Manuscripts/Mixed Material Interview with Dennis Kux
For me, at least, Pakistan was a wonderful learning experience about the Foreign Service. The greatest value of what I did at the time was that it provided a good basis for me to become a South Asia specialist. I learned an enormous amount about Pakistan from reporting, traveling around, talking with people. Americans were generally well liked at the time so contacts were relatively easy. I continued to work on Urdu. I took early morning classes at the Embassy, which didn't amount to much. I kept this up and then I hired a fellow at my own expense for further study in the evening. Surprisingly, none of the American officers in the Embassy knew how to speak Urdu well. A couple of people had taken the FSI course. However, South Asia is unusual in that the educated population spoke English and business is conducted in English. Urdu or Hindi are good only for two things: one is to talk to the “man in the street,” who doesn't know English. Two, if you really get fluent at speaking Urdu or Hindi, it is a terrific public relations gesture. People like it. However, you can function as a diplomat without the language in South Asia. You can, for example, read the main newspapers and magazines in English. They carry most everything that is in the Urdu or vernacular press. The civil servants and people in the foreign ministry and business circles all speak fluent English, etc.
But Urdu helps you enormously to get around, especially when you are on your own. In their day-to-day living a lot of the Americans [in Pakistan] were terribly frustrated because they couldn't speak to the common people. Knowledge of English is very limited when you get beyond the elite and the educated. So my knowledge of Urdu was very helpful. Indeed, after about a year, my Urdu was pretty good. I used to go around the countryside, giving talks for USIS [United States Information Service] in Urdu. In the end, I was the only fluent Urdu speaker in the Embassy. The work was interesting—I enjoyed reporting—but learning Urdu “made” my tour in Karachi. While there, I was finally promoted after nearly four years in the bottom grade. I think that I spent longer as an FSO-7 before being promoted to FSO-6 than it took me to go from FSO-2 to FSO-1.
On one occasion, I was given an assignment which had nothing to do with economic reporting because I could speak Urdu well. We had gotten wind, somehow, that there was a plot to assassinate Ayub Khan. The Political Counselor asked me to meet the “key man” in the plot who was a fortune teller or a numerologist. This “key man” was linked to a Pakistani religious and political leader who supposedly behind the plot. The Political Counselor said: “Can you go down and meet this fellow and see what you can find out—without giving away that this is what we were trying to do?”
The reason I was needed was that the fortune teller didn't know any English. I spent several hours having my palm read and my fortune told—trying to get to know the fellow. I never really found out anything, but it was an interesting experience. I never could determine whether there was a real plot or whether it had just been gossip which was picked up by someone.