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Goodbye, Benazir: A Sad Farewell
With dried and distant tears Pakistani-Americans bid a sad farewell to Benazir Bhutto, one of the bravest women leaders of our time who made secular and democratic people proud till the very end, writes Ras H. Siddiqui.
(Above): The author seen here with Benazir Bhutto.
I first met Benazir Bhutto in the back alleys of downtown Sacramento not too far away from the California State Capitol building. But that is just a partial truth (because it wasn’t really a back alley). It actually happened to be the guest exit behind the Sacramento Convention Center as she was about to get into a limousine. It was soon after 9/11 (actually October, 2001) and earlier that day I had seen her deliver one of the finest speeches that I had ever covered by any woman as an ethnic reporter. Benazir Bhutto had just finished addressing more than a thousand women (and about a half a dozen men including myself) at “A Woman’s Day Professional Conference and Exposition” event. If memory serves me right, she was a last minute replacement for Tipper Gore. I tried to get a picture with her in the exit area but was firmly turned down by the security around her. She did not know me from Adam. And at that time her security was the last thing on my mind. During the past couple of months it had been a major concern for everyone. Her murder on 12/27/2007 was my worst fear realized.
Before going a little further into this story, let me digress. I am beginning to dread calls from my brother. He called early in the morning to give me the news of Benazir’s assassination. He had also called in 1979 to give me the shocking news that her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been hanged by the regime of then military dictator General Zia. Both times I had found the information unbelievable. And both times I have felt deeply saddened for the Bhutto’s and the country of Pakistan.
But life goes on and bad news becomes a part of the immigrant’s dilemma. News from the home country becomes increasingly distant especially after my three decades here in America . Unfortunately the sadness of such events also gets coated with nostalgia resulting in a melancholic mental state. Many memories erupt as hopelessness overpowers.
This short piece is about a remarkable woman and her father, about fading memories, hope and hopelessness. When I left Pakistan in 1974, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was in power.
He had “picked up the pieces” as he said of a broken country and offered it a future. We had survived the Bangladesh war with many wounds. But Z.A. Bhutto was all about hope. I last heard him speak in 1973 at a soccer match in Karachi , Pakistan. I also went to school with the Bhutto kids (sans Benazir, who was older) at Karachi Grammar School till 1971. Now all of them except one are dead.
After 9/11 it was Benazir Bhutto that took up the banner of democratic hope in Pakistan when it was needed. She became the people’s voice in exile, traveled around the world, making speeches about the need for cross-cultural exchanges, religious harmony and how to make peace. I met her again in 2004 at an event in the San Francisco Bay Area. But this time she had me called to her table, had me sit down in the chair next to her and insisted that we have a photograph taken together. Benazir Bhutto, like her father also had a good memory and read a great deal. She had read my report on her Sacramento visit in 2001 and an article that I wrote on her father on the 25th anniversary of his assassination. She was reminded of the time that security stopped our picture being taken in Sacramento and wanted to make amends. My wife said that she saw me beaming for several days after that meeting and the photograph was on our refrigerator for months.
In 2006 she again visited the area at an event in Newark . She was a much more confident about her return to Pakistan and no less articulate. The audience loved her and she knew it. She could charm anyone in her presence. Little do her murderers know what damage they have done not only to her country but to women aspiring for leadership everywhere.
She was a voice of moderation in a stormy regional sea of violence and terror. But in a world where violence often becomes the only language of diplomacy, she did not stand a chance. Yet the idealist in her and her dedicated followers refused to give up. Especially those like me who were foolish enough to believe that Benazir Bhutto belonged at home and could bring back the days when we kids walked the streets of Karachi without fear. I remember that the Bhutto kids used to come to school with just a driver and no guard over 35 years ago. Now all except one have been murdered.
Here’s farewell for a rare, articulate, beautiful and talented woman who was a symbol of hope for millions. The Pakistan Peoples Party was her political strength as it was once her father’s. Through the democratic process, the party offered hope to the poor and oppressed masses of her country. This assassination of Benazir is a direct attack on the already shaky federation of Pakistan . And while the authorities look for hands stained with her blood, while knowing that the assassins today wear disposable gloves or blow themselves up, we know that the world has suddenly become a much more dangerous place.
With dried and distant tears we Pakistani-Americans bid a sad farewell to Benazir Bhutto, one of the bravest women leaders of our time. Someday God-willing and with pride, I hope to tell my grandkids about meeting you BB (even though I have learned that you didn’t like being called by that name). You made secular and democratic people proud till the very end. My God keep you in peace, and may your children stay away from politics.
Ras Hafiz Siddiqui is a South Asian American writer who lives in Sacramento, Calif.