Kidnapped in Karachi: A Real-Life Gothic Horror

If Mariane Pearl, widow of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, had written a really bad book, it would have been hard to criticize.

A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband Danny Pearl, by Mariane Pearl with Sarah Crichton. Scribner, 320 pages, $25.

If Mariane Pearl, widow of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, had written a really bad book, it would have been hard to criticize. After what she’s been through-six months pregnant, losing a husband whose beheading was videotaped and broadcast on the Internet by Islamists, then rebroadcast on American network television by CBS-Mariane Pearl has the right to publish whatever she wants.

Half-Cuban, half-Dutch and carrying French citizenship, Ms. Pearl is herself a journalist, and the book she’s written with former Little, Brown publisher Sarah Crichton is not a bad book. There are genuinely moving sections of it. What she doesn’t do is address the big questions.

Unlike the French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, who points an accusing finger at the Pakistani secret service in his book Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, Mariane Pearl is more oblique about blame-as if, having lived inside the jaws of the monster, she can’t utter its name. What she does do is give a chilling eyewitness account of how I.S.I. agents did absolutely nothing to help her or her husband, beyond once sending over a fish-eyed, truculent agent-and spying on her to boot. The I.S.I. then failed to tell police or the Americans, for a full week, that it had the chief suspect in custody-and this was while Daniel Pearl’s fate was still unclear.

Mariane Pearl is a Buddhist, and in this book she tries to focus on the good, the human and the decent. She does that by giving lots of ink to the Pakistani anti-terrorist cops who lost their careers trying to help her, and by compiling sweet anecdotes about her husband’s life.

She endured her husband’s kidnapping as a heavily pregnant woman operating under a kind of psychological house arrest in misogynistic Karachi. In this real-life Gothic tale, she tried with limited tools and flagging physical energy to find out where her “Danny”-whom she believed until the very last possible minute was alive-had been taken.

She tells of the flailing helplessness of the Wall Street Journal staffers and local American officials as they tried to formulate some kind of rescue plan. Predictably, they could do little besides attempt to communicate. The task of softening the kidnapped journalist’s image began almost immediately, in the vain hope of reaching the hearts of his presumably anti-Semitic and America-hating captors. Thus Daniel Pearl, ambitious Wall Street Journal South Asia bureau chief, quickly became “Danny,” mild-mannered goofy guy. When he was outed as a Jew, apparently by the Pakistani media, the effort to broadcast his boyish goofiness was ratcheted up further.

This book continues “Danny’s” story, offering information we might not need to know about a private individual who became a world-famous victim. Danny hops up and down on his toes when waiting for a late cab, unloads his suitcases helter-skelter and, on the first night he spends with Mariane, makes the bed by seizing the two corners of the sheet and throwing himself down, “trying to catch two mattress corners at once, like a cartoon character.” We learn the exact words of the marriage vows they wrote together, and that he called his wife “baby.”

Ms. Pearl also reveals the great irony that her husband was an unusually cautious man and no swashbuckling war correspondent. In Bombay, he “drove our car dealer crazy by insisting that seat belts be installed in the back seat” of a car they were buying. He spontaneously wrote an extensive “Memo on Protection of Journalists” for his editors. In spite of his innate caution, Pearl enthusiastically pursued a meeting with the men who had plotted-for weeks, it turned out-to kidnap him. He had a fearlessness among the Islamists that possibly had something to do with his own roots: His mother was born in Baghdad, an Iraqi Jew. (As the American daughter of an Iraqi Christian who fled Baghdad in the 50’s, I too have felt strangely at home walking among the abayas and salwar kameez .)

Pearl’s courage is all the more remarkable because of his Jewishness. Anyone who has traveled even a little in Muslim countries knows that hatred of Jews runs like a sickness in almost everyone. In some places, anti-Semitism is just a minor complaint, unmentioned, like a stiff neck. Elsewhere, it’s as virulent and infectious as the plague. Catch them in a relaxed mood and even moderate Muslims will talk about Jews with a curled lip. This is one of the central problems in Islam today, right up there with misogyny, but one that field correspondents like Pearl can’t really write about.

The mystery of why Daniel Pearl, alone among hundreds of Western (subset American, subset Jewish) journalists, was targeted for assassination may never be solved. Ostensibly, Pearl was doing a story on the connections between a Pakistani Islamist named Sheikh Mubarak Gilani and Richard Reid, the “shoe-bomber,” when he followed his kidnappers into their trap. Mr. Lévy believes Pearl was killed because he was getting too close to revealing connections between the Islamists and Pakistan’s nuclear program. Nothing of this can be proved, because Pearl took his notes in a personal shorthand that, Ms. Pearl tells us, several F.B.I. code-crackers have tried and failed to decipher.

Mariane Pearl suggests that her husband’s own reporting had nothing to do with his fate, but that the Islamists were taking revenge on his employers. Before the kidnapping, The Wall Street Journal had recently turned over to the C.I.A. a computer, found in Afghanistan by one of its reporters, believed to contain important Al Qaeda material-and then publicized the fact. “When you are a journalist in a country like Pakistan, where you spend so much time trying to convince people you are not a spy, you aren’t helped when the company you work for announces to the world it is collaborating with the C.I.A.,” she writes.

The book is well-paced, though marred by the occasional Oprah throwaway like “Hope is a remarkable muscle.” It should be read alongside other investigative tomes on the Pearl murder and Islamist terrorism for its eyewitness account of the infection within Pakistani officialdom. The depressing fact is that the unsung Pakistani heroes in this tale were rewarded in most cases with demotion or job loss-or, in the case of the lead investigator, profound and continuing fear for his life. Mariane Pearl lived through her own nightmare and made it back to Paris to give birth to a son, but her book makes very clear that even now, the Pakistani cops are just the thinnest line against a terrible evil.

Nina Burleigh’s The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America’s Greatest Museum , the Smithsonian will be published next month by William Morrow.

Kidnapped in Karachi: A Real-Life Gothic Horror