Brigadier Mahmud Jan: 1920 - 2016

Rehana Hyder pays tribute to the Pakistani military's oldest army officer, Brig. Mahmud Jan, who passed away this month

Brigadier Mahmud Jan: 1920 - 2016
Brigadier (retired) Mahmud Jan, Pakistan’s oldest of army officers, passed away on Wednesday, October 12 - on 10th Moharram - at the age of 95. His farewell prayers were offered at the Kernal Sher Khan Shaheed Stadium in Peshawar a day later and he was laid to rest with full military honours at his ancestral graveyard in Peshawar on Charsadda Road. His Dua was offered in Peshawar at the family residence at Shami Road on Friday, and at his daughter and son in law’s home in Islamabad on Wednesday 19 October. He is survived by his wife Surraya, daughter of Khan Bahadur Kuli Khan Khattak, and two daughters Hasina Saifullah Khan and Dr Simin Mahmud Jan, a former member of the provincial assembly.

I write this as he was to us a cherished family elder. He became my father Sajjad Hyder’s lifelong friend in the late 1930s when they were gentlemen cadets at the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun. His eventful career and accumulation of accolades certainly need no amplification from me.

Brig. Mahmud Jan with Begum Surraya Mahmud Jan with Haseena (left) and Simin (right), at their Ankara residence ​in a photo taken ​by​ ​Tariq in 1964
Brig. Mahmud Jan with Begum Surraya Mahmud Jan with Haseena (left) and Simin (right), at their Ankara residence ​in a photo taken ​by​ ​Tariq in 1964

He served with distinction as deputy commander CENTO, military attaché to Turkey, and Turkey's honorary consul-general in Peshawar

Born in Peshawar in 1920 and educated at Edwardes College, he was commissioned at the IMA in 1941 and joined the army’s 1st Bn Rajputana Rifles. He fought and was wounded in World War II, oversaw an operation in North Waziristan on Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s instructions, and fought in Kashmir in 1948. He served with dignity and distinction as deputy commander CENTO, as military attaché to Turkey, and as Turkey’s honorary consul-general in Peshawar. Among many other postings he commanded the School of Infantry at Quetta and served as Inspector-General of the Frontier Corps.

However here I wish primarily to record my devotion to an endearing and esteemed personage known to me since childhood, and to recount the ensuing and enduring friendship between our two families.

When my father was posted in Delhi as High Commissioner between 1968 and 1971, and before the situation deteriorated in early 1971, we were taken by our parents to see the iconic IMA, the scene of many stories featuring my father and his contemporaries Mahmud Jan, Rakhman Gul, and AO Mitha, whose families we are also close to. We could then effortlessly picture these dashing young officers who went on to grace such responsible military and civil positions in Pakistan. How they must have enjoyed the experience of being trained at that elite institution, set in the verdant valley below the Mussoorie mountains! We were regaled with tales of their interactions with each other and their British fellow officers. And amusing though affectionate were the accounts of the latters’ efforts to attain fluency in Urdu/Hindi.

Uncle Mahmud Jan, and indeed Surraya Khala, would always greet us as extended family; the two ladies got on likewise. Uncle M Jan was as proud as any of our uncles when my brother Tariq joined the Foreign Service and later became ambassador. And Tariq, having specialised in Military History at Oxford, could discuss strategic issues with Uncle.

Tariq recalls a time during his Oxford days when Uncle Mahmud Jan was defence attaché in Ankara in 1964 and our father on his first ambassadorial assignment in Baghdad. “During the summer holidays from Oxford I took an eventful six-day journey by the Orient Express via Istanbul to Baghdad. The Turkish Ambassador in Vienna put me up for a day as did Brig. Mahmud Jan," recalls Tariq. "My passport and money was stolen on the train but were luckily recovered just before the train left Austria. Staying with both my father’s hospitable friends were moments of luxury after travelling in hard class without a dining car across the Balkans and being kept alive by shared sandwiches from Turkish students.” When Brig. Mahmud Jan put him back on the train, he made sure the young Tariq was forearmed with two roast chickens prepared by Aunty. Tariq remembers Uncle Mahmud Jan quoting Napoleon to him them: “Remember young man, an army marches on its stomach!”

My father also became firm friends in the 1960s with Begum Mahmud Jan’s brother Aslam Khattak when they were consecutively Ambassadors to Iraq. He always addressed Uncle Aslam as ‘Lala’; and Uncle Aslam, on catching sight of any of us siblings, would at once ask, “Where and how is Sajjad?”

When we were in the Netherlands in 1979-80, Uncle Mahmud Jan sent Surayya Khala and Simin, then recently qualified in Hematology, to us for an all-too-brief sojourn. We were delighted, and Simin and I too became firm friends, establishing a second tier in this relationship of two households. One day, in the dining room of this historic residence in The Hague, at a time when Auntie Surraya really needed cheering up, having just lost her mother, there occurred an amusing instance. They were to return home via Germany, if memory serves correctly, and she asked my brother Saad, who had studied German, something none of us could understand: why Frankfurt had the suffix ‘AM’. The mischievous boy replied, “Auntie, it’s AM in the daytime and PM at night!” (It is of course, for Frankfurt am Main).

Once, in Moscow in the mid-late 70s, when my father was Ambassador there, Surraya Khala’s sister Begum Kulsum Saifullah arrived on a visit on an invitation from the powerful Soviet Women’s Committee. We spent several interesting hours in her spellbinding company, and thought her a wonderful representative for Pakistan. She returned the compliment in a charming ‘thank-you’ letter to my parents, a rare feat from any Pakistani dignitary. She also showed her lighter side, by recounting how one of her boys greeted her doubtlessly elegant appearance at Aitchison College as only a young son can, by saying “Ammi! Aap itne long se coat mein kyun ayi haen!” (Mother, why are you here in such a long coat?)

When we returned to Pakistan in the early 1980s on my parents’ retirement to settle in Islamabad, having the Mahmud Jans living close by in Peshawar, and occasionally visiting Hasina in Islamabad, was an added bonus. Once on a visit to Peshawar we, my uncle and aunt Rafat and Almas Ali Khan (through whom we met Anwar and Jamila Minallah whose niece Amena Kakakhel would marry Saad years later) were invited to dinner at the Mahmud Jans’ gracious abode in the Cantonment. It was a fairytale evening, with tiny lights twinkling in the trees in our honour, and an utterly Central Asian ambience. Uncle Mahmud Jan, indeed, had just such Timurid features! Many anecdotes were exchanged, and when a few compliments were extended towards my father, he cheerfully remarked, “None of this is going to impress Mahmud Jan in the slightest!” The dinner was superb, finished off with fragrant green tea gracefully served in delicate Gardner porcelain, all personally supervised by Surraya Khala with the able assistance of Simin and Hasina, who have always called their fond father ‘Abba’.

Back in Islamabad my parents became friends with the Mahmud Jans’ nephew, the eminent specialist Dr. Iqbal Saifullah, who became their cardiologist too. Tariq, Saad, and I through the Oxbridge network would often interact with Anwar Saifullah, also Simin and Hasina’s cousin. We would enjoy meeting their niece the graceful Zeb who recently passed away herself, married to Gohar Ayub; and likewise the Tahir Ayubs, Kuki Apa too being the daughter of old family friends.

It meant much to me that both Simin and Uncle came from Peshawar to grace my wedding in 1990; and the moment of their greeting me on stage is treasured in my memory and video alike, as is the close-up of Simin carrying her corner of my mehndi dupatta with my closest friends and cousins.

In the late 1990s, Saad was posted in Peshawar as his bank’s branch manager, to Uncle M Jan’s joy; and apart from the privilege of looking after his account, Saad would frequently meet Uncle Mahmud Jan and Surraya Aunty. Uncle would inevitably inquire after our father and the rest of the family. Likewise, my parents and we ourselves were proud of Simin’s professional - and then political - success on becoming an MPA. As we expected, it did not change her spontaneity or demeanour by one bit!

When we lost our father in late 2000, Uncle Mahmud Jan was among those friends who came to sit with our mother for hours, recounting much-needed light memories of him and giving us the strong support of his presence at that heavy time. Surraya Khala came as well, especially to see her old friend and family.

A third layer was added to this familial association when as children, my son Alp Arslan and the Jans’ great-nephews Zahid and Yusuf Ajam became classfellows and friends at Khaldunia School. We were truly touched when these little boys, visiting their khala and khalu (and our family friends) Seemie and Ambassador Asif Ezdi in Germany, brought back for Alp a photo of the embassy portrait of his adored and recently lost grandfather.

Simin, Hasina and Salim, Iqbal and Anwar, all attended the duas we would hold for my father and visited us in turn, as did their mother, when our mother passed away in early 2010.

All this year I experienced the strong desire to visit Uncle Mahmud Jan in Peshawar. Recently the inclination had increased in urgency - sending fondest regards as always via children and grandchildren seemed suddenly insufficient - and I would certainly have gone within the year, had he stayed.

My lasting image of him is of visiting him in Hasina’s flower-filled garden in F-6/3, some time after my father’s demise. He looked so happy to see me; eyes sparkling, he was his active and impeccably elegant self in a grey suit. That is how I imagine him now - by God’s grace, surrounded by flowers and friends in Paradise.