There’s been a glut of autobiographies during the last decade and a half. Piles and piles of memoirs, and the biggest pile has been memoirs of ex-generals, outdated politicians and retired diplomats. At the very outset such memoirs make claims like: “I told Ayub Khan he was making a great mistake in Kashmir”… or “I advised Bhutto to think twice before delivering that ridiculous speech”… or “I immediately called Musharraf and said, “Sir, Kargil will be a great disaster for Pakistan…”
When retired ambassador Nazar Abbas jumped on the bandwagon, he made sure he had better credentials than the people already on it. So, presenting a journey into memory, he seems well aware of the challenges inherent in tackling a memoir. In a lighter vein, he quotes a famous political personality, “Anyone who believes you cannot change history, has never tried to write his memoirs”and then hastens to add, “I have not changed the past even a bit, I have tried to recall and write as truthfully and honestly as possible.” And one appreciates the fact that his resolve not to embellish his account of events is evident on every page of the book.
Before his eventful diplomatic career started, he was working as a young lecturer in a girls’ college in Islamabad. “My students, about 40, 50 girls in the first year, made my life miserable. They would create all sorts of disturbances in the class: talking among themselves, or passing remarks, or throwing chalk pieces at one another, even at me. They would deflate the tyres of my bicycle…but I carried on and did not lose nerves.”
The first dramatic turning appears in his life story when he got married to one of his ex-students, Nigar Qizilbash, now Nigar Nazar, the famous artist and the only known female cartoonist in Pakistan.
The author’s first diplomatic assignment was in Turkey, at a time when East Pakistan had just declared independence, and Bengali staff, at various Pakistani missions, was leaving for Bangladesh. The Bengali Consul General at Istanbul, however, refused to vacate the consulate, in the hope that Turkey would soon recognise Bangladesh, and he would be comfortably made the first ambassador of his country in Turkey.
Abbas was given the unpleasant assignment of evicting the Bengali guy from the office by force. He was chosen for this job on the basis of his strong built and thick, impressive moustache. He was supposed to use the typical Punjabi “qabza group” techniques to dislodge the occupier, but fortunately he didn’t have to use any force, and the Bengali gentleman vacated the place without any resistance.
His second diplomatic task in Turkey was equally adventurous, when he was sent on a mission to quell a mutiny of sailors aboard a Pakistani ship anchored at a Turkish port. This time he had to use force and get the trouble makers arrested.
He thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of Turkish culture, but Turkish language fascinated him in particular. He was always intrigued to see similarities in Urdu and Turkish. His excitement knew no bounds when he came to know that Chapli-Kebab is a Turkish word and it has nothing to do with a slipper. “Chapli” in Turkish means “round”.
After Turkey, his next station was Col. Gaddafi’s Libya.
Those of us who are old enough to remember Gaddafi’s visit to Lahore in 1974 cannot forget his vociferous address in the Lahore Stadium and the thunderous slogans from the audience, in favour of Z. A. Bhutto and Col. Gaddafi. The stadium was re-named as Gaddafi Stadium after this memorable event.
Nazar Abbas portrays a realistic picture of Libya and its leader: “Gaddafi was a simple soul, young, inexperienced, and a novice in international affairs. As he gained experience, his taste, needs and methods became varied, expensive and sophisticated. Burgeoning oil wealth and a small population ensured that no Libyan had to struggle for his livelihood. Gaddafi declared that every national will be provided not only bread, clothes, and shelter, but also a car.” This made Libya a lazy and insensitive nation and when their leader was overthrown and killed, nobody cared much.
During the premiership of the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, our diplomat was appointed as Consul of Pakistan at Bradford, England but after this luxurious and easy going post, he was sent to the “hardship station” of Maputo, Mozambique. “The three and a half years that I was posted in Mozambique was perhaps the worst time in the country’s history… nothing was available in the market, not even ordinary items as bread, soft drinks, pens and papers…”
Nazar Abbas whisks the readers through Maputo, Swaziland and Lesotho, before taking a respite in Australia. His description of Australia is interesting and informative but his talent as a writer is at full bloom when he tells us about his days in the newly independent Kyrgyz Republic. “I was appointed the first ambassador to Kyrgyzstan. Within days of the opening of our mission, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto arrived in Bishkek on her first official visit to Kyrgyzstan. She was accorded a very warm welcome. Seven little girls, all named Benazir, greeted her amidst much fanfare. Benazir announced that she would send them gifts from Pakistan. When the news spread, I received several calls from different cities claiming that they too had named their daughters after our prime minister. I sent a message to the prime minister’s office to send seventeen gift packets, but by the time these arrived from Islamabad, the number of Kyrgyz ‘Benazirs’ had increased to twenty four.”
The description of Rumania and Bulgaria is equally interesting and so is the account of his native village in Pakistan, but one big disappointment is the selection of photographs. There are as many as eighty photographs in the book, including some attractive sketches and cartoons by Nigar Nazar, but majority of pictures are not too visible. In small size group photos people appear like distant tiny dots. The author certainly could have been more selective in choosing appropriate pictures for this otherwise excellent account of his diplomatic ventures.