Begum Nusrat Ispahani, also known as Nusrat Bhutto, the Iranian-born second wife of former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was from Esfahan’s wealthy Hariri family dynasty, a merchant line whose family name originates from the word ‘harir’ — a quality silk fabric — and which has prominent branches across the Middle East, notably in Syria. She married Bhutto in 1951 and long after he was executed would speak of their mutual affection.
Though she grew up in pre-Partition India (in what later became Pakistan), she was raised with Iranian culture in her home; learning fluent Farsi, eating Iranian food and practicing Iranian traditions, including the celebration of the ancient Iranian New Year, Nowruz.
She taught all four of her children, including Benazir, Farsi (which they not only understood, but spoke, according to a 2010 interview I did with Ispahani’s granddaughter, Fatima Bhutto) and also raised them with Iranian culture. Nonetheless, she was quite assimilated into Pakistani culture as well, esteemed as a style icon for her glamorous saris, immaculate hairdos and fine jewellery. She was, like most of the Iranians who settled in Karachi in the early 20th century, fluent in Urdu and Sindhi and is prized by Pakistanis as one of their own.
With her death, the only living member of the original Bhutto political family is Sanam, Ispahani and Bhutto’s youngest daughter. As the only Bhutto not involved in politics, Sanam was long presumed to outlive her other family members. With Ispahani’s death, however, the political fallout of the Bhutto dynasty is far from over. In the hours following her death, the most vocal of her family members, granddaughter Fatima Bhutto, and Fatima’s adoptive mother, the Lebanese Ghinwa Bhutto, have come forward saying that they had been denied access to Ispahani and hadn’t even been given the courtesy of being informed privately of her passing.
Many experts agree that it was Ispahani who gave Zulfikar Ali the boost he needed to rise from being a successful junior lawyer in Karachi to Pakistan’s youngest delegate to the United Nations in 1957. It was, after all, the first president of Pakistan, Iskandar Mirza, married to an Iranian woman, Naheed Begum, who appointed Bhutto to the UN role. And it was through Naheed’s friendship with her fellow Iranian living in Pakistan, Ispahani, that this significant door to the highest levels of Pakistani politics was opened. President Mirza’s ties to the Iranians were so strong that after his 1969 death when then Pakistani President Yahya Khan denied him burial in Pakistan, his body was flown to Tehran where it was given a state funeral under the Shah.
But it wasn’t just Ispahani’s high-powered Iranian friends in Karachi (Naheed Mirza’s being just one of several pivotal friendships during Bhutto’s rise to power) that helped Bhutto’s political career. The Iranian-born Ispahani was a political mind in her own right, skilled in the diplomatic arts and politically informed. She eventually became the head of the Pakistan Peoples Party that her husband left behind. She is still remembered by many Pakistanis for participating in street demonstrations — photographs of the baton beatings she endured during one political protest are still circulated on social networks by young Pakistanis.
She publicly supported son Murtaza (father of Fatima) over Benazir to be the successor of the PPP following their father’s execution and publicly denounced her prime minister daughter for, according to my 2010 interview with Fatima, “attacking her own mother’s house” after a 1994 incident during which police surrounded the famous Bhutto residence in Larkana and shot and killed several people in the house. Ispahani later openly accused Benazir of complicity in Murtaza’s assassination, also during Benazir’s premiership.
It was not long after that assassination that Ispahani was whisked away to Dubai, never to be seen or heard from again by the Pakistani public or the family she left behind. Fatima, in particular, has often described her affections for her Iranian grandmother and the heritage she garnered from her. She dedicated her first book, Songs of Blood and Sword, to Ispahani (the book’s title is derived from a famous revolutionary poem by Iranian poet Khosro Golsorkhi) and told me that “Benazir took her in 1997 and they haven’t allowed us to see her since” because “she’s held incommunicado”.
She was visibly moved by talk of her grandmother. “It’s always been a part of the shadows of our lives, this Iranian side,” she told me. “Whether it’s the poetry, or the music, or… my grandmother”.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 26th, 2011.