Skip to content

Nicholas Schmidle’s ‘To Live or To Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan’

By Mosarrap H Khan

Nicholas Schmidle’s book, To Live or To Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan (2010), is based on his journalistic experience in Pakistan at a time when the American ‘War on Terror’ accentuated severe crisis in the country. What follows is an analysis of Schmidle’s book that tells us something about travel-political journalism in post-colonial times as well as how certain tropes of authority, description, authenticity, othering, and romanticization of the reported land, which were so common in colonial travel writing, get repeated in the journalistic writings of our time.


Mary Louise Pratt’s study, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992), suggests that the genre of travel writing has continued to adapt itself to the demands of decolonization and neo-colonization. Pratt demonstrates how travel writing in Victorian England assumed a monarch-of-all-I-survey trope, which resulted from a particular desire to dominate the non-West through an all-seeing eye/I. The European travel writers explored and described the non-Western land/country for European readers back home. Through an interesting example of Richard Burton’s companion, John Hanning Speke’s discovery of the source of the Nile at Lake Victoria N’yanza, Pratt illustrates how an inability to see and describe could result in an anxiety of non-discovery that finally prompted Speke’s suicide in England. Pratt writes, “…many standard elements of the imperial trope are…the mastery of the landscape, the estheticizing adjectives, the broad panorama in the seer.” Such tropes were employed in any standard travel book that was meant for readers back home in Europe. Edward Said too corroborates that even the most innocuous of travel books contributed to public awareness about the Orient.

In the specific moment of decolonization around the globe, the authorial certainty in the monarch-of-all-I-survey trope in much of colonial travel writing was replaced by a lament and loss. In the very first page of Orientalism (1978), Said writes about the French journalist’s lament at the loss of a pristine Beirut, a city that had once been described by Chateaubriand and Nerval, in the throes of a violent civil war in 1975-1976. As Said writes, the Orient had always been “a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” The intention of mastery over the landscape and a desire to integrate the Orient into the matrix of western modernity were replaced by lament and anxiety in the travel writings of the post-World War II period.

As Pratt provides two examples of post-colonial travel writing in Alberto Moravia and Paul Theroux, we notice how the vantage-point of mountain tops is replaced with hotel balconies and how instances of supreme confidence of colonial travel writers is replaced with a failure of meaning-making process in these third-world landscapes. Moravia’s description of Accra, Ghana, as a bowl of cabbage soup and Theroux’s metaphorical description of Guatemala City on its back are emblematic of the lack of splendor, which was a common trope of colonial travel writing. Instead what we have in contemporary travel writing, as Pratt writes, is how these third world landscapes portend a dangerous future:

Theroux and Moravia, both widely read canonical writers, exemplify a discourse of negation, domination, devaluation, and fear that remains in the late twentieth century a powerful ideological constituent of the west’s consciousness of the people and places it strives to hold in subjugation. It is the official metropolitan code of the Third World, its rhetoric of triviality, dehumanization, and rejection coinciding with the end of colonial rule in much of Africa and Asia, the rise of national liberation movements, and accelerated processes of modernization, industrializing, and urban growth in many parts of the world.

Whereas the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century witnessed the proliferation of a new form travel writing in the mode of survival narratives (the survival or the lack of it of poorer immigrants to the industrialized nations of the world), Nicholas Schmidle’s To Live or To Perish Forever signals, I contend, the emergence of a new form of travel writing that combines the familiar tropes of travel writing with reportage of conflict from some of the most ‘dangerous’ places on earth. If the economic liberalization of the 1980s heralded a new era of economic hope, it also ushered in an age of unprecedented mass movement across the globe. The collapse of Soviet Union in the late eighties facilitated a greater hope in the market-led capitalist economy. The hope of prosperity under a uniform capitalist economy across the globe dimmed as it led (or so it was believed) to an uneven development resulting from a lopsided globalization. The anti-globalization movements have taken various local and global forms. The stiffest challenge to an unhindered globalization has come from strong Islamist movements in many parts of the world. The post-Cold War era hope for peace faded as the Islamist movements posed a serious threat to American hegemony. One of the defining features since the 1990s has been the emergence of conflict in many parts of the Muslim world and American intervention in those countries. Schmidle’s book must be seen in the context of a renewed American/western intervention in the third world and how such interventions generate a keen interest in the west about these countries.

Citing the example of H.A.R. Gibb, the noted Orientalist, Said in Orientalism writes that Gibb’s two lectures of 1945 and 1963 proposed that for a complete understanding of the Orient, the traditionalist Orientalist must work in tandem with the ‘area specialists’ so that the theoretical gains of Orientalism could be merged with first-hand knowledge of the Orient. The academic ‘area studies’ departments were founded in American universities for garnering practical advantage in the Cold War environment. However, it is pertinent to note that the work of area studies departments has always been supplemented by independent (or not-so-independent?) think-tanks and organizations that regularly send people to specific interest areas. That is how Nicholas Schmidle managed to land a fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs (ICWA) that sent fellows to different conflict-torn third world countries. Early on in his book, Schmidle echoes what Disraeli had once said (“The East is a Career”):

I went to Pakistan in February 2006, hoping to learn something about the troubled, nuclear-armed country, and about myself. I wanted to become a journalist, but most newspapers were closing their foreign bureaus, not opening new ones. And with next to no formal experience, magazine editors weren’t exactly lined up outside my door, eager to dish out international assignments. In the rapidly changing landscape of American journalism, it seemed like the only way for an inexperienced hack like myself to try to make a name – and potentially a career – was by patching together fellowships and grant money, going somewhere newsworthy, and then praying for good luck.

The spirit of adventure inherent in such endeavors is unmistakable. What is most astounding in the workings of such organizations as the ICWA is how one conflict-torn country could easily be replaced for another. Schmidle informs his reader that his initial proposal was meant for reporting ethnic minorities in Iran. Since his visa for Iran did not come through following the election of the hardliner Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he appealed to ICWA to allow him to work in Pakistan instead (“What if I just took my fellowship proposal for Iran, and replaced “Pakistan” with “Iran”?…A couple of months later, I stumbled into Pakistan”). Differentiation, an important feature in the developed western world, is not applied when it comes to the undifferentiated third world.

Schmidle’s work could be considered an important example of contemporary mutation of travel writing as a cross-hatching between travel and political journalism. Since the 1970, the classical phase of travel writing has been on the wane as increasing commercialization of travel by the tourism industry has replaced conventional travel writing with tourist brochures and information booklets. Travel writing consequently has come to assume different forms. One of which is in the form of travel journalism even though this form of journalism is much lower in the order of journalistic hierarchy. Ben Cocking (“Travel Journalism: Europe Imagining the Middle East” [2009]) corroborates this view:

Within the profession, travel journalism has traditionally been perceived as much lower in status and level of importance than the ‘‘hard’’ news of politics and international relations…Travel accounts are usually based on personal experience and, in this sense, travel journalism is often seen as subjective and associated more with the literary genre of travel writing than ‘‘hard’’ news. This perception of travel journalism is further muddied by the genre’s close relationship with advertising – most forms of travel journalism include advertising features or sponsored articles. This further blurs the issue of objectivity and adds to the perception that travel journalism lacks the critical distance associated with other genres, such as political or financial journalism.

Books like Schmidle’s yoke together tropes of travel writing and serious political journalism. Early on in the book, he charts out the cartography of travel in the vein of colonial travel writing: “My travels took me as far south as the coast of the Arabian Sea and as far north as the glaciers and towering peaks bordering China. I journeyed to the border of archrival India, west to the restive tribal areas, and everywhere in between.” Such travel, however, is fraught with dangers, “[the desire to know Pakistan] led me to befriend, upon arriving, a radical cleric (who later became an enemy of the state and was killed), to pine for the smell of tear gas (because it assured me I was sufficiently close to the action), and to sneak into a Taliban camp tucked in a valley near the Afghanistan border to witness a public lashing.”

The new genre of travel writing, thus, does not lament the demise of a pristine Orient; rather it sniffs out danger in an effort to exoticize the third world by erasing the mundane lives of its inhabitants. This essay is based on this assumption that such contemporary instances of combining travel writing with political journalism has transformed the genre of innocuous, conventional travel writing. These instances of reporting owe a lot to the school of New Journalism (pioneered by Tom Wolfe, etc.) of the 1960s as they narrativize conflict, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, interpreting what they observe instead of reporting passively and objectively. Works such as Schmidle’s easily fit into the genre of creative non-fiction that New Journalism helped shape.


Schmidle’s To Live or To Perish Forever mediates the question of authorial agency in interesting ways. The all-seeing I/eye of colonial travel writing makes way for a more fractured subject/narrator in keeping with James Clifford’s formulation (“On Ethnographic Authority” [1983]) of a de-centered ethnographic authority:

Interpretive anthropology, by viewing cultures as assemblages of texts, loosely and sometimes contradictorily united, and by lighting the inventive poesis at work in all collective representations, has contributed significantly to the defamiliarization of ethnographic authority…It becomes necessary to conceive of ethnography not as the experience and interpretation of a circumscribed “other” reality, but rather as a constructive negotiation involving at least two, and usually more, conscious, politically significant subjects…Every use of presupposes a you, and every instance of discourse is immediately linked to a specific, shared situation: no discursive meaning, then, without interlocution and context.

While exploring the history of ethnographic authority since its beginning, Clifford’s essay illustrates how the advent of interpretive anthropology has de-centered the traditional authority of the ethnographer (here, reporter). The interpretation of culture is located in the dialogue between interlocutors of a shared vision of reality.

In the first chapter of the book, Schmidle narrates how he submerged himself in the people (‘the natives’) of Pakistan in an effort to understand the country and its people:

I craved the tactile experience of Pakistan – anticipating the burning summer heat, the greasy, spicy food, the horrendous, maddening traffic – and the unexpected conversations with unlikely partners…When I first arrived, I even sought out seedy hotels. In Karachi, I used to stay at a musty low-rise just because it seemed more authentic. After bombing at the Karachi Marriott Hotel in March 2006, a Pakistani friend joked to me that my hotel might have been the safest in the city, owing to the fact that “al-Qaeda stays there when they’re in town”…at more than six feet tall, with blond hair and fair skin, I couldn’t exactly pass for a Pakistani. So I did what I could, wearing local clothes, adopting local customs, and learning Urdu. I had showed up in Pakistan speaking enough Urdu to start, but never quite finish a conversation. Within a few months, however, I was reading Urdu newspapers, watching Urdu television, and traveling on public buses without a translator…Many, I suspected, were just intrigued by the presence of a tall, blond American who spoke Urdu and ambled about in a shalwar kameez, the ubiquitous baggy-pants-and-tunic outfit.

Schmidle’s self-conscious description of his effort to become like a Pakistani resembles the effort of another traveler in another century: Edward Lane. In Orientalism, Said writes about Lane’s effort to submerge in the Egyptian population in order to give his work a more authentic feel. Said notes how “one portion of Lane’s identity floats easily in the unsuspecting Muslim sea, a submerged part retains its secret European power, to comment on, acquire, possess everything around it.” Schmidle is conscious of his indissoluble American self even as he tries to impersonate a Pakistani. More interestingly, gone are the privileges of a mountain-top or a hotel balcony of an all-seeing traveler. On the contrary, he chooses a seedy hotel to avoid being bombed in an alien country hostile to the westerners. The desire to be ‘authentic’ drives his decision to live as an ordinary Pakistani. And yet, the split-authority of the observer is not oblivious of prevailing anti-Americanism in the country as the incident of his being branded as a CIA agent testifies. Even while intensely mingling with the Taliban sympathizer, Mullah Abdul Rashid Ghazi of the Red Mosque, he wonders if he could ever invite him home for dinner. Schmidle’s self-conscious ethnographic practice shows that the western traveler can no longer choose a method of passive description of the natives. As the writing and reading of ethnography are over-determined by forces beyond one’s control, one cannot claim to know the entire truth. The contingencies of language, rhetoric, power, and history must be taken into account while writing.

As the narrative authority dissolves under pressure from the demands of sharing the discursive space with the interlocutors, so does his ability to impose an orderly structure on his understanding of Pakistan. While reflecting on his grandfather’s question – “What’s wrong with that place?” – Schmidle’s decentered authorial/ethnographer-self betrays his inability to substantively understand the place and its people:

I realized that I was no closer to offering a comprehensive answer now than I had been back then. That bothered me. That political, social, economic, and religious dynamics embedded in Pakistan seemed to become more and more complicated – and volatile – with time, and less and less solvable. But I disagreed with those who said that ethnic tension, the Taliban, economic crises, years of military dictatorship, the lack of cohesive identity and so on would eventually lead to Pakistan’s breakup. That would almost be too linear and neat: creation, extended crisis, and then dissolution. It seemed more likely that Pakistan would continue to exist in a perpetual state of frenzied dysfunction; alive, but always appearing to be on the verge of perishing.

Such frustration has been a major characteristic in the descriptive economy of western travel writers throughout history, resulting in attempts to employ metaphorical language for understanding the actual/real non-west: Moravia describing Accra as a bowl of cabbage soup and Theroux describing Guatemala City as a beast on its back. Schmidle’s description of Pakistan as a terminally ill patient on the verge of death is symptomatic of modernity’s failure to spread its tentacles to some parts of the world, especially in the Muslim world.

Such lament of modernity’s failure to spread itself around the globe is evident in his chapter entitled, “Left Alone In A Cave of Time” that describes the Pakistan government’s effort to modernize its madrassas or Islamic schools. The chapter describes the organization of a workshop for the mullahs from Baluchistan in order to bring about their ‘immersion in modernity’. Schmidle describes with relish how “two dozen crotch-scratching, Taliban-supporting Mullahs” were amused when told that the chain of Wal-Mart makes more money than the whole economy of Pakistan. The descriptive passage that ends the chapter is quite telling of the journalist’s mode of representing the pre-modern mullahs: “The mullahs listened attentively. Some pulled at their beards. A few of them scratched their balls. One dug in his ears with the tip of a pencil. All of them mumbled “al hamdulilla” – Praise Allah – under their breath.” This passage at one level highlights the failure of the project of western modernity in most third world countries and, at another level, it renders the mullahs infantile, semi-barbaric, and far removed from the civilized ways of being. Such ambiguities mark Schmidle’s work despite his best efforts to understand the people and the country.

When the western traveler’s paradigms of modernity fail to grasp the dynamics of a trouble-torn, semi-modern country such as Pakistan, the writer often falls back on the time-tested method of describing his ‘observes’ through the trope of romanticization, as is evident when he undertakes his journey to the Swat Valley, the Pashtun-dominated area on the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Once his car crosses the checkpost erected by the Talibs at the entry points to the valley, the author heaves a sigh of relief:

I unfolded an Urdu newspaper and pretended to be reading. One more car in front of us. The Talibs motioned him to the side. Our driver eased forward. The Talibs looked over the car…and then waved us through. I discarded the newspaper, spun in my seat, and stared out the back window. Like the voyeur, I wanted to watch, and keep watching, the Talibs for hours. To cram the image into my mind forever of them commanding a road. Then maybe I could go back later and zoom in for a closer look. At the moment of closest contact, I was too scared of being noticed to take pictures.

This above-mentioned paragraph, when read in conjunction with his description of the mullahs, makes obvious how the Talibs are kept out of the purview of western teleology. They are not only fixed spatio-temporally but discursively in the western imagination. While the mullahs in his description inhabit ‘a cave of time’, which could be integrated into western notions of modernity, the Talibs in the Swat Valley are left to inhabit an altogether different conception of time.


When the structuring principles of modernity prove inadequate to describe the real/actual Pakistan and Schmidle is expelled from Pakistan on charges of spying, he returns to cover the sufi festival at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander, a Muslim mystic who died in the thirteenth century. The elaborate description of the shrine is the only time when Schmidle attempts a substantive visual-tactile-olfactory description of Pakistan:

The Campsites began appearing about five miles from the shrine. Our car eventually mired in a human bog, we parked it and continued on foot. The alleys leading to the shrine reminded me of a carnival fun house – an overwhelming frenzy of lights, music, and aromas. I walked beside a man blowing a snake charmers’ flute…Flies swarmed on the sweets, only to be swatted away with dirty rags. Fluorescent tubes the size of baseball bats glowed like light sabres, leading lost souls to Allah.

Since the western traveler fails in his meaning-making endeavor as Pakistan resolutely defies the western paradigms of democracy, modernity, development, the traveler is left with no other option but to fall back on the representational trope of a quest for spiritual eternity that supposedly marks these countries in western imagination. The Abida Parveen performance at Union Square (New York City) in 2011 could fit into this western representational trope to which the Pakistanis themselves subscribe to. The only palatable face of Islam for the western world seems to be the sufi one. And, yet, Schmidle steers clear of exploring the significance of the dance form of dhamaal at the shrine. The closest he comes to is asking the man standing next to him about the significance of this form. Schmidle’s reluctance at interpreting a rich cultural form indicates a complacency that marks the works of western travel writers/reporters.

The question that assumes importance here is: How do these travel writings become a crucial site for representing the non-western cultures? The current conflict and war in most of the Muslim countries around the globe make this non-fiction genre (along with Muslim women’s memoir) the most singularly significant one. It appears that these writings by resorting to New Journalistic practices such as blurring the line between fact and fiction provide a more in-depth analysis of non-western societies as they not only present mere facts but offer evaluations and interpretations of current scenarios. This particular genre of writing by combining the charm of travel writing with hard political news stakes a larger claim to authenticity than what the traditional fiction and dry political journalism could ever claim. The disappointing part about such writing is that they hardly allow any space for the lives of ordinary citizens in those countries. Another striking example of such writing is Michael Hastings’ I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story (2008), in which Baghdad turns out to be the archetypal empty space for the westerners to play out their anxieties about love, longing, and domesticity; a dangerous space which by reinforcing an absence of these values reminds the western readers/audience the necessity to reassert these civilizational values so as not to lapse into the barbaric, a la Iraq and other conflict-torn Muslim countries.

Dr. Mosarrap H Khan recently completed his doctorate at the Department of English, New York University, USA. He is a founding-editor at Café Dissensus. Email: Twitter: @mosarrapkhan


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: