Bittersweet memories of Abida Hussain | Pakistan Today

Bittersweet memories of Abida Hussain

Her account of a meeting with the American officials is an eye-opener. It is imprudent to generalise the behaviour of the Americans towards the Pakistanis but it does show how humiliating some encounters can be with the haughty officials.


Syeda Abida Hussain is as bold a writer in her recently published autobiography “Power Failure” as she was as a politician because only she can dare to write that Dr Sher Afghan Niazi was a “veritable joker”; Altaf Hussain a “veritable fascist” (p 353) and that Rehman Malik pronounces his doctorate in criminology as “craminolgy”. Then there are some frank admissions as well: her father Syed Abid Hussain remained her hero throughout her life whereas her father considered Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah as the “heroine of Pakistan”, who in turn was so bitter about the way things were sliding in the country that once Abida herself heard Ms Jinnah lamenting, “Had my brother (Quaid-e-Azam) foreseen all this, would he have struggled so hard for the creation of Pakistan? Would he have wanted a country without a constitution, without justice, where skilled sycophants become powerful, while people with integrity and dignity start falling behind? If this was what Pakistan was to become, then making Pakistan was a foolish mistake (p 8).”

Abida has lived a stylish life and tells us that she developed her sense of style during education in Florence. A Florentine maestro after drawing her sketch felt that she was “better looking than Gina Lollobrigida” while Begum Nusrat Bhutto felt that the author reminded her of Elizabeth Taylor and therefore sought her advice as to how she should do her eye make-up. Abida must have been a pretty lady because Tahir Ayub, the youngest son of Ayub Khan was keen to marry her and though President Ayub sent a formal marriage proposal through the Nawab of Kalabagh, the then Governor of West Pakistan; her father declined. Even the “Melody Queen” Madam Noor Jehan brought the marriage proposal of her son, Akbar Rizvi which amused Abida’s father who “asked her to sing for him before he gave his response, to which she had answered that if the proposal was accepted she would sing for him whenever he wanted, if not she would not waste her breath.” She eventually got married to her cousin Fakhar Imam, who, at the time of marriage, she thought was “boring” and a “hopeless dancer,” however, after a marriage of forty-five years she is full of praise for her partner’s patience, perseverance and tolerance.

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Equally interesting are some other titbits. General Ghulam Jilani Khan, who also served as the Governor and Martial Law Administrator of Punjab had apart from soldiering also studied dance and music at Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan Academy, of course, in pre-partition days. Abida’s maternal grandfather Syed Maratab Ali Shah was awarded knighthood for being the “favoured caterer of the British Indian army.” President Ghulam Ishaq Khan was so frugal in the use of public money that when his wife requested the re-upholstering of the sofas whose silk had frayed, he said that silk was too expensive and he could only sanction funds for the cotton fabric made in Pakistan. Similarly, before leaving as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, when the author asked Ishaq Khan that should she take a briefing on the nuclear issue from Dr A Q Khan, the President said that “there was no need, as A Q would mostly talk about himself” and instead directed her to meet Dr Ashfaq Ahmed of PINSTECH. As an ambassador in Washington, she was surprised to see in a party the Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan and the Israeli ambassador “with their arms around each other, laughing their heads off.” The author ruefully notes that though the Saudis are considered good friends by the Pakistanis, Prince Bandar refused to meet her despite repeated requests.

These titbits aside, the book is a first hand account of the political history of the country in which the author also played an important role at critical junctures as the Member of the Parliament as well as Minister and by being an independent politician as well as a member of both the PPP and the PML. She remained a great fan of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto throughout her life so much so that while Bhutto was alive and in power, she had a dream in December 1976 in which she saw “Bhutto with a noose around his neck, hanging from the mango tree in the front garden of our house in Lahore.”Nevertheless, she left the PPP when the modernist yet “gender biased” Bhutto refused to grant her the ticket to contest the National Assembly seat in the 1977 general elections just because she was a woman aspirant in a misogynist society.

Prior to Benazir Bhutto’s (BB) return to Pakistan in 1986, President Zia toyed with the idea of grooming Abida and Fakhar as the “power couple” to politically neutralise BB but dropped the idea after his chief spook told him that as the couple were shias, the Saudis would be immensely annoyed and instead picked up Nawaz Sharif for the leadership. The author remained estranged from BB for many years but agreed to be friends in 2003 provided BB explained her allegedly non-transparent financial dealings during her premiership especially in view of the fact that even her late father’s worst enemies could not raise a finger of financial corruption against him. BB’s explanation to her deserves to be quoted in full. Benazir “explained that her mother, being a simple person, before her father’s brutal elimination, gave away whatever cash they had to whoever said they could help, so that by the time they were allowed to leave the country, they had to ask Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi for assistance. Although he was generous, it was not pleasant to incur this kind of obligation; so on becoming Prime Minister, her priority was never to be in a situation where she would have to ask anyone for money again (p 612).”

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The most revealing section in the book is the account of her dealings as the ambassador of Pakistan with the American politicians and the officialdom at large. It affirms the popular perception that the US plays a decisive role in the affairs of Pakistan, at least at crunch time. We are told that it was the Chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations, Senator Claiborne Pell, who prevailed upon his government to pressure General Zia to allow Benazir to return to her homeland. And so she landed in April 1986. Two years later, it was again the then US Assistant Secretary, who brokered a deal between President Ishaq Khan and Benazir that enabled the latter to become the prime minister.

During Abida’s ambassadorship, there was immense US pressure on Pakistan to roll back its nuclear programme. Anybody who was somebody in the US State Department or Pentagon had only one message: “Roll back your nuclear programme.” To the Pakistani efforts to stand up to the American pressure, the then US Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz observed that “the Pakistan government had attempted eyeball to eyeball conversations with the US government in the past, but had always ended up blinking first.”Strangely, the Americans continued arm-twisting despite the fact that their CIA chief Bob Gates had informed Pakistan that “the Indians had mounted nuclear tipped missiles on the Kashmir Line of Control (p 420).”

During her ambassadorship, the visit of the then COAS General Asif Nawaz to the US sheds some light as to how rude the American officials can be at times in their interactions and insincere in their democracy promotion agenda in Pakistan. On his visit to the State Department, General Asif felt “most offended” at being frisked by the security staff at the entrance hall and later on while the General and Abida proceeded through the hall, they were shouted upon to be “out of the way” and unceremoniously pushed into one of the elevators to clear the way for the Israeli and Palestinian delegations moving down the hall which made the annoyed General to complain that the Americans were “shockingly rude” (pp 445-446). During the visit to the Pentagon, General Asif Nawaz was told by the then Defence Secretary Dick Cheney that if Pakistan stepped “back from the red lines on our nuclear programme, then a military takeover of the government in Pakistan would be tolerated by the Americans (p 448).” Though the General replied on the face that “the army was in no mood to take over” yet he did brood over the idea of replacing the Nawaz Sharif government by making the MNAs to switch their loyalties but with the specific intention to buy some time with the Americans (pp 448-449).”

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Abida’s account of another meeting with the American officials is an eye-opener. It is imprudent to generalise the behaviour of the Americans towards the Pakistanis but it does show how humiliating some encounters can be with the haughty officials. Just before Abida’s departure as ambassador, this meeting took place at the President House in Islamabad where President Ishaq Khan, Siddiq Kanju, Foreign Secretary Shehryar Khan, President’s Secretary Fazlur Rahman and Abida received the visiting US Under Secretary Bartholomew along with the US Deputy Chief of Mission Elizabeth Jones from the US Embassy and a staff officer. This is what happened at the meeting: “Bartholomew, addressing the President, urged him on behalf of the US President George H Bush to roll back our nuclear programme, if he wanted a resumption of the US assistance to Pakistan. President Ghulam Ishaq Khan picked up a file and showed the letters he had been exchanging with President Bush. Bartholomew looked at the letters, then picked out one and asked President Ghulam Ishaq to read it, in an edgy voice. The President nodded at him, picked out another letter, telling the visitor that this was what he had written in response. Having read it, Bartholomew threw the entire file onto the table in front, muttering that if we Pakistanis did not wish to understand what the US Government was urging us to do, it was bad for us. He then stood up and without acknowledging his exit, he said to his accompanying compatriots, ‘Let’s get out of here,’ shutting the door hard behind them (pp 415-416).” This was a manifestation of naked arrogance of American power. In addition, she has penned down a sample of the American corporate greed as well. Again, no generalisations but one can imagine to what extent the US big business can stoop for the sake of big money. When the General Dynamics (GD) found out that Pakistan was terminating the contentious F-16defence deal, their head honcho called Abida over to a meeting in which he said that his sources had informed him that she could influence her Prime Minister to change his mind and continue with the deal and in return the GD could buy her a nice house in Washington DC which she could rent out to meet the educational expenses of her two daughters studying at Harvard but she refused to sell her conscience (pp 483-484).”

Another challenging task as the ambassador was to convince the US Congressmen about Pakistan’s position on various issues. Not many were even interested in Pakistan such as Senator Jesse Helms, who stated that “Asia could certainly go to hell, and so could South Asia but within South Asia, he wished greater hell to India than to Pakistan” as the latter stood on the right side of the US. Some were adamant in their opposition such as Senator Orrin Hatch, who urged her to prevail upon the Pakistan government to follow the Indian example by recognising Israel. Some such as Senator Al Gore were least bothered as to who was Pakistan’s ambassador in his country because when she visited him, the Senator took her accompanying Deputy Chief of Mission Mr Sarwar as the ambassador despite the fact that her profile was sent to him in advance. One wonders why we still keep receiving so many American officials!


Power Failure: The Political Odyssey of a Pakistani Woman

Written by: Syeda Abida Hussain

Published by: Oxford University Press

Pages: 720; Price: Rs2,195 Hardback