Huma Abedin, a top aide to Hilary Clinton, relates the story, in her newly published memoir (Both/And; published by Simon and Schuster) of Clinton’s visit to Pakistan when she was the US Secretary of State (2009-2013) under President Barack Obama. The entire US delegation accompanying the secretary was invited to a state dinner at the presidential palace in Islamabad. While introducing Abedin to President Asif Ali Zardari, Clinton mentioned that Huma was recently engaged to marry. Zardari unknowingly quipped, “I hope to a nice Pakistani boy.” There was a brief moment of unease, as Abedin was in fact engaged to New York’s Jewish Congressman, Anthony Weiner.
Abedin is the daughter of an Indian Muslim Syed Zainul Abedin and Pakistani mother Saleha Mahmoud, both scholars. Mr. Abedin was an eminent Islamic and Middle Eastern scholar, who was educated at the famous Aligarh Muslim University and excelled in the equestrian team. Later, he obtained his Ph. D. at the University of Pennsylvania in the US. He spent some time teaching in Saudi Arabia and founded the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs with offices in Saudi Arabia and London.
Huma was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but moved to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, when her parents relocated there. She was two years old at the time and spent a significant part of childhood there. Her parent were devout Muslims and Huma claims to be a practicing Muslim and proud of her faith. She has long been associated with Hillary Clinton, starting as a trainee intern at the White House when the former was the first lady, rising to become deputy chief of staff when Clinton was secretary of state. In the course of her long association with Clinton, Abedin travelled extensively and met many world leaders and observed them closely. In her memoirs, she explores her multiple identities as a child of Muslim parents from South Asia, growing up in Saudi Arabia, and her life as an American citizen who was privileged to observe history in the making from a particular vantage point.
Abedin relates a number of interesting anecdotes drawn from her experience as Clinton’s senior aide. She narrates an enlightening story about an occasion when she accompanied President Clinton on a visit to Saudi Arabia. The president was invited in 2002 to address the Jeddah Economic Forum and she was asked to be part of the delegation. These were the days when strict gender segregation was practiced in Saudi Arabia. However, the hosts were informed in advance that it was important for the US president that women be included in the conference, and he was assured that they would be. Nevertheless, an embarrassing situation arose when the president was greeted on his arrival at the conference by all male officials dressed in thobes. Abedin, knowing the cultural norms, held back until Clinton called her, “Come on Huma,” as she walked through a male only entrance. She relates that she could feel the men’s discomfort, “furtively looking away or simply ignoring me.” There was little else they could do. Shortly, she was politely escorted to the women’s section.
The reader is left wondering as to why a person as gifted as Huma Abedin never tried to strive for a more independent position, rather than staying in the shadows of Clinton
Abedin had had the opportunity to attend numerous state dinners in many countries as Clinton’s special aide. However, when she was invited to an Iftar and dinner party at the White House, hosted by President Obama, for Muslim ambassadors, Congressmen and other high officials, and seated alongside the president, she felt immense pride and exhilaration and a special bond with Muslim dignitaries present, describing them as “my people.” President Obama praised the Muslim Americans who were making great contributions in many fields in America, especially citing Huma Abedin for her distinguished service.
Abedin expresses special affection for Pakistan, where most of her relatives live. She states, “In Pakistan every visit unearthed a new discovery, whether visiting the tree-lined, wide avenues at one aunt’s house at Islamabad, manicured and quiet, or the hustle and bustle of Karachi.” She mentions with pride her great-uncle, Admiral S. M. Ahsan, who rose to become Commander in Chief of the Pakistan Navy under the Ayub Khan regime. She traces her affection for Pakistan as a place “where sugary tea is exquisite, where mango lassi tastes like manna from heaven and where I ate and ate and still weight fell off me.”
The book abounds in illuminating stories. In one such episode, she describes the official visit to see King Abdullah who was to receive US Secretary Clinton in his Bedouin-style tent in Riyadh. It was a façade as, from inside, the tent looked no different from a plush palace audience hall. When dinner was served, it was a spectacle: a huge table burdened with all kinds of exotic and Western dishes, and Clinton was expected to taste all of them. She ate until she could no more, then found out that there were two more dishes that were yet to come.
The section of the book that deals with the author’s whirlwind romantic relationship with Anthony Weiner, their marriage and later its breakdown, is truly heartbreaking. Huma Abedin was leading a very hectic life as a senior aide to Hilary Clinton and although she met a lot of important people, there was scant chance of finding a suitable marriage partner until Anthony Weiner, the young Congressman from New York, a rising star in the Democratic Party, appeared on the scene. He assiduously courted Abedin, offering all the attention and love that she had been missing thus far. The fact that she was a practicing Muslim did not matter to Weiner and he was very supportive of her faith, occasionally fasting in Ramzan to keep company with her. Already in her early thirties, she fell hopelessly in love. They were married in an informal Muslim ceremony with the Abedin family in attendance and in a more elaborate one hosted and presided over by former president Bill Clinton.
That time was blissful, and life seemed to have given Abedin everything she desired until a bombshell fell. A New York tabloid broke the story that Weiner had been sending unsolicited pictures of himself, in varying levels of undress, with salacious messages, to women he had met online. Initially, he denied that he was the real sender, but later confessed that he indeed was. The news aroused a public outrage, with Congressional leaders demanding that he resign from Congress. Expecting a child, the reported incidents caused great trauma and anguish to Abedin. The family was hounded day and night by press photographers. Initially not realising the gravity of the situation, she attempted to defend her husband, whom she continued to love.
Weiner was finally forced to resign from Congress in disgrace. The forthright description of this period and the mental anguish that she suffered is incredibly touching. Abedin frantically wanted to believe that her marriage could be salvaged. Yet Weiner’s reckless conduct was a symptom of a deep-seated sickness which could not be cured when the family sought counselling. It only got worse. In May 2017, a photograph appeared on the front page of a New York newspaper in which Weiner was shown sexting a photograph of himself to a minor female, while their young son slept nearby. Furious and desperate, Abedin filed for divorce from Weiner shortly after he pleaded guilty in a federal court and was convicted and sent to prison for 21 months.
The book is highly readable and apparently not ghostwritten, as often is the case with political biographies. The reader is left with two puzzling questions. First, as to why a person as gifted as Huma Abedin never tried to strive for a more independent position, rather than staying in the shadows of Clinton. And second, as to how her judgment was so impaired that she fell in love and married a person who had such severe personality disorders.
In the opening chapter, she quotes the Prophet’s (PBUH) saying: “Happy is the person who avoids hardship, but how fine is the man who is afflicted and shows endurance.” She must have drawn great succor and solace from the Hadith in times of distress.