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  Book review

Bagpipes in Babylon: A Lifetime in the Arab World and Beyond

by Glencairn Balfour Paul

I. B. Tauris, 2006. Pp.xix + 329. Illus. Maps. Index. Hb. £20. ISBN 1-84511-151-6.

These are not your average diplomatic memoirs – but then Glen Balfour Paul is not your average diplomat. For a start he spent much of his career, (and about a quarter of this book) in the Sudan Defence Force and the Sudan Political Service. To conclude, he has spent a ‘third age’ busy in a variety of tasks all over the world. His diplomatic years were the interim – he served in the Gulf, and was Ambassador to Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia.

In many ways he had a fortunate life – from a secure Scots background, although one where the family seemed to be always on the move. (Indeed the one map missing from the quiver of plans on pages xiii to xvi, is a chart of the various Scottish castles, farms and country houses between which the author, his parents and his children flit.) During the War, the merest chance – a mix-up over names – diverted him from joining his battalion in the Western Desert, to the rank of bimbashi – Lieutenant Colonel – in the Sudan Defence Force and an active but far less lethal campaign in Abyssinia.

Balfour Paul records the war years, and indeed his time as a political officer in the Sudan, with a light and fluent pen. He concentrates, he tells us ‘on the odder aspects, but there are plenty of accounts of the serious features of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium...’ as indeed there are. What he provides is an entertaining account of life for an administrator in the remoter provinces of that vast country, but also the account of a sensitive and adventurous observer. Long treks by camel to call on neighbouring French administrators, amateur archaeology, the vagaries of administration set against the background of accelerating progress towards Sudanese independence.

Like most members of the Sudan service, Balfour Paul possessed intelligence, excellent Arabic and a robust practicality – assets which the Foreign Office promptly exploited by posting most former Sudanis to the Persian Gulf, after a minimal process of indoctrination in Whitehall. He played a key role in the removal of Sheikh Shakhbut of Abu Dhabi and his replacement by his brother Zaid – one of the Arab world’s more genteel coups and one which made possible the extraordinary economic development of the lower Gulf. Like most British diplomats, he greatly admired Sheikh Rashid of Dubai – at that stage leading his Emirate along the first steps in its meteoric commercial career.

After a sabbatical at Oxford, Balfour Paul was posted to Iraq as Ambassador at a time when Saddam Hussein was just entrenching himself as absolute ruler. A rich and important country, though not one in which the British Ambassador had much influence or access. Ironically his Gulf years were to haunt Balfour Paul – the Iraqis chose to sever relations with Britain at the very moment of our withdrawal from the Gulf – he learnt about it from the BBC World Service! Jordan was to follow – a less significant country but one where the British Ambassador had a certain weight and where he helped devise the formula which enabled Jordan to survive the 1973 Arab/Israeli War more or less unscathed. His last post, Tunis, was certainly pre-retirement and while appreciating his splendid residence, Balfour Paul found less to interest him.

He had two happy marriages and six children. But his first marriage was shadowed by his wife Marnie’s ill health, which ended with her early death. He married his second wife, Jenny, only a few years before retirement, and she became the companion and indeed the occasion of much of his post-retirement travelling.

Which is where Yemen enters these memoirs. Balfour Paul visited Sana’a in 1982 on an academic mission, but Jenny accompanied him and was fascinated by indigo – its cultivation and use. It was a fascination which led to two very successful books and to a series of pilgrimages to the various indigo fields of the third world. In an active retirement – running the Middle East Association, fundraising, writing history – it is the travel which most impresses. When he is not bear-leading spoilt tourists round Yemen or Peru, this pensioner is forever sleeping on roofs, hitching lifts on lorries when the taxis break down and generally moving like a back packer through the various countries he visits – hardships occasional lightened by the odd night spent at the nearest Embassy residence with a former colleague.

It is Balfour Paul’s decency and sensitivity which shine through this book. He has deliberately chosen to keep it light – ‘life is too serious not to be taken lightly’, he writes. I would have welcomed a little more on two of today’s burning issues on which he is well qualified to write – Iraq and Darfur. But Bagpipes in Babylon is composed with taste and skill like a Lebanese mezzeh – light, varied, well-flavoured and to be recommended.

In one of his many poems which illuminate this book, he writes of a stonemason:

for this man that his skill 
had truth by the forelock. In his 
tough credo, whatever was 
indisputably valid
was also good for a laugh.

It is not a bad description of the author (and is why I was tempted to entitle this review ‘A Kilt among the Futahs’ had it been the Journal’s practice to give titles to its reviews!).

David Tatham