The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch by Sanam Maher is about to be published in the United Kingdom as A Woman Like Her. This book, like Qandeel, may well be described as sensational.
I also think we are witnessing an emergence of New Journalism in Pakistan. New Journalism was pioneered by authors of the American 1960s and ’70s, such as Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. Their books united the forensic investigation of journalism with literary flair and personal focalisation. In the last decade or so, authors such as Ahmed Rashid, Akbar S. Ahmed, Haroon Khalid and Nadeem Farooq Paracha are doing a similar thing for Pakistan. Maher is unusual among them, though, as a woman investigator writing great book-length nonfiction. And no other Pakistani journalist has reconstructed someone’s life in quite this way.
Maher’s original title, emphasising Qandeel’s life and death, suggests the volume is a biography. However, Maher aptly includes details of both the individual and her community. In South Asia, lives are often tangled up with other lives in a way that it becomes hard to separate the person from their family, friends and wider milieu. The action thus toggles between Qandeel herself; her parents, brothers and sister; her colleagues as she moves from the sleazy world of bus hostess work to modelling; and the male models and promoters she hobnobs with as her star ascends.
Others who never met the celebrity have their stories told when these tales shed light on her life and death. One girl like Qandeel was blackmailed and abused online, leading to her suicide at her dormitory at the University of Sindh in Jamshoro. Another woman, Nighat Dad, defied death threats and other intimidation to campaign for women’s digital rights. The chaiwala Arshad Khan — again, like Qandeel — had to come to terms with sudden fame when a photograph of him taken by a stranger went viral. This intertwined approach suggests that the life writing of both South Asian subjects and women writers does not exist in a vacuum; it tends to be fluid, relational and multiple. Maher’s portrayal of Qandeel overspills the boundaries between self and other, circulating within and being cross-cut by broader social experiences.
Above all, this is narrative non-fiction at its sparkiest and most enlightening. As Fatima Bhutto says in her blurb for the book, Maher is “a fire of a talent.” This igneous metaphor is echoed in Bilal Tanweer’s tribute to Qandeel as a “marvellous blaze” whose “flames burn brighter than ever.” Interestingly, one of Maher’s most striking pieces of writing also concerns heat and light. Writing about the rise and fall of Mufti Abdul Qavi (the book’s second most important character, of whom more later), she declares: “Just as the sun rises to its peak, its urooj, so too will Abdul. And just as the sun reaches in its flaming ascent, the point known as zawal — a time when some Muslims believe it is forbidden to pray and others say it is the moment when an everlasting fire in Hell is kindled afresh — so too will Abdul have a moment of zawal. A time of misfortune.”
In this way, fire imagery is redolent at once of the zenith and nadir of 21st century Pakistani stars’ careers and lives.
Maher has urgent and weighty things to say about social media, selfies and virality. From the moment of her — first spirited, then tearful — appearance on Pakistan Idol, Qandeel was highly telegenic. Like Veena Malik before her, she stirred up controversy and wanted to appear on Bigg Boss (her hopes of appearing on this Indian reality TV show were thwarted by her murder). She took on parts with aplomb, playing the Westernised city girl, oversexed vamp, or spoilt fashionista. But Maher shows readers her quirks and quiddities: “She is a girl none of the thousands of the viewers of those videos have seen: she is herself.” Also depicted is Qandeel’s insomnia, inspiring the woman to do much of her social media activity at night. Her inability to sleep is unsurprising. She cut a lonely figure, burned the candle at both ends and spent many hours each day bathed in her phone’s light.
Pakistan is depicted as intensely modern and fast-changing, but traditional and namazi, too. This is succinctly indicated when Qandeel plays Abida Parveen’s transcendent qawwali music through her phone’s tinny speakers. Mufti Abdul Qavi is a key personage in this regard. A well-read Islamic teacher, he is conservative in many ways, but liberal in others. Indeed, Mufti Qavi was simultaneously too liberal and too conservative when it came to his behaviour with Qandeel and attitudes towards women.
Walt Whitman famously wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Similarly contradictory and multitudinous, Qandeel comes across as at once indomitable and superficial. Gentle with her disabled father on the phone, she could be brittle, importunate and uncaring with her friends.
While painting a portrait of Qandeel and her associates, the book presents a layered picture of Multan and rural life. As with the personal, nothing is ever what it seems when it comes to space and place. Qandeel’s village, Shah Sadar Din, is comparatively rich in some ways because of Gulf labour, but chronically underdeveloped in others. The book’s evocations of South Punjabis’ love of Seraiki poetry and their strong sense of ‘honour’ found in women’s bodies and conduct, reminded me of Nukhbah Taj Langah’s fine monograph Poetry as Resistance.
Qandeel’s untimely death made headlines around the world, so it is easy to assume one knows the ending. However, the book moves inexorably towards its tragic denouement with many surprises and twists in the tale. Maher is uncompromising about the verbal violence Qandeel suffered from online commenters, foreshadowing the brutal physical violence meted from her brother’s hands. A shadow (I won’t say what sort) is also cast over the narrative by Mufti Qavi. Qandeel humiliated this cleric by posing with him, wearing his karakul cap, for sexy selfies. Maher’s interviews with Qavi reveal him to be a complex and brooding figure.
This genre-bending book stopped me in my tracks and made me think differently about Pakistani culture, both on and offline. Qandeel’s embers continue to burn brilliantly three years after her murder. And Maher has reached an urooj of nonfiction writing.
The columnist teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 28th, 2019