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The ambassador and My Black Swan Moment
The Black Swan Theory is quite straightforward. In his New York Times best seller, The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that we are victims of self-delusion and, quite frankly, we are not as smart as we think. How else then do we explain the unforeseen happenings cascading around us? How do we explain the black swan moment—the highly improbable event or experience in our lives? (Swans were all thought to be white until we were all jolted with a new reality.) Mr Taleb outlines 9/11 as a black swan and so too were the 1975-77 Lebanon war, and the stock market crash of 1987. But any unexpected and unpredictable expe- rience can qualify as a black swan. It may also be void of catastrophe. In fact, it may be enlighteningly momentous.
Earlier this month at the Pakistan Mission to the United Nations, the Black Swan Theory was fully played out—and I was at the centre of it all. (Admittedly, Mr Taleb may accuse me of loosely interpreting his ground-breaking work.) Days before my meeting with the Pakistan ambassador to the UN, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, I reflected on the pertinent issues. Of course, Pakistan’s frosty relations with the US needed to be discussed. In fact, it was on top of my list, especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Colleagues and friends were equally intrigued and anticipatory of the ambassador’s response. Some were visibly annoyed at Pakistan’s purported duplicity. How could Pakistan not have known that the world’s arch terrorist was in Abbottad, a high-profile military town “to boot?”
So here I was, prepared to pry to get to the bottom of this mystery, and return with something insightful. I was awed by the multi-storey interior of the landmark townhouse—home to the Pakistan Consulate and UN Mission on Madison Avenue. But it was the ambassador who provided that moment outside the realm of expectation. Phenotypically, he did not appear “Pakistani.” His complexion was markedly light, and his genteel manner, tone, and diction were very British, yet he didn’t miss a single beat when addressing his staff in Urdu. Here began an hour-long interview of the improbable...the unexpected—a confirmation of the Black Swan Theory.
Of course, Osama bin Laden was discussed. I was told that the Al-Qaeda leader had influenced elements within Pakistan’s society, allowing him to evade capture for ten agonising years, despite the most sophisticated spy network at the disposal of the US. Ambassador Haroon argued that his nation should not be held solely accountable, for it was the US which had created “that monster,” with its support of the mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s. He then mulled future diplomatic relations with the US, ever expressive of Pakistan’s cooperation on the global war on terror, and reflective in the bloodletting plaguing civilians and its military. Interesting information, but nothing revelatory.
That was about to change very quickly as the ambassador chronicled the history of that part of the Indian subcontinent now called Pakistan. “This is the area that gave birth to the Vedas and all Hindu myth-ologies; the area that wedges itself between the antiquity of the Iranian, and the Turkic and Arabian world—a completely different world from India,” he said. He spoke of his nation’s 5,000-year history with civilisations of republican oligarchies—built through consensus and tolerance, before the famed Athens. But it was his account of a robust African presence in the province of Sindh that accentuated my black swan moment.
“Most of the migrant workers to your region came from the southern part of India,” he said, identifying a more tangible connection to the Caribbean that was freshly revealing. “Over a million descendants of Africans now live in Sindh—with their customs and traditions. We have 2000,000 Pakistanis of African descent in my home town of Karachi. And mind you, they were never slaves. In fact, they are descendants of kings who originally came to the region as gentlemen of fortune with their own armies.” He lauded the greatness of Ethiopian-born Malik Ambar who rose to preeminence and is still a figure of veneration among the Siddis in Gujarat. “There was this influx from Africa around the 16th and 17th centuries. It was a period that bore 30 kings and excellence on many levels, including architectural,” he noted.
It is this connection to Africa and the diaspora that led Pakistan to be overly supportive of a Caricom-backed resolution at the UN for a slave memorial, according to Ambassador Haroon. “So you see we have more in common with you than Sir Gary Sobers and the game of cricket. This is something that is never taught or spoken about.” Minutes later, I left the mission with a gift from the ambassador—a book entitled The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan. In essence though, I left with much more. I mused on the Black Swan Theory and its dynamics of uncertainties—the unpredictable. And how much we look at the box and not its contents; how we read the map but never examine the territory. And really, how very little we know, despite our best efforts.
• Dr Glenville Ashby is the
New York foreign correspondent for the Guardian Media Group
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