Manan Ahmed's first book, Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination, is almost as much about form as content. An annotated collection of posts from his blog, ChapatiMystery.com, along with some essays he's published in this newspaper and others, the book spans April 2004 to May 2011, offering Ahmed's reactions to conflicts in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq and the US role there.
Through Chapati Mystery, Ahmed has, in the words of Amitava Kumar, who wrote the book's foreword, been "functioning as a historian of the present", taking apart "the unique mixture of ignorance and hypocrisy that marks US foreign policy in the subcontinent". Ahmed "disturbs our expectations, making us sit up and take notice of the assumptions that shape our thinking". Not every good writer can pull off this role. It requires one to couple quickly formed analysis with a measured introspection.
A historian of Islam who earned his PhD at the University of Chicago, Ahmed started his blog as a non-tenured academic, which could have damaged his job prospects. But he wasn't swayed: "The effort to be ethical in the world we inhabit cannot wait for better times and milder risks." He was disgusted by the media in both Pakistan and the US, which "were filled with spurious history or decontextualised information".
Into this breach steps Chapati Mystery, which seeks to "[inject] history - however complicated or contradictory it may be - into our public lives". This history, in Ahmed's view, is essential not only to understanding the world's ongoing conflicts, but also to solving them.
He's unforgiving towards western media and government officials who use vague language to crudely summarise geopolitical conflicts - by describing Pakistan's western provinces as "restive tribal regions". This is a concern that Ahmed shares with Orwell: the corrupting power of language, its capacity to elide or mislead or, at its worst, to overwrite necessary parts of history.
His style can be charmingly eclectic: in the span of one post, he quotes Derrida, the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the Hollywood film The Big Lebowski. A February 8, 2008 post puts forward the thesis that all Pakistani military chiefs-of-staff with moustaches have conducted coups, "while those without moustaches or with slight or ineffectual moustaches were pliable to civilian regimes".
Being an academic, Ahmed has an expert grasp of Pakistani and Afghan history, but he also takes advantage of the blog post's inherent informality, interrogating his own assumptions and allowing for the kind of uncertainty rarely tolerated in an op-ed. While some pieces are traditional essays, others take advantage of blogging's free-form nature.
To Dream a Man, a post from June 6, 2007, is a masterpiece of collage. Opening with an epigraph from Borges ("He wanted to dream a man; he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality"), the post begins with a US State Department telegram, dated September 8, 1970, detailing the US ambassador's conversation with President Yahya Khan, who explains his decision to postpone elections, claims he wants to restore civilian government and derides Pakistan's politicians as "spoiled kids". The remarks are instantly recognisable as redolent of comments by another dictator, 30-odd years later: General Pervez Musharraf. But Ahmed goes further, offering six more extended quotations from Bush administration spokespeople, and from George W Bush himself, showing the administration's shifting attitude towards the general.
Beginning on June 21, 2001, Philip T Reeker, then a deputy spokesman in the State Department, criticises Musharraf for undermining "Pakistan's constitutional order" and ruling "by decree". Fourteen months later - after September 11, which is key to Ahmed's implied thesis - Reeker has begun to excuse Musharraf's dictatorial behaviour.
This process of accommodation and evasion continues in subsequent passages, taking us through 2007, as Bush and his spokesmen find increasingly ham-fisted justifications for Musharraf's antidemocratic "reforms". A darling of the Bush and Blair governments for his co-operation with the "war on terror", Musharraf receives unvarnished contempt from Ahmed. So too do past Pakistani rulers such as Mohammad Ayub Khan and Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq. He labels this group "warrior-kings" and charts how Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's Islamisation programme and Zia ul Haq's subsequent Sunnification hobbled the country's democracy, allowing Islamism and militancy to flourish in the tribal areas that lacked access to municipal services and democratic institutions.
From / The National