Playing with Fire
Pakistan at War with Itself
By Pamela Constable
(Random House, Hardcover, 9781400069118, 352pp.)
Publication Date: July 19, 2011
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A volatile nation at the heart of major cultural, political, and religious conflicts in the world today, Pakistan commands our attention. Yet more than six decades after the country’s founding as a Muslim democracy, it continues to struggle over its basic identity, alliances, and direction. In Playing with Fire, acclaimed journalist Pamela Constable peels back layers of contradiction and confusion to reveal the true face of modern Pakistan.
In this richly reported and movingly written chronicle, Constable takes us on a panoramic tour of contemporary Pakistan, exploring the fears and frustrations, dreams and beliefs, that animate the lives of ordinary citizens in this nuclear-armed nation of 170 million. From the opulent, insular salons of the elite to the brick quarries where soot-covered workers sell their kidneys to get out of debt, this is a haunting portrait of a society riven by inequality and corruption, and increasingly divided by competing versions of Islam.
Beneath the façade of democracy in Pakistan, Constable reveals the formidable hold of its business, bureaucratic, and military elites—including the country’s powerful spy agency, the ISI. This is a society where the majority of the population feels powerless, and radical Islamist groups stoke popular resentment to recruit shock troops for global jihad. Writing with an uncommon ear for the nuances of this conflicted culture, Constable explores the extent to which faith permeates every level of Pakistani society—and the ambivalence many Muslims feel about the role it should play in the life of the nation.
Both an empathic and alarming look inside one of the world’s most violent and vexing countries, Playing with Fire is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand modern Pakistan and its momentous role on today’s global stage.
Pamela Constable is a foreign correspondent and former deputy foreign editor at The Washington Post. Since 1998, she has reported extensively from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India as well as Iraq. Before joining the Post in 1994, she was a foreign correspondent and foreign policy reporter for The Boston Globe, where she covered South and Central America for a decade, focusing on Chile and Haiti, as well as parts of Asia and the former Soviet Union. Constable is author of Fragments of Grace: My Search for Meaning in the Strife of South Asia and co-author of A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet. A graduate of Brown University, she is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a winner of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, and a former fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She is the founder of the Afghan Stray Animal League, which operates a shelter and clinic for needy small animals in Kabul.
Advance praise for Playing with Fire
“Pamela Constable, one of the world’s leading reporters on South Asia, has distilled her many years of reporting on Pakistan and turned them into an accessible and well-written account that illuminates one of the world’s most opaque countries. Constable does that by meeting and understanding all sorts of Pakistanis from rural laborers who live like serfs to their feudal politician bosses. Her book is a key to understanding this much misunderstood country.”—Peter L. Bergen, New York Times bestselling author of The Longest War and Holy War, Inc.
“Pamela Constable has woven the fabric of Pakistan into an engrossing and vivid portrait of a country dangerously on the edge. With empathy yet unblinking candor, Constable exposes the powerful rifts tearing Pakistan apart and delivers a sobering warning about the future of both state and society.”—David E. Hoffman, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy
“Pakistan has become one of the great problem-countries for the world, especially for the United States which did much to help it but also much to create the present malformed state. Pamela Constable has written the best introduction yet to this troubled and troublesome country, where the very idea of Pakistan is in tatters and the state is failing. Her emphasis on the powerlessness of ordinary Pakistanis, the cupidity of its political and military institutions, and the head-in-the-sand attitude of Pakistan’s elites is alarming but accurate. Not bogged down in detail, this is the best overview of Pakistan yet published.”—Stephen P. Cohen, senior fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, The Brookings Institution