A Liberal’s Martyr
- Review of Shaheed: The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto
- Written and performed by Anna Khaja.
- Directed by Heather de Michele
- Produced by Women Center Stage, The Culture Project, New York City
A sad ailment afflicts contemporary American art that aspires to a progressive portrayal of the world beyond its borders: it is frequently stricken by unexamined, clichéd, liberal populism. Bold dissent is a rare find and, Shaheed too, unfortunately, ails from this malady.
As I sat awaiting the performance to commence, an old song played, acutely auguring its motif.
Hum ko zinda maar gaya tu…
Khoon ke rishte torh gaya tu
Aankh mein aansu chorh gaya tu
It is a nation in love, serenading a flawless beloved. Shaheed’s protagonist, Benazir Bhutto, however, arrives damaged and flawed: human.
One is tempted to laud this as a judicious and sensitive portrayal of a woman caricatured by the United States and its so-called “war on terror” allies as a demigod of Pakistan’s democratic salvation. But, such approbation would require willful inattention to the thrust of the performance, one that denies such sensitivity to the play’s many other characters, among them a rehri driver (street cart vendor), a professor, and a young, female madrassa student.
This cast, instead, cleaves closely to easy stereotypes in order to design a story familiar to American liberals. Although they reject unsubtle, conservative caricatures of Pakistan as a jihadi haven, they still often fail to interrogate their own biases about the country, particularly the uncritical demonization of Islamic clerics and madrassas, and the equally unexamined support for those Pakistani women determined by western audiences as ‘liberal’ and ‘feminist.’
Consonant with such sensibilities, Shaheed is attentive to caricatures of Pakistanis that would find condemnation on the liberal American news channel, MSNBC. Indeed, in the play’s introductory act, Sara, an American with Pakistani heritage, remarks, “It is as if being half-Pakistani is the same as being half-terrorist.” Similarly, Quasim, a pedantic New England professor giddily describes his joy in exposing the Islamophobia of his students. Familiar, almost didactic, distinctions between the lesser and greater jihad follow.
Applause-worthy thus far, Shaheed’s progressivism, unfortunately, stops here.
America has historically ill-addressed its colonialism, from the country’s inception in settler-colonialism to today’s denial of imperial ambitions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In such a climate, telling a story rich with Pakistani characters, history and politics, one might have hoped that Shaheed depart from the stereotypes of good Muslim and bad Muslim that obscure American expansionism. Unfortunately, through its selective deployment of history and fact, the play offers no challenge to these caricatures.
Invocation of artistic license is a frequent response to criticism of historical inaccuracy. Art is not documentary, such a response asserts; it is precisely art’s creativity of perspective that makes it art. Yet, by the same token, the narrative selection that is the very essence of an artwork’s message is what most deserves examination.
Sadly, Shaheed’s choice of history effaces many a fact to facilitate an easy stereotype of Benazir as Pakistan’s liberal savior. She and other elected plutocrats are exculpated of their enormous failures. American involvement in engineering Pakistani predicaments, too, finds no mention. Instead, virtually all major transgressions are credited to Pakistan’s juntas and Islamists.
The Taliban, for example, are linked solely to Musharraf, eliding Benazir’s first government’s role in sustaining the militia, as well as her government’s active perpetuation of a murderous war that has decimated a generation of Afghans. Similarly, Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a chief architect of the denial of Bengali political rights, makes no appearance in the mention of the “abusive” treatment of East Pakistan by its Western half, and remains only valorized as an inscrutable democrat.
This is not to exonerate the martial regimes of their atrocities, or diminish the import of democracy. It is to underscore that Shaheed’s history abets rather than challenges a simplistic stereotype of Pakistan, one in which dictators are unquestionably evil, and democrats messianic.
Establishing Benazir as such a savior—albeit an insufficient one—is no subtle exercise in the performance. “Benazir is here to save Pakistan,” exults Shamsher, the vendor. So true is her dedication to her people that her friend, another character in the play, Daphne Barak, an Israeli journalist, worries for her life. But, such is her destiny: she has been “groomed for greatness” compliments Condoleezza Rice’s character. Benazir’s education at Harvard and Oxford are presented as testament. Unfortunately, it remained unmentioned in Shaheed that such opportunities were possible only because her family’s status as a landowners, whose wealth had been garnered through the exploitation of Sindhi peasants.
Some welcome divergence from the unwavering adulation of Benazir comes during the monologue of Fatima Bhutto, the daughter of a brother Benazir is popularly believed to have had murdered. “I beg of you, stand up to power,” says Fatima, cautioning Benazir that the ranks of American-backed democrats include such ignominious names as Pinochet and Saddam. “Are you a despot in a headscarf?” Fatima demands. But even Fatima’s disillusionment is circumscribed. Despite her reservations, Fatima addresses Benazir as a redeemable character, one in need of refinement, not condemnation. Urging Benazir to be a responsible politician, Fatima reminds Benazir that Pakistan’s love for their Benazir “is as inevitable as the rising of the moon.” A departure from history is once again worthy of note here: in truth, Fatima remains a resolute critic of Benazir, denying any Pakistani need for Benazir.
While Benazir is portrayed as a flawed, but loved protagonist, the villains come in familiar tropes. Madrassas are uniformly “fascist,” run by “strict Islamists.”. Other Orientalist clichés popular in contemporary American jingoism, too, make an appearance: Professor Quasim’s monologue characterizes the Taliban as “cowards.” Musharraf’s military regime makes another easy antagonist as a summarily evil dictator, who is invariably hand-in-glove with the villainous Islamists. So stark is the vilification of Musharraf that our street vendor, Shamsher, exclaims that he cannot understand George Bush’s support for the strongman. Once again, history and fact—and even common sense—are scuttled. The fact is full-time madrassa matriculates constitute around 3 percent of all school-enrollment in Pakistan, of which only a diminishingly small percentage are inculcated with the fascist curricula depicted as ubiquitous in the performance. Nor can the issues that plague Pakistan be simply put down to brainwashing by these madrassas. They are every bit as critical and rational—if reprehensible—as secularists and liberals. And, finally, though it needs no mention, hardly a Pakistani can be found wondering why Bush supported Musharraf! American and Pakistan’s repressive juntas have a history of friendship: the dictators have supplied soldiers, arms and military havens for American imperial ambitions in South and Central Asia, and the United States has reciprocated with providing legitimacy and international acceptance to their regimes. It was little surprise, then, to Pakistanis that Musharraf was Bush’s “gentle dictator,” as long as the former remained pliable to American interests in Afghanistan.
To choose this as the story of Pakistan can hardly be called progressive.
If Benazir is humanized, the villains are demonized, bent on destruction for no discernible reason. Leaving the theater, one may, without irony, ask the inane question, “why do they hate us?” No answer is provided, but the idea of an intractable hate is certainly reinforced. Liberalism, unquestioning of its own assumptions, could not have been better delivered.
If the mission civilisatrice justified French colonialism, declarations of delivering democratic salvation and human rights provide American empire the moral patina required to maintain its colonies. Shaheed complicates our protagonist—certainly, she is a flawed heroine—but it only reaffirms the American fantasy of a Pakistani people who need to be saved by a western-style, liberal democrat—recognizable as such to westerners—and, never mind what her government has actually done while in office.
 Graff and Wintrop, “Beyond Madrassas: Assessing the Links Between Education and Militancy in Pakistan.” The Brookings Institute, June 2010. The grossly exaggerated figures of madrassa enrollment published in the United States in the immediate wake of September 11th, 2001 have been widely acknowledged to be inaccurate.