It was July 1995. I had not yet completed the usual three-year term in Australia as Minister/Deputy High Commissioner when the Foreign Secretary, Mr. Najmuddin Shaikh included my name among potential Ambassadors. He proposed and the Prime Minister Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto approved my appointment as Pakistan’s first Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic, one of the newly independent Central Asian states post the fall of the USSR. But Pakistan had not yet established a resident Mission in Bishkek. To that end the Ministry sent a second secretary, Mr. Hasan Raza to open the mission there so I could take up my position as Ambassador as quickly as possible. The establishing of the mission required great urgency because within days of my arrival in Bishkek I would have to receive our Prime Minister on her first official visit to the country.
I was very happy at my promotion but to prepare for and conduct the Prime Minister’s visit so soon after my arrival in a totally new country was a daunting task. I asked the High Commissioner Mr. Bashir Khan Babar to intercede on my behalf and request the Foreign Secretary to post me to some other country with an existing resident mission. He said to me, “Look Nazar, being appointed Ambassador is a great honour. One does not refuse it. Handling the Prime Minister’s visit, especially when that Prime Minister is Benazir Bhutto, a hard task master, I am sure you will learn a lot – and if something goes wrong nobody will blame you – you having no time or experience to prepare.” Even though these words were reassuring, I proceeded to take up my assignment with some trepidation.
My office in Canberra called a number of travel agencies to book my air passage to Bishkek. None of them had ever heard of ‘Bishkek’, neither could they find it on the maps. So I had no choice but to proceed to Pakistan and take some flight from there to Kyrgyzstan. At brief stopover in Islamabad I collected my black sherwani and Jinnah cap (the official formal dress) and called on the concerned Director concerned, Ms Naila, who briefed me about Kyrgyzstan, our relations with that country, gave me a copy of the brief for the Prime Minister’s visit and some background information.
In the Ministry I learnt why the Mission was being opened post-haste. President Askar Akayev had recently met our Prime Minister during their visit to Iran and invited her to visit his country as guest of honour for the UNESCO-sponsored celebrations of the Kyrgyz legendary national hero Manas, whose millionth birthday was to be celebrated. This was to be a mega event and the celebrations were planned to continue for several days. The heads of states of neighbouring Central Asian Republics were also invited. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto gladly accepted the invitation but President Akayev mentioned to her that while Pakistan had opened resident diplomatic missions in all other newly independent Central Asian republics, his was still without one. She promised that the resident mission would be opened before she arrived in Bishkek.
That is why I sat that day on the PIA flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan from where I was to travel to Bishkek by car. Upon reaching, I presented my credentials to President Akayev just an hour and a half before the arrival of our Prime Minister at Bishkek’s Manas airport. The President proceeded to the airport immediately after receiving my credentials and I too headed for the airport to receive the Prime Minister.
[quote]A dozen strong party of cooks and aids from Pakistan had arrived in Almaty by air[/quote]
Just a day before Benazir Bhutto’s arrival I had received a message from the protocol authorities of our Ministry asking me if I had arranged a supply of okra (bhindi) for the Prime Minister’s spouse Mr Asif Ali Zardari. He was accompanying the Prime Minister although he did not hold any office at that time and was not to participate in the officials talks with the hosts. It was a bolt from the blue. ‘Bhindi’ was not known to the locals. It was not available fresh or preserved in tins in the local market. It was for the first time that I learnt that Mr Zardari was fond of bhindi and must have it for his meals. I was preparing myself to face the music when the Prime Minister’s spouse would learn on arrival that the Ambassador had not been able to arrange ‘bhindi’ but to my great relief another message followed a few hours later informing me not to worry because a dozen strong party of cooks and aids from Pakistan had arrived in Almaty by air and were on their way to Bishkek by road. They were carrying sufficient supplies of bhindi and essential condiments. I now had to request the hosts to provide accommodation and kitchen facilities to this team in the state guest house Ala Archa, where the Prime Minister, her spouse and a few important members of the entourage were to stay. The rest of the delegation was put up in a good hotel nearby.
[quote]He took out one eyeball from the roasted head, separated the white portion and gave it to me[/quote]
Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was given a very warm welcome by the government and the people of Kyrgyzstan. A few days before her arrival I had received a message from President Askar Akayev asking if I could get him a copy of Benazir’s book ‘ Daughter of the East.’ I had a copy with me which I sent to the President along with a copy of its Russian translation. In a special function held at the National University Bishkek an honorary doctorate degree was conferred on Benazir. Speaking on the occasion President Akayev paid rich tributes to Benazir and addressing her said, “You are not just the Daughter of the East, you are the Star of the East.” In the speech he also wished her well in regards to the Kashmir dispute with India. This statement did not, in any way, signal any change in Kyrgyzstan’s policy of neutrality on disputes between Pakistan and India, but our media was euphoric in interpreting it as Kyrgyzstan’s support to Pakistan on Kashmir. I had to dispel this misconception in my reports to the Ministry.
Benazir Bhutto inaugurated the Manas celebrations by unveiling the statues of celebrated bards and poets who, over the centuries, have made their contributions to the epic poem. The collection of poetry written over the centuries about Manas, his family and times, now known as the “Manas epic” is considered to be the world’s longest poem, and has been translated in several languages of the world, including Urdu.
[quote]Benazir Bhutto walked ahead of all the members of her entourage and a large number of the hosts[/quote]
A visit to Osh, the second largest city of Kyrgyzstan in the Farghana valley, was not originally included in the Prime Minister’s program, but she agreed to it at the persistence of the Kyrgyz president. He wished her to see the mosque built on top of the rugged hill by Zaheer-ud-Din Babar when he was 14 years old. This is a famous site now; one has to walk half an hour up the difficult stony trail to reach it. It was not an easy walk even for sturdy, experienced hikers to undertake, but Mohtarma did it and walked ahead of all the members of her entourage and a large number of the hosts. In the one-room mosque, Prime Minster Benazir Bhutto offered prayers and gave 200 dollars to the caretaker, Aksakal Din Mohammad, and asked him to sacrifice a goat in her name and give it to the poor. The walk back, downhill to the base, was by a different route and again Mohtarma was in the lead. A big crowd, most of them women and children, singing and dancing to the drum beats, greeted here there and offered the traditional bread and salt. Then seven young Kyrgyz girls, all named Benazir after her, were brought to meet her. She looked pleased to see them and asked me to arrange appropriate gifts for them. Among the seven girls was the daughter of the Vice Prime Minister. Benazir was informed that whereas Indira used to be a popular name for girls during the Soviet era, Benazir was the most popular one now. The Pakistani Prime Minister’s highly successful official visit to the Kyrgyz Republic, during which some agreements were also signed, ended in Osh from where her plane flew directly back to Islamabad.
[quote]No travel agency had ever heard of Bishkek[/quote]
Since I had accompanied the Prime Minister from Bishkek to Osh in her special plane, the Kyrgyz Prime Minister, knowing that there was no commercial flight that day for Bishkek asked me and my colleague, the translator Dr Sohail, to travel back to Bishkek with him in his special plane. Before that we were invited to have a late lunch with the Prime Minister at the airport dining room. We were about twenty people seated on the dinner table on which was placed already the traditional bread (laposhka) and some cold meat dishes. The Prime Minister took the seat at the head of the table and asked me to take the first seat on his right. Dr Sohail, who had to do the interpretation was seated on his left and in front of me. The service started. One bearer brought a roasted head of lamb on a large tray and placed it in front of the Prime Minister. This being my first ever formal meal in Central Asia, I presumed that everybody would be served a roasted lamb head but I wondered how it would be cut and consumed. It did not take long before I understood that the traditional hospitality for an honoured guest included the slaughtering of a lamb/goat the roasted head of which was placed before him to be portioned off according to a well-established tradition. The chief guest commenced the meal. He took out one eyeball from the roasted head, separated the white portion and gave it to me – I being the second most important guest. I managed to swallow it. Then the chief guest cut the skin of the roasted head into squares, while everyone looked on. A square each of the skin was passed on to every guest on the table. Next the chief guest asked who was the youngest of the guests on the table. One young boy was pointed out. The Prime Minister cut a piece of an ear of the lamb and the bearer took it to the boy. Out of curiosity I inquired why the piece of ear was given to the junior most. One explanation was that it was a message to the boy that he should listen to what the elders tell him. Now the rest of the lamb head was taken away. The food included horse meat (considered a delicacy), kumis (the fermented milk of a mare) and vodka. Some speeches were also delivered by the host and the guests. When the meal ended every body raised their hands in prayer and said Amen.