An Intimate View of Pakistan,From Bhutto to Zia,Musharraf to Sharif

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One of the books that I have waited the longest to read is Baar-i-Shanasaee (The Burden of Association in English doesn’t quite do justice to the evocative, aesthetic title in Urdu) by Ambassador Karamatullah Khan Ghori. I couldn’t get hold of the book by the seasoned Pakistani diplomat — and an accomplished writer and poet — during my frequent trips to Hyderabad although it was first published in India.

This week I finally got my hands on the book, duly autographed by the author himself when I met him at his son’s lovely villa in Dubai. The veteran diplomat, who I met on an online literary group some years ago, has been a frequent visitor to Dubai. He and his poet wife Abida visit their son and Saudi Arabia-based daughter every year to escape the harsh winters of Canada, their adopted country.

With a remarkable career spanning 36 years, Ghori has had a ringside view of Pakistan’s history. He served as Pakistan’s senior diplomat and ambassador in its most eventful years in countries like China, Japan, Turkey, Kuwait, Algeria and Iraq. And he rubbed shoulders with the political bosses and bigwigs like the late Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto, his daughter Benazir Bhutto, General Zia ul Haq, President Farooq Leghari, General Pervez Musharraf, Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Mohammed Khan Junejo, etc.

The result is a fantastic, breezy book that is hard to put down. I couldn’t sleep until I finished it in the wee hours of the morning. And when I did, I wished I hadn’t and that the author would continue telling his story forever. That is probably what defines a good book, leaving your readers asking for more.

Baar-i-Shanasaee is based on the sketches of powerful men and women who have scripted and shaped Pakistan’s history and are largely responsible for many of its current woes. But it is not all political masters whose shenanigans form the basis of the book; there are luminaries like the cricketing icon Imran Khan, poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Hakim Sayeed of Hamdard and the legendary scientist Prof Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s first Nobel Laureate who had unfortunately been ostracized by his own people all his life because of his faith.

These are men whose friendship the diplomat not only cherished over the years but all of whom left an imprint on his life and times, just as they had an impact on successive generations of Pakistanis.

Will Rogers famously described diplomacy as the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ until you find a rock. Interacting with Ghori and reading him all these years — he writes a column in both English and Urdu which is followed widely for its candor and sheer brilliance — I have often wondered how a man of his integrity and penchant for speaking truth could have survived in a profession like diplomacy. A classic case of the right man in a wrong profession, I suppose.

Brutally honest, he has always called a spade a spade. No wonder the diplomat had to repeatedly pay the price for his inconvenient rectitude, from being transferred to a sanctions-hit Iraq to being forced into early retirement. It was his ‘undiplomatic’ candor that forced Dawn newspaper to drop his column, reportedly under pressure from President Asif Zardari.

However, compared to his newspaper columns, Ghori is relatively restrained in his book. Still not many publishers in Pakistan were prepared to touch it, given its contents, especially the chapter on Dr. Abdus Salam.

So, as the author notes with a touch of irony, a book about Pakistan was not seen as fit to be published in Pakistan — it has since been published from Karachi by Atlantis Publications and is already in its third edition — and had to be published by Pharos Media of Delhi, the author’s fabled city of birth.

The Ghoris migrated to Pakistan when he was six. He literally grew up with the first Muslim homeland for which millions struggled for long years and nearly a million lives were sacrificed. From teaching in Karachi University to serving as one of Pakistan’s finest diplomats, Ghori has had an exceptional career and remarkably rewarding life. Of course, like all successful men, he had his fair share of adversities. But then what is life without its ups and downs?

The most memorable profiles and characters that stay with you long after you have been through with them are those of the mercurial Bhutto (1971-’77) and his nemesis General Zia ul Haq (1978-1988) and the next generation of leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who succeeded each other as prime ministers.

Gen Musharraf, with whom the author shares a Delhi connection — their families lived a stone’s throw away from each other in the walled city of old Delhi — is another colorful character in this extraordinary gallery of nine portraits.

Surprisingly, contrary to the prevalent popular tradition in Pakistan, Ghori does not dismiss Zia as just another ruthless, military tyrant and tormentor of democracy. Indeed, he is all praise for Zia’s leadership, simplicity and integrity as a ruler. While acknowledging that the late military ruler had been a controversial figure for many in Pakistan, the diplomat insists he hasn’t met a gentler and humbler man in his life. He quotes several instances to support his claim.

Ghori recalls an interesting anecdote during Musharraf’s visit to Turkey, soon after the 1999 military coup against Sharif. On being shown Ghori’s rich personal library in Ankara, the General is reported to have asked: ‘Have you read all these books?’ When the well-read ambassador replied in affirmative, saying he had indeed grown up with books all around him and still couldn’t sleep without a book by his bedside, Musharraf quipped: ‘Mujhe parhnay ka shauq naheen’ (I am not interested in reading!)

It is gems like these that make this a brilliant, compelling read. Ghori rips Musharraf apart for his endless abuse of power, delusions of grandeur, and above all, for putting Pakistan and its resources at the beck and call of Uncle Sam after 9/11. Bhutto, who was deposed by General Zia and hanged to the horror of his legion of admirers in the Arab and Muslim world, is also singled out for stern criticism. Perhaps the most charismatic and popular leader after Jinnah, Bhutto was far ahead of his contemporaries in political acumen and intellectual brilliance. The tragic, fatal flaw in his character was his hubris, which eventually proved his undoing.

While Bhutto went to great lengths to present himself as a socialist and a ‘man of the people’ in public perception, argues Ghori, at heart he was essentially a ‘wadera’ (feudal lord). Despite his fine Oxford education and democratic pretensions, he couldn’t transcend his roots as a rich landlord from the interior Sindh.

The most memorable profiles and characters that stay with you long after you have been through with them are those of the mercurial Bhutto (1971-’77) and his nemesis General Zia ul Haq (1978-1988) and the next generation of leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who succeeded each other as prime ministers.

As for Benazir, it is her political immaturity and the company that she kept that seem to have hastened her downfall and eventual end. Recalling his correspondence with Benazir in her last years in which he repeatedly advised her to return to Pakistan from her self-imposed exile in Dubai, Ghori says he was devastated when she was killed in cold blood on campaign trail in Rawalpindi in 2007. And like the assassination of the first premier Liaqat Ali Khan and the death of General Zia, he says, perhaps we would never know who really killed her. Clearly, a promising life and career cut short.

Surprisingly, contrary to the prevalent popular tradition in Pakistan, Ghori does not dismiss Zia as just another ruthless, military tyrant and tormentor of democracy. Indeed, he is all praise for Zia’s leadership, simplicity and integrity as a ruler. While acknowledging that the late military ruler had been a controversial figure for many in Pakistan, the diplomat insists he hasn’t met a gentler and humbler man in his life. He quotes several instances to support his claim.

This is a must-read book for every student of South Asian politics and anyone who is interested in knowing and understanding Pakistan through the lives of its powerful movers and shakers. Ghori offers an up close and personal view of the Islamic republic through a prism seldom seen before.

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