Book Review by Roderic Grigson*
NEW YORK | MELBOURNE (IDN) – It takes years to write a good book and in this insightful memoir, Thalif Deen, a former UN Bureau Chief and Regional Director at Inter Press Service news agency, recounts colourful and amusing stories from his 40-year career ‘reporting from the United Nations’.
No Comment is told through a series of news stories, interviews, anecdotes, and personal recollections. This compelling page-turner is held together by flashes of surprising humour and an overarching third world focus and point of view.
The book’s title is taken from an encounter Deen had with a diplomat at the UN building. As a general rule, most ambassadors and diplomats do not tell UN correspondents either to go to hell or heaven – but avoid all comments on politically sensitive issues with the standard non-excuse: “Sorry, we have to get clearance from our capital”.
But often that “clearance” from their respective foreign ministries never came. Still, it was hard to beat a response from a tight-lipped Asian diplomat who told him: “No comment” – and as an after-thought, added: “And Don’t Quote Me on That”.
While the book is a series of memoir elements, some of its portions seem almost too absurd to be true. Like the story, Deen recounts of a newly arrived diplomat from a conflict-ridden African country who was posted to New York – considered a safe-haven – following death threats against him by a rebel group in his home country.
A few weeks after his arrival, he found a note slipped under his Manhattan apartment door with an ominous message: “The exterminator will be here tomorrow.”
Panicked at the thought the rebel group had extended its reach, he was about to rush to the nearest police precinct when he accosted the clerk at the reception desk in the lobby who told him: “Sir, the exterminator will be here not to kill diplomats, but to exterminate roaches, bed bugs and mice.” It was one of the first lessons the delegate learned about Manhattan apartment living.
And just after a band of mercenaries tried to oust the Maldives’ government, Deen writes, he asked a Maldivian diplomat about the strength of his country’s standing army. “Standing army?”, the diplomat asked with mock surprise, “We don’t even have a sitting army.”
Though its scenes are scattered, they are individually memorable, evoking amazement and laughter in the same breath. Deen has always been a raconteur, often entertaining guests at various functions and parties with stories from his vast array of yarns, and this comes through his narrative in abundance.
One such incident he describes was as he completed a wrap-up of a two-week-long conference, Deen approached Dr Gamani Corea, a former Secretary-General of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and a member of the Sri Lanka delegation, for a final comment. “We negotiated”, Dr Corea said with a tinge of sarcasm, “the size of the zero”, as he held out his fingers to indicate the zero.
Deen surprises the reader with an unaffected insider view of international reporting, recounting his stories with freshness and colour. A longstanding columnist for the Sri Lanka Sunday Times, UN correspondent for Asiaweek, Hong Kong and Jane’s Defence Weekly, London, his firsthand experiences add importance to his common-sense take on global diplomacy.
It is a gift that he has now written his long overdue memoir. Blessed with a robust sense of humour, Deen gives us the real scoop on headline stories with both wit and intelligence, a perspective that comes from mining his dog-eared reporter’s notebooks, of which he assures me, there are over a hundred.
It is also the story of how Deen did it. A former information officer at the UN Secretariat in New York in the mid-1970’s, Deen has covered virtually every major UN conference on population, human rights, the environment, sustainable development, food security, humanitarian aid, arms control and nuclear disarmament in the last 40-years.
Working at the UN during the most dramatic events of our time – from the pursuit of war and peace in the Middle East to the humanitarian disasters in Africa and Asia, this book provides an insider’s view on what went on behind the ‘glass curtain’ during a period of extraordinary turbulence.
Deen, a Fulbright scholar with a master’s degree (MSc) in Journalism from Columbia University in New York, was born and educated in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). A student of Zahira College Colombo, he graduated with an Economics degree from the University of Ceylon. He became the first student from Sri Lanka to gain admission to the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York.
Studying for his master’s in the early seventies in New York City, known then as the ‘murder capital’, was not easy. But having been brought up in the unforgiving northern suburbs of Colombo, he successfully navigated the asphalt jungle that was the Big Apple and has lived to tell the tale. He completed his studies before embarking on his remarkable career, first as a cub-reporter in Colombo, then a UN Information officer, a correspondent for Janes Defence Weekly and finally as a UN correspondent and bureau chief at IPS.
IPS which was created as an independent source of “alternative news” initially dispatched their stories by regular mail to media outlets in Europe and Latin America. Few observers would have imagined then that this fledgeling effort would develop a global presence and be known as “the world’s leading news agency on issues such as development, environment, human rights and civil society.” It prided itself on giving “a voice to the voiceless.”
Possessed with the curiosity, nimbleness of mind and openness to change, Deen stands out among veteran correspondents for the range of his experience and his gift as a storyteller. An eyewitness to history being made at the highest levels, with this unique perspective, Deen brings to life scenes from the past and present.
He is a splendid companion as I can personally attest to after working with him in New York in the ’70s and ’80s. One thing I most admire about him is that he has always remained true to himself, his principles, career, and origins. He is someone with genuine bona fides as a journalist and an unassailable commitment to the profession’s enduring values.
No Comment is a dizzying text, part memoir, part discourse on international reporting reality from a third-world perspective. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 February 2021]
* Copyright Roderic Grigson, born in Colombo, Sri Lanka where he was educated and lived till he was twenty-one. Rod’s family were Burghers, descendants of the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonials who ruled the island nation for 450 years. Currently, he lives in Australia.
Photo: UN North Delegates’ Lounge. Credit: dezeen.com and @NLatUN
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