From taboo tome to must-read

[7 June 2007]

By Kim Barker

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—It hardly seemed like the book launch would be the event of the season. The book, “Military Inc.,” an academic and sometimes dry treatise on Pakistan’s military economy, kicks off with a definition of acronyms, from ABL to WAPDA, and wraps up with 39 pages of footnotes, references and indexes.

The launch itself promised to be more than an hour of speeches in a sweltering room, followed by tea, water and cookies.

But last week’s event quickly became the place to be for Islamabad’s intellectuals, journalists and opponents of military rule, especially after the original launch at the Islamabad Club was mysteriously canceled. And then, equally mysteriously, all the fancy hotels in Pakistan’s capital decided not to rent out their meeting halls for the event.

Instantly, this study by scholar Ayesha Siddiqa, a defense analyst and former director of research for the Pakistani navy, became a must-have book. The launch cancellation, which Siddiqa blamed on government officials, was the kind of publicity that serious academics usually can only dream about.

“They have effectively now turned her into a hero,” said Ayesha Haq, a journalist and lawyer.

Word spread about the troubled launch from cell phone to cell phone. First, text messages announced that the launch was canceled. Then a flurry of messages promised it would happen, at a venue to be decided. Finally a place was found, in a nondescript non-profit agency in what passes for a Pakistani strip mall. Text messages were forwarded.

Attending the event was a statement in itself in Pakistan, which is run by the head of the army, Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999. Writing the book was an act of defiance—or, as some said, a kind of death wish.

“There have been many times where friends have told me, `Don’t write this book,’” Siddiqa said. “`And if you write this book, don’t publish it.’” Calling the military a taboo subject in Pakistan does not do justice to the armed forces here. Just last week, the head of Pakistan’s ruling party reiterated his oft-stated belief that anyone who criticized the military should be shot.

Pakistan has been under military rule for more than half of its 60 years. But the military also runs the largest business conglomerates in the country. Officers have their hands in everything—sugar, cereal, cement, wool, hosiery, shrimp, land, car rentals, shoes. There are military-owned banks, gas stations, restaurants, marriage halls, universities and travel agencies. The military-run economy could be worth more than $20 billion, according to Siddiqa’s research.

Siddiqa said she found out last Thursday morning that the launch was canceled. A representative from the book’s publisher, Oxford University Press, said the company was not given any option to reschedule by the Islamabad Club, a refuge for the military and government elite.

The government denied having anything to do with the cancellation. But some anonymous officials suggested to Pakistani news organizations that Siddiqa was paid by rival India or the U.S. to write the book.

An anonymous writer in The News, an English newspaper, wrote that the book was seditious, maligned the armed forces and targeted “the army to weaken its institutional strengths.” The government-controlled Associated Press of Pakistan said the book was “a plethora of misleading and concocted stories.”

The book comes at a tense time. In recent weeks, government officials, including Musharraf, have lashed out at the media for insulting the military and giving too much attention to the country’s suspended chief justice, a rallying point for opponents of military rule.

Last week, in a move underlining the deepening political crisis, the government forbade live TV talk shows, live coverage of the chief justice’s rallies and demonstrations of more than five people in Islamabad. On Monday, Musharraf further tightened restrictions on broadcast media.

But in the end, the book launch happened. At the new venue, the microphone didn’t work. The air conditioners didn’t work. People joked about government tampering.

Only about 75 chairs were in the room, and those were filled quickly. More and more people crammed inside, sitting cross-legged on the floor and standing in the back. Others crammed into the room next door.

Siddiqa, at just over 5 feet tall, barely could be seen over the TV microphones. She acknowledged that her book probably had mistakes, as she could not get complete information. She also complained about the cancellation of the original launch.

But in the end, the cancellation may have been a good thing—for the book, if not the writer. Within minutes, all the books at the signing were gone. By Saturday, the first run of 1,000 books had been sold out, and bookstores in Islamabad were waiting for another shipment. A newspaper, once critical, even dubbed the book a best seller.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/from-taboo-tome-to-must-read/