Hina and Scheherazade - S Iftikhar Murshed Sunday, March 18, 2012

Source : http://www.thenews.com.pk/Todays-News-9-98295-Hina-and-Scheherazade

The former Scheherazade Hotel of Islamabad, which now houses the ministry of foreign affairs, derived its name from the legendary Persian queen, Scheherazade, the storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights. The narratives are built around Shahryar, a king who, because of the infidelity of his first wife, would marry a virgin everyday and have her beheaded the next morning. One thousand women were thus decapitated when the king was introduced to Scheherazade, the daughter of the vizier.

But love had wound her silken fetters around Scheherazade and, despite her father’s desperate pleas, she volunteered to become the king’s bride even if she were to be put to death with the coming of dawn. Once in the bridal chamber she begged to be allowed to bid a final farewell to her beloved sister, Dinazade, who had been primed to ask Scheherazade to tell her a story.

Thus Scheherazade began her first story while the king lay awake and listened with rapt attention. But by the time the darkness of the night had slowly faded only half the story had been told. She was therefore allowed another night to complete her tale, which she did, and then began another story even more enthralling than the first.

Story followed story and after one thousand and one nights Scheherazade had no more tales to tell. But by then the king had fallen insanely in love with her and she had given birth to three of his sons. Her life was spared and she was made his queen.

However, the stories did not end with the legendary queen. Many centuries later, strange tales keep surfacing from the building in Islamabad that was once Scheherazade Hotel. In the first week of this month Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar hosted a dinner at the Foreign Office for around 250 people, including the heads of diplomatic missions in Pakistan. The ambience matched anything that Scheherazade could have contrived in her fabulous tales.

The guests were seated at round tables, each named after a city of Pakistan. The hostess and her husband exuded charm as they went to each of the tables to talk to their guests. The magic of the evening was accentuated by enchanting melodies played by a band that had been brought for the occasion. The atmosphere was as exquisite as any scene from the One Thousand and One Nights.

The event must have been costly, but Foreign Minister Khar is known to have expensive tastes as is evident from her sartorial preferences for designer clothes embellished by prohibitively expensive accoutrements such as Birkin handbags and the like. Though she is obviously light years away from Wordsworth’s concept of plain living and high thinking, no one has any right to question her about her pricey wardrobe because it is paid for from her own income.

But the expenditure for the banquet, for it was nothing short of that, was defrayed from the public exchequer. Even worse, the food was catered from the Polo Lounge, a restaurant in Islamabad co-owned by the foreign minister, or a member of her immediate family, and another investor.

This was scandalous, even if the food had been provided at cost price with no profit accruing to the Polo Lounge. There was no justification for such an arrangement because the foreign office has the wherewithal, including trained cooks and supporting staff, to organise elegant state banquets. Many a visiting celebrity has thus been hosted in style within its precincts.

Moreover, the reason for the extravaganza was as inexplicable as it was unprecedented. It was organised to honour two bureaucrats-the former foreign secretary Salman Bashir, and his replacement, Jalil Abbas Jilani. On his retirement Bashir is being assigned to New Delhi as High Commissioner. For the past several years retired Foreign Service officials have been appointed to the post and granted repeated extensions, thereby perpetuating the myth of indispensability.

Jilani, on the other hand, begins his innings at the top slot in the Foreign Office with the disadvantage of being closely related to the prime minister, over whom the sword of Damocles hangs by a slender thread as he faces contempt charges at the Supreme Court.

In accordance with diplomatic usage, the evening was rounded off with the usual tedious speeches that are always politely listened to and applauded, but seldom remembered. The foreign minister was lavish in her praise for Salman Bashir and conceded that he had guided her and taught her the ropes as she entered the hitherto unfamiliar world of diplomacy. A lesson that she apparently did not imbibe is that extravagance at the taxpayers’ expense, and that too in a manner that reeks to the heavens of crass impropriety, is to be scrupulously avoided.

But despite this no questions have been asked in the National Assembly or the Senate, and nor has any adjournment motion been tabled. The parliamentarians probably know that they live in glass houses and cannot afford to throw stones. Most of them evade taxes, several are known to have submitted fake degrees for the 2008 elections and more than 40 percent were elected on bogus votes.

The media, which has been so unrelenting in exposing official malfeasance and bringing many a skeleton stashed away in the cupboards of those in authority into the open, has been uncharacteristically silent about the festivities at the foreign office. There has not been a single comment on such unwarranted expenditure from the public exchequer for a purpose that was not entirely aboveboard.

Yet, there have been endless reports in the press about reckless government spending which has crippled the national economy. It has been pointed out time and again that from 1947 to 2008 the country had accumulated debt amounting to Rs5.9 trillion, but from 2008 to 2011 another Rs5 trillion had been added to this, signifying a nearly 100 percent increase in just three years. Instead of raising revenues by enlarging the tax base and drastically pruning expenditure the government has resorted to printing an astounding Rs30 million each day, which works out to a trillion rupees per year.

But the powers that be claim that austerity measures have been taken. However, these are largely cosmetic and expose the pound foolish pennywise nature of the spending cuts. For instance, a dyspeptic, underpaid, overworked additional secretary of the foreign ministry confided to me a few weeks back that officers of his rank were only allowed one newspaper each because of the economy drive. This is palpable stupidity, because without unhindered access to information a diplomat is incapacitated.

From the narrow technical perspective Foreign Minister Khar may not have transgressed any rules and there was also no effort on her part to conceal from where the food had been catered. It was nevertheless inelegant and embarrassing for the country that its foreign minister should have taken advantage of an official dinner to advance her commercial interests.

In established democracies ministers are known to have resigned for offences as minor as a traffic violation, let alone instances where there are indications of a conflict of interest in official dealings. But such values have no place in the hearts of those at the helm in Pakistan.

Pakistan has had outstanding foreign ministers, two of whom were to become prime ministers and four were presidents or prime ministers who served concurrently as foreign minister. Some, such as Sir Zafarullah Khan and Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, were legends in their lifetimes, whereas others were among the most respected diplomats of their times. None of them, despite Pakistan’s reputation for corruption in high places, used their office to promote a family-owned restaurant.

The writer is the publisher of Criterion Quarterly. Email: iftimurshed@ gmail.com

No comments:

Post a Comment