COVER: A gilded life: Power Failure by Syeda Abida Hussain


Syeda Abida Hussain, then Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, with American president George Herbert Bush in Washington D.C. in 1992.

- Photo from the book
Syeda Abida Hussain, then Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, with American president George Herbert Bush in Washington D.C. in 1992. - Photo from the book
Power Failure: The Political Odyssey of a Pakistani Woman

By Syeda Abida Hussain
Power Failure: The Political Odyssey of a Pakistani Woman By Syeda Abida Hussain

“WHAT do you breed...Thoroughbreds?” Queen Elizabeth asks her. She replies, “Yes your majesty [...] one sired by your great horse, Aureole”. Queen Noor of Jordan has her as her lady-in-waiting; Princess Diana confides to her about her “very difficult” in-laws; Kosygin embraces her: “excellency [ZAB], leave this pretty girl here to conquer Soviet hearts”; “Fuhrer” Altaf Hussain asks Imran Farooq and Azeem Tariq to clean up a facility for her; she becomes a lawmaker on a PPP ticket; Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif makes her ambassador to the US; she is, in her hubby Fakhar’s opinion, “spoilt and demanding”. This is Syeda Abida Hussain, the owner of a life that is spilling over with fullness, charm and nerve-racking diplomatic encounters as recounted by her in Power Failure, a rather odd name for a memoir.

Yet it is not all lucre and glamour. “By God, this woman deserves to be shot,” says an army officer as she says something disagreeable to Gen Ziaul Haq; there is an attempt at character assassination in the National Assembly by a fellow woman delegate after a visit to Brazil; and her nerves are tested as Maulana Jhangvi’s boys sing and dance, as if in a trance, to a sectarian beat as elections loom. She wins.

It’s a book that tells us not only of a fairytale childhood and gilded youth (honeymoon in Singapore and Hong Kong) but also takes us through the unedifying moments of Pakistan’s history; the triumphs and tragedies, mostly the latter, which have been this nation’s lot. All big names in politics act in cliff-hangers, characterised by court intrigues, expeditious enthronements and humiliating banishments. Pages 520-28 of the book brim with matter which a future researcher on Pakistan would do well to preserve, containing as they do an insider’s account of the goings-on in the snake pit that is Pakistani politics. The author makes the reader privy to plots by cabals at rendezvous where the powerful revive old-boys networks and energise the interlocking family, in-law and cadet-college plexus in a morbid frenzy to seize power. Loyalties were fleeting, Abida being no exception.

She ditched the PPP, joined the PML-N, decades later became Benazir’s ardent supporter, was wounded in the 2007 Karsaz blast and bled, developing “a bond of blood” with Pakistan’s “only mass party”. The author retains respect for the Bhuttos, and doesn’t hide her contempt for Sharif’s lack of pedigree. One can understand her legitimate pride in being a scion of 14 generations of landed aristocracy, but regrettably we find her unable to be a little circumspect about the non-feudal rich. At a meeting with the American ambassador to India, she informs the diplomat that Sharif has a “background with wealth achieved by his father not long ago”. She expresses the same feelings for Gen Ayub Khan (for reasons for which there is no space here) when she says Khan “unlike my father, may not have been to the bungalow born,” but his children “grew up with privilege and entitlement” because he was an officer in the British Indian Army. Then the author quotes the late Baloch politician, Akbar Bugti, as saying that Sharif hates anyone who owns land.

This brings us to the author’s idealistic definition of ‘feudal’. It deserves to be read, if not for the justness of it then for its fanciful originality. She defends feudalism in moral terms and says feudal in the Pakistani context “means flowing from a tradition, often upholding values of courtesy and kindliness, caring for those less privileged, sharing your bread, and nurturing relationships that are not always transactional”. Then, referring to Winston Churchill, who was “born to a huge estate,” she wonders why Pakistan’s anti-feudal commentators never showed their derision for him. The author forgets that owning land doesn’t make a person feudal, which actually is an inherited mindset of someone dwelling happily in the midst of pervasive poverty. ‘Feudal’ cannot exist in an affluent society with a vibrant middle class and high literacy. Spendthrift Churchill was often broke, took loans from his publishers, and earned money by writing and not by sharecropping.

The most enjoyable and revealing part of the book concerns the author’s 18-month tenure as ambassador to the US (1991-1993). Away from the razzmatazz of Pakistani politics, the book gives us mortifying facts about geopolitical reality when Pakistani diplomats come face-to-face with the superpower determined to have its way. In Islamabad, Abida sees US undersecretary Reginald Bartholomew get out of a top-level meeting with the then Pakistan president Ghulam Ishaq Khan (GIK) and others “without acknowledging his exit,” and shut the door before throwing on the table the file GIK had given him to read. She recounts: “none of us moved or spoke”, Foreign Secretary Shahryar Khan “looked stricken” and the president’s face “suffused with colour”.

In Washington there were rounds of talks when the then army chief Gen Asif Nawaz Janjua visited the State Department and the Pentagon. The key issue for the Americans was nuclear. All those they met — undersecretary Arnold Kanter, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and defence secretary Dick Cheney — hammered away at one point: Islamabad must roll back its nuclear plans if it wanted American aid. The visit to the State Department saw Gen Janjua being frisked, and when they met Cheney at the Pentagon, the defence secretary wished to be left alone with the general. Abida guessed correctly what must have transpired, for the general returned “looking pleased” because Cheney told him America wouldn’t mind a military takeover if Islamabad rolled back its nuclear plans. Abida shows a profound understanding of how America works: “not only did the US government speak with one voice, they kept each other informed on language and content of all conversations made from our side, running their government tightly and competently with no loose ends”.

The author also gives us her version of Henry Kissinger’s warning to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that he would make “a horrible example of Pakistan” if he went ahead with his nuclear ambitions. Kissinger later denied it to Abida, when she met him along with her daughter and husband; the former secretary of state and scholar said what he had stated was: “If Pakistan pursued the nuclear route, our country would be in trouble”. The word ‘our’ is problematic, unless it’s a misprint for ‘your’ if it is coming from Kissinger’s mouth. However, the sentence is in single quotes, which means the author herself summarises Kissinger’s views, because all conversations in the book are otherwise in double quotes. In any case, Pakistan refused to be made an example of.

There is too much about families in the book but a reader has to put up with this in a memoir. Abida was where the action was. Here is an example of her ‘connections’: a Wapda chief, a general, fails to see her point in a case of bills for water pumps on her land. She contacts a begum, and “post-haste” there is a dinner for her to meet then army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf. In the Wapda case, Sharif fails to help her and she resigns as minister. No wonder she has barbs for Sharif: she quotes him as saying, “what do we get out of ousting Benazir and replacing her with Jatoi [?]; they are both Sindhis”; refers to his gaucherie in foreign policy, and comes to the conclusion that he lives like an Arab potentate and uses his mandate for “personal aggrandisement”.

On the whole Abida acquits herself well as a writer in what indeed is her magnum opus. As Dawn’s Washington correspondent I found Abida quite articulate and savvy with diplomatic idiom. It, therefore, comes as a surprise when the reader is informed that the author, who as a girl had a Swiss education and studied the history of art at Florence, had to obtain a BA degree as a senior citizen to conform to the 2002 Musharraf law on mandatory graduation for lawmakers.

An otherwise readable book, it needed better editing: throughout the book, ‘two-thirds’ appears as ‘two-third’, Gamal Abdel Nasser is spelt two different ways, and the last line on page 513 contains an editing faux pas that would make Iranians squirm. Additionally, the index is a disaster.

The writer is Dawn’s Readers’ Editor

Power Failure: The Political Odyssey of a Pakistani Woman


By Syeda Abida Hussain

Oxford University Press

ISBN 978-0199401574