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Clouds over Peshawar

11 October 2013

Bernard Palmer reads a former college principal's narrative

Storm Warning: Riding the crosswinds in the Pakistan-Afghan borderlands
Robin Brooke-Smith
Radcliffe Press £27.50
Church Times Bookshop £24.75 (Use code CT513 )

LAST month's horrendous massacre of Christian worshippers in Peshawar, Pakistan, adds a tragic topicality to this account of a five-year residence in the city by a Christian teacher from Britain. The victims of the massacre had been attending a service in All Saints' Church, with which Robin Brooke-Smith would have been thoroughly familiar.

He went out to Pakistan in January 1996 to begin a five-year spell as Principal of Edwardes College, Peshawar, a prestigious institution that doubled as a sixth-form college for teenagers and as a university for older students reading for a degree. The thousand 16- to 18-year-olds and 600 undergraduates were taught by a staff of 120.

The governance of Edwardes was a joint church-state affair (there was a link with the CMS). The chairman of the college board was the Governor of the North-West Frontier Province; the vice-chairman was the Bishop of Peshawar, who frequently clashed with the chairman.

Nor did he seem, apparently, all that keen on appointing Brooke-Smith to the principalship. He didn't think that his background as a teacher at Shrewsbury School in England made him a suitable candidate - and would have preferred one of his own people from Peshawar for the vacant post. Nevertheless, he was persuaded to change his mind; and the author of this book was duly appointed.

For the most part, he would appear to have enjoyed his time as Principal, though he found the Christian-Muslim tensions a constant cross to bear. Peshawar was a place where, in his own words, "gentle piety and kindness, hospitality and generosity of spirit, jostled cheek by jowl with ferocious religious zealotry and Islamist extremism. Here terror, murder and fear walked side by side with warmth, kindness and civilization."

Brooke-Smith's greatest achievement during his reign as Principal was to bring about the admission of girls to the previously all-male college. This was a real triumph, seeing that, in Peshawar, it was impossible for a woman to go for a walk along the city streets without being stared at by the men - or worse. During her frequent visits to Peshawar, Brooke-Smith's wife, Diane, found the rampant male sexism she encountered everywhere a depressing experience.

The climax of his principalship was the college's centenary in April 2000, marked by a fortnight of celebrations. But the maintenance of security during the festivities proved a nightmare, and scores of policemen had to be in constant attendance. The Khyber Pass into Afghanistan is only just round the corner from Peshawar - and 9/11, with all that followed, was coming up fast. To many Muslims, Edwardes College was like a red rag to a bull - and they didn't hesitate to disrupt its activities whenever possible.

Beneath the surface was the control of the college itself. The Bishop opposed any attempt by the government to dominate the college board; and Brooke-Smith found himself often having to calm down the "simmering conflict" between the chairman and vice-chairman on this "delicate frontier" between Christianity and Islam.

He had more with which to contend than mere abuse at the hands of individuals and the Press. He was actually charged with misusing college funds. His accusers laid on an inspection team to audit the college books and to produce a report on the poor economic state of the institution. Luckily, Brooke-Smith had his own friends in high places, and this particular attempt to besmirch his reputation was successfully nipped in the bud.

At times, the author piles horror on horror to create a nightmare scenario. At least, however, he was able to end his five-year reign at Edwardes in an atmosphere of goodwill and of gratitude for all that he had achieved. His successor, Dr David Gosling, was less fortunate - as we are told in a scarifying epilogue.

Gosling was in effect dismissed without notice in May 2010 at a governors' meeting at which the renewal of his contract was discussed. He was told nothing at the meeting itself, but received a letter the next day telling him to clear his desk immediately, as he was no longer Principal (no reason was given); he was back in the UK within a week.

But, although the Bishop of Peshawar was involved in the dismissal, through his vice-chairmanship of the governors, it was not the same bishop as Brooke-Smith's old sparring partner, Mano Rumalshah. The latter had been succeeded by Humphey Peters, a man who had been in holy orders for less than a year. One of his first acts in his new appointment was to oversee the virtual sacking of the college principal.

Two of Dornford Yates's inter-war thrillers are entitled Storm Music and Gale Warning. Storm Warning could almost join the series. For a non-fictional thriller, it is an impressive piece of work. It is a pity, though, that its photographic shots are so tiny and its index so woefully inadequate.

Dr Palmer is a former editor of the Church Times.

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