Jo Hum Pe Guzri: Meri Sarguzasht Aur Kuchh Zikr Hukmraanon Ka
By Syed Sibte Yahya Naqvi
Atlantis, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9696012269
338pp.

“Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way,” goes the quote attributed to British journalist David Frost and, simultaneously, Italian diplomat and author Daniele Vare.

Diplomats are usually profoundly diplomatic and would never let anyone know what they are up to, although some of them may pen a book or two once they say adieu to the world of diplomacy, and let the readers have a peep at what it had been like when they served with the foreign office in different capacities.

Syed Sibte Yahya Naqvi, Pakistan’s former ambassador, has done just that. Having retired from Pakistan’s Foreign Service, he has described in his book some interesting events to which he had been an eyewitness during his long career as a Pakistani diplomat, rubbing shoulders with national and international leaders.

Jo Hum Pe Guzri: Meri Sarguzasht Aur Kuchh Zikr Hukmraanon Ka [What We Experienced: My Story and Some Account of Rulers] is, as the title suggests, an autobiographical account and recollection of what Naqvi saw when meeting, or working with, some foreign dignitaries, not to mention many of our rulers. The title is borrowed from a famous line by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, alluding to the strenuous and delicate work diplomats have to do for their country and suffer in silence.

A Pakistani diplomat’s recollections of his experiences in the foreign service often leave the reader enveloped in a deep air of melancholy

Being a diplomat is indeed a tough row to hoe, but former ambassador Karamatullah Ghori, in his preface to the book, sounds a bit harsh when he equates the career of a diplomat with what is sometimes derisively and wrongly referred to as ‘the world’s oldest profession’.

A career diplomat and writer himself, Ghori briefly touches upon what it is actually like to work as a diplomat and terms it a kind of ‘hypocrisy’. To justify his views, Ghori quotes the famous line which says, “a diplomat is a person who tells you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip.”

But reading the book under review, and looking at the delicate and sensitive work that Naqvi had to carry out as one of the highest-ranking officials in exotic lands, one feels the title is justified and the author at no stage says anything offensive to anyone, let alone tell someone to go to hell, politely or otherwise.

His style is ever so courteous and toned down that he narrates even the harshest of events in a composed and calm manner and, instead of pointing a finger at some weaknesses of our rulers, he simply narrates the facts, without any comments, leaving it to the readers to draw their own conclusions.

In an easygoing style and plain language, Naqvi describes some tragically funny incidents that he witnessed during his postings at Pakistani embassies in different countries. These events portray our so-called VVIPs in real colours, exposing their ineptness, inefficiency and eccentric ways, at times clearly reflecting their lack of interest, or ability, or both, in the sensitive matters relating to national interest that they were supposed to discuss with the hosts.

Just a couple of gems from the book: ‘One of our prime ministers was so fond of food that whenever he visited a foreign country, our diplomats there had to worry more about the menu and his favourite dishes rather than the agenda of talks with the host country. The then prime minister rarely, if ever, read briefs or talking points prepared by our diplomats and, usually after exchanging pleasantries with the foreign heads of state, would start doing justice to the refreshments, barely listening to what the other side was saying.

The height of his callousness was observed during an international conference on the plight of Bosnian Muslims, organised in Indonesia: when world leaders were trying to hammer out a policy to stop Muslim genocide in Bosnia, our prime minister asked the Pakistani ambassador to arrange for him “mung paaparr” (a very thin and crispy bread made of mung lentils), which he thought was an Indonesian delicacy.

So the author and Pakistani military secretary had to ask the Indonesian authorities to arrange a basketful of paaparr at about midnight, which the then prime minister delightfully devoured (thank goodness he was patient enough to not eat them till he got back to his hotel room).

‘During a meeting with his Indian counterpart over breakfast, our food-loving prime minister could not discuss the Kashmir issue, or any issue for that matter, as the Indian side had very diplomatically arranged for a sumptuous Lahori breakfast, and the entire time allocated for discussion elapsed in enjoying and admiring the meal.’

The book offers some hilarious yet gloomy facts about those who ruled this country in the past, making the reader feel like crying and laughing at the same time. Side by side, the author describes events from his own life and some important political occurrences that took place along the way.

This makes the book a good read for anyone who wants to know what the life of a diplomat is like and what was happening behind the scenes when some historic events were taking place in the country, or on the world’s stage. However, one wishes that the proofreading had been more meticulous; it would have saved the readers much time and effort, since some typos are as amusing as annoying.

While narrating the working style and fancies of some of our rulers during the 35-some years that Naqvi spent in foreign service from the early 1970s, the author is ever-careful and refrains from directly commenting on any personality, especially of our rulers. But the way he describes facts and events makes the reader understand what he wants to convey and, as a result, often a deep air of melancholy surrounds the reader.

Another conclusion that readers can draw is that being in diplomatic service is not a bed of roses, and not only diplomats but their family members, too, sometimes have to suffer from trials that we cannot imagine — as we enviously look on from a distance at the life of someone who we think is enjoying a fabulous time at wonderful places around the world.

The reviewer is former professor, Department of Urdu, University of Karachi; former chief editor of the Urdu Dictionary Board, Karachi; and now heads the National Language Promotion Department in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 12th, 2021

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