Garlands from other lands

Updated 12 Jul 2015


President Gen Prervez Musharraf conferring the award of Sitara-e-Eisaar on Turkish girl Erva Yalcin / File photo
President Gen Prervez Musharraf conferring the award of Sitara-e-Eisaar on Turkish girl Erva Yalcin / File photo

In a quiet corner of Boston bordered by the Atlantic Ocean sits an elegant structure commemorating John F. Kennedy — the flamboyant, blue-eyed 35th president of the United States of America. Appropriately named The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, the structure rubs shoulders with institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Berkley College of Music.

As a repository of knowledge, it is unmatched in housing official documents from the Kennedy era. Many researchers and students pore over a wealth of official documents and transcripts in its archives. When you tire of their documentary treasures, the interesting artefacts on display beckon you forth.

Nestled quietly in a corner is a coconut — while serving as a young naval officer, Kennedy etched a secret message on this coconut to call for the rescue of 11 survivors of his torpedo boat, which was marooned on a Pacific island after a collision with a Japanese naval ship during WWII.

A little further on are the artefacts from Mrs Kennedy’s visit to India and Pakistan during 1962. At the time, Indo-Pak in diplomatic nomenclature were not yet divorced, and Pakistan still had a few decades before being married off rather grudgingly to “Af” in foreign policy jargon. There are some wonderful snaps of the charming Jackie Kennedy riding an elephant in India, and the equally dashing President Ayub Khan presenting a horse to her.

Emine Erdogan
Emine Erdogan

But of particular interest are two pieces of neckwear in the museum’s collection. One is the ornamental garland which the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, bestowed upon the visiting first lady. The “haar” is made of tinsel, foil, cloth, metal wire, paper, sequins and beads — not too different from the ones that were presented to guests at Indian weddings as a custom in those days. It represents tradition, culture and a down-to-earth frankness. Numerous such ornamental “necklaces” were given to her by the Indian prime minister at various occasions during her trip — they are all part of the museum’s collection.

In diplomatic circles, gifts are often exchanged to strengthen bilateral ties, but only a few ever end up for public viewing

Next on display is a gold necklace studded with Pearls and precious stones accompanied by matching earrings and a ring — the kind that could put a rich bride’s dowry to shame. Of course it goes without saying that the latter and obviously much more expensive gift came from president Ayub Khan of Pakistan.

It is diplomatic norm among nations to bestow gifts upon visiting dignitaries and it is basic integrity to realise that such gifts have not been bestowed upon them in their personal capacity but as a representative of their nation.

To the credit of the Kennedys, both the items of neckwear ended up in the museum’s collection available to the American people. Neither the monetary value of the Pakistani present nor the cultural content of the Indian offering was treated as a personal possession. But then again, we are talking about the Kennedys, the original royal family of the US, if ever there was one.

Nehru’s Gift  — Photo courtesy: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Nehru’s Gift — Photo courtesy: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Back in 2010, Emine Erdogan, the wife of then Turkish Prime Minister, had raised funds for Pakistan’s flood victims and arrived in the country to deliver aid and see for herself the conditions that the affected were braving. It was a time when appeals were made internationally to raise funds for rescue and rehabilitation.

The people of Pakistan and Turkey share a special link and the symbolic grave of Iqbal, besides the mausoleum of Rumi in Konya, is only one such representation of how intricately the two nations are bound by historic, religious and cultural ties.

The first lady validated these ties with an emotional gesture to alleviate the plight of Pakistanis. At one of the fundraisers in Turkey, Mrs Erdogan donated her necklace, which was her husband’s wedding gift to her, for the Pakistani flood victims. The Turkish people bought the necklace back in an auction and returned it to her.

In a display of generosity that is difficult to match, the lady gifted it again to the people of Pakistan when she arrived with the aid. Only this time around, instead of the Turkish or Pakistani people, she entrusted the house of former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani to carry out the honourable task of delivering the donation to the needy.

The thought behind the first lady’s actions is a recurring theme. How can one forget the glitter in the eyes of seven-year-old Erva Yalcin, a Turkish girl who had donated her gold bangles for the victims of the devastating 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. At the time, former president Musharraf had rightly conferred the Sitara-i-Eisaar on the little angel to acknowledge her act of sacrifice. The Sitara-i-Eisaar and Tamgha-i-Eisaar were specially introduced medals to honour outstanding humanitarian services in the aftermath of the quake.

Ayub Khan’s gift —  Photos courtesy: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Ayub Khan’s gift — Photos courtesy: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

However, just five years later, the way the first lady’s gesture of sacrifice and goodwill landed quietly in the private possession of former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, raises several unpleasant questions. Questions that we, the people, might never be able to get a straight and correct answer for. There will be claims and counter claims, politically motivated commentary, and cover-ups fuelled by survival. Rest assured, it’s not elementary even for the best of Holmes amongst us.

Time and again, the love, labour, hopes and aspirations of the Pakistani masses and their reciprocation by brotherly nations, have been let down by a handful of match-fixers, degree forgers and their ilk.

As of today, following an investigation by the FIA, the necklace has been returned to the National Database and Regulatory Authority — a government organisation. What a database and regulatory authority has to do with disaster management, relief funds and official gifts in the first place, is beyond this writer’s comprehension.. Mr Gillani wrote his memoirs “Chah-i-Yusuf Sey Sadaa” (Call from the well of Yusuf) during his days of imprisonment on corruption charges in the wake of the military coup of 1999. The name of the book alludes to the confinement of Prophet Yousuf in a well. Ah, if only necklaces could write memoirs!n

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine July 12th, 2015

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