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Evolution of an Icon

by Adnan Siddiqi
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Minhaj Ahmed Rafi

Minhaj Ahmed Rafi

Tehmina Durrani takes on a new challenge.

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]he had been advised against the journey. It was four months into the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Refugees were pouring into Pakistan, fleeing the seemingly random bombings. Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was on the lam. And the former ruler of the Muslim-majority country, Mullah Omar, had vanished into the ether. Tehmina Durrani put aside the travel advisories and made the rattling three-hour drive from Quetta across the border to Kandahar, the ousted Taliban regime’s real seat of power. Among her travel companions: Abdul Sattar Edhi, Pakistan’s most prominent social reformer revered as a living saint by most Afghans, and Italian activist Mariapia Fanfani of the Together for Peace organization.

The delegation took with them some $2 million worth of rations for Afghans displaced by the brutal post-9/11 retribution campaign. The motivation to travel to the world’s hottest warzone came from Edhi, the subject of one of her books and a father figure to her. But it also came from her blood: her father, Shakirullah Durrani, was a descendant of Afghan ruler Ahmed Shah. Born and raised in Karachi, educated at a convent in Murree, married and settled for years in Lahore, for Durrani, the bestselling author and internationally-heralded antiviolence activist, her heart has always been with the Pakhtun.

Eleven years after her trip with Edhi to Kandahar—which she chronicled in raw, heartfelt dispatches for Italian newspaper Il Messaggero at the time—Durrani returns to Afghanistan with her fourth and latest book, Happy Things in Sorrow Times. It has been a work-in-progress for some 34 years. After the Soviet invasion in 1979, Durrani diarized her reactions to developments in Afghanistan, and that ancient diary is the genesis for this work. Her story of the Afghan people’s endurance is adorned by watercolor paintings and informed by her Pakhtun heritage. But her empathy for the Afghans is rooted in much more than that. Like the country of her forebears, Durrani has been a pariah, declared an enemy by those closest to her, and she has braved violence and the threat of violence without surrender, abjuring the quickest course for her to finally assume the easy, unburdened life she was expected to live.

“I was once a worm,” Durrani tells Newsweek, “I was completely disempowered and couldn’t change anything—until I changed myself.” To change herself, Durrani capitalized on the opportunity for redemption each setback wrought. In treating her crises as instructional and surviving, Durrani has established herself as an icon of rebirth and resilience in ever cynical times. More than two decades after she seized national attention with her debut book, her star burns bright: Durrani, who rarely makes public appearances, got a rock-star reception and caused a near stampede at the debut Lahore Literary Festival in February.

Durrani has long had a front-row seat to history. She, her four sisters, and brother were all reared on politics. At convent, Durrani was schoolmates with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s and Pakhtun politician Wali Khan’s daughters. Her father was close to former Army rulers Gen. Ayub Khan and Gen. Yahya Khan and served in several key positions, including as governor of the State Bank of Pakistan. Her mother’s cousins were retail politicians. In the 1970s, Durrani and her then husband hosted Bhutto’s exiled sons in London. (Durrani remains close to Murtaza Bhutto’s widow and children.) She was at Al Murtaza, the Bhutto home in Larkana, when gunmen attacked former first lady Nusrat Bhutto during Benazir Bhutto’s second term as prime minister.

In 1991, Durrani’s first book, initially dismissed as a high society kiss-and-tell, kicked off an uncomfortable debate about medievalism in marriage. It was a tale most women—even those abroad—could identify with. In Italy, which shares some uncanny social traits with Pakistan, it was a roaring bestseller. Writing My Feudal Lord was still easier. That Durrani survived the ferocious fallout from the publication is the real scoop. Overnight, the book had made Durrani and her five children outliers, shunned by friends and family alike. It took 13 years and Edhi’s intervention to finally reconnect Durrani with her parents, who viewed her cathartic confessional as an unpardonable betrayal. “‘She’s a very good girl, please forgive her,’” she recalls the Edhis telling her parents.

Durrani has been a pariah, declared an enemy by those closest to her, and she has braved violence without surrender.

“I couldn’t say everything about me was correct,” Durrani says of her choice to be self-critical in that book, which has been published in 39 languages. “I had to step outside the story to look at it objectively, which is why it is unbiased and gave me the courage to speak about the things that shamed and embarrassed me most. I had to break all my own boundaries and swim against the tide, knowing well that I might sink before I reached shore. But I was driven; something told me I was contributing to a greater good.” To this day, Durrani says her greatest success is not the social or literary work she’s won honors for, but the fact that despite everything her two daughters and two sons have good ties with their politician father, the antihero of Durrani’s autobiography and who was her second husband.

For her next book, 1995’s A Mirror to the Blind, the official biography of Edhi, Durrani lived three years in the slums of Karachi working alongside Edhi’s volunteer army of do-gooders. She dove into the unglamorous world of care giving, feeding the homeless and lending them a shoulder to lean on, bathing unclaimed dead bodies for burial, looking after abandoned babies. Durrani reserves the greatest reverence for Edhi. “He taught me the difference between need and want,” she says of the social reformer. “Without an education, he, and not the state, runs the largest ambulance network across Pakistan.” Her work with Edhi, she says, deepened her understanding and love of Islam. “He is what a Muslim is meant to be.”

Her first book took on the political class, and the second was essentially a critique of a state that had scandalously failed to provide for its people. Her third book was another brave endeavor. In 1998’s Blasphemy she took on the political mullahs, eviscerating their power-addled fiction with harrowing, barely-fictional accounts of debauchery and barbarism. The novel seethed with anger, especially at how these men treated women. “Islam exalts women,” says Durrani. The first wife of Islam’s Prophet was a successful businesswoman, but in Pakistan, women’s economic independence is frowned upon, she says. Durrani has versed herself with the biographies of the prominent women from Islam’s earliest days to challenge myths perpetrated by the mullahs. Women’s worth in Islam, she says, “cannot be disputed.” (In Kandahar, she prayed in the turquoise mosque of Mullah Omar’s abandoned home. The act would be considered rebellious in Pakistan, where mosques are mostly the social sanctum of men.)

With Blasphemy, Durrani ran the risk of riling the mullahs. They never forgot their withering treatment in the book. Thirteen years after its release, banners went up across Lahore implying that Durrani herself had committed blasphemy by authoring the work. She went into lockdown mode and the storm passed. The claim on the banners was both dishonest and dangerous. Durrani’s research into Islamic history and scripture, undertaken lovingly and respectfully, served as the basis for rejecting the shackles imposed on women by the mullahs.

“When powerful people continue to have a huge influence with impunity, criminality becomes acceptable and seeps into everyone’s mindset, that’s the danger,” says Durrani. “Distorting the teachings of Islam is, without a doubt, blasphemous. That’s where the title comes from.” But the mischievous banners came at a delicate time, after the shocking assassinations of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer and minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti—both of whom paid with their blood for urging rationalization of the country’s misused blasphemy laws, a subject Durrani never broached in her book.

‘Being used and abandoned amplifies the anger,’ says the author.

Ever the champion of causes before they become fashionable, Durrani was the first to leap to the defense of Fakhra Yunus, a young mother and dancing girl from Karachi who was allegedly attacked with acid by the half-brother of Durrani’s children. This was in 2000, well before acid attacks on women found Oscar glory. Facing death threats from her feudal ex-stepson, Durrani stood by Yunus’ side, through 39 painful reconstructive surgeries. In 2012, Yunus, exhausted from the medical procedures and unable to live a pain-free life, hurled herself off a balcony in Rome, where she was being treated. The news gutted Durrani, who received the dead body in Karachi and organized her burial.

“She was too tough and cheerful to just die,” says Durrani of Yunus. “Perhaps the realization that her entire life would be spent having surgeries and that she had no hope of ever safely returning home made her do it.” Yunus’ son, Nauman, who witnessed the attack on her mother when he was 5, is now 17 and lives in Rome. The alleged attacker, who threatened to break Durrani’s legs in phone calls to his half-brothers if she continued patronizing Yunus, is living in Pakistan as a quasi-respectable politician in his own right. (He denies ever abusing Yunus, his ex-wife, let alone throwing acid on her.) But Yunus’ story is a lesson in how the rich and privileged, says Durrani, can get away with anything.

“It was a very difficult decision,” Durrani says of championing Yunus—considered a fallen creature for her dancing past—despite the threats and social resistance. “My children’s lives were threatened and they couldn’t go to school. Fakhra was shunned and treated like a leper. Her life had been destroyed. You cannot turn your back to a tragedy like that.” For more than a decade, Durrani stood by Yunus, holding press conferences, meeting ambassadors and social workers, highlighting the overlooked evil of acid attacks on women and children. She implored the Musharraf regime to provide security for Yunus. But “the government didn’t want to touch this,” recalls Durrani. “They thought this would make Pakistan appear abroad as the capital of acid crimes.” It fell on Durrani and the Italian government to care for Yunus.

Anomie of the People

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n Happy Things, published by Ferozsons and released this month, Durrani takes on America, questioning, as other citadels of humanitarian values have, the wisdom of its longest ever war. If the purpose of the war was attainment of world peace, that elusive canard, then the 12 years of fighting in Afghanistan were a sorry way to go about it. “Being used and abandoned amplifies the anger,” says Durrani. “Afghan children have been badly damaged from this very long war. What are they expected to do when they grow up, become doctors and engineers? These scarred creatures have only seen war and only know war.” The generations who survived the last occupation of Afghanistan grew up to become Taliban warriors. The children from the America-led war, she apprehends, will fare no better.  “Citizens of the world must unite against this flawed war policy. We no longer have the luxury to remain passive. We are not in safe hands.”

Durrani continues: “Afghans want an education for themselves and their children, and they want peace and economic independence. It is imperative that they know all this is possible if they understand that it is their right in Islam. Afghans can stand up on their own feet empowered by their Islamic rights. That’s the force I want to assist.” Told from the perspectives of two Afghan children, Happy Things is the story of how America’s poorly planned and executed war has made Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the world, far less safe. It prepares readers for what to expect, and encourages them to think about what to do for Afghanistan, after foreign troops leave next year.

Rediscovering Islam empowered and emancipated Durrani, who views her life as a revolution. She’s learned to turn weakness into strength, she says of her sunny-side-up disposition. “We’re constantly covering up because we are so fearful of disapproval,” she says. “It’s an illness, and we all suffer from it.” The fear of disapproval leads to cover-ups and a schizophrenia where there’s a grave cleavage between what one says and what one does. It is because of such social conditioning that it takes Pakistanis longer to discover their true selves, says Durrani. “By the time we wake up to the fact we’re this and not that, we’re stuck in situations we can’t get out of.”

What’s next for Durrani? After the modest publicity tour for Happy Things, her second art exhibition, A Love Affair, opens in September. She wants to speak and, of course, to continue writing. “I’m not looking to win the Booker Prize,” says Durrani. “I’m only trying to tell something true, a human-interest story that might stir my readers and perhaps, one day, bring a greater change.”

There is a project on Durrani’s horizon that would be well served by her other-side-of-the-story instincts. Years ago in Italy, where one of her daughters lives, Durrani struck up a friendship with Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi’s sons Saif and Motasim. “They said a plane would come from Tripoli to take me there. They wanted me to write their father’s biography,” she says. “The challenge was to write a whole, truthful account and yet be able to leave Libya.”

She dropped the idea but it stayed with her, and with Gaddafi’s family. After the strongman’s killing in 2011, Durrani was asked once again to take on the project. The sender of that message soon disappeared. Durrani is tempted to pursue the story. Her children and friends have advised her against it. But then that has never stopped her.

From our July 5, 2013, issue.

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