Ghulam Murtaza Jatoi steered his four-wheel-drive Toyota down a rutted dirt track and stopped a few feet from the edge of the mighty Indus River. Behind him stretched thousands of acres of family land. In front of him, on the river's opposite shore, stretched . . . thousands of acres of family land.
He honked his horn and a fisherman came running. A few minutes later, the Toyota was balanced precariously on planks laid across the thwarts of a rickety wooden boat. As Jatoi sat regally in the driver's seat, the fisherman sculled him to the other side.
The feudal lord then resumed his property tour.
Jatoi, 43, is a proud member of Pakistan's feudal class, a diminished but not yet dying breed that still wields strong influence over the society and politics of this youthful, impoverished nation of 142 million . A former provincial and national legislator, Jatoi remains the undisputed political boss in this rural part of Sind province, where his family owns 30,000 acres of prime agricultural land.
From his manicured, well-guarded compound here, Jatoi oversees the cultivation of crops, adjudicates civil and criminal cases and generally serves as patron to thousands of villagers, many of whom work on Jatoi lands as sharecroppers in a pattern that has persisted for more than two centuries.
His is a life both modern and medieval. A burly, plain-spoken man with a dry wit, Jatoi summers in London and the English countryside, shoots wild boar in the woods around his hunting lodge and tools around family lands with a Heckler & Koch MP5submachine gun at his side.
"Traditions are still there which have not died down," he said, adding of the people in the area, "They respect us. It's very kind of them."
Some development experts say the system that Jatoi represents is as exploitive as it is paternalistic, trapping many sharecroppers -- who borrow from landlords to pay for seed and fertilizer -- in a form of indentured servitude. In a recent report, the World Bank cited land inequality as a primary cause of rural poverty in Pakistan, with 44 percent of the country's farmland controlled by just 2 percent of rural households. Some estimates put the number of major landed families at just 5,000.
Jatoi, who spent two years at San Jacinto College in Texas, describes the criticism as unfair. "What have we done?" he asked. "I think we have had a positive role in rural society. We have got the roads made, the schools made, the hospitals made."
Rooted in tribal loyalties and tradition, the feudal system in Sind and other parts of the land now known as Pakistan reached full flower in the 19th century, when British colonial officials conferred judicial and administrative powers on prominent Muslim landlords.
Since the birth of Pakistan in 1947, successive military and civilian governments have tried with little success to redress the land imbalance. As a result, in some rural areas, feudal lords -- known as waderas, sardars or khans, depending on their place in the tribal and landholding hierarchy -- continue to wield more power than civil authorities. A few even run their own jails.
With a natural constituent base among tribal followers and tenants, the feudal landlords moved easily into politics after independence, dominating provincial and national assemblies while building alliances with the all-powerful military. Although their grip on political life has loosened in recent years, they remain a potent force in Pakistan's newly reconstituted parliament; last month, Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali, who is from a feudal family in Baluchistan province, announced that there would be no land reform on his watch.
By all accounts, the feudal landlords no longer wield the kind of clout they did in the 19th century, or even 40 years ago. The transfer of land from one generation to the next has diluted family holdings. The rise of a new class of industrialists and commercial real estate barons has encroached on feudal economic power. The military, meanwhile, has acquired its own vast landholdings, according to Aasim Sajjad, a Yale-educated economist and land-reform advocate in Islamabad.
Perhaps most important are the modernizing forces of education and mass media. Villagers who once voted for the local land baron because they were told to do so now expect things like schools, roads and health clinics in return.
"It's just a myth that the because of the landholding you always win," said Jatoi, the son of a former prime minister, who was disqualified from running in the last national elections because of a new rule that candidates must hold four-year college degrees (he never graduated). "It's based on performance."
To adapt to a changing world, the feudal class has sought to diversify, investing in businesses such as textile mills and preparing its offspring for professional careers by sending them abroad to study.
Tashfin Baloch, for example, is the scion of a prominent feudal family who studied political science at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, interned at the World Health Organization in Geneva and lived for a time in Australia. Along the way, he acquired a taste for rap and hip hop, a shaved head and a dream to one day open a nightclub in Spain .
"I'm looked at like I'm a freak of nature," Baloch, 27, said over lunch recently at the Serena Hotel in Islamabad. "People can't believe I'm my father's son."
But old habits die hard. Despite his evident thirst for things Western, Baloch has come back to Pakistan, at least for now, to help manage his father's business interests. "The standard of living here you can't get anywhere else in the world," explained Baloch, who calls the feudal system "very enticing," at least for those who run it.
"All the servants in my house came from my aunt's village, and their grandfathers worked for my family," he said. A similar pattern holds in and around New Jatoi, a sun-baked farm village about 120 miles northeast of Karachi, where the family that gave the town its name has run things more or less continuously since its arrival in the area in 1740, according to Jatoi.
The Jatois initially drew their authority from provincial tribal rulers. In return for 120,000 acres of prime farmland, the family enforced the law and collected taxes over an area of roughly 200 square miles -- a writ that was extended and strengthened under British rule.
Since independence, the family's holdings have shrunk by three-fourths -- a land reform initiative in 1958 took 45,000 acres -- but its influence remains strong. It commands the allegiance of 400 to 500 lesser landlords as well as 1,200 armed "loyalists," according to Jatoi, whose status as eldest son entitles him to the exalted status of khan. Perhaps more important, the family runs its own political party and is represented in both the national and provincial legislatures.
"Basically, we are born rulers in one way or another, so to retain power, this is the only way," said Jatoi, who has a brother in the upper house of Parliament.
A day and a half in his company provided ample evidence that the trappings of feudalism remain very much intact. With a home in Karachi, where his wife and four children live, Jatoi spends alternate weeks at Jatoi House, a gracious, single-story brick home that his forebears built next to the family mosque in 1931.
Touring the family lands, Jatoi stopped first at the home of an uncle, a big-game hunter who keeps his property stocked with deer, peacocks and crocodiles. Next door, another uncle is building a 20,000-square-foot mansion surrounded by a massive turreted wall intended as protection against dacoits, as bandits are known .
After crossing the Indus, Jatoi piloted his Toyota through fields of bananas and wheat before arriving at dusk at his hunting lodge, where servants had prepared a lavish meal. Sitting on his terrace that night, Jatoi acknowledged, a touch wistfully, that the life he has known is probably unsustainable for the long term. His personal holdings are down to 2,000 acres, and -- despite the prime minister's recent pledge -- fear of land reform keeps him from buying more.
"Probably my sons will have 500 acres," he said. "I think about what privilege I have had, the influence I have had with the people. Maybe my sons will not have that."