Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 February 2020

Fatima Bhutto on forging her own path, her famous last name and hanging out with Shah Rukh Khan

'I began writing non-fiction, so it’s coming back to a lot of work that I’ve done. I write about places and what people experience in different places,' she says

Author and journalist Fatima Bhutto is giving two talks at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Getty
Author and journalist Fatima Bhutto is giving two talks at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Getty

Fatima Bhutto may have a famous last name, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be defined by it. A descendant of the famed Pakistani Bhutto political dynasty, which has produced two prime ministers and one president, as well as suffering several assassinations, corruption scandals and banishments to foreign lands, Bhutto would have had a clear run into politics, if she had wanted it. Instead, she forged a new path: one where she got to write her way on to the world stage.

So removed is she from the political goings-on of her family, that in our entire 20-minute phone conversation, it doesn’t come up once.

Bhutto is now an acclaimed writer and journalist in her own right; an author who has penned several books, both non-fiction and fiction, and contributed to leading mastheads around the world. In 2010, she released her most notable book, Songs of Blood and Sword, the memoir-style title about her family.

Born in Kabul, she is the daughter of Pakistani political activist Murtaza Bhutto, who was murdered by police in 1996, and the niece of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to be pregnant in office – a fact that resurfaced again and was widely referenced in the wake of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy announcement. This had only happened once before, the articles said, in Pakistan, when Benazir Bhutto gave birth to her second child in office and returned to work the next day. While comparisons were drawn between the glass-ceiling-smashing and progressive politics of both female leaders, few column inches were dedicated to the controversy Benazir Bhutto was mired in towards the end of her tenure, or her assassination in 2007.

Former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto is Fatima’s aunt. AFP
Former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto is Fatima’s aunt. AFP

It’s probably why Bhutto has never expressed any desire to go into politics herself. She is a vocal commentator on political matters, both in her home country and abroad – but she has long stressed that she will never go into the family business. And no matter how many times journalists, like me, ask if this is still the case, the answer never changes. “People like to check in just to make sure,” she says with a laugh, speaking from her home in Karachi. “I always wanted to be a writer. I don’t really think people have the luxury any more not to be political, though.”

What she means by that is, she prefers to voice political opinions differently; whether through penning a piece for The Guardian or expressing an opinion on social media. Her last tweet, at the time of writing, was criticising Trump’s Palestinian Peace Plan and likening it to apartheid.

But Bhutto is in Dubai today and tomorrow to pull another feather from her cap; to speak about her writing career at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. She was supposed to be back two weeks later, for a talk at Hay Festival Abu Dhabi, but scheduling conflicts meant she has had to cancel. Luckily, this week, Bhutto fans will surely get their fill of the author as she’s not here to speak about only one book; Bhutto ­currently has two new releases she’s doing the promo rounds for.

Today, she’ll speak about her 2018 release The Runaways, a psychological work of fiction that poses provocative questions on what attracts young people to extremism. Tomorrow, she’ll speak about New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop, her September 2019 release that explores global popular culture and its shift over the past few decades, and eventual emergence as a new kind of soft power.

The latter seems something of a marked departure for the author, who is often found contemplating issues that are as far reserved from the workings of K-pop bands and Bollywood actors as they can get. But in some ways, Bhutto says, it’s a return to where her career as an author commenced.“I began writing non-fiction, so it’s coming back to a lot of work that I’ve done. I write about places and what people experience in different places.

“I’ve always been interested in culture, it’s a fascinating way of looking at how countries want to be seen than what they really are.”

Bhutto is looking forward to returning to Dubai, given that she “doesn’t get out here enough”. When she was last in the emirate, she hung out with local royalty – Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. The meeting was to form the Bollywood chapter of New Kings and ­Bhutto admits the Indian megastar was the only character she built an entire section around in the book. “The idea was to try and do something different for each part … I was then looking at Bollywood in far-flung places, and he [Khan] has these fan clubs in Peru with not much written about them.

“I just reached out to his management and was pleasantly surprised to see them respond. I’m not sure that would’ve happened today given the politics between our two countries.”

Bhutto in Karachi in 2008, wearing a pin with a picture of her father, Murtaza, who was murdered in 1996. Reuters 
Bhutto in Karachi in 2008, wearing a pin with a picture of her father, Murtaza, who was murdered in 1996. Reuters 

And so it happened that Bhutto flew into Dubai for 48 hours of Khan-shadowing. She met him in the emirate’s Palazzo Versace, in the Imperial Suite, naturally, where they discussed the Bollywood star’s career. She then accompanied Khan down to Abu Dhabi for a day of filming. It was a covert 48-hour operation, Bhutto says, but one that was to provide the linchpin for her book. “He was great.”

There were many reasons for writing this book, Bhutto says. The main one, though, was unpacking the idea that culture “is a kind of weapon in the world today”, and ensuring people wise up to exactly what they are consuming. “The cultural landscape that we live in today is very different to the one we lived in 20 years ago.

You could [now] be sitting in Dubai and watching a Chinese film and listening to a Korean band, and then watching a Turkish television show.”

The homogenisation of global culture, which used to be primarily “American and sometimes British” has markedly changed in that respect. This means more ideas and belief systems are being spread more widely. While this has its advantages in diversifying public discourse, it also means we are more susceptible to a whole range of new ideologies, she says.

But not only that, we also need to be “more informed” and more mindful of what we are sharing on social media. While she doesn’t openly decry social platforms, she does lament the idea that fake news can now be spread at the click of a button. “Now it’s just enough [to be an expert] to have a Facebook page. We need more meaningful engagement. We used to have to put in the time to study [to share opinions]. We used to have to take the time to learn.”

While it’s not exactly a public service announcement to turn your television off or delete Instagram from your phone, Bhutto stresses we must be more thoughtful of our consumption. “People think of culture as frivolous or fun, but culture is a way of sending messages and persuading people.

“We’re just there for the entertainment and don’t realise we sometimes get swept away.”

Fatima Bhutto speaks at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on Thursday, February 6 and Friday, February 7. Tickets are Dh59 and are available at www.emirateslitfest.com

Updated: February 6, 2020 12:07 PM

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