A: A fantastic book called Diamonds and Diplomacy by Joanne Herring. This is the story of the man who convinced Americans to invest in the Afghan jihad. Charlie Wilson was a United States senator who in a way invented the Afghan jihad. The woman who played a key role in the movie about him, called Charlie Wilson’s War, is the author of the book.
We know what the story is, we know how Wilson got involved and met Ziaul Haq here and he went back to convince Reagan, who saw a great opportunity to make Russia bleed.
The story ends with the war ending, the Russians have withdrawn and Wilson is pleading that America now needs to take responsibility and if it does not, the US will have to pay a price for it, but of course the Americans decided they don’t have any energy for it and walked away.
Q: What was the last book you particularly enjoyed reading?
A: That would be the Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The book is about investment banking and the great financial crisis of 2009. This guy essentially foretold that crisis. A black swan is a very, very rare event, so he says that all the financial systems in the world are incapable with dealing with a black swan event.
The crisis of 2009 was in a way remarkable because all the systems failed to deal with the crisis, but that is the technical part of it. He also goes to the personal part of it, the type of people who get drawn into the investment banking industry, the culture of the industry and how that feeds into the environment of greed and the risk taking that is done etc. So it is on a very technical subject but written in a very captivating way, though you need some kind of financial background to be able to understand the book.
Q: Is there a book you return to again and again?
A: Not prose. That I will only do with poetry. If I had to pick one it would be Nuskha Hai Wafa, which is a collection of poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. One my favourites will have to be the most popular poem in Pakistan which is Lazim Hai Keh Hum Bhi Dekhein Gein. The book remains in my room and every few weeks I will pick it up and flip through some of the poems.
Q: Are there any books you started that you haven’t finished?
A: Yeah, you start reading something and then it just doesn’t fascinate you. I recently picked up Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu, which is a very celebrated book but I found it too dense so I never read past the first 40 or 50 pages. It is a primarily economic analysis of why some nations develop and others fail. But it did not captivate me and it did not really register which is why I gave up. It was more the style of writing than the content.
Q: Has a character from a book ever stayed with you?
A: Characters from books that you read as a child stay with you. Characters from Ameer Hamza Ki Dastan, including Umro Ayar, who I keep quoting because he had a very interesting story. He is supposed to have carried this thing with him, and you have to visualise it, called a zambeel. I don’t even know what a zambeel is, but I imagined it was a sort of a large blanket. The zambeel had this fabulous quality that you could put your hand in and take out whatever you wanted in the world, whenever you wanted.
I keep on telling people I don’t have Umro Ayar’s zambeel. If I had one I would pull out a decision on the Panama Papers, a win for Pakistan in cricket and a daughter for my wife and I, because that is what is missing from my life.
Q: If you could invite three writers, living or dead, who would they be?
A: I would invite Patras Bukhari, because he is just so witty, Allama Iqbal because he is an immense influence and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I don’t read fiction anymore but I do read poetry and when I read non-fiction, it is like ok, I read your book and I understand what you are saying and maybe I won’t mind having one dinner with Nicholas Nassim Taleb and having a conversation, but it would be so much more fascinating to have a conversation with Faiz or Iqbal.
There is a compilation called Patras Ke Mazamin, which I really enjoyed. It includes essays, like 17 attempts at passing exams and one on dogs. They are fascinating.
There is another humorist, Col Shafiqur Rehman, whom I really enjoy reading. I was reading one of his books on a flight to Tokyo and I was laughing so much that the passenger next to me was woken from his sleep many times.
Published in Dawn, June 21st, 2017
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