After an epic journey I reach Auckland airport – and find I have arrived ahead of my luggage. The carousel, which has a sign advising us to take care while “uplifting” our cases, seems to mock those of us who have nothing to uplift at all. Luggage-less, I go shopping for emergency clothing and find merino wool isn’t the only local fashion export. Possum fur and possum wool is just as popular. I examine possum socks, hats, and shawls and consider whether possum gloves would be an appropriate gift for my environmentally conscious brother, but decide against.
I have come to New Zealand to take part in the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival. Seven authors have been asked to talk unscripted for seven minutes on anything to do with “the alphabet”. I speak about illiteracy in Pakistan and an Afghan refugee school on the outskirts of Karachi. A friend and I have raised some money to buy second-hand computers for the children. Several people from the audience ask how they might get in touch with the school – unsurprising, as I found New Zealanders to be among the warmest people in the world.
Reunited with my luggage, the rest of my five days in Auckland are a pleasant whirlwind. My greatest accomplishment is honing a Kiwi accent. I pick it up enthusiastically and start to say “Yis” to everything. My other favourites include “idge” (edge) and “bid” (bed) and I’m convinced I could soon be mistaken for a local. By a foreigner, it goes without saying.
. . .
Travelling so soon after Osama bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan means that I am asked on an hourly basis – by airport officials, taxi drivers, and complete strangers – just what Pakistan knew about the world’s (formerly) most wanted man’s decision to choose our country for his retirement. As a Pakistani, they suggest, I must have known something, surely? No, I counter wearily, we were not all sent a memo. We are not all bin Laden aficionados. Some of us are more concerned with the unrecorded number of civilian deaths in Pakistan from unmanned US drone strikes than with the conspiracy-laden killing of one man.
Pakistan is at present pleading ignorance – the military acknowledged intelligence shortcomings regarding bin Laden and in a statement put out in the week after the killing reminded everyone that it was their unparalleled “cooperation” that has led to more al-Qaeda captures in Pakistan than any other country – which sounds like an incriminating thing to be bragging about. Meanwhile, apart from an article in the Washington Post (unsurprisingly, a paper which doesn’t have many subscribers in Pakistan), president Asif Ali Zardari has been quiet on the subject.
Writing in the US magazine The Nation, Jeremy Scahill mentioned a so-called “hot pursuit” agreement signed between Pakistan’s former president Pervez Musharraf and General Stanley McChrystal, American’s former commander in Afganistan, which allows US Special Operations Forces to conduct targeted assassinations and capture operations on Pakistani soil with the stipulation that Pakistan reserves the right to deny that they opened up their country to allow the Americans to do so. A sort of hear no evil, see no evil policy, if you will. This seems to me an issue worth focusing on, though unsurprisingly no one appears that keen. Though Pakistan has denied such an agreement exists it might make some sense of the government’s Mr Magoo-like response to bin Laden’s killing and also the fact that a month on, America – purportedly very angry that Osama was found holed up in Abbottabad – has yet to issue sanctions against Pakistan, freeze assets or cut aid (not even a dollar so far) and why President Obama and Hillary Clinton continue to issue reassuring statements about the “important” relationship between the two countries.
. . .
Enveloped by a cloud of jet lag, I press on to the Sydney Writers’ Festival, where the organisers have asked me to speak about “Pakistan: Nation on the verge of a Nervous Breakdown”. It is, I argue, a universal condition. Which country isn’t having a nervous breakdown? France, for example, deserves a special award for having a president who takes advice on Libya from Bernard-Henri Lévy.
It is a great honour to be asked to deliver an opening address but I really came to Sydney because the festival people told me AA Gill would be here, too. I’m the self-appointed number one fan of his travel writing. As well as Gill, I meet chef and writer Anthony Bourdain, Booker prize-winning novelist Howard Jacobson, biographer Carolyn Burke, and Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Gazan doctor who lost three of his daughters in an Israeli attack in 2009 and now works to promote peace. The opportunity to meet such wonderful and interesting people reminds me, through the jet lag, why I love literary festivals.
. . .
At a panel about 9/11 – I am there as the Pakistani terror expert, obviously – the audience erupts with the resounding voices of “truthers”, those excitable types who believe that the war on terror, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and everything else that shapes politics today was cooked up with the help of fake film footage. A granny wearing a delightful salmon cardigan and neatly ironed pink trousers informs us that a “Hollywood director who is a close personal friend” of hers had been hired to direct Osama bin Laden’s videos, while a gentleman wearing tracksuit bottoms – who becomes something of a cult figure during the festival by disrupting almost every talk – films himself on his camera phone while screaming “9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB!” It takes a petite festival volunteer five minutes to wrest a microphone from him.
The highlight of the trip (aside from AA Gill, of course) is a panel I am on with Ingrid Betancourt, the former Colombian presidential candidate who spent six years as a hostage of the guerrilla organisation Farc – and the writer Aminatta Forna, whose politician father was executed in Sierra Leone. These are two incredible women whose countries mirror mine in the sadness of their modern histories, and whose experiences are profoundly inspiring.
Fatima Bhutto’s latest book is ‘Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir’
Follow her on Twitter@fbhutto