Diplomacy is the world of strategic policies, tactical manoeuvres and high level meetings often shrouded in secrecy. Diplomats are privy to the formulation of the foreign policy of a country and the intricacies of its implementation. They provide an insider’s insight into the evolution of these policies and practices with the changing times and that is what makes the memoirs of diplomats so interesting for readers. Whether these are internationally prominent personalities such as Henry Kissinger, or our own national stalwarts such as Jamsheed Marker, their books have provided valuable information and insight to students of history, politics and diplomacy.
A Voice in the Wilderness: Memoirs and Reflections is the latest such effort by Muhammad Alam Brohi, a retired Foreign Service officer with a career spanning over three decades and three continents. As mentioned in the title of the book, it is not only a compilation of events from the memory of Brohi, but also his thoughts and views on those happenings. Although the book has been written in a chronological order in terms of Brohi’s career progression, it deals with certain important issues on a topical basis as well. He utilises the stream-of-consciousness approach very well by weaving historical facts together with his own interpretation of them, while moving forward and backward in time to strengthen his arguments.
The book starts with Brohi’s childhood spent in a village in interior Sindh near Shahdadkot during the 1960s. It is the narrative of a young boy whose father died early in his childhood, who lived in a joint family headed by a matriarch and, most importantly, who pursued education against all odds. It is also a commentary on social values and norms such as teenage marriage, the problems faced by small landowners and the superstitions spread by pirs, or spiritual leaders. In narrating his journey from Shahdadkot to Sukkur, and then to Larkana, Brohi depicts not only a progression in his own education and career, but also creates awareness of the political woes of the motherland during the fateful years of the 1970s.
Memoirs that revisit three decades of Pakistan’s international relations
Brohi joined the Foreign Service of Pakistan in 1979 and his first assignment on the Afghanistan desk afforded him the opportunity to closely observe the onset of the Afghan jihad during the ’80s. His first foreign posting took him to Senegal, a country conspicuous for its political stability and uninterrupted democracy among the West African nations. His next posting took him to Niger where he served as charge d’affaires — a diplomat who heads an embassy in the absence of the ambassador — and he informs us that General Seyni Kountche, the military head of state of Niger, was supportive of Pakistan in the United Nations General Assembly on Kashmir, Afghanistan and Pakistan’s resolutions to declare South Asia a nuclear free zone.
During the late ’80s and early ’90s, Brohi served in Islamabad and Lahore and observed the political developments in the country during the Mohammed Khan Junejo, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif regimes. During the mid-’90s he was sent to the United Kingdom. Writing about the military takeover of the previous decades and the political manoeuvrings of the 1990s, Brohi states, “with the benefit of hindsight, I remember clearly how all the political machinations were painful for us, particularly our envoys serving in democratic countries.”
Brohi’s next assignment was in Portugal where he worked with Ambassador Akhtar Ali Kazi, who was a political appointee nominated by the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. Kazi was removed soon after the military coup led by Gen Pervez Musharraf and Brohi took over the responsibilities of head of mission for almost a year. In 2002, Brohi was posted as Director General of East Asia and Pacific in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Islamabad. This was the time when the United States had toppled the Taliban regime after 9/11 and was trying to hunt down remaining Taliban militants in Afghanistan. While working as DG East Asia and Pacific, Brohi had the opportunity to closely observe the views of China regarding the American war on terrorism in Afghanistan.
For his first ambassadorial assignment, Brohi was sent to the Kyrgyz Republic, where he served from 2003 to 2008. He records this part of his career in detail, describing the social, political and economic ties of the Central Asian region with Pakistan and the interests of other regional players in these republics. He also narrates how some universities of questionable repute started enrolling Pakistani students in their substandard medical programmes. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education worked to conclude a bilateral agreement on education to address this issue and Brohi takes the time to explain the problems he and his team faced during this process. Moving on from the Kyrgyz Republic, Brohi’s next assignment was as ambassador to Sudan and in 2010 he retired from the Foreign Service.
A Voice in the Wilderness provides a comprehensive insight into not only Brohi’s professional assignments, but also his views on several major domestic and international political affairs — commenting on governance and policymaking in Pakistan, Brohi states, “we have developed a habit of highlighting our minor successes and finding scapegoats for big failures.” Then there are interesting anecdotes of his interactions with famous Pakistani diplomats such as Marker, Shahryar Khan and Riaz Khokhar. The book is a useful resource for students, teachers and practitioners of diplomacy and anyone who is interested in the major foreign policy decisions of Pakistan although, since it is a memoir, one does not find references in it as one would in a rigorously academic book. However, Brohi has provided a bibliography at the end which is helpful.
The reviewer is a civil servant and a freelance writer
A Voice in the Wilderness: Memoirs and
By Muhammad Alam Brohi
Royal Book Company, Pakistan
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 11th, 2018