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Journalist Owen Bennet Jones

Journalist Owen Bennett Jones is the author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm. In the book, he examines the country's turbulent 55-year history. He'll discuss Pakistan's history and its current relationship with the United States. Jones lives in England and has written for The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Independent newspapers and the London Review of Books. He has also reported for BBC Radio and BBC World Television.


Other segments from the episode on December 10, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 10, 2002: Interview with Owen Bennett Jones; Interview with Caetano Veloso.


DATE December 10, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Owen Bennett Jones discusses his new book, the history
of Pakistan and the current relationship between the US and

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Pakistan is an important country in the war on terrorism, and its president,
Pervaiz Musharraf, has pledged to be our ally. On the other hand, leaders of
al-Qaeda are believed to be hiding out somewhere around the border of Pakistan
and Afghanistan, and Islamic extremists gained power in the recent election in
Pakistan. My guest, Owen Bennett Jones, reported from Pakistan for the BBC
from 1998 to 2001. He's the author of the new book "Pakistan: Eye of the
Storm." Pakistan was created as a Muslim state in 1947. Owen Bennett Jones
writes, `Ever since its creation, Pakistan's political development has been
turbulent and chaotic. The country has been under military rule for nearly
half its existence. No elected government has ever completed its term in
office. It has had three wars with India and has lost around half of its
territory. Nearly half its vast population is illiterate and 20 percent is

I asked Owen Bennett Jones if he thinks President Musharraf is a reliable ally
in the war against terrorism.

Mr. OWEN BENNETT JONES (Author, "Pakistan: Eye of the Storm"): Well, I don't
think there's any doubt that General Musharraf wants to support the United
States. He took that decision immediately after September the 11th. He was
faced with a pretty stark message from Washington. They said, `Back us or
else.' And he said, `OK, it's got to be with America.' Some of his generals
didn't like it, but he sold that to them. He said, `We have no choice in
this. We have to back the United States and see what we can get from it.' So
he's been clear since then that he is backing the United States, but he has
big domestic constraints. And I'm not sure that there is that much support
for al-Qaeda in Pakistan, but certainly there is a vociferous minority who
would be sympathetic with the objectives of al-Qaeda and these are people who
are well-armed, well-organized and pretty violent. And so he's got to
confront that. It's been a difficult year for him doing so but there's no
doubt he's committed to it.

GROSS: In the recent elections there are a few Islamic extremists who won.
Would you explain the results of the recent election and how that changes the
balance of power in the country?

Mr. JONES: Well, it's quite interesting, this, because the coverage--I
watched the coverage of the elections and I'm afraid it sort of fell back into
that old model of Western reporting on Islamic countries where a lot of the
headlines were about Islamic extremists poised to take over Pakistan and so
on. The fact is that the hard-line parties, the extremist religious parties,
won 11 percent of the vote. Now in the electoral system there, that did get
translated into a much larger representation in the new parliament. But,
nonetheless, it gives you some indication, some context for what we're talking
about here.

I've maintained in the book that at the most the support for the Islamic
extremists in Pakistan is around 10, 15 percent, and this election result is
very much in line with that. And that's been the case throughout Pakistan's
history. They've never done better than that.

Now this was a good result for them, no doubt, but 11 percent is not the whole
country. It means 89 percent of the people in Pakistan did not vote for
parties like that, despite the background of having many of the neighbors in
Afghanistan bombed by the Americans. So you have to put this into context and
to understand that Pakistan is not an extremist country. It is a place which,
like many other Muslim countries, has a majority of the people who simply want
to live their lives quietly, to be able to educate their children, to be able
to get secure jobs and so on. And Pakistan's no different from many other
countries in that respect.

GROSS: Pakistan was created as a Muslim state. Is religious extremism fairly
recent in Pakistan?

Mr. JONES: It's always been there, this strand of hard-line religious
thinking, but you have to ask why Pakistan was fond of that. She's not
entirely clear. It wasn't entirely clear at the time. There were those
religious people who said it was founded, you know, to become an Islamic
state, but I think more people and, indeed, the leading figures of the
Pakistan independence movement, like Juno and the others, were not after that.
They were after a place where it would be safe for Muslims to live. And they
did not feel it was safe in post-independence India, and they thought that the
discrimination against the Muslims would be so intense that it would be quite
intolerable. And that is why they demanded Pakistan. They didn't really see
it as an Islamic state but as a state where Muslims could live safely.

GROSS: Was there a lot of tension between those who wanted it to be an
Islamic state and those who just wanted it to be a state where Islamics could
live with freedom?

Mr. JONES: The tensions were always there but they were in the background
because the truth is the extremists have never had that big a number. They've
never been strong enough to see off the majority. The difficulty with this is
that the extremists have always been good at mobilizing demonstrations, what
they call street power in Pakistan. And it's impressive. I mean, you know,
you can get--these parties can deliver a huge number of extremely
angry-looking people onto the streets in a matter of hours, and governments in
Pakistan have always been afraid of it. And, you know, one of the tragedies
is that no one has been prepared to confront them. I mean, Musharraf,
arguably, is the first leader in Pakistan to actually do it, to say, `Right,
go to the streets, try your best, and see how worried I am.' And, sure
enough, after two or three months, it all petered out. And it did give an
indication of how weak they are and it was a sign that Musharraf was prepared,
unlike most of his predecessors, to try to take them on.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Owen Bennett Jones. He's the
author of the new book "Pakistan: Eye of the Storm." He covered Pakistan for
the BBC from 1998 to 2001.

Tell us a little bit about how General Zia-ul-Haq advanced the cause of
radical Islam in Pakistan. First of all, what years did he rule Pakistan?

Mr. JONES: He governed from 1977 when he had launched his military coup right
through to 1988 when he was killed in an air crash in extremely mysterious
circumstances with the American ambassador to Pakistan at that time on board
the plane at the same time. And he did have an agenda. He did have a very
unidimensional, if you like, religious view of the world. And he tried to
make Pakistan a more Islamic state. And there were lots of things he did like
appointing people to, you know, middle-ranking government jobs. These would
be people drawn from the religious parties. He tried to make Ramadan more
closely observed, more publicly observed, so that, you know, it became a
criminal offense not to do that. And I think he did change the tone. But I
think you have to remember that the whole Islamic world has been moving in
this direction. Radical Islam is a much stronger force, worldwide, now than
it was 20 years ago. General Zia certainly accelerated that process within
Pakistan and many Pakistanis very much resent that. They look back on his
period as military ruler and think that that was the time when Pakistan's
prospects really were dashed. And when the chances of creating a modern
liberal Islamic country, informed by Muslim values but very much part of the
world community, they think that was when all that unraveled.

GROSS: One of the things he did was to Islamicize the military. How did he
change the military?

Mr. JONES: He wanted an Islamic army. I think it's fair to say that. I
mean, it was always difficult with him because he used this Islamic rhetoric
and, you know, he'd say, `We are the soldiers of Allah,' and so on. But, you
know, when it came down to the difficult decisions, you know, statecraft--I
mean, for instance--I'll give you an example. When it came down to saying,
`Interest is un-Islamic and therefore we must not have it,' that was his basic
position. But when he saw that, you know, that meant IMF loans were out,
World Bank loans were out, that Pakistan would basically have to drop out of
the world financial system, you know, he didn't do it. He still had a
rational government mind in his head. He realized that it just wasn't
possible to do that. I mean, Mullah Omar in Afghanistan more recently just
said, `Fine. You know, the IMF can leave. The World Bank can leave. We are
living how we want to.' So General Zia was never like that.

Within the army, it's the same story. He wanted to introduce Islamic
precepts. He gave Islamic training to troops. He said that they must
understand the Koran more fully, that they must try and implement the Koran.
He asked his military theorists to come up with things like Islamic codes of
conduct in war, which he said were more humanitarian than the Red Cross codes
that exist in the West, things like that. But when it came down to it, he
still had basically a Western type army with Western equipment, which would be
very familiar to generals from the United States or Britain.

GROSS: You say that General Zia's successors, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz
Sharif, did little to dismantle his legacy. But then when Musharraf took over
in a military coup in 1999, he tried to dismantle some of the Islamicization
of the country that General Zia put into effect. What did he try to do?

Mr. JONES: Yeah, I mean, what you've got here is two military leaders who do
have a very different vision. General Zia was, you know, an Islamist.
General Zia was a man with deep faith who wanted to make Pakistan a more
Islamic society. So the kind of things he did--I mean, I've talked about the
constraints he operated under. But the kind of things he did would be to make
office workers pray five times a day, certainly government office workers, to
try and make people live a more Islamic lifestyle.

Now General Musharraf is not interested in that. He says he's a man who
believes, and I think we must take that at face value, but plainly he is not a
strongly religious man. And he is interested in getting Pakistan's economy
working when it comes to prayer time. For example--and some of his ADCs and
military, you know, underlings come to him and say, `Sir, it's prayer time.'
If he's in the middle of a meeting, he just says, `Look, I've got government
business here. Prayers can wait.' Now General Zia would never have done

It gives you some impression of the different approach of the two men and, to
some extent, General Musharraf is trying to undo what General Zia did. He's
trying to make religion less central in Pakistani life and to get the economy
working, to get Pakistan more part of the international community.

GROSS: What has Musharraf accomplished in Pakistan compared to what he
promised he would accomplish when he took over in a military coup?

Mr. JONES: Not a whole lot. I mean, my view is that he's a man who knows
what he wants to do. He wants to make Pakistan a secular liberal state. But
he's not able to do it. He hasn't shown much sign of having the political
will or ability to force his agenda through. He's said, for instance, that he
wants to raise more income tax. Now if you look at it, it's an incredible
fact that Pakistan's government raises hardly any income tax. One percent of
Pakistanis pay income tax. This is a nuclear state with a massive need for
public spending on welfare programs. Only 1 percent pay tax.

Now he saw this and said, `It's hopeless. We've got to change that.' He had
this big drive to raise more tax, and I can tell you if you go to the Central
Board of Revenue, the people in charge of collecting the money now, they'll
tell you it's not much better than it was when he took over. He hasn't
managed to do it, despite having a big political fight over it. You know,
there were strikes against him when he tried to impose a tax survey. But it
hasn't actually happened.

And it's a good example 'cause it shows you just how difficult it is to govern
Pakistan. There is no administration for him to rely on. The people in the
ministries just don't do anything. If you go and see the ministers, they're
all talking about, you know, personal deals they can do for plots of land and
all the rest of it and they're not actually working. They're all very free to
see journalists because they've got nothing else to do. And so it's, you
know, a very difficult country to govern. And he, I think, is failing to do

I mean, it's a great shame because he does know what he wants to do, and he is
a military man. So if anyone's going to be able to do--I mean, that's the
whole point of having a military coup. If you're going to do it, you might as
well have some strong government and impose some pretty basic reforms. You
know, he's not managed to do it and it's a great disappointment to a lot of

GROSS: Now you say that President Musharraf wants a secular state, yet he
supported the Taliban in Afghanistan. Why did he support them?

Mr. JONES: He just thought it was in Pakistan's national interest. He
thought that if he had a government which was basically--I mean, those guys
who ran the Taliban had been all educated in northern Pakistan. They all knew
Pakistan very well. They had very good relations with Islamabad, and his idea
was if they're there, that's fine. We will never face any instability on that
border and we can concentrate all our military resources on the border with
India in case India attacks.

So he called it strategic depth and, you know, it was a misguided policy.
Everyone realized it at the time and--not everyone; the senior officers all
thought it was great. Most of the people in Pakistan, the intellectuals in
Pakistan realized it was a crazy idea because, you know, the Islamic
fundamentalism was bound to seep across the border and to infect Pakistan
itself, which is exactly what the army doesn't want. So, you know, it was a
short-sighted policy, but there were reasons for it.

And, I mean, I remember tackling him on the issue, you know, before September
the 11th, saying, `What on earth are you doing supporting these people?' And
he'd just say, `Look, you know, we've always'--I mean, there were ethnic
elements to it as well. He said, `We've always supported a Pashtun government
in Afghanistan. It is strategic depth for us. We've got to have only one
frontier; we're worried about the Indian frontier. We can't afford and spread
our resources over two.' And that was the basis of his thinking.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Owen Bennett Jones. His new book is called
"Pakistan: Eye of the Storm." We'll be back after our break. This is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Owen Bennett Jones. He's the
author of the new book, "Pakistan: Eye of the Storm." And he reported on
Pakistan for the BBC from 1998 to 2001.

Have you met Musharraf? And if so, what are your personal impressions of him?

Mr. JONES: Yeah, I met him a few times. You know, he's--I'll tell you what
he's like, in my view. He's, like, the sort of guy you meet in the golf club
who will sit there over the bar, you know, or in the mess room, officers'
mess, and sit there and say, `You know, it's perfectly obvious what we've got
to do to this country. You know, all you've got to do is put the corrupt
people in jail and it'll be fine.' And this is what these guys did, these
generals. They sit there moaning about the civilian governments in much the
same way as people moan about the governments, you know, as they sit around
their golf club bar.

And then, you know, he got presented with the extraordinary situation where he
was actually in power, and he's discovered it's not that easy. And the whole
anti-corruption thing, you know, which he was very hot on in the first few
weeks, has gone away. And half his military colleagues are corrupt, anyway,
and you know, when it comes down to it he doesn't want to put them in jail.
So he has faced up to the realities of office, and it hasn't been easy for

I mean, there are lots of good things about him. He's an honest man. And, I
mean, I'll give you a good example of that. I was actually--the first few
weeks when he took over, when everyone sort of put on his sort of nice,
friendly sort of image, he'd wear a civilian suit rather than his military
uniform. And I noticed it was always the same suit. And I said to one of his
guys--I said, `He always wears the same suit, this bloke.' And he went,
`Yeah, it's his wedding suit.' That was the only suit he had. He was the
chief of the Pakistan army, and he only had one civilian suit. This is not a
corrupt individual. He's now got a few more; I should try to find out who
paid for them. I suspect the government, but probably they said they needed
more suits to, you know, handle foreign trips and so on.

So my impression is that he's basically a man who many Western politicians
could relate to. He is the moderate face of Islam. He is, in that sense, the
mainstream of Islam. But does he have the political skill to push all this
through? I don't think so.

GROSS: What does the United States want from Pakistan as an ally in the war
against terrorism?

Mr. JONES: Well, it wants support, logistical support for going into
Afghanistan. And I guess now it wants Pakistani cooperation in mopping up
Islamic militants in Pakistan. And it's doing it in a pretty crude way. I
mean, you know, if the Americans get information that there are some militants
holed up somewhere, they now don't even tell the Pakistani police until about
two hours before the operation for fear that someone will tip those people off
and they'll get away. And it's caused a lot of resentment in Pakistan. I
mean, you can see both sides of it; I mean, the Americans may well be right,
that that is what would happen, but, of course, within Pakistan you've got
General Musharraf's critics saying, `What on earth is this? We've got a
military government who are allowing the Americans to conduct police
operations on Pakistani soil. It's a satellite of the United States. We
don't even have any self-respect anymore.'

So the Americans are doing that, and I guess that's the most important thing
that Musharraf can offer them, because I'm sure maybe even bin Laden, you
know--he may be in Pakistan, and if the Pakistani authorities are able to
cooperate on finding those people, then that's very much what the Americans
would be after.

GROSS: What's your best guess, if you have any, about how much of al-Qaeda is
hiding out now in Pakistan?

Mr. JONES: Well, I wonder how many there are left, you know? I mean, how
many were there in the first place? I asked some diplomats, a lot of
diplomats, in Islamabad, you know, `September the 10th, what were your
estimates for al-Qaeda?' The highest number I got was 1,700. Now when you
think what's happened since then--many of them have been killed; many of them
have fled to be with their mums, holding out somewhere, trying to, you know,
keep a low profile and probably forget the whole thing and move on to having a
regular job or something. And there'll be a few left, you know, a few hundred
left, and some of those will be in Pakistan.

But, you know, I don't think there's any getting away from the fact that the
Americans have won that war against al-Qaeda. One wonders what they're doing
in Afghanistan now. And, of course, this doesn't mean there won't be further
attacks, 'cause, you know, how many people does it take to organize the kind
of attack that happened to you on September the 11th? You know, a dozen,
something like that. It doesn't take many people. But as an organization, I
think, you know, it is very, very much weaker than it was a year ago.

GROSS: I've heard a lot that they've regrouped, that they're maybe as strong
as ever. And, I mean, the head of the CIA in the United States said that
there's as much kind of chatter now as there was--you know, that they're
picking up, as there was before September 11th, and he thinks we're as in
grave danger now as we were then. So it sounds like, in that respect, we
haven't done such an effective job yet.

Mr. JONES: Yeah. Well, I mean, you know, obviously, these people have an
interest in saying that. I'm not so convinced. I mean, it's always a very
difficult argument to pursue this, because it isn't to say there can't be
further attacks, you know, nor is it to say that there aren't a lot of people
who would sympathize with al-Qaeda. And, you know, I mean, we've seen

GROSS: And become free-lancers.

Mr. JONES: Yeah. I mean, yeah, we've seen attacks in Indonesia, in the
Philippines. I mean, these people are active. But look at it this way. If
you were sitting at the top of al-Qaeda, and you thought that September the
11th was a great success, and since then you've been taking a massive number
of hits--you've been attacked by the United States and the world community
since then--you would want to respond. What have they done? They've not been
able to organize anything of significance. None of the sort of projects
they'd like to pull off have they been able to do. Now you can say that, you
know, they may be able to do something in the future, and you can't rule it
out, but that must give you some indication of how weak they are.

GROSS: But...

Mr. JONES: They've not been able to launch another major attack on the West.
And I can assure you that's exactly what they want to do.

GROSS: But just take what happened in Kenya--you know, the shooting down of
an Israeli plane--well, the near shooting down, the attempt to shoot down an
Israeli plane with, you know, a shoulder-launched missile. That's a kind of,
like, new breakthrough in terrorist tactics. That hasn't been done before to
a passenger plane. And then, you know, the bombing of the hotel in Kenya, the
bombing in Bali--I mean, these are...

Mr. JONES: Yes, I know, but what does it tell you? And...

GROSS: It's not the World Trade Center, but it's pretty significant.

Mr. JONES: Well, of course it is, if you're involved in it. It's absolutely
terrifying and horrible. But you must appreciate that that is not their
top-line target. I mean, their top-line target are prestige targets in the
West. If you were looking at it from the al-Qaeda point of view, you'd be
sitting there saying, `Is this the best we can do, Mombasa and Bali?' This is
not what they want to do. They want to do, you know, the houses of
Westminster, Congress, some big towers in America. And they'd have the
capacity to do it. I mean, as I keep saying--it's a very sort of dodgy thing
to say, because they may be able to do it one day, but, you know, so far they
haven't, and, you know, they want to. And that is an indication--you could
look at it both ways--of the weakness of al-Qaeda or the strength of the
Western intelligence agencies which are preventing them from doing these

GROSS: Owen Bennett Jones is the author of the new book "Pakistan: Eye of
the Storm." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, Pakistan's nuclear bomb. We continue our conversation with
journalist Owen Bennett Jones, author of "Pakistan: Eye of the Storm." And
we meet Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso, one of the founders of
tropicalia. His memoir has just been published in English, and he has a new

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with journalist Owen Bennett
Jones, author of the new book, "Pakistan: Eye Of The Storm." He reported on
Pakistan for the BBC from 1998 to 2001.

Pakistan has a nuclear bomb and it's the only Muslim state with a nuclear
bomb. What are their safety mechanisms for controlling it?

Mr. JONES: Who knows. They won't tell us. I've tried to find out, and I've
not got any indication. And I've asked people at this end what their
impression is, people who might know, and they don't have much idea, either.
You know, it's--do they ha--it's quite worrying, I think. I mean, you know,
they insist that they're fine, that they've got excellent command and control
features and so on. But, you know, the difficulty with it is that the number
of minutes--I forget what it is, actually. It's something like seven minutes
or something, or even less--that a bomb launched by India would land in
Pakistan or vice versa. There is very, very little reaction time. And in
those circumstances, what would happen? And my fear is that what they've done
is devolved--and I've got some reason for saying this and it is difficult to
confirm it--but devolved the authority over the use of these nuclear weapons
to quite a low level in the army, brigadier level, because they know that if
their top leadership was hit, that they'd have to have some kind of system of
dispersing authority. So if that's the case, then, you know, that is bad
news, and you would have to worry about accidental use or use without due
authority. And it's a worrying situation.

GROSS: We hear something else. Since there's a history of coups in Pakistan,
are there fears that there could be an Islamic extremist coup and that Islamic
extremists could then control a nuclear bomb?

Mr. JONES: Through a coup, I doubt it. Because if you look at it--you know,
there was an attempt to do that before under--when Benazir Bhutto was in
charge, and it failed. And there's never been an internal coup in the army
that's worked. You know, I mean, the army's taken over from civilian
governments but never has an army leader himself been removed from office in
an internal coup or push. So the history is that the Pakistan army, which is
a well-disciplined organization, is basically able to keep a control on this
and that whenever anyone's tried to do it, they've failed. And I think
there's good reason to believe that that would be the case.

If you look further ahead and say, `Look, Pakistan is a country where people
are hungry, where the government institutions have failed, which they have,
where no one gets, or very few people get justice from the courts, where the
police are corrupt and incompetent, where the state just isn't delivering
basic services to its people.' Now if you look at that in the long term and
say if all these civilian and military governments fail, which they are doing,
one day, surely, someone will say give the Islamists a chance. They've got an
agenda. They've got a view. They have hopes that they can sort this country
out. Give them a go. And I don't rule that out. I mean, you can't put a
time on it, 10, 20 years. I mean, I think it's quite possible within 20 years
that there'll be a strong Islamic government in Pakistan, as I say, not really
through the army. I think probably maybe through elections. You know, the
support for the Islamic parties could build, 'cause everyone else is messing
it up.

And if that were the case, then sure, you would begin to wonder what is going
to happen to the nuclear arsenal. There's a ...(unintelligible) of ifs in all
that. But nonetheless, it is I think a not totally unrealistic scenario.

GROSS: Now knowing the region as well as you do, do you think that the United
States or that a larger coalition should go to war with Iraq?

Mr. JONES: That's a difficult issue. I mean, you know, I can hear a lot of
the arguments against, some of which I find more convincing than others. It
seems to me the most compelling argument against is that it is pre-emptive
military action. And that does cross a line. And you have to ask: If Saddam
Hussein has these weapons, is he going to use them? And, of course, you know,
there are people who will say he's used them before; he could do so again.
That's clearly true, but if you say that it is enough that he possesses them
to attack him, then, you know, that does set a new benchmark in international
politics. And we look at North Korea, who apparently do have a nuclear
weapon; we look at Iran, who certainly want one; various other countries who
are working on chemical and biological weapons if not nuclear. And you wonder
where this all leads and whether it is then OK to attack them as well. So to
my mind that is the fundamental issue at the bottom of the whole list.

I don't think all the arguments about, well, we, you know, always turned a
blind eye to them in the past and various other arguments that are deployed
to--you know, the whole of the Middle East will unravel. I'm not so convinced
by all that, but I do think that this question of pre-emptive military action
is pretty fundamental and deserves pretty serious thought before one gets
involved in that.

GROSS: Well, how do you think a war with Iraq would affect the region? Do
you think the whole region would be completely changed in ways that we can't
even imagine?

Mr. JONES: Well, we'll have to see. I mean, you know, it's almost certainly
going to happen, so I guess we'll find out. I mean, you know, the last time
around the big question was whether Israel would respond to an attack. And
Israel was persuaded not to. Clearly, if Israel did attack, then the whole
situation does change. I mean, America's obviously aware of that and will be
doing everything it can to prevent Israel getting directly involved. But, you
know, it all depends whether Israel is hit hard. And if it is hit hard,
presumably it would feel it has to respond.

And I guess the other long-term issue is Kurdistan. And I do find it slightly
odd that, you know, the Kurds quite plainly want independence. I mean, you
know, surely nobody doubts that, and yet it seems the Western politicians are
happy to take their assurances that they want greater autonomy within Iraq at
face value. Now that's just not believable. And if it is that Iraq is hit
hard and the Kurds see a chance to advance their claims to independence, then
that would change the world in that part of the world, because, you know,
there are a lot of other countries involved then, not least Turkey, who have
Kurds there, too. So you would wonder about that issue.

So, I mean, there are question marks, but, I mean, I am also aware that--you
know, I'm sure people in the administration--your administration would say
whenever we talk about these kind of big military actions there's always
people who make drastic predictions about what's going to happen and they
don't often come true. And I think there's some truth in that--that, you
know, that that has happened in the past; that people have made very dire
predictions which haven't come to pass. You know, we'll find out, I guess.

GROSS: Well, Owen Bennett Jones, I want to thank you very much for talking
with us.

Mr. JONES: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Owen Bennett Jones is the author of the new book "Pakistan: Eye of
the Storm."

Coming up, Brazilian singer and songwriter Caetano Veloso, one of the
originators of the music known as tropicalia. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Caetano Veloso discusses his music, life and memoir
(Soundbite of music)


Composer and singer Caetano Veloso is a star in Brazil and has quite a
following in the US. Along with Gilberto Joao, Veloso was one of the
originators of the music known as tropicalia or tropicalismo. This music came
on the heels of bossa nova in the late '60s and combined Brazilian traditions
with rock, pop and avant-garde poetry and embraced elements of '60s
counterculture. Many of Veloso's fellow college students condemned the music
for commercializing Brazilian sounds. The Brazilian military dictatorship
hated the freedom the music represented.

Veloso and Joao were imprisoned for several weeks in 1968. Veloso's memoir,
"Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil," has just been
published in English. His music is on the soundtrack of Pedro Almodovar's new
film. And Veloso has a new CD called "Live from Bahia." Let's start with a
track from it called "Menino Do Rio," "The Boy From Rio."

(Soundbite of "Menino Do Rio")

Mr. CAETANO VELOSO (Musician): (Singing in Portuguese)

GROSS: Caetano Veloso was born in 1942. When he was 17 he heard Brazilian
songwriter Joao Gilberto, one of the originators of the bossa nova. In his
memoir Veloso described Gilberto as his supreme master. I asked Veloso to
describe the impact Gilberto's music had on him.

Mr. VELOSO: I was living in Santo Amaro, my little hometown, and I was at
high school. And then I heard it for the first time. I thought that a new
world was opening before me: a new world of songs, a new world of
sensibility, a new world of possibilities and also of responsibilities. I was
17, but I understood that what Joao Gilberto was doing to samba, to the
Brazilian tradition of popular music, was really illuminating the past and
opening new tasks for the future. And I still try to live up to it.

GROSS: Now you were one of the people who took music in a slightly different
direction, something that's been called tropicalia or tropicalismo. Forgive my

Mr. VELOSO: It's perfect now.

GROSS: So where did you differ--what did you want in your music that was kind
of frowned on?

Mr. VELOSO: What we did was different because we didn't want to be defensive
in that nationalistic fashion that everybody was following, you know. We, in
fact, faced a position from the left--left-wing students would be hostile to
everything we did in 1967 through '68, because we accepted international
influences. We considered that the presence of American mass culture was
something that was part of our lives, and that we should be able to express
ourselves using some procedures that we learnt from rock 'n' roll and American
pop culture. And on the other hand, we didn't think that the traditional
protest song was our better vehicle to express what we felt under a
dictatorship and in those times of counterculture.

GROSS: So if you heard The Beatles or Ray Charles, you weren't going to just
see that as imperialistic influences from England or America. You were going
to see that as good music. And if that influenced you, fine.

Mr. VELOSO: Well, yeah. You know, it's true, but, you know, even The Beatles
in our view, even then, they were an example that mass culture could be
healthy--could be a healthy influence. You know, we had noticed that--because
before that, we were not--my group of friends, we were not interested in rock
'n' roll. It was just, you know, rock 'n' roll was something that we could
hear on the radio. We could even learn how to sing short lyrics and--you
know, but we didn't think it was an important thing in any way. It was just
commercial rubbish, you know. But what The Beatles did--they was--they made a
shift in considering the status of rock 'n' roll. And we ourselves wanted to
do the same in Brazil.

GROSS: I'm wondering if there is a song on your new "Live" CD that is a song
that you wrote in the '60s and were doing during the period that we're talking
about now?

Mr. VELOSO: The song "Tropicalia" itself is I think representative of the
period. In fact, it's an emblem of the period.

GROSS: In what sense?

Mr. VELOSO: Because this song "Tropicalia" gave name to the movement. From
its title, the name of the movement was born. And it is a song that portrays
Brazil in a strange way. It's an allegoric portrait of Brazil with violent
images and it's a little bit like a cubist painting, because it's seen from
different angles and from different perspectives.

GROSS: Why don't I just read a little bit of the English translation before
we hear the recording. `Above my head the airplanes, under my feet the trucks
and trains. My nose in profile against the highland plains. I organize the
movement. I lead the carnival. I inaugurate the monument on the central
plateau of the nation. Long live bossa nova. Long live Pailoca(ph). The
monument is silver crepe paper, the green eyes of the mulatto, in the green
forests our hair veils, the back lands moonlight. The monument has no door.
The entrance is an old, narrow winding road.' Etc.

Mr. VELOSO: Well, then comes the image of a dead child that--I don't
remember. It's a very--if you read just two more lines...

GROSS: Yeah. `And on its knee a smiling, ugly, dead child holds out its
hands. Long live the mutato.'

Mr. VELOSO: Yeah.

GROSS: `Love live the mulatto.' And so on.

Mr. VELOSO: Yeah. So some--you know, really some violent images and it's a
celebration of Brazil, but it's a sinister celebration, you know. It's a
parody of a celebration. But on the other hand, it celebrates Brazil in fact.
Although it recognizes its violence, injustice and somber moments because we
were then under a dictatorship and I wanted to express the deepest feelings
that arose in those circumstances.

GROSS: My guest is Brazilian singer, songwriter and guitarist Caetano Veloso.
Here's his 1967 recording of "Tropicalia."

(Soundbite of "Tropicalia")

Mr. VELOSO: (Singing in Portuguese)

GROSS: Caetano Veloso will be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Brazilian songwriter and singer Caetano Veloso, one of the
originators of the music known as tropicalia or tropicalismo. He was
imprisoned by Brazil's military dictatorship for several weeks.

You write in your new book "Tropical Truth" that when you were arrested in
1968 by the military government, you didn't expect that anything really bad
was going to happen to you. You say, `We were so used to the hostilities of
the left,' so often accused of being alienated and Americanized that when you
saw yourself before the policemen you imagined they were going to take you to
talk to some official who would treat you like your average young guy who's
only interested in amusing the public--your average entertainer. So you
really weren't prepared for being arrested, for put in solitary confinement,
for being beaten, all the things that you were actually, you know, exposed to.

Mr. VELOSO: No, we weren't. We didn't expect and we were not
prepared--mostly me. I wasn't. I almost went crazy, you know. It was really
hard. But it--yeah, it's true. I--we were not prepared for that, because as
I told you, left-wing students would react against our music, so we thought
that the military would not think of us as being, you know...

GROSS: A threat.

Mr. VELOSO: A threat.

GROSS: So why do you think the military did see you as a threat? What were
they afraid of with your music?

Mr. VELOSO: They were people within the military that knew and understood
the connections between what we were doing and, for example, May '68 in Paris
or American protests against Vietnam War and, you know, the California things.
You know, some people knew. Some of the military guys knew that what we were
doing might mean some kind of new left, you know--different kind of left. We
ourselves thought of what we were doing as being some kind of new left in a
way. And the authorities were kind of advised by some who knew that what we
were doing was somehow, you know, dangerous because it could destabilize the
psychology of the youth, you know. It could damage their values, you know.
Some of them knew.

GROSS: It's interesting that during those time in the '60s when music becomes
so politically charged in Brazil and when you and others are arrested because
of your music, in America what's mostly known about Brazilian music in
the '60s is the samba which is considered to be a very kind of gentle,
relaxing music with lyrics about love and beauty and, you know, gentle waves
on the ocean and things like that. So what did you think then of the American
understanding of what Brazilian music was?

Mr. VELOSO: Well, it was mostly bossa nova, you know. Bossa nova was
something that happened in the '50s in Brazil. 1958 Joao Gilberto recorded
his first single. And in '59 it was like established in Brazil. So in the
mid-60s everybody in the United States knew Sergio Mendes better than anything
else from Brazil, apart from Joao Gilberto, Astrud Gilberto singing "The Girl
From Ipanema." But that was delayed to what was happening in Brazil, you know.
And, well, after that, even those people who started writing bossa nova with
predominantly love songs, they started writing protest songs. You know, the
very most important lyricist of bossa nova, Vinicius De Moraes, who was a
poet, he was the first modern protest songwriter in Brazil, you know. He
started writing protest songs in the early '60s and so did Carlos Lyra and
some other people who were the pioneers of bossa nova, you know. But these
Brazilian protest songs would sound to any American ear as sweet as any other
love song, you know, because just...

GROSS: Because we wouldn't understand the lyric?

Mr. VELOSO: Because you don't understand the lyric and because Brazilian
music tends to sound sweet in any way, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. VELOSO: But, yeah, they already, you know, had entire albums of just
protest songs, you know. Samba. Samba has been the basic rhythm, but the
words would be a protest against social injustice and against dictatorship;
although not explicitly saying things about the dictatorship, but it was
obviously against it. And things that were said, both against social
injustice and suggestions of revolution or change in society, these things
were clearly explicit in the lyrics of the songs of that time, of that period.

GROSS: Now how would you compare the kind of music that you're writing and
performing now with what you were doing in the '60s in Brazil when your music
was so controversial?

Mr. VELOSO: I don't know if I'm able to compare what I do now to what I used
to do then. But I'd say nowadays I know better, like I can make things in a
better way; things are better done--this is for sure--better recorded, better
tuning, better everything. But on the other hand, I was younger.

GROSS: Caetano Veloso. He has a new CD called "Live from Bahia." His
memoir, "Tropical Truth," has just been published in English.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with another song from Caetano Veloso's new CD.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VELOSO: (Singing in Portuguese)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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