storm. In both we have the story of an ambitious daughter in a patriarchal society who aims to go into the same healing work of her father, and things go horribly wrong. But does she give up? Never. Both, also, written before things got as bad as they were going to get. Literally until her dying moment, Bhutto believed Pakistan could be saved, and that it was her responsibility to be there for it. Her voice is clear and urgent, like she’s not trying to sentimentalize these memories but trying to make sure that readers understand what went wrong and what she was trying to fix. I haven’t read Reconciliation, but I look forward to it more than ever now that I’ve read this. It was a completely new perspective for me, and beautifully rendered so that even though I knew how it ended, when Mark Siegel’s epilogue got around to describing her death, I teared up. I feel like there are still vast swaths of Pakistan where her name is mentioned with deep reverence, though I have to doubt that anyone is working as hard for the things she wanted for her country as she did, given how things were going toward the end of the book with her family’s party.
Reviewed by: Aaron Netsky