Thursday, January 03, 2008

Bhutto at a Raleigh Drugstore

Here's the story of my chance meeting with Benazir Bhutto, and my farewell to her, which appeared in my local paper the Raleigh News & Observer the day after her death. She was one courageous human, and showed that it's possible to be bold and graceful at the same time.

My Personal Prime Minister

One midmorning some years ago, while waiting at the Eckerd prescription counter in Cameron Village, I had a pleasant chat with Benazir Bhutto.

I'd been in line a few minutes when I heard behind me a South Asian accent and turned to look.

"Afroz!" I said. I knew him: a Hindi-Urdu professor at N.C. State University, Afroz Taj. He greeted me, then turned to a woman whom I hadn't noticed. She seemed so petite and delicate, but then I had on heels. What I noted of her Pakistani dress was layer on layer of fabric, shades of blue and plum, wrapped around her shoulders and over her hair.

I heard him introducing us, but was only half-listening. I didn't expect to recognize the name, or get it right. It would surely be long, delivered high-speed and accented.

I did hear. Her name landed on my brain the same instant I recognized her face, famous and beautiful, though a bit blotchy without makeup, and tired.

I fell all over myself greeting her. I didn't know much about her, but enough: She was a woman who had gotten herself elected leader of a Muslim nation. And she'd led with such feminine grace and style. When I first watched her from afar in the late 1980s, I thought, "This is what great power can look like in a woman who accepts it as natural, who is strong without having to appear hardened."

She seemed touched and pleased by my effusions. I don't remember a word she said to me.

Thursday, as most of the world knows, she was assassinated during a campaign rally in her bid to regain leadership. She had barely escaped death in previous attempts on her life, and I had feared for her.

Star power, controlled

Living in Dubai in 2002, Bhutto had come to town to give a talk at N.C. State University. Immediately after the drugstore meeting, I rushed back to my office and began strewing e-mail in every direction. My friends replied with messages that, in essence, said: In Raleigh? At Eckerd? Are you kidding?

That afternoon, I drove to campus with a copy of my novel set in India. I inscribed it to Bhutto, leaving it with a journalism professor who promised to get it to her.

That evening, the auditorium was packed. Bhutto came to the lectern in a manner I've seen evangelist Billy Graham use -- with modest bearing, unmistakable star power understated, subordinated to a larger cause. Her speech assumed a fair amount of knowledge of Pakistani politics, infused with a level of detail that's the stuff of C-SPAN. Most strikingly, she responded to a question sympathetic to current Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf by telling the audience that Musharraf "is a dictator."

She spoke little of her personal experience, but as she talked, a mesmerizing mini-drama was taking place between her and her head scarf. Diaphanous and white, it wouldn't stay put. Again and again, she'd gracefully pull it forward, then syrup-slow it would slide back, exposing ever more of her black, black hair. It was as though she traveled back and forth as we watched, between Muslim head-covering and the world of bare-headed freewheeling women.

A note from Dubai

In the weeks after her visit, I searched out her autobiography, and, of course, Googled her. I read how she was held in a cell with her mother while her father, overthrown prime minister, was executed by the Pakistani military. The man who brought them his wedding ring said the prisoner died a peaceful death. Bhutto questioned how peaceful a hanging could be.

I read, too, that she had been widely accused of financial corruption on a massive scale, and some details gave one pause. She denied wrongdoing, saying the allegations were political weapons. I used to think I was a near-infallible judge of character, even on brief meeting. Then the cheerful computer guy who'd spent hours at my desk helping me was convicted of murder. Now I am slower to assume I know for sure. And, in the instance of Ms. Bhutto, I have a bias.

Months later, an e-mail arrived in my box with an "@emirates" address. Spam, I thought. Instead it was my own personal former head of state writing from the United Arab Emirates to say thank you for the book, she liked it very much. I was astonished to hear from her, had never had a moment's thought that I might.

As real as car keys

Years passed in which her political efforts remained quiet. Then she returned to the world stage.

When I learned she was considering co-leadership with Musharraf, I thought of e-mailing her: "You go, girl!" But given the cultural differences, that line could be entirely misunderstood. And I didn't feel informed enough to encourage any particular course of action.

What I do know is that I had a stake in this fight. I followed it, wanting not only peace in Pakistan -- and, by the way, freedom of scarf-decision, with all that that embodies -- I also hoped, futilely it turns out, my brave friend from the drugstore would be successful and safe.

Thus Benazir Bhutto brought the fight in Pakistan close, making it as real to me as my car keys. She was a woman who was about my age, someone with whom I had identified and talked in the most ordinary, everyday way.

I learned of her death while in Washington, D.C. I should not have been surprised, but I was and am. I send sympathies, most especially to her young daughter, and wish her spirit godspeed.

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Debra w said...

Hi Peggy,

I meant to tell you that I enjoyed reading this article after you posted the link.

I, too, was very saddened by her death. What's even more unfortunate is that she is now being blamed for her own assassination. Nothing like twisted logic to take the focus off of where it belongs.

Peggy said...

I don't think those accusations will stick; I think they're pretty obvious dodges.

Certainly she took chances knowingly, and did it for a reason.

Kelley said...

I love this! Thanks for sharing it!

Peggy Payne said...

Thank you, Kelley. This one meant a lot to me.