That the Islamic world has long produced stunning carpets isn’t exactly breaking news. Indeed, discerning Europeans were scooping up fine specimens as early as the 14th Century. But what tickles Pakistani High Commissioner Tariq Azim Khan are the occasional irregularities in carpets such as the deep red one that adds warmth and texture to the expansive sitting room of his official residence in Rockcliffe.
“When you see the imperfections, you know it’s made by hand,” Khan says, running an admiring eye over it. A large carpet such as this would be made by a family and take at least a year to produce, he explains. “They get good at a pattern and do it over and over again.”
Like high commissioners before him, he has outfitted his residence with items — tall, ornate metal tea pots, a warm painting of women in shawls with their midriffs bare and water jugs on their heads — that, like the carpet, speak to his personal pride in Pakistan’s people and culture and that help transform the residence, a four-square, red brick home built in 1929 for a Canadian industrial family, into a reflection of his homeland.
The building became Pakistan’s official residence in Ottawa in 1949. Set in the heart of Rockcliffe, it shows Georgian architectural influences in the symmetry and restraint of the exterior elevation. Inside, the central hall leads on one side to the sitting room, on the other to the dining area with kitchen beyond. Straight ahead is a wide staircase with curving banister that rises to the high commissioner’s private quarters. The home is gracious, but not overwhelmingly grand. There are heavy white mouldings around windows and doors, panelled wainscotting on the staircase and in the dining area, and a cheery fire burning in the sitting room, where one can imagine groups of official visitors and colleagues chatting and occasionally sparring, albeit civilly, over events of the day.
When Khan moved into this home in 2015, he brought with him a couple of exquisite reproduction miniatures depicting men and women in Pakistan during the Mogul Empire. These works hang above a couch in the sitting room. “They’re colourful,” he says. “There are very few quality paintings available from those days (around) the 16th Century.”
On the end wall of the same long, rectangular room with its bright red and patterned throw cushions on creamy sofas, hang two framed pieces of calligraphy spelling out Islam’s 99 names for God. On either side of those, floor-to-ceiling paintings by the celebrated Pakistani artist Sadequain, who died penniless in 1987, adorn the walls. They were brought to the residence by the previous high commissioner.
One of the paintings spotlights a lithe dancing girl, a less limber man swaying behind her. The other celebrates agricultural labour in the form of a mother, father and child holding implements. Behind them is a team of bullocks. Khan says he likes the piece because “when I look at it, I see more things in it. There’s a man driving the team that I didn’t notice at first.”
In the hallway hangs a reproduction of the seal the prophet Mohammed used to stamp letters of introduction given to his emissaries when they set off on missions.
The adjacent living space comprises two rooms separated by a square archway over a large passageway. One contains bookshelves, replicas of ancient statuary, a fireplace and a table for six. “I have breakfast here,” the high commissioner says.
The other dining area comfortably seats 10 and has glass-fronted, built-in cabinets. Their contents include decorative plates collected by the high commissioner in Hawaii, Niagara Falls and elsewhere.
The outside yard, too, is hospitable; in more temperate weather, guests gather under marquees for informal events. A walnut tree towers in one corner. It began life as a seed planted by Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first prime minister, in 1951.
The high commissioner notes that 2017 is the 70th anniversary of his country’s independence. It’s being marked in part by an exhibition of Pakistani arts and culture at the Horticultural Building at Lans-
downe Park on Aug. 16 and 17.
The high commissioner, who spent years in private business and then served as a minister in the Pakistani government and member of the senate before joining the diplomatic corps, chats easily and with quiet certitude about everything from the quality of Pakistani soccer balls (“we make the best sporting goods in the world”) to long-ago events that helped make his country what it is today (at one point, he fires up his phone to show a photo of a little dark-haired, apple-cheeked girl from northern Pakistan, where people are said to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers).
He mentions that his two sons, Rafi Azim Khan and Amir Azim Khan, are both lawyers like their mother, Adline Azim Khan, who died in 2016. Rafi lives in London, England, while his younger brother is based in Tokyo. They haven’t been able to visit their father since his move to Rockcliffe, a neighbourhood where an evening stroll often means bumping into other members of the diplomatic community.
The high commissioner enjoys living where he does. “It’s very quiet,” he says. “When you see a car pass by, you take a photograph because it’s a rare event.”
Patrick Langston writes about homes, the arts and sundry other topics in the National Capital Region. .