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Insider critic of a condemned dynasty

Text by Emily King
Portraits by Paul Wetherell
Styling by Nancy Rohde
Issue n° 3, Spring & Summer 2011

Terrible events have dominated the life of Fatima Bhutto, a 28-year-old member of the turbulent Pakistani political dynasty. In her recent memoir, she emerged as its most fearless critic, ehement that her path lies with democracy and progress rather than her uncle’s government back home. Even so, she still lives in the famous Bhutto compound in Karachi, aware of the realities of her endangered life as she pursues her burgeoning international career a writer, poet and columnist. She’s a recent convert to veganism who enjoys soya milk in her cappuccinos.

On pages 34 and 35 of her recent memoir, Fatima Bhutto remembers cowering with her younger brother in a windowless room at her home in Karachi, scared of the audible gunfire but unaware that it was her father who was the target. Lurking fearfully inside the house during the aftermath of the shooting, 14-year-old Fatima rang her aunt Benazir, then the prime minister of Pakistan. After being told her aunt was too busy to come to the phone and hearing wailing in the background, she was eventually put on the line to Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari. The first she heard of her father’s murder was Zardari’s remark, “Oh, don’t you know? Your father’s been shot.”

The facts remain murky, but Fatima is convinced that her uncle Zardari and, by implication, her aunt Benazir were complicit in the killing. The sparks generated by this belief are intensified by her uncle’s current position as president of Pakistan. “I’ve learnt now to talk in interview-speak,” Fatima tells me when we first meet. “I always used to say ‘the man who killed my father’, but now I use the revised version, ‘the man who I feel killed my father’.”

At the level of bare facts, Fatima’s family story is unfeasibly dramatic. Plumb the depths, and it becomes queasily, confusingly violent. A brief summary: Fatima’s grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a member of an extremely wealthy feudal family with surprisingly leftist political views. The leader of Pakistan from 1971 to 1977, he was deposed by a military coup headed by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (known as General Zia). After two years’ imprisonment, Zulfikar was executed by hanging in 1979. In the years that followed, three of his four children were murdered – one every decade. His youngest son, Shahnawaz, was poisoned in mysterious circumstances in 1985. His elder son, Mir Murtaza, Fatima’s father, was gunned down in 1996. And his eldest child, daughter Benazir, was assassinated at a political rally in 2007.

Here, Fatima is wearing a white jumpsuit with a leather belt, both by PAUL SMITH. Her bracelets are by LAURA BAILEY for MADE. The ring is by SOLANGE AZAGURY-PARTRIDGE. In the opening image, she wears a black dress with leather sleeves by BALLY. Her bracelets and ring are as before.

In the midst of all this, Fatima was born in Afghanistan in 1982, where Mir and Shahnawaz were the founders of a movement committed to the violent resistance of General Zia’s regime. After Shahnawaz’s death in 1985, Fatima and her father moved to Damascus, and the movement was disbanded. Within a couple of years, her father had separated from her biological mother, Fauzia, and married Ghinwa, a young exile from Lebanon. Ghinwa has been ‘mummy’ to Fatima ever since.

These days, Fatima lives with Ghinwa, her half-brother, Zulfi, and her six-year-old adopted brother, Mir Ali, in 70 Clifton, the Bhutto family compound in Karachi her grandfather built in 1954. “One almost wants to capitalise it: The House,” she tells me later. “It’s the same age as my father would have been. It was built in the typical art deco style that was floating around Karachi and perhaps the subcontinent at the time. Bombay’s Marine Drive is a case in point.”

Fatima has inherited the good looks associated with her family. Judging by the photographs in her book, Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir, these can be traced to her exquisitely beautiful Iranian grandmother, Nusrat. Pictures taken in the 1960s and ’70s of Fatima’s father and his siblings on holiday in the northern Pakistan countryside and sightseeing on a state visit to China show a strikingly attractive group of young people, the boys shaggy-haired and moustached, the girls with centre partings and salwar kameezes adapted to suit the fashion of the era. Their appearance seems totally at odds with the way their lives unfolded.

Reading various articles about Fatima in preparation for our interview, I began to notice that information regarding her current whereabouts conflicted with what I knew to be true through casual conversation with her. Suddenly it struck me: Fatima couldn’t tell the truth about her plans, because it wouldn’t be safe. It’s hard to believe that Fatima – sophisticated, glamorous, politically passionate – can be in mortal danger. It’s shocking.

“Yes, I’m careful these days, since the book came out, to keep everything vague,” she says. “You know, it’s easier for me to keep travelling. I think no one is safe, actually. But my life’s no more difficult than anyone else’s involved.” So is she saying her history isn’t unique? “The personal experience is unique, but the experience of violence, of assassination, of not getting justice in court, that’s everyone’s, basically.” But her difficulties have been lived so publicly, I say. “Yes, but at least I have the opportunity to talk about my father’s case. So many people in Pakistan don’t. They’re kept voiceless. The injustices done to them are erased and removed from memory.”

The first time I saw 28-year-old Fatima was at a lunch last November arranged by a mutual friend, the Lebanese art and design collector Tania Fares. Before dessert, Fatima gave a speech, which was less about her family history than the current challenges facing Pakistan. Neat and well groomed, with a confident speaking style, she trained her outrage on the Hudud Ordinances, a set of laws introduced by General Zia as part of his Islamisation process, one of which effectively makes rape victims guilty of adultery, a crime punishable by stoning (although this has never been carried out). Her aunt Benazir had had two opportunities to repeal the ordinances as prime minister, Fatima said, but had not done so.

A couple of weeks later, I see Fatima again at an event in the Roger Vivier shoe shop on Sloane Street. The pretext is ‘breakfast’ – delicious macaroons and tiny, effective ristrettos – and the purpose is to introduce her favoured charity, Merlin. Sending medical experts to work with local staff at the frontline of global emergencies, Merlin currently supports over 1,000 doctors working in Pakistan in the wake of last August’s devastating floods.

As I talk to a nurse about her experiences, at the edge of my field of vision, I watch another guest succumbing to a pair of beautiful thorn-detailed heels. It is a slightly dissonant image, I later suggest to Fatima. She replies that against the backdrop of Britain’s high standard of living, such indulgence is OK, but back home in Pakistan, it isn’t. “I don’t really belong to the fashion crowd in Karachi,” she says. “My family and my work mean that I live very close to the other side of the city, a world where women can’t afford the month’s salary it costs to buy an ID card and so are unable to open a bank account. To witness that and then go to a fashion show...”

Fatima is wearing a cropped suede jacket by MARNI over a long black tube dress by MAISON MARTIN MARGIELA. The bracelets are by LAURA BAILEY for MADE.

When Fatima and I finally meet for an interview, though, in the garden of the Saatchi Gallery on the King’s Road, we talk about fashion, as well as friends, education and books. Her stepmother and little brother are in town, and she’s babysitting, so she arrives with Mir Ali, holding an enormous lolly, a comic and a kick scooter.

We sit outside, absorbing the slight warmth of the winter sun, watching Mir Ali scoot around after pigeons and, from time to time, tumble into a puddle. Our talk resembles the pleasantly distracted conversation of mothers in the playground. On our previous meetings, she’s been formally dressed, all pencil skirts and high heels, but today practicality prevails, and she’s wearing black jeans, a quilted jacket, trainers and a white woolly hat.

As a child, Fatima tells me, she went to American schools, first in Damascus and then in Karachi. She enjoyed near-anonymity in Syria, but things changed when she arrived in Pakistan: the weight of the Bhutto name became even heavier when her father was jailed on charges dating back to his years of resistance in Afghanistan. “I remember going to the doctor’s, and I started to spell my name at reception, because in Damascus I’d have to, and they said, ‘No, we know,’ looking at me like I was stupid.”

Fatima’s grandfather and father both went to Harvard and then Christ Church, Oxford, but Fatima chose Columbia in New York and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. The decisions that drew her away from family tradition sound refreshingly like those of any other informed, opinionated young adult. “I got into Christ Church to study South Asian government and politics,” she says, “but the programme was so pre-partition! SOAS seemed so much cooler in terms of politics; it was way more radical. So I went there instead.”

Studying in New York during 9/11 and its aftermath, Fatima says that, as a Pakistani, she was only ever treated warmly. “I can’t tell you the number of people from home who said to me, ‘Don’t say you’re from Pakistan, for goodness sakes.’ But I still did, even at the airport. I mean, I’m born in Kabul, and I land in New York with all these Syrian and Lebanese stamps all over my Pakistani passport, and what they would actually say was, ‘Oh, Pakistan. Is everything OK at home? Are you safe?’”

Nevertheless, Fatima is severe about the role played by the United States and Britain in the unmaking of Pakistan, singling out US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband for particular criticism. “I was brought up to think that politics are about justice,” she says. “But the US and UK governments still need Pakistan, and so the Pakistani government can get away with whatever it wants in return for allowing the American government to kill Pakistanis with their spy planes.”

Reviewing Fatima’s book in The Washington Post last October, the journalist Thomas Lippman wrote, “Her reflexive anti-Americanism is tiresome.” Fatima’s response to this charge is characteristic. “That in itself is so naive and myopic. I’m a product of the American school system, and whenever I’m asked about my journalistic heroes, it’s always Seymour Hersh and my professor at Columbia Dennis Dalton that changed my life. I’m not anti-American at all, but when we talk about what the American government has done in my country – as a Pakistani, you cannot be in favour of it. It’s a system that’s based on the exploitation of our economic resources and our strategic importance in the region.”

The American-made, Benazir-centric documentary Bhutto was released around the same time as Songs of Blood and Sword was published last summer. Although the film departs markedly from Fatima’s account of events, most noticeably in its flattering
portrayal of her uncle, President Zardari, they coincide closely in telling the tale of the US’s involvement in Pakistan and describing the vacuum left when the former USSR withdrew from neighbouring Afghanistan.

Fatima and I have our last conversation at the Wolseley, on a day when the world’s newspapers are full of WikiLeaks. Tucked into the corner of the restaurant, we order meals based around toast. I mention the headlines, and Fatima immediately leaps on the reference. “I’m a huge WikiLeaks fan. I can’t overemphasise how important it is. I think Julian Assange is the man of the decade. There’s so much secrecy in what should be open space. We elect governments to serve the people – well, not in the case of Pakistan – and they’re answerable to us. I hate the idea that we allow cloak-and-dagger secrecy and this shadowy world to exist because we’re afraid.” But couldn’t the leaks put people in danger, I ask? “They’re already in danger. What endangers people is fighting wars for oil, fighting wars for resources, for regime change. Economic exploitation, political interference – that’s what endangers people.” Among the leaks is evidence that President Zardari has cooperated with Washington in the drone strikes on Pakistan, which he has expressly denied doing. This revelation deeply compromises the already tenuous status of his government, in a state of emergency compounded by the assassination of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer in early 2011.

“What’s great about WikiLeaks is it confirms what we already suspect,” says Fatima. “All the times that governments have said ‘No, what are you talking about? We don’t sanction torture and the drug trade; we don’t deal with criminals.’ WikiLeaks confirms that, yes, they do.”

In the weeks after our interview, I see a newspaper photograph of Fatima following the charity fundraiser Jemima Khan through a crush of cameras and microphones outside the London court where Julian Assange has been granted bail. In most accounts of Khan’s support of Assange, her name is twinned with the belittling epithet ‘socialite’ or ‘celebrity’, implying that her commitment to the cause of free speech is superficial bandwagon-jumping. The British media seem reluctant to accept that someone can have both great hair and a well-developed political conscience.

Fatima is wearing a very happy-shouldered black blazer by GIORGIO ARMANI.

When Fatima went on her first election campaign for her father, she was only 11. At the time, Mir Murtaza was unable to enter Pakistan for fear of arrest, so plucky Fatima took to the road with her stepmother, brother and grandmother. “I wanted to do it,” she says. “I grew up hearing about my father campaigning for his father, and it felt like a rite of passage, something grownups do. That said, as a child, I was definitely afraid of crowds – I hated every minute of it.” Her book contains an account of a 13-year-old Fatima hounding her father to put abortion rights and AIDS awareness on his election manifesto. She was successful.

In spite of her early inculcation, or maybe because of it, Fatima says she refuses to contemplate pursuing political power for herself and forcefully rejects any suggestion of a dynastic calling. “Pakistan has to choose, because democracy and dynasty don’t go together,” she says. “They’re on opposite sides of the spectrum. They cancel each other out. If you look back at the last 30 years in Pakistan, dynasty has nothing to show for itself. It has furthered no democratic progress, aided no progressive movements. And if you look at dynasty anywhere else in the world, you’ll find the same to be true. It’s political inbreeding.”

Fatima’s comments are particularly pointed considering that after her aunt’s assassination in 2007, Benazir’s and President Zardari’s son – Fatima’s cousin, Bilawal Zardari Bhutto – was made chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, founded by their grandfather. At the time, Bilawal was a 19-year-old studying history at Oxford University. Google his name and you’ll find numerous photographs of him at parties, wrapped around young women, sometimes in fancy dress. Most reports present his conduct as unseemly, although it perhaps befits a teenager more than assuming leadership of a democratic party based on his parentage. When I put this to Fatima, she assumes a stony face, waving her hands in front of her mouth. “They’re children,” she says of Bilawal and his two sisters. “I don’t want to talk about them.”

Staying with the theme of dynasty, we turn to the British Royal Family, and the forthcoming wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. “I’m not British, so it’s not really my business,” Fatima says, “but I find it strange that you’re going to end up paying for it in taxes, especially during a recession.” She adds: “To me, monarchy is as baffling as dynasty. For me as a liberal secular egalitarian, it seems completely incompatible with the virtues and ideals of democracy.”

The waiter arrives, and Fatima orders a dairy-free hot chocolate; hearing that this is impossible, she opts for a soya milk cappuccino instead. She’s a recent convert to veganism. For a self-proclaimed secularist, she has something of a Calvinist streak, despite her proclaimed enthusiasm for shoes. Her claim to fit anything between either a 36 and a 38 makes the size of her feet perhaps the only area of contemporary life about which she is equivocal.

Fatima tells me that some people assume she wrote her book to achieve ‘closure’. With the circumstances of her father’s death unclear and the man she believes to be responsible still in power, we agree that this is wishful thinking. But in Fatima’s eyes, lack of resolution evidently does not equal failure to move forward. She bubbles with enthusiasm about her next project, a book about Karachi. The idea evolved from a piece she wrote for a Pakistan-themed issue of Granta about a Sheedi shrine on the outskirts of the city surrounded by sacred crocodiles that, according to myth, developed from the head lice of a saint. “Karachi’s a city with a fearsome reputation,” she says, “but one that no one really knows intimately.”

Fatima and I say goodbye outside the Wolseley. Ducking into the tube, I leave her waiting at a bus stop, merging anonymously into the commuting crowd, this dynastic princess who refuses dynasty. Shortly before Benazir’s death, she laid claim on her niece Fatima by announcing, “Everyone says she’s just like me.” In terms of beauty, she certainly had a case, but in every other aspect, the niece resists the pull that has dragged her celebrated family members towards power.