Canadian Muslim well-positioned for job of ambassador
Peter O’Neil, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Saturday, November 03, 2007

LONDON – Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Arif Lalani, can claim uniquely among western ambassadors in Kabul a religious and cultural connection to his host country, as well as some empathy for the kind of violent upheaval that has always plagued Afghanistan.

Mr. Lalani, only 40 years old and considered a rising star in the Canadian diplomatic corps, has an unmistakable Canadian accent that betrays a childhood spent in southwestern Ontario and, from 1982 until graduation, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

But he is also a Muslim, born shortly before the dawn of tragedy in Uganda, who was the only western diplomat invited recently with other top Muslim foreign diplomats to pray with President Hamid Karzai at the end of Ramadan.

“It was the first time a Canadian ambassador, a western ambassador, really, was there with the president,” Mr. Lalani said yesterday.

“And that was interesting. It gives us a different insight (to see) the president and his cabinet ministers and others in a very different setting. It’s a very personal and informal setting.”

He is in London as part of the federal government’s stepped-up efforts in Canada and abroad to highlight the successes of the Afghan mission.

Mr. Lalani, the former ambassador to Jordan, was appointed to the Kabul post by the Harper government in April. He said his family’s Indian background also gives him a south-Asian cultural link to Afghans.

Born in Uganda five years before Idi Amin’s savagely brutal 1971 coup, he remembers being perched on his father’s bed watching his father get ready to head off to work at the family hardware store.

“We heard a couple of gunshots, and we didn’t know what it was, and all of a sudden we heard more,” he recalled.

“And then we heard troops in the back of our house and we knew something was up.”

His father was later abducted by the army, but managed to avoid the grim fate of most other captives — thousands of corpses of Mr. Amin’s real and perceived enemies were dumped into the crocodile-infested Nile River — because he knew important military officers who made army purchases at the hardware store.

The Lalani family was among the community of Ismaili Muslims forced to flee after the coup. The Lalanis were flown to Montreal and they moved immediately to Cambridge, Ont. In 1982, they moved to Vancouver.

His swift ascent up the ranks of Canada’s foreign service after joining in 1991 included postings at the United Nations and in Washington, as well as policy adviser for assignments in Ottawa where he was responsible for hot files like the Balkans and the Middle East peace process. He was appointed ambassador to Jordan last year.

Canada’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, Chris Alexander, said Canada’s diplomatic mission in Afghanistan has reached “new heights of coherence and impact” under Mr. Lalani.


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