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Review: In Place of Memoirs

June 22, 2014

NOT all ambassadors are equal. Some are more equal and enjoy more importance. But there are a few who have direct access to the head of government and are able to influence the policy-making process of host governments. Then, there are ambassadors, quite a big number of them, who are simply ignored.

This is what M. Abul Fazl observed during his 36 years of service in the foreign affairs ministry and missions abroad. He joined the service in 1959 and retired in 1995. During this period he was mainly posted in Arab and socialist countries and also had a short stint as additional secretary in the foreign office. He represented Pakistan as ambassador in Nepal, Mexico, Indonesia and Morocco and as diplomat in several countries.

In his book, In Place of Memoirs, Fazl narrates his experiences in these countries, the people he had to deal with, difficulties in selling Pakistan’s policies and the problems faced in countries with which Pakistan has an unequal or unfriendly relationship. What interested him most were the political systems, particularly in socialist countries, and he casts a deep look into their histories, shortcomings and prospects. And on occasions his critique in the Marxist idiom takes him beyond the scope of the book.

Fazl’s first posting abroad was in Egypt where he stayed from 1962 to 1965. It was the time its leadership was at the height of optimism, having turned the 1956 military defeat into a political victory, with Soviet assistance. The country had been of interest to the author since the Suez crisis although Gamal Nasser had ceased to be his hero. The main problems experienced in bilateral relations at that time were Pakistan’s refusal to recognise Egypt’s hegemony over the Arab world and the latter’s closeness to India. Nasser appreciated Pakistan’s support of the Palestine cause but found it motivated by the wrong reasons — religious ones.

One could notice a kind of unease Colonel Nasser felt while dealing with Pakistan. Maybe its reason, Fazl thought, was that Pakistan, as a state, was not a historical entity. This unease was quite manifest when Egypt opposed Pakistan’s application for membership of the Arab League on grounds that it was not an Arab country but at the same time supported Somalia, another non-Arab country, as member. The actual reason was perhaps Cairo’s fear that Pakistan could play a role detrimental to its primacy in the Arab world.

Egyptian leadership began talking of socialism after the Suez crisis and established the Arab Socialist Union, the only political party allowed in the country. But Nasser told a number of foreign visitors that he could not establish a socialist system in the country because there were no socialists there. One reason for the shortage of socialists, according to Fazl, was that Nasser had put most of them in prison where the police killed them by the dozens. Yet, the change in the country between 1952 and 1970 was visible and deep.

Fazl was in Jordan from 1966 to 1968 and liked the country, its people, the climate, the food and everything. That was the reason he was unhappy when he was transferred to Yugoslavia in 1968. However, he found Yugoslavia’s experiment in socialism quite interesting though not inspiring. It raised a number of questions about social organisation and transition to socialism. There was no contradiction between Pakistan and Yugoslavia although they followed different political paths since the early 1950s. Belgrade felt no discomfort over finding Pakistan a close ally of the West for it was itself receiving the West’s military assistance on grounds that it felt threatened from the Soviet Union.

Abul Fazl had twice worked on the Soviet desk at the foreign office before being posted in Moscow and was, thus, well prepared for the new job. On reaching there, he discovered that the American embassy was running a parallel “foreign office” whose briefing the diplomats from Western countries and those from pro-West developing countries attended and followed. He ignored the US briefings, maintained relations with the Soviet foreign office and briefed the Soviet journalists in a manner he would do in a capitalist country. But he found a change in their attitudes after the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan. Now they were treating him like the foreigners they considered their enemies. However, they still continued to maintain social contacts and accepted invitations to dinners where there could be a serious exchange of views.

Nepal was a posting Abul Fazl did not enjoy. But once there he found there were only 17 diplomatic missions and easy access within the government. Moreover, its society was much like Pakistan’s, prompting his wife to say it was like being posted in Pakistan with a foreign allowance. But the country, though independent, was under the total control of India. He spent almost four years (1982-86) there.

If Nepal was like Pakistan, Mexico where Fazl stayed for three years (1986-89) was perhaps the most distant post. Mexicans have a rich history and their anti-American resistance is viewed with respect in Latin America. Being there he felt one could not be further away from Pakistan. But this, it was interesting to note, did not prevented a number of Pakistani men from marrying Mexican women and settling down there.

In Place of Memoirs


By M. Abul Fazl

Tarikh Publications, Lahore

ISBN 9789699146565