Tariq Ali's Pakistani tragedy

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 The Leopard and the Fox: A Pakistani Tragedy
The story quashed by the BBC makes its entrance in book form

LIKE HIS LATE FRIEND and colleague Edward Said was, Britain's Tariq Ali is an intellectual in exile who has risen to a place of prominence and eminence in his adoptive country, writing on both universalist themes and subjects (the anti-imperialist and anti-war movements; socialist theory, philosophy and praxis; Islam and Islamic history) as well as the politics and history of his homeland.

Like Said's Palestine, Ali's Pakistan suffered the trauma of confessional partition in 1947 (although the processes were somewhat inversed: partition effectively erased Palestine, while it created Pakistan wholecloth). But whereas Said's universalist writings on themes of Orientalism, culture and the humanities never overshadowed his work on Palestine specifically, Ali is far more associated, in the West, with the project of the international Left than he is with Pakistani politics. In Canada, at least, it's far easier and cheaper to order his books on Latin America, Trotsky, the anti-war movement of the 1960s, and even Indian politics than it is to get his book Can Pakistan Survive? (although Section III of his popular The Clash of Fundamentalisms, "The Nuclear Wastelands of South Asia," contains some very fine and illuminating writing about his country of birth).

The general ignorance about Pakistan in the West is deadly ironic, given the pervasive, all-encompassing fear here of gun- and Exacto-knife toting Sunnis; the Pakistani role in effectuating the whims of American Cold Ward policy in Central and South Asia is second in importance only to Saudi oil money as an immediate cause and sponsor of the al Qaeda brand of Islamism. Ali's new book, The Leopard and the Fox: A Pakistani Tragedy, is therefore all the more significant a work, as it tells the story of what would likely have been the writer's most popular contribution to British (and likely Western) understanding of the political situation in Pakistan: a three-part BBC miniseries on the trial and execution of Pakistan's first elected prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, that followed the military coup carried out by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977.

Ali's short, "Explanatory Preface" lays out the skeletons of the story behind the script, which ultimately received a very political kaibosh: after being commissioned by the BBC to write the series, Ali prepares the script, and casting gets under way (Bhutto was to be played by the famed Naseeruddin Shah); he's then informed that the higher-ups are concerned about the production, after which he is told in a meeting with a veteran BBC journalist, based in Delhi that the network will go ahead with the project if Ali removes the portion of the script which indicates that the "United States had green-lighted Bhutto's hanging." Ali refuses, at which point a legal position is written by BBC lawyers on the hypothetical libel cases arising from the potential airing of the program, and a memo comes down killing the miniseries. The legal opinion, as well as the BBC memo, are included in the new book as appendices. The bulk of The Leopard and the Fox is a shorter version of Ali's script, adapted to be part of a Channel Four series on political assassinations in South Asia, later cancelled "because of financial shortfalls, not political censorship."

This new publication, then, is doubly useful, both as a crash course in the political history of the populist, relatively progressive Bhutto "his successes and his failures, and the role played by each in his ultimate execution; which is to say, as Bhutto does in Ali's script, that he is killed because of his virtues, and not because of his vices" and his enemies, as well as a case study of media control in Margaret Thatcher's Britain. In strangling Ali's miniseries in its crib, the British power elite extended, into the realm of popular culture, their criminal cooperation with General Zia, whom Ali in his preface calls "the godfather of Osama Bin Laden and the jihadi guerrillas and Pakistani irregulars then fighting the Russians (and today NATO)." He goes on:

It was Zia who funded, armed and organized the Islamic groups that are still wreaking havoc in the region. But he was a tried, tested and trusted officer, who had been trained at Fort Bragg. It was he who had led Pakistani troops and Bedouins to crush the Palestinians in Jordan in September 1970. He was now considered essential for Washington's Afghan operation, backed to the hilt by Margaret Thatcher.

The script itself is a gripping chronicle of court intrigue, personal and political power dynamics, charisma and the veneer of diplomacy that rests loosely atop the essential violence of political processes and international relations. Even on the page, Ali's script is rich, evocative and suspenseful.

The only drawback to this edition is the lack of an epilogue; as it stands, the BBC's Deputy Solicitor, J.P. Coman, gets the last word (the memo that he sent down cancelling "The Leopard and the Fox" is Appendix B, and ends the book). A rebuttal essay by Ali would have bookended nicely with his fairly short preface.

Nevertheless, this book offers an indispensable insight into the repellant history of military, financial and "evidently" cultural collusion between the West and its (now) sworn terrorist enemies. All due respect to the titular make-up of the present volume, The Leopard and the Fox is not only a Pakistani tragedy, but a Western one, too.--Charles Demers

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