KARACHI: Considered as one of the most powerful personalities of the country, President Asif Ali Zardari in his private life presents a picture very different from what is portrayed by both the national and international media.
On his recent visit to Karachi, The Express Tribune pieced together the way Mr President lives – what his likes and dislikes are, who he meets, and what he does when he wants to relax.
A humble personality by appearance but also seen as an arrogant party chief, Zardari is very much a family man. He makes it a point to make time for his family members, especially when he comes to Karachi. Every day, he calls his father, Hakim Ali Zardari, at different times to check on his health. The elder Zardari has been unwell of late and has been receiving treatment at a local hospital.
In the same manner, Zardari also keeps tabs on his children. Usually talking to them at least once a day, he takes their calls even when in official meetings. Asif Ali Zardari also makes it a point to have lunch with his father as often as he can when in Karachi.
The eating habits of our leaders have been a source of much discussion in the past. Not so with Asif Zardari, who is not particularly fond of eating say his personal staff members.
He has a set choice of menu. “Asif Saheb takes toasted brown bread, a choice of egg with a glass of milk or a fresh juice for breakfast,” says an attendant, adding “For meals, he likes simple daal and rice with mixed vegetables.” In case he has guests over, then special arrangements are made for meat items like chicken roast or fried fish.
Another staff member at Bilawal House said that depending upon his mood, Zardari has a taste for mushroom Pizza which is usually ordered from the Marriott Hotel. He also likes Pakoras, which he asks the cook to make on evenings. But of late, this has been discontinued, possibly because of his busy schedule.
A close associate of Zardari said that the president earlier smoked heavily but now he has now quit smoking mainly on request of his daughters. “He smoked Dunhill cigarettes and it would appear at times that he would not inhale but puffed just to chill with friends,” the associate said.
Despite news stories that claim that Zardari is one of the richest men in Pakistan, his clothes remain simple on most days. Zardari has a simple sense of style and likes to wear wash and wear material or fall material Shalwar Kameez with handmade Sindhi Topis. The Topis are gifted to him mostly by prisoners in jail.
On his international tours, the President prefers to choose from his collection of branded 3 piece suits, which he usually purchases on his trips to Dubai.
Another attendant disclosed that Zardari neither uses the office of his wife - late Benazir Bhutto nor does he sleep in the bedroom where she used to sleep in Bilawal House. He spends most of the time in a newly built annexe close to BB’s drawing room where she met party leaders and workers. “Nobody knows why and nobody dares ask why.” stated a worker at Bilawal House when asked Zardari’s reluctance to sleep in his old quarters.
The president, as per official protocol, is usually accompanied by two military secretaries on his visits. These two schedule his political and official meetings for him.
However, Zardari is quite flexible with his meetings. If some family member or friend shows up without a schedule, then they approach the personal attendants of Zardari who arrange such meetings for him.
It may be mentioned here that the regular personal visitors include Rehman Malik, Zulfikar Mirza and Agha Siraj Durrani who have the liberty to barge into Zardari’s room at any time except when it is really late in the night. In such a situation, proper intimation has to be given as Zardari is made to compromise on his sleep.
According to a very close friend of Zardari, the president is usually very charming. “Generally he treats everyone nicely. He inquires about their health and their family members.” But on some occasions when he is irritable, the niceties end there.
“When people try to attack him verbally, he is usually quite calm and composed. But then there are times when he is irritable and on such occasions he sometimes loses his temper.”
“Saheb baba dadho gussey jo tez ha. Asaan unhi j samhoon na wenda ahyun jadhein saheb khay khaar hondi ahay. Jeko samoon ayo te unhi g shaamat,” commented one family retainer. (Zardari Saheb has a very bad temper. We don’t appear in front of him when he is angry. Whoever comes in front of him at that time is in deep trouble.)
Another long-running joke amongst friends is the remarks that Zardari made to US Vice President candidate Sarah Palin. Friends usually tease him about his remarks. “We often tease AZ saying that he is aging now as he literaly fell for Sarah Palin because she was too old for him,” giggled the businessman turned politician friend of Zardari.
A local leader and member of the provincial assembly was contacted to find out how Zardari addressed senior members of his party said that it depended upon occasions and his state of mind at the time.
“Usually he is nice but quick with everyone and doesn’t like the drag in discussions so he cuts that person and asks him to come to the point,” he revealed. He further said Zardari is very particular of his behavior when it comes to meeting delegations of other parties, he instructs us to be nice with them as it was the tradition of the Baloch to welcome the guest in the highest of honor. “Zardari Saheb says that since he is a Baloch and as per the tradition we should pay maximum regard and honor to the guest,” he added.
After spending several years in prison in which he suffered multiple medical problems, Zardari has now engaged a full time masseuse who is a Maher by caste. This man accompanies the president in tours local and international and Zardari now gets a massage before going to bed. “That is the time when he is in his most relaxed moods and you can have a candid chat with him on any issue,” said an insider.
Published in the Express Tribune, May 31st, 2010