Culture & Conversation

Duelling with America

Tariq Ali is an Oxford-educated East Asian expatriate who has nevertheless maintained deep ties with his nation of origin. Famed for his silver-tongued oratorical skills, he kept a packed, multi-ethnic audience captivated with his account of American interventions in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, and brought out ripples of laughter and applause with caustic assessments of the Bhuttos, the Bush legacy, Barack Obama, and Michael Ignatieff.

In his most recent book, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, Ali describes how Americans called the shots in Pakistan, pouring billions of dollars into the military while the country’s poverty deepened, always finding the kind of general they wanted–profoundly fundamentalist or profoundly secular – to satisfy short-term, disastrously short-sighted policy aims. If they had wanted a hermaphrodite general, he joked, they would have found one. He didn’t mince words about the Bhuttos.

Although Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came in with an idealistic platform of land reform, etc. a la India, he didn’t put it into effect because fundamentally, he didn’t consider it necessary, coming from the landed gentry himself. The problem with his daughter Benazir was that she had married “a rogue” – one of the most corrupt landlords and administrators in Pakistan. She and Ali had been quite close. He helped write her inauguration speech and advised that if elected, she leave a positive legacy, including state schools for girls and a health centre in at least every two villages, so the poor wouldn’t have to go to the big cities for medical attention.

Like her father, she doubted she could enact such reforms without support of the power elites – an impossible condition to hope for from the start. Ali was as upset as any when she was assassinated – but found it absurd that the Western press should paint her as a sort of “goddess of democracy,” when in her political will she had left the leadership of her party to her husband.

Ali had written during the Bush years. Obama, Ali remarked, is almost certainly the most intelligent President in recent memory, one who can not only read books, but actually write them. “Unfortunately, if you wear Caesar’s robes and put on Caesar’s crown, you have to act like Caesar. The previous one was like Caligula. This one is more like Claudius.” He mused as to whether Michele would make a more decisive President.

Asked whether his own political convictions had changed over the years, Ali replied that of course times and he himself had changed dramatically, but that fundamentally, he had always remained on the left, in support of human rights and a better lot for the poor – “unlike certain liberals who have gone on to advocate the Iraq war and apologize for torture, like your future Prime Minister.”

CBC host Paul Kennedy wrote his interview notes on a coffee coaster. Jian Ghomeshi, the interviewer of Jonathan Goldstein a few hours later, wrote his on a couple of barf bags from two different airlines, which brought him to compare the merits of the two airlines, as well as other uses for those bags should the interview go like the notorious one that had recently taken place on Q. What’s with these CBC hosts? I thought. Well, both were very smooth and professional, which made these little foibles all the more endearing.

Jonathan Goldstein said he felt like a truck backing up. A.S. Byatt said she could hear ghostly fairy pipes in a forest. The source of their metaphorical inspiration? Feedback from hearing aids and cell phones in response to the elevated speakers by the stage – a new technological interaction designed to vex hosts and bring on flights of whimsy from featured guests.

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