The death of an icon

Published: October 25, 2011
The writer is a columnist for Al Jazeera and hosts New America Media’s “New America Now” radio programme in the US and can be followed on Twitter @ShirinSadeghi.

The writer is a columnist for Al Jazeera and hosts New America Media’s “New America Now” radio programme in the US and can be followed on Twitter @ShirinSadeghi.

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.

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Reader Comments (13)

  • amir
    Oct 25, 2011 - 8:58PM

    icon? lol


  • Truth Seeker
    Oct 25, 2011 - 10:06PM

    It proves that behind every successful man, there is a woman. Instead of one, ZAB had two women, Naheed and Nusrat were the architects of ZAB’s political flight path.
    Cultural constraints suffixed ‘Bhutto’ with Nusrat by replacing it for Ispahani…
    Shirin Sadeghi has revealed another demeaning aspect of Pakistani society, where sons and daughters of the soil are always seeking refuge in foreign lands in the time of crisis.For the sake of political expediency, even the dead are not spared.Recommend

  • Arifq
    Oct 25, 2011 - 11:12PM

    Beautiful rendition, thanks for sharing


  • Mirza
    Oct 25, 2011 - 11:35PM

    The writer talks more about Iran and less about Pakistan. Begum Bhutto’s role as an Iranian is nothing compared to her role as a Pakistani. Being an Iranian is nothing good or bad and it should not overshadow Begum Bhutto’s legacy. This great icon was not famous as Isphani but as Bhutto and PPP leader. Begum Bhutto lives on in the hearts of millions of Pakistanis and not Iranians.


  • Oct 25, 2011 - 11:42PM

    But i don’t think what ever Fatima Bhutto says is right, I have read her book ( songs of blood and sword) and that book has nothing about the whole family, maybe just information about the Bhuttos and the first time they appeared in India and later Pakistan public arena, but that book is mostly dedicated to her father who has not accomplished any thing in his life, so there might be better sources for knowing Nusrat Begum and Benazir than the reports of a familiy member who holds grudge towards the rest of the family….


  • Aamir Saeed
    Oct 26, 2011 - 3:08AM

    Ma’am, the article is well written but the whole information is based on just one interview with Fatima Bhutto. And ma’am you seem to be impressed by philosophy of Fatima, so the article itself bears grudge against rest of the family.
    The connection you mentioned between Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the then President Iskander Mirza is an addition to my knowledge and thanks for that.


  • Nisar Ahmed
    Oct 26, 2011 - 6:38AM

    During her 82-year life she had gone through torments and tribulations despite witnessing some high moments as the country’s first-lady. However, following the ouster of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government by General Zia, Begum Nusrat Bhutto witnessed a dreaded-fall of Bhutto Dynasty. She saw her husband walking to the gallows and buried her son Shahnawz Bhutto just at the age of 27. She could not bear the loss of her elder son Mir Murtaza Bhutto who was callously murdered in Karachi when her daughter Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister of Pakistan. The iron lady was shocked and shocked to the core as a result she lost her memory. She, verily suffered both at the hands of friends and foes.


  • Nasrullah Khan
    Oct 26, 2011 - 9:58AM

    Begum Nusrat Ispahani was born in Bombay and not in Iran. Her parents however were from Isfahan in Iran.


  • Irfan Urfi
    Oct 26, 2011 - 12:37PM

    Excellent Post very Informative !strong text


  • Mahrukh Khan Irfan
    Oct 26, 2011 - 12:43PM

    Nice Post Begum Nusrat Bhutto Is Truly Lover Of Oppressed Peoples Of Pakistan ! strong text


  • Khan
    Oct 26, 2011 - 2:44PM

    Such a glorious lady ! so were Benazir and Zulfiqar Bhutto. Pakistan is full of such glorious people, only that this glory does not transform into the love for the damned people of this country, whose lot seems to be in perpetual depression.


  • Oct 27, 2011 - 8:28PM

    Begum Bhutto was brave, bold and an icon for women all over the world. Nadeem Farooq Paracha tweeted: “Begum Nusrat Bhutto passes away. Her’s was the longest and toughest struggle. RIP.” I could not agree more with Mr Paracha. Begum Bhutto’s was indeed the longest and the hardest struggle in Pakistan’s history. She lost her husband, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at the hands of a tyrannical regime. She fought for democracy and was a pillar of strength for the people of Pakistan when she stood up against General Zia’s brutalities with great courage. Begum Bhutto lost three children during her lifetime Shahnawaz Bhutto, Murtaza Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto. Pakistan today is poorer for the loss of Begum Bhutto. She was a role model. Rest in peace Begum Nusrat Bhutto. Your courageous life is an inspiration for Pakistan.


  • Suhail Ahmed
    Oct 28, 2011 - 7:06PM

    Begum Bhutto was a class in her own. The lady was not looking for anything but when the country needed her leadership she led by example from the front. With the mullah taking over, when would we ever get modern women leadership like her? Looking at her pictures one can only feel the pains where are we heading? We were lucky to have these great ladies and i’m sure this nation will have more of them, though i hope they don’t suffer like them – there be no other Zia and Mush.


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