Whimsical Encounters: The Nine Lives of Pakistan. A Conversation with Declan Walsh
Whimsical Encounters: The Nine Lives of Pakistan. A Conversation with Declan Walsh

“If Pakistani cities were caricatures, most would be easy to draw. Lahore is corpulent and languid, stretched out in a shalwar kameez, twirling its moustache over a greasy breakfast. Islamabad cuts a more clipped figure, holding court in a gilded drawing room, proffering Scotch and political whispers. Peshawar wears a turban or a burqa, scuttling among the stalls of an ancient bazaar. But Karachi is harder to sketch. It has too many faces: the shiny shod businessman, rushing to the gym; the hardscrabble labourer, who sends his wages to a distant village; the slinky socialite, kicking off her heels as she bends over a line of cocaine.”1

I was midway through Declan Walsh’s book, The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State, when I read these lines. The book has received 2021 Overseas Press Club of America Cornelius Ryan Award, for meritorious work on international affairs. But that is not why I was intrigued about the book. I have spent most of my adult life in the United States and the writer’s observations resonated with me because of an astute assessment of the diversity of Pakistan. I found Walsh’s metaphors for different cities of Pakistan fascinating. They were not vantage observations. These words to describe the rich tapestry that Pakistan is, could only be used by someone who had roomed the streets of my home country and seen it all. I knew right away that I had to talk to Walsh, the man behind these words. I was quite excited when Walsh agreed to a conversation via Zoom, all the way from his current home in Kenya, where he is the Chief Africa correspondent for The New York Times.

In The Nine Lives of Pakistan Walsh introduces his readers to the complexity of Pakistanis as a nation and the conundrum of Pakistan’s existence amidst extenuating circumstances since 1947. He crafts the story by detailing lives and at times, the circumstances of death, of nine Pakistanis, whom he believes to be emblematic of present-day Pakistan. His selection runs a gamut. The nine representatives of Pakistan include people from a diverse array. One of the initial chapters of the book, ‘The Prodigal Father’ is dedicated to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of the Nation. The chapter captures Pakistan’s trajectory as a nation created in the name of Islam under fierce leadership of a man who was secular to the core. Walsh describes Jinnah’s portrait as suggesting “the gaze of a man who has gambled at the table of history, won big – and now wonders whether he won more than he bargained for.” 2

The protagonists of Walsh’s narrative are diverse and conflicting forces, that all claim Pakistan to be their own. His characters range from conservatives like the cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi at one end of the spectrum and liberalists as Salman Taseer at the other. There is a chapter titled ‘The Fabulous Senorita; A Human Rights Heroine Versus the Generals’ which is dedicated to the life and times of the fierce human rights lawyer, Asma Jahangir. He traveled to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to include life of Anwar Kamal Khan and politics of the “frontier.” 3 Pakistan’s convoluted relationship with America and the two country’s troublesome alliance that led to the creation of Pakistan is explored through the story of Sultan Amir Tarar, known across Pakistan as ‘Colonel Imam’. Other profiles include those of Chaudry Aslam Khan “Karachi’s most famous cop” and journalist Hamid Mir.4 There is a detailed account of his meetings with Nawab Akbar Shahbaz Khan Bugti where the narrative delves deep not only in the life and times of the eclectic Baluch chieftain, but also on the ongoing war of attrition between Pakistan’s government and its tribal factions.

Why would Walsh choose to highlight lives of the nine that he selected, from myriads of people he encountered in Pakistan? “I wanted to choose people who represent something about the time, who represent something about the country, but who would also be a good story for the reader.”5 Each of these lives tell a different story, yet they all come together to make what is today’s Pakistan. “My goal was to write a book that would be accessible to someone who didn’t know a lot about Pakistan, but was curious and wanted to know more,” said Walsh, while talking about the audience he desired to reach through his work.6 The reader gets to meet these nine lives not only through the interviews that enabled Walsh to paint a vivid picture, but also through situational escapades in which these larger-than-life characters emerge as a reflection of the Pakistani society. Walsh spent ten years covering stories in Pakistan. Nine of these years were in the country, first as a reporter for the Guardian and then with the New York Times. His reporting took him to many places and encounters with “the well-heeled of Pakistanis.”7 However, because of his love for storytelling he ended up in many other interesting quarters such as Heera Mandi, that is, Lahore’s famous red-light district. The Pakistan that Walsh’s readers get to meet is representative of business tycoons and politicians who live in the posh cities of Karachi and Lahore, as much as it is of the Highlanders of Baluchistan. However, his excursions at Dera Bugti, the mountainous abode of Baluchistan’s Bugti tribe and meetings with Nawab Bugti, did not escape the surveillance apparatus that closely monitored Walsh’s moves across Pakistan. Soon after his visit to Baluchistan, Walsh was asked to leave Pakistan. It was three days prior to the elections of 2013. His crime?  He was accused of “undesirable activities.”8

According to Walsh, The Nine Lives of Pakistan is an exercise in trying to make sense of what happened with him, as well as, coming to terms with his “very dramatic, sometimes dangerous times” in the country.9 I asked Walsh if he was surprised at this unceremonious departure from a country where he was regularly featured on the high society pages of glossy magazines? “Well, not really! I was certainly surprised of being kicked out, I didn’t see that coming, but definitely in retrospect there have been some signs that there were people in the security and establishment who were not happy with the stories I have been writing.”10 By 2013, Walsh had lived in Pakistan for almost a decade; “I knew that conspiracy theories ran rampant and knew that the intelligence services and the security apparatus really tried to control the story that is told about the country,” said Walsh while adding that local journalists in Pakistan often found themselves at the crack of the then military government’s whip to perpetuate controlled messaging. 11

As Walsh takes his reader on a roller-coaster ride from the siege of Lal Masjid in Islamabad to his meetings with Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) operatives in South Waziristan Tribal Agency, he delves deep into the characters and stories that shaped those incidents. “I realized that some of the people I had written about repeatedly, that they were these very rich characters. They were people who led these very dramatic, full lives and in some way, were full of meaning and helped me understand the country. That was in a way the starting point for the book itself.” 12

Writing and documenting The Nine Lives of Pakistan became a personal journey for Walsh. As he explored the present, he became deeply interested in the past. While he dug through the tumultuous history of the sub-continent and partition of India into two nation states of Pakistan and Hindustan, he could identify a cause-and-effect relationship between decisions made during the earlier days of creation of the state and their impact on today’s Pakistan. An exploration of the country’s “historical arc” led Walsh to an understanding of some of Pakistan’s most pressing problems, as well as its place in geopolitics.13 “I felt that things that happened back then really helped me to understand things that I were seeing now,” said Walsh. He summarizes his thoughts in the last chapter of the book, ‘A House on the Hill’; “Although Pakistan was built on faith, Islam offered an incomplete identity. Negation of India filled the void. Viewed through this lens, so much of what Pakistan did- the coddling of jihadis, the scheming in Afghanistan – seemed to stem from a gnawing insecurity. Pakistan had to be everything that India was and was not.” 14

Walsh misses his time in Pakistan. Friends, social events, professional contacts and foods of Pakistan have stayed with him and found way into The Nine Lives of Pakistan. He fondly reminisces attending Basant, the kite festival in Lahore and how it introduced him to a Pakistan that “met more than the eye.”15 “On the rooftops, I mingled with city grandees who chewed kebabs at lavish parties in traditional haveli mansions. The forbidden pleasures were at street level,” writes Walsh, as he goes on to describe his encounter with the LGBTQI community and their lives in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.16 While in Pakistan, Walsh fully embraced all opportunities for socializing that came as perks of his journalistic career and gave him access to some of the most exclusive circles, as well as, to the underground haunts.

During a decade of covering Pakistani stories for readers in the West, Walsh was gravely disturbed by some of the narratives that he highlighted. He was distraught by the incidents of violence against women, from child marriages and honor killings to acid attacks and regulations of Hudood Ordinance. Initially, he found it hard to fathom the prevalence of these crimes and the apathy of law enforcement in failure to capture the perpetrators of gender-based and domestic violence. To make sense of this blatant abuse, he asked one person who had dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of Pakistani women – Asma Jahangir. Their conversation gave him some perspective; “many of these things are crimes, and crime takes place in every country, she replied. They only become human rights abuses when the state fails to respond to them.”17 For Jahangir, reasons for the abuse of women in Pakistan lied in the country’s laws that failed to provide a legal framework for the protection of its female citizens. Walsh not only agreed with Jahangir, he found hope in her conviction. He believes that constitutional amendments are much easier to rectify than a complete overhaul of society and culture.

Walsh, who is originally from Ireland, currently resides in Kenya where he serves as the Chief Africa correspondent for The Times. Pakistan and then Kenya, seem unusual choices for a person who could choose to work in New York or any of the more coveted parts of the globe. Walsh, however, “wanted to see the world.”18 “I was really curious about pushing the boundaries,” he said. 19 He also believes that bringing the world together is his professional calling. “I really enjoy working in these countries, where people have got stories to tell and where I feel that, as a reporter, I can try at least to do some justice to those stories and bring them back to people in other parts of the world, so we can all understand each other a little better.”20 In addition to satiating his appetite for travel, his assignments have allowed Walsh an opportunity to explore “the core humanity in all of us” in a world that is otherwise divided by language, identity, and religion. 21

Does Walsh have a verdict for Pakistan, given the country’s current state-of-affairs? “Pakistanis possess many advantages and strengths: a huge number of educated, ambitious and resourceful young people; an extended family system that provides a social safety net; surprising pockets of tolerance, even in the most conservative quarters; and deep stores of resilience. Above all, Pakistanis are survivors,” writes Walsh in the last chapter of the book ‘A House on a Hill’.22 I find Walsh optimistic in his final observations. His closing assessment of the country also brings the metaphor of nine-lives full circle: A cat’s ability to land on its feet with dexterity and agility, at the end of its nine lives.

The most enjoyable part of The Nine Lives of Pakistan is Walsh’s creative storytelling. His characters are alive and mobile in a complicated labyrinth of events. Though each chapter is distinct in the subject it profiles, the narrative is woven together with themes that have defined Pakistan’s history, such as, war, dictatorships, and historical rivalries. However, I missed seeing more female characters and inclusion of non-political figures in this otherwise comprehensive account of Pakistan.

Walsh confesses that in addition to friends, what he reminisces most from his stay in Pakistan, is cuisine. His favorites include Biryani, Nihari, Gulab Jamun and Lahore’s Nan Kathai (South Asian specialty biscuits). He never misses an opportunity to import Nan Kathai through visiting friends. 23

 The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Divided Nation, published by Bloomsbury Publishing (2020) is spread over 368 pages


  1. Walsh, D. (2020). The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State (1st ed.). W. W. Norton & Company.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Personal interview with Declan Walsh via Zoom.
  6. Ibid
  7. Walsh, D. (2020). The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State (1st ed.). W. W. Norton & Company.
  8. Ibid
  9. Personal interview with Declan Walsh via Zoom.
  10. Ibid
  11. Ibid
  12. Ibid
  13. Walsh, D. (2020). The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State (1st ed.). W. W. Norton & Company.
  14. Ibid
  15. Ibid
  16. Ibid
  17. Personal interview with Declan Walsh via Zoom.
  18. Ibid
  19. Ibid
  20. Ibid
  21. Ibid
  22. Walsh, D. (2020). The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State (1st ed.). W. W. Norton & Company.
  23. Personal interview with Declan Walsh via Zoom.

Saima Adil Sitwat is a writer and educator. She facilitates classes and conversations on race, religion, and identity politics. Sitwat lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband and their two daughters. She is the author of her memoir American Muslim: An Immigrant’s Journey and can be reached via Instagram @saimasitwat_author or her website: saimasitwat.com.

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