Excerpts from “The Taliban Shuffle” by Kim Barker – her interviews with Nawaz Sharif (published by Doubleday):
“With Bhutto gone, I needed to meet the lion of Punjab, or maybe the tiger.
No one seemed to know which feline Nawaz Sharif was nicknamed after. Some fans rode around with stuffed toy lions strapped to their cars. Others talked about the tiger of Punjab. By default, Sharif, a former PM like Bhutto, had become the most popular opposition leader in the
country. He was already the most powerful politician in Punjab, which was the most powerful of Pakistan’s four provinces, home to most of the army leaders and past rulers. Some people described Sharif as the Homer Simpson of Pakistan. Others considered him a right-wing wing nut.
Still others figured he could save the country. Sharif was once considered an invention of the establishment, a protégé of the former military dictator in Pakistan, General Zia, but like all politicians here, he had become a creature of himself. During his second term, Sharif built my favorite road in Pakistan, a hundred and seventy miles of paved, multilaned bliss………..
“One of Sharif’s friends tried to explain him to me: “He might be tilting a
little to the right, but he’s not an extremist. Extremists don’t go do hair
implants. He also loves singing.”
“The inside of the house appeared to have been designed by Saudi Arabia—a hodge-podge of crystal chandeliers, silk curtains, gold accents, marble. A verse of the Holy Quran and a carpet with the ninety-nine names of God hung on the walls of Sharif’s receiving room, along with photographs of Sharif with King Abdullah and slain former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Finally I was summoned. “Kim,” Sharif’s media handler said, gesturing toward the ground. “Come.” I hopped up and walked toward the living room, past two raggedy stuffed lions with rose petals near their feet. So maybe Sharif was the lion of Punjab… His press aide tapped his watch, looked at me, and raised his eyebrows. I got the message and proceeded with my questions, as fast as I could. But it soon became clear that this would be unlike any interview I had ever done.
“You’re the only senior opposition leader left in Pakistan. How are you
going to stay safe while campaigning?” In Pakistan, campaigns were not run through TV, and pressing the flesh was a job requirement. Candidates won over voters by holding rallies of tens and hundreds of thousands of people. Even though Sharif was not personally running, his appearance would help win votes for anyone in his party.
Sharif looked at me, sighed, and shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s a good
question. What do you think, Kim?”
“I don’t know. I’m not the former PM of Pakistan. So what will you do?”
“Really, I don’t know. What do you think?”
This put me in an awkward position—giving security advice to Nawaz Sharif.
“Well, it’s got to be really difficult. You have these elections coming up. You can’t just sit here at home.”
“What should I do?” he asked. “I can’t run a campaign sitting in my house on the television.”
“I stood up. Sharif’s aide was already standing. “I should probably be
going,” I said. “Thanks very much for your time.” “Yes, Mian Sahib’s
schedule is very busy,” Sharif’s handler agreed.
“It’s all right,” Sharif said. “She can ask a few more questions.” I sat
down. I had whipped through most of my important questions, so I recycled them. I asked him whether he was a fundamentalist. Sharif dismissed the idea, largely by pointing to his friendship with the Clintons. I tried to leave again, fearing I was overstaying my welcome. But Sharif said I could ask more questions. “One more,” I said, wary of Sharif’s aide. Then I asked the question that was really on my mind.
“Which are you—the lion or the tiger?”
Sharif didn’t even blink. “I am the tiger,” he said.
“But why do some people call you the lion?”
“I do not know. I am the tiger.”
“But why do you have two stuffed lions?”
“They were a gift. I like them.”
“We drove to the next rally. I looked at my BlackBerry and spotted one very interesting e-mail—a Human Rights Watch report, quoting a taped conversation from November between the country’s pro-Musharraf attorney general and an unnamed man. The attorney general had apparently been talking to a reporter, and while on that call, took another call, where he talked about vote rigging. The reporter had recorded the entire conversation. I scanned through the e-mail.
“Nawaz,” I said. I had somehow slipped into calling the former PM by his first name. “have to hear this.” I then performed a dramatic
reading of the message in full, culminating in the explosive direct quote
from the attorney general, recorded the month before Bhutto was killed and just before Sharif flew home… It was unclear what the other man was saying, but Human Rights Watch said the attorney general appeared to be advising him to leave Sharif’s party and get a ticket from “these guys,” the pro-Musharraf party, the massive vote riggers.
Sharif’s aide stared at me openmouthed. “Is that true? I can’t believe
that.” “It’s from Human Rights Watch,” I said. “There’s apparently a tape
recording. Pretty amazing.”
Sharif just looked at me. “How can you get a text message that long on your telephone?”
“It’s an e-mail,” I said, slightly shocked that Sharif was unconcerned about what I had just said. “This is a BlackBerry phone. You can get e-mail on it.”
“Ah, e-mail,” he said. “I must look into this BlackBerry.”
“After more than eight years of political irrelevance, Sharif was back. I
sent him a text message and asked him to call. A few hours later, he did,
thrilled with his victory.
“I saw a car today, where a man had glued blankets to it and painted it like a tiger,” I told him at one point. “Really?” he asked. “Yeah. It was a tiger car.”
He paused. “What did you think of the tiger car, Kim? Did you like the tiger car?”
Weird question. I gave an appropriate answer. “Who doesn’t like a tiger
“This time, in a large banquet hall filled with folding chairs and a long
table, Sharif told his aides that he would talk to me alone. At the time, I
barely noticed. We talked about Zardari, but he spoke carefully and said
little of interest, constantly glancing at my tape recorder like it was
radioactive. Eventually, he nodded toward it. “Can you turn that off?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, figuring he wanted to tell me something off the record.
“So. Do you have a friend, Kim?” Sharif asked. I was unsure what he meant.
“I have a lot of friends,” I replied.
“No. Do you have a friend?”
I figured it out.
“You mean a boyfriend?” “Yes.” I looked at Sharif. I had two options—lie, or tell the truth. And because I wanted to see where this line of questioning was going, I told the truth. “I had a boyfriend. We recently broke up.” I nodded my head stupidly, as if to punctuate this thought.
“Why?” Sharif asked. “Was he too boring for you? Not fun enough?”
“Um. No. It just didn’t work out.”
“Oh. I cannot believe you do not have a friend,” Sharif countered.
“No. Nope. I don’t. I did.”
“Do you want me to find one for you?” Sharif asked.
To recap: The militants were gaining strength along the border with
Afghanistan and staging increasingly bold attacks in the country’s cities.
The famed Khyber Pass, linking Pakistan and Afghanistan, was now too
dangerous to drive. The country appeared as unmoored and directionless as a headless chicken. And here was Sharif, offering to find me a friend. Thank God the leaders of Pakistan had their priorities straight. ”Sure. Why not?” I said.
The thought of being fixed up on a date by the former prime minister of
Pakistan, one of the most powerful men in the country and, at certain
points, the world, proved irresistible. It had true train-wreck potential.
“In the sitting room, I immediately turned on my tape recorder and rattled off questions. Was Sharif at the negotiations? What was happening? He denied being at any meetings, despite press reports to the contrary. I pushed him.
He denied everything. I wondered why he let me drive all this way, if he
planned to tell me nothing. At least I’d get free food.
He looked at my tape recorder and asked me to turn it off. Eventually I
obliged. Then Sharif brought up his real reason for inviting me to lunch.
“Kim. I have come up with two possible friends for you.”
At last. “Who?”
He waited a second, looked toward the ceiling, then seemingly picked the top name from his subconscious. “The first is Mr. Z.”
That was disappointing. Sharif definitely was not taking this project
seriously. “Zardari? No way. That will never happen,” I said.
“What’s wrong with Mr. Zardari?” Sharif asked. “Do you not find him
Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, was slightly shorter than me and sported slicked-back hair and a mustache, which he was accused of dying black right after his wife was killed, right before his first press conference. On many levels, I did not find Zardari attractive. I would have preferred celibacy.
But that wasn’t the point. Perhaps I could use this as a teaching moment.
“He is the president of Pakistan. I am a journalist. That would never
“He is single.” Very true—but I didn’t think that was a good enough reason.
“I can call him for you,” Sharif insisted. I’m fairly certain he was joking.
“I’m sure he has more important things to deal with,” I replied.
“OK. No Mr. Z. The second option, I will discuss with you later,” he said.
That did not sound promising.
“I needed to get out of there. “I have to go.”
“First, come for a walk with me outside, around the grounds. I want to show you Raiwind.”
“No. I have to go. I have to go to Afghanistan tomorrow.”
Sharif ignored that white lie and started to talk about where he wanted to
take me. “I would like to take you for a ride in the country, and take you
for lunch at a restaurant in Lahore, but because of my position, I cannot.”
“Once the interview was finished, Sharif looked at me. “Can you ask your
translator to leave?” he asked. “I need to talk to you.” My translator
looked at me with a worried forehead wrinkle. “It’s OK,” I said. He left.
Sharif then looked at my tape recorder. “Can you turn that off?” I obliged.
“I have to go,” I said. “I have to write a story.”
He ignored me. “I have bought you an iPhone,” he said.
“I can’t take it.”
“Why not? It is a gift.”
“No. It’s completely unethical, you’re a source.”
“But we are friends, right?” I had forgotten how Sharif twisted the word
“Sure, we’re friendly, but you’re still the former prime minister of
Pakistan and I can’t take an iPhone from you,” I said.
“But we are friends,” he countered. “I don’t accept that. I told you I was
buying you an iPhone.”
“I told you I couldn’t take it. And we’re not those kind of friends.”
He tried a new tactic. “Oh, I see. Your translator is here, and you do not
want him to see me give you an iPhone. That could be embarrassing for you.”
Exasperated, I agreed. “That’s it.”
He then offered to meet me the next day, at a friend’s apartment in Lahore, to give me the iPhone and have tea. No, I said. I was going to Faridkot. Sharif finally came to the point. “Kim. I am sorry I was not able to find you a friend. I tried, but I failed.” He shook his head, looked genuinely sad about the failure of the project.
“That’s OK,” I said. “Really. I don’t really want a friend right now. I am
perfectly happy without a friend. I want to be friendless.”
He paused. And then, finally, the tiger of Punjab pounced. “I would like to be your friend.”I didn’t even let him get the words out. “No. Absolutely not. Not going to happen.”
“Hear me out.” He held his hand toward me to silence my negations as he made his pitch. He could have said anything—that he was a purported billionaire who had built my favorite road in Pakistan, that he could buy me a power plant or build me a nuclear weapon. But he opted for honesty.
“I know, I’m not as tall as you’d like,” Sharif explained. “I’m not as fit
as you’d like. I’m fat, and I’m old. But I would still like to be your
“No,” I said. “No way.”
He then offered me a job running his hospital, a job I was eminently
unqualified to perform. “It’s a huge hospital,” he said. “You’d be very good at it.” He said he would only become PM again if I were his
secretary. I thought about it for a few seconds—after all, I would probably soon be out of a job. But no. The new position’s various positions would not be worth it.
Eventually, I got out of the tiger’s grip, but only by promising that I
would consider his offer. Otherwise, he wouldn’t let me leave. I jumped into the car, pulled out my tape recorder, and recited our conversation. Samad shook his head. My translator put his head in his hands. “I’m embarrassed for my country,” he said.
After that, I knew I could never see Sharif again. I was not happy about this—I liked Sharif. In the back of my mind, maybe I had hoped he would come through with a possible friend, or that we could have kept up our banter, without an iPhone lurking in the closet. But now I saw him as just another sad case, a recycled has-been who squandered his country’s adulation and hope, who thought hitting on a foreign journalist was a smart move. Which it clearly wasn’t.”