How long had you been working in Pakistan before the 2005 earthquake struck?
Six months. I was there beforehand, during and after, so I saw the earthquake response right from the beginning through to the end. Then, the way I probably reacted to it and wrote about it was more journalistically, writing a couple of opinion pieces which were really to do with the politics and policies of delivering humanitarian relief in a country that's as politically complex as Pakistan, and who that supports.
At the time, it was [ruled by] a military dictatorship, so a lot of what I saw – or what I thought I saw – was the international community coming in; on the one hand to provide humanitarian aid, and on the other hand actually ending up providing moral legitimacy to a military regime. I was very sceptical about the nature of that regime, so I wrote a lot about that.
Subsequently, I began to reflect more on the actual experience of being there. I began to think about doing things less in their political context and more in terms of how I responded and that sort of personal and human dimension.
You're new to the Griffith REVIEW, but you've had some articles published in the past that relate to your work with humanitarian organisations.
Most of the stuff I've written before has been journalistic or academic. About eighteen months ago, I started writing about my experiences [working] in Sudan and really came to the conclusion that I didn't have much to add to the academic literature, but I had a personal experience.
In many ways for me, at that stage, it was more interesting writing about that. It wasn't something that was widely covered – what it was like to be in the field, the kind of personal interactions that I've had and that were typical of aid workers. I wrote an article about my time working in Darfur, and then decided to do the same thing for Pakistan where I had spent two years after the earthquake there in 2005.
What motivated you to write a memoir?
This was a different way of writing about [my experience in Pakistan]. I suppose in some ways it was unfinished business. I'd written about the political dimension, but I hadn't thought so much about the personal dimension – what it was like to be there, the kind of characters I'd met and the intricacies of getting about managing a humanitarian operation. Just the sorts of things you can observe as an individual that shed light on certain circumstances, but are not really political or academic or historical. They have a different audience and a different way of revealing themselves.
You provide some interesting insights into the relationship between the many and varied humanitarian organisations working in disaster zones.
They are weird in a way, and in the end it sort of works. That was the other thing I wanted to reflect on – how do you get all these random individuals who are collected with a whole series of different motivations and backgrounds, some of them incredibly laudable and some of them dodgy and some of them just mad, and yet somehow the system works?
There's this whole level of personal interaction and random events and chaos and confusion that doesn't really come across in academic styles of writing or journalism. You don't get that sense of how people muddle through. It all tends to be reduced to systems and processes and policies and so on, which are analysed ad nauseam, but the human element is a bit lost.
Amidst all the chaos we meet Colonel Moshin, a colourful character to say the least. Was there a reason you chose to introduce him at that point?
He was in many ways what made the operation work for us. When I first got there, it was pretty chaotic, [my organisation was] trying to get themselves established and it was very difficult to get a sense of specifically what had happened and how, specifically, we should respond to it.
Colonel Moshin joined the organisation, and brought a number of incredible policies. Partly his military background – he'd been a commander of a logistics division in the Pakistani army, which is incredibly useful in humanitarian work – but also just his personal policies. He was very funny, a figure from a hangover of a colonial past. He'd turn up to work in his regimental cravats and very neatly trimmed moustache and introduced saluting to the office. It was really quite bizarre.
He brought these great genial qualities that made us all get along. At the same time, he had these incredible skills in organisation and management that let us have an operation that was really functional, so I felt he was a pivotal person in the story.
For me, it showed that a lot of what we hear about in disaster response is what the internationals do, but 90 per cent of the work that's done is by nationals, in this case by Pakistanis. They're the first to respond, they help each other, they help their families and work for local organisations. They really underpinned the response. I think that's where Colonel Moshin played a symbolically important role in that story.
Your piece outlines the differing agendas of humanitarian organisations whilst also offering anecdotes of Pakistani life. Would you say you had your own agenda in writing this memoir?
Totally, and that's the other reason for writing in that style – preference and bias are actually alright, and perhaps make it more interesting. That is my personal view of Pakistan, and I spent two years there. I had the most fantastic time and met some incredibly interesting people. It's really a very interesting country.
Coming back to Australia, all I hear about Pakistan is [the] descent into terror and how it's becoming a hotbed of extremism. That's not untrue, there are those dimensions to Pakistan. It's a deeply troubled and also very violent country, but there's also an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis who are really very much like everyone else. You don't hear about the incredibly civilised Colonel Moshins of this world or secular Pakistani civil society.
I tried to put forward another dimension that is a little bit hidden. I think ultimately, when it comes to making policy about how governments interact with particular countries, they see them as systems and not as societies. [My piece] was really an attempt to portray Pakistan as a complex society with many different sides, rather than as a place that was simply the product of many competing political interests.