. . . . . .  

My colleague Consul of Switzerland Suleman Najib Khan and Mrs Nari Khan;

Mme Regula Bubb-Abderhalden, the author of HIGH-LIFE IN PAKISTAN,

Fellow Honorary Consuls & Friends


Let me begin by thanking my colleague Suleman for his kind invitation to speak at this book launch today.

You will notice that the card is silent on the identity of the Chief Guest. That secrecy was not for security reasons.  Like you I was curious, and so I asked Suleman bhai who would be the Chief Guest.

“You,” he replied.

So here I stand before you, the recipient of an honour that is both unexpected and undeserved. 

As you know, traditionally, diplomats are known for their reticence. Their profession demands it.   They are trained to be polite, inquisitive, discreet, and observant.

Their duty is to represent their country to a host government and to report on their host country to their own employers.

Most of you are familiar with the British Sir Henry Wootton’s definition of an Ambassador as ‘an honest man sent to lie abroad for his country.’

Another more cynical definition by the American satirist Ambrose Bierce (and I paraphrase) is someone who fails in politics at home and is then rewarded with a post – on the condition that he leaves the country.

Ambassador Abderhalden fell into neither category. He served here in Pakistan with unsung distinction for four years - from 2010 until 2014. I am not sure whether he will ever write his memoirs. Should he do so, he will be join the ranks of diplomats such as Sir Morrice James (who had three postings in Pakistan, the last of which was as High Commissioner between 1961 and 1966.) After retirement, he wrote a most engaging memoir Pakistan Chronicle (published in 1993).

On his staff at the time and later his successor as High Commissioner to Pakistan, Sir Nicholas Barrington, last year published his memoirs under the title ENVOY: A Diplomatic Journey.

And most recently, of course, we have the former US Ambassador to Pakistan Bill Milam writing feature columns for The Friday Times.

And what about the wives of diplomats – the spouses who ‘trail’ patiently and unobtrusively behind their husbands?

Some like Manuella Fuller in 1968 organised exhibitions of Folk Art of Sindh and Balochistan. Others like Isobel Shaw wrote authoritative guide books.

None though has written as engaging or as affectionate a memoir of her stay in Pakistan as Regula has. She sees us through the lens of her own eyes. And through her perceptive observations, supported by some stunning photographs, she holds a mirror to us, her hosts.  She allows us to see ourselves as we really are.  

She describes with candour the travails of living in the gilded cage known as the Diplomatic Enclave in Islamabad. She calls it ‘San Quentin’.

Anyone who has tried to get into the Enclave will empathise with her. She mentions how, when there was a demonstration outside the Enclave, even she had difficulty gaining entry. Once inside, she was trapped. She writes of those days: ‘All dinners and other events are cancelled and we are advised to stay behind bars. We hear the tumult and see the smoke of the ongoing riot and clashes with the police and the army. Massive security forces are being deployed to control the outburst of anger among the demonstrators outside the enclave and in front of the Serena Hotel some hundred meters away.’

After a while, she learned to live with the tension. On one occasion, for example, when she and some of her companions – she calls them the Wild Gang or the Aga Gang (after the internationally popular gas stove) – were on a food tasting trip to a new restaurant, they hear a bomb go off in Sector F-10. They had a choice – either panic and run home, or order from the new menu and savour the meal at leisure. No marks for guessing what the intrepid Regula did.

Her own feeling of captivity made her acutely sensitive to the incarceration of her compatriots – a young Swiss couple who were abducted by terrorists. Regula put a chocolate cake in her freezer the day they were abducted, vowing to defrost it only when they were released. They managed to escape their captors after nine months of captivity. They celebrated their freedom with Regula’s cake.

Salman Taseer’s family is still waiting to defrost their cake ...  

We assume that diplomats can travel freely. Outside the country, perhaps. Here, they require permissions and NOCs. Despite such limitations, she travelled throughout Pakistan – from Karachi to the Northern Areas, Swat, Chitral, and of course in Afghanistan to which her husband was accredited simultaneously.

It has been said that ‘a diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip.’ Regula’s vignettes of her trips make one look forward to retracing her footsteps in our country.

Inevitably, she meets a gamut of Pakistanis of every class and occupation: a cobbler who mends her shoes, IT savvy boys who can photo-shop your face onto any set of clothes, an over-solicitous army guide who mistakes her for the Ambassador because (as her husband notices) he spends all his time escorting her around the IDEAS arms exhibition.

Her instinctive rapport is with Pakistani women. With anonymous students, professionals, and social activists, and personalities like Begum Nusrat Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Hina Rabbani Khar, Sherry Rahman, the dress designer Sania Maskatiya, and Fatima Bhutto.

Of Fatima, Regula writes: She arrives ‘carrying the Bhutto charisma with such style and poise, [that] she immediately charms all the guests. The Dean of the Diplomatic Corps assigns the seats to the guests, he invites two of the ambassadors – one of them my enchanted husband – to ‘surrender’ at both sides of beautiful Fatima – no need, surrender already complete.’

And of course she writes glowingly about our Nobel Prize Winner Malala Yusufzai.

If Regula’s ambassador husband ‘surrendered’ to the charms of Fatima Bhutto, she fell (which self-respecting woman hasn’t) for the charms of our Imran Khan.

Early on her book, she recalls his ‘charismatic air’.  She notices that he is ‘calm and self confident [but] his short speech about Pakistan is more a recollection of things said many times before.’    

Later, she describes a dinner outside Islamabad:  

‘A pleasantly warm evening under a sky full of stars. The table is set splendidly in nature’s dining room and as we sit down to a sumptuous dinner, a late guest arrives in a white shalwar kameez, tall and athletic. There is an aura round Imran Khan that makes everyone turn their heads and that fills the atmosphere immediately with anticipation. He appears modest and unpretentious and his mission of fighting corruption in Pakistan, restoring law and order and confidence in state institutions , includes cutting back the number of ministries from the present 51 to around 20.  Raising interest and engagement in politics among the young Pakistanis, he is seen with great credibility, visible also at this table with the guests.

Then comes dessert, pot au chocolat, cherries and strawberries, and he talks to me about his two sons who live in London and don’t speak Urdu, about beauty, in general  and in women.’     

After by the time of the elections, the patina has begun to wear off. Regula writes: ‘Imran Khan - chairman of PTI – the major political party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – continues his mantra of talking to the Taliban as the direct road leading to peace and prosperity.’

But as Regula discovered, Bani Galla is not Islamabad, and Islamabad is not Pakistan.

She submerged herself in our culture, our music. She attends a qawali and writes: ‘Pak hospitality is simply unmatched – food for the soul is paired with food for the stomach, generous and sensual and another buffet, laden with delicacies for a gentle break during the concert, at midnight. [164]

She even endures witnessing the slaughter at Eid Ul Azha – where animals are graded: ‘Jaguar oxen, BMW cows and Honda sheep.’ I noticed there were no Volkswagens; they probably had problems with gas emissions.   

Inevitably, the book is more about Pakistan than Afghanistan. It is interesting to read of her meeting with the doyen of Afghan studies - Nancy Hatch Dupree – and her admiration for the talent of the Afghani dress designer Zolaykha Sherzad.   

Regula concludes with the comment: ‘Diplomats are a highly adaptable caste of the human race – by profession always excited about meeting new cultures, exploring new territories, and developments, absorbing and adapting with ease and panache.’ 

After four years, her journey of discovery of our country came to an end. She admits: ‘After four years, I knew the Pakistan national anthem, in every version and soon better than my own.’

Let me end by asking the author Regula to read her own concluding paragraphs to this warm and nostalgic assessment of our country.




22 October 2015
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