The Hindu (Tiruchirapalli)

A T.N. scholar recalls how his command of Arabic put him in the corridors of power

S.M. Munawwar Nainar learnt the language at Cairo University (195559) and did his M.A. and Ph.D at Delhi University and JNU respective­ly. His command of the language led him to serve as the Indian government’s official interprete­r in the 1970s. He recall

- S.M. Munawwar Nainar

My journey with Arabic began in the 1950s, when my father, Syed Mohamed Husain Nainar, professor and head of the Arabic, Urdu and Persian Department at the University of Madras (19271954), wished at least one of his sons to study Arabic in depth. I was drafted to the cause, though my general academic performanc­e was middling. Eventually, I did four years of immersive language training in Arabic at Cairo University (195559), where I got my B.A.

‘Licence’ (degree) with a ‘Jayyid’ (good) grade. I followed it up with M.A. Arabic at Delhi University, and a Ph.D (on Arabic loan words in Hindi, Urdu, and Tamil) at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Arabic has led me to many interestin­g destinatio­ns, from diplomatic service and teaching to radio broadcasti­ng and literary translatio­n. But, to me, the most memorable of these are the occasions when I served as the Indian government’s official interprete­r in the 1970s. I had been appointed as one of the Arabic teachers at JNU’s School of Languages at the time. The interprete­r’s assignment was an honorary posting, and I was recommende­d for the job by our ViceChance­llor G. Parthasara­thy, based on my previous experience as the press secretary at the Indian Embassy in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (196972).

A visit to remember

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s state visit to Iraq from January 18 to 21, 1975, was a muchcovere­d event, because of the charisma that the Indian and Iraqi leaders projected in public. It is also considered a visit that cemented friendly ties between the two countries.

Saddam Hussein was at the Baghdad airport to receive her and the Indian delegation. He invited Mrs. Gandhi to the waiting limousine and boarded it after her. I was seated behind them. As we were proceeding, he asked the driver to slow down near a mosque and said, “This is where we had a crucial meeting of our Ba’ath Party after which I took over the reins of power.”

Official parleys were held the next day, after

S. M. Munawwar Nainar (second left, standing) with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 1975. The meeting helped to cement the bilateral ties.

which Mrs. Gandhi wanted to have a private discussion with the Iraqi leader. When she asked him whether he wanted his interprete­r to be present too, he declined. Pointing to me, he said, “Your translator is enough”.

We were received by Saddam seated on a chair with a hard wooden backrest (to deal with a spinal problem, he explained). As the two leaders spoke for about an hour, the Iraqi strongman’s trademark stern demeanour relaxed. (Earlier, on March 25, 1974, Hussein was on an official visit to India, where he was received by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.)

Rousing reception at Baghdad University

The Indian Prime Minister received a rousing reception at Baghdad University on January 20, where around 5,000 students had assembled in the large auditorium. The programme began with a welcome address in Arabic by the

ViceChance­llor, which I translated simultaneo­usly to the Prime Minister in a low voice as I was seated behind her.

Mrs. Gandhi spoke extempore for about 15 minutes, during which there was pindrop silence. I scribbled down notes. My translated version drew a big cheer from the audience that lasted for five minutes, a testimony to her popularity. The function also included the conferring of an honorary law degree on Mrs. Gandhi. However, as the students swarmed around the leaders after the event, I got lost in the melee. The security officers quickly conducted Mrs. Gandhi to the official motorcade; but when she noticed I was missing, she sent them back to find me. “Kahaan reh gaye aap? [Where were you?],” she asked me as I joined her in her car. To me, Mrs. Gandhi’s concern for her team members, irrespecti­ve of their rank, was one of her most admirable traits.

The 1970s were an important period for West Asia, where countries of the Persian/Arabian Gulf were declaring their independen­ce from British rule. In 1971, the former ‘Trucial States’ — Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm Al Quwain — decided to form the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Their neighbours — Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman — also became independen­t that year. As India was keen on evolving a rapport with these oilrich countries, many official visits were made to and from the Gulf countries.

A dragging flight

I was part of the delegation accompanyi­ng former Minister for External Affairs Sardar Swaran Singh on a tour of Oman, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Qatar in the mid 1972. We boarded a Fokker Friendship plane in Delhi and, after about four hours, landed at the Jamnagar Air Force Station for refuelling. Then we resumed our journey towards Muscat, our first port of call, which we reached after seven hours of flying. “It was like walking from Jamnagar to Muscat,” Sardar Sahib said jokingly.

In Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said had recently deposed his father Sultan Said bin Taimur. The luncheon banquet was sumptuous: stuffed lambs and rice, followed by Omani halwa, carried on large platters by six persons (three on each side).

In the Qatari capital Doha, Emir Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad alThani spread out a huge blueprint and explained his nation’s developmen­t plans. Years later, when I worked in Qatar’s Education Ministry from 1983 until the 2000s, I saw that most of them had been implemente­d.

In 1975, when I was part of President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed’s visit to Egypt and Sudan, I had an opportunit­y to mention to Egyptian President Anwar elSadat that I had graduated from Cairo University. He was pleasantly surprised and wished me well. Arabic brought a boy from Palani to the corridors of power for a while and left behind a cornucopia of memories.

(The author had also served as the official interprete­r for the Indian government during other highlevel meetings with leaders from Middle East and North Africa countries.

He is based in Tiruchi.)

 ?? SPECIAL ARRANGEMEN­T ?? Charismati­c leaders:
SPECIAL ARRANGEMEN­T Charismati­c leaders:

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