When an ordinary gypsy wanders, they do so to tap sources to sustain them on nature’s booty and bounty. But when it’s a glorified gypsy — who goes around under the euphemism of a diplomat — trotting the globe, they gather a bag full of reminiscences and memories.

Ambassador Arif Kamal is one such modern-day gypsy. As a career diplomat, he roamed the world, representing his country with élan from Kuwait to Tokyo, Moscow to Ottawa, and Jeddah to Doha, in a career spanning 34 years.

Kamal’s initial thrust into the arcane world of diplomacy was daunting and disappointing for him. He had been recruited into the elite Pakistan Foreign Service under what was former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s brainchild policy of ‘lateral entry’. But when Bhutto was toppled by Gen Ziaul Haq, the Bonaparte took exception to those hired under lateral entry. Kamal bore the brunt of Gen Zia’s culling of Bhutto’s recruits; he was unceremoniously uprooted from his maiden diplomatic assignment in Kuwait and forced into hibernation.

However, he weathered that storm with aplomb and bounced back into the Service by successfully clearing the hurdles of the Public Service Commission. Once out of the woods, he didn’t look back. Lady Luck smiled on him and, with her help, he made the best of his second coming by embarking on a trajectory that took him to places that many a diplomat would vie for, and yearn to mention with pride on their resume. He was lucky to not only log important world capitals in his diplomatic safari, but also spend fulfilling terms of three to four years at each station, which enabled him to take in an enriching feel of the countries and societies in which he lived.

In his wanderings of a diplomat, Kamal served in Tokyo, where he experienced and inhaled the richness of what, to many, is the ‘Japanese miracle’. Japan’s astounding revival, phoenix-like recovery and rebirth, following its crushing defeat in the Second World War at the hands of the Americans is, indeed, a modern-day wonder. It has coaxed some unbiased Western pundits to concede that Japan was the real winner of the war, as it vanquished its tormentors with such eminence and grace in the post-war marketplace.

A former Pakistani ambassador’s recollections and reminiscences make for good, often fascinating, reading for both jaded scholars and inquisitive students of international relations alike

The author’s Ottawa sojourn enabled him to plumb the depths of Canada’s exemplary multi-culturalism, which shines a light for most other Western countries still struggling — with so little success to show — to cope with the challenge of how to absorb into their mainstream immigrants of alien cultures and mores. Canada has done it not by merely tolerating its new citizens, but by accepting them with open arms and letting them become part of the Canadian mosaic. Canada’s ability to live in total peace and harmony with its much bigger and powerful southern neighbour — the United States — should be a beacon for a Pakistan saddled with the bigger, niggling and nettlesome India.

Kamal’s assignment to what, till then, was the Soviet Union in the summer of 1985 was a great learning experience for him. He’d landed in the Moscow of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union at a time of historic flux for — what former American president Ronald Reagan had called — the “evil empire.” That gave Kamal the full sense of Gorbachev’s epic struggle to transform his state from Joseph Stalin’s iron-clad society to one of glasnost [openness].

Gorbachev also sought to usher in perestroika [restructuring] in a country teetering under its own weight, on the verge of an economic collapse. The Soviet Union’s misadventure into Afghanistan had hastened its disintegration. For a student of history such as Kamal, it was a unique, God-sent opportunity to witness — from a ring-side seat — that monumental sea change in Russia. He was also witness to Russia finally throwing in the towel on its Afghanistan debacle and suing for peace in 1988.

In his wanderings, Kamal rightly earned the sobriquet of an ‘Arabist’ because of his stints in four Arab countries: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan.

Although the Pakistani version of an ‘Arabist’ may not be in sync with the sense of Britain’s world-renowned Arabists, such as the notorious Lawrence of Arabia and others of his ilk, for a Pakistani diplomat, a posting in an Arab country, particularly in an oil-rich Gulf state with millions of Pakistani expatriates — Saudi Arabia, for instance — is a valuable lesson in knowing his countrymen in a light and perspective not quite seen or sensed in Pakistan itself. So, Kamal, like many others of his clan including this scribe, had the galling experience of escorting our VIPs and VVIPs, ostensibly there on pilgrimage, but never out of their VIP skins, in their stunts and peccadilloes.

The ambassador reached the sunset of his diplomatic career in Jordan, with whom Pakistan has familial connections through Princess Sarvath, wife of Prince El Hassan bin Talal, who was heir apparent under his illustrious brother, the late King Hussein, but couldn’t succeed him to the throne. He was upstaged by his nephew who, as King Abdullah, has done the same to his own erstwhile heir apparent, his half-brother Hamzah. The grisly episode of a schism in Jordan’s ruling royals recently made waves, but died down quickly.

Kamal belongs to that exclusive club of ‘fortunate’ Pakistani diplomats whose innings don’t come to a close on reaching the age of retirement. He had a second innings, on the heels of the first one, and served for 10 years as chair of Global Studies at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Research and Analysis, a premier think tank of Pakistan.

He made further hay in the new sunshine by joining the ranks of a special breed of ex-diplomats of Pakistan and India, engaged for well over three decades by now in the still-unexplained exercise of Track-II diplomacy. This ‘blue-ribbon’ body of ex-diplomats, from both sides of the great divide, is said to be engaged in unconventional diplomacy far from the prying eyes of the media and inquisitive pundits.

Never mind that these Track-II diplomacy wizards have little to show by way of accomplishment. But it adds a valuable footnote to one’s resume to be part of a group of mandarins meeting at tourist-savvy places — such as Dubai and Bangkok, among others — and spending days in the lap of luxury on account of their governments. Some have minted a glossy career out of this rather dubious pursuit.

That the mountain of distrust between Pakistan and India can’t be scaled by these mandarins — no matter how much their heft and pull back home — is well borne out by Kamal’s own sobering experience as one of them. It took him and his family a good five years to obtain the Indian government’s nod of approval for their visit to their roots in Indian Occupied Kashmir and that, too, with the help of a fellow, considerate and well-connected Indian mandarin.

That Kamal had an eponymous diplomatic career is borne out of the rich, and deserving, comments on his reminiscences — from scholars and diplomats as far afield as Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, Russia and Turkey — adorning the back of the book’s dust cover. It’s rare for diplomats to keep lines of communication intact with luminaries of their erstwhile host countries. Copious photographs of his world wanderings add lustre to his memoirs.

To sum up, Kamal’s recollections and reminiscences make for good, often fascinating, reading to both jaded scholars and inquisitive students of international relations alike. That’s a tribute to his genius.

The reviewer is a retired ambassador with 10 published works of prose and poetry

Reminiscences of My Wanderings
By Ambassador Arif Kamal
Dost Publications, Islamabad
ISBN: 978-9694965512
256pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 25th, 2021

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