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Huma Abedin’s Memoir Details the Strong Influence of Her Indian-Pakistani Upbringing and Her Islamic Faith

Huma Abedin’s Memoir Details the Strong Influence of Her Indian-Pakistani Upbringing and Her Islamic Faith

  • In “Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds,” Hillary Clinton’s trusted aide shares stories of her family, heritage, identity, faith, marriage, and motherhood.

Growing up, whenever Huma Abedin was asked where she was from originally, she always said she was half-Indian, half-Pakistani, “feeling equal allegiance” to both her parents’ homelands. That followed her in college (George Washington University) as well, where she was “equally committed to Indian and Pakistani student’s associations.”

However in 1997, soon after she started working at the White House, during a visa interview at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, D.C., she realized “that having an equal allegiance and love for both countries was not so simple.”

Such stories fill up nearly 500 pages of Abedin’s memoir, “Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds.” It sheds a light on her family, her upbringing as well as the influence Islam has had on her. Abedin is a close aide to Hillary Clinton and estranged wife of former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) Born in the United States to a father raised in India and a mother from Pakistan, she spent much of her childhood in Saudi Arabia.

An American and a Muslim

The incident at the Pakistani embassy in Washington D.C. reminded Abedin why her parents had always told their children to identify as Americans, “not as Indian or Pakistani,” although they were to love and respect both aspects of their heritage equally. “They were trying to spare us this deep divide, and in the moment I viscerally understood why,” she writes. Whenever I have had to get a visa for India, I have had the same challenge with similar questions about my mother. Over time, I have just learned to live with it,” she adds.

Talking about the challenges that the duality of her family’s identity posed she writes, “The irony of my father’s life was that he loved India so much, but because of his marriage and in later years, his health, he could not go home easily.” 

“He was the consummate Indian patriot,” she adds.

Her parents, however, had realized that only Americanness would allow their children to move forward. “In conversations about our identity, Abbu was clear: you are an American and a Muslim.” And it was this Muslim identity that played a role in her personal and professional life to a certain extent. 

When Weiner asked her to marry him, Abedin recalls having a religious conversation with him. “The proposal, the existence of a ring, had forced the religious conversation,” she writes. She told Weiner that although he had gone from being her best friend to the only man she had ever loved, she couldn’t reconcile how to marry outside my faith. “If we were to be married, I needed to know that he was someone who would accept my God and my faith traditions.” 

Noting that Weiner wasn’t asking her to give up anything, “in this or any other aspects of our relationship,” she writes that she was the one “asking him to bend, to change, to embrace a new way of life..” And from almost the first day they went out, he had. She writes how he stopped eating pork, drinking alcohol, and “continued to meticulously give a percentage of his income to charity every year … he had even started fasting with me from time to time during Ramadan. Still, I could not force him to personally accept my faith beliefs — there is no compulsion in Islam.”

Faith also played a role while she was working in the White House. “It was the first event where I felt I knew more than anyone else in the room. I had crossed the line from being just another young American Muslim to being a representative of the federal government who happens to be a Muslim.”

Her Muslim identity came into play once again when she was planning Hillary Clinton’s Pakistan State visit. “I figured this was one of those countries when our own security didn’t entirely trust host country security, and vice versa,” she writes. “Part of the anger I knew we could encounter was due to the feeling of being beholden to America for so much financial aid,” she adds “This was a country that had faced gale-force winds from day one: Partition, the conflict in Kashmir, the splitting-off of East Pakistan to become Bangladesh, the death of Pakistan’s inspiring founder Muhammed Ali Jinnah year after its founding, assassinations of leaders, a struggling economy, the devastatingly fragile institutions of democracy that left military commanders in charge for more than half the country’s existence. Now the United States was fighting a war with terrorists on Pakistani soil,” she continues. “I couldn’t say I knew how it felt to be in their shoes. but I got it. This was after all my mother’s home country.”

Abedin stayed connected to her heritage through academics as well. In her sophomore year at college, she signed up for Post Colonial Literature of India “in an effort to connect” with her heritage. “The reading list exposed me to some of South Asia’s preeminent authors: R.K. Narayan, Anita Desai and Rabindranath Tagore. They each portrayed characters whose inner struggles were catalyzed by living in a time when social and cultural norms were changing and religious constrictions were loosening; the common line in all these novels: how to honor the past while accepting a rapidly changing future.”

She recalls instantly falling in love with a novel called “Twilight in Delhi,” which told the story of an upper middle-class Muslim family living in Delhi at the end of what had seemed like a good century, the slow death of the Mughal Empire, in all its majesty and poetry; and the birth of a new era under British rule. Given my father’s own connection to Delhi and his love for it, I was captivated by the book.”

The Family: India, Pakistan and the U.S.

The initial chapters of the book introduce the readers to her family, especially her adored late father, Syed Zainul Abedin, who died before she started college. In fact, his advice on being true to herself, scrawled in a handwritten note, begins the book. 

Syed Zainul Abedin was born in the spring of 1928, in New Delhi. “To me, he was Abbu, derived from the Arabic word for father, but in his official correspondence he was always Syed or Zain,” she writes. His ancestors originated in the Hejaz region of Arabia and traced their path over a few generations through Baghdad and then Central Asia, before finally settling in New Delhi. “The story of their migration over centuries is how Islam came to India, culminating in the rule of the Mughal Empire in the mid-16th century util the 1700s when the British invaded,” Abedin writes.

She writes how the Partition of India and how it “tore families apart,” including that of her father. The question of whether the family should move to newly-formed Pakistan was left to her father, “a 19-year-old college student and the only son.” Zain had been raised in a mostly secular manner, so he decided to remain in India on principle. “I don’t need a country to tell me I am Muslim, he said. So he stayed, with the belief that India could flourish,” she writes.

She writes how the Partition of India and how it “tore families apart,” including that of her father. The question of whether the family should move to newly-formed Pakistan was left to her father, “a 19-year-old college student and the only son.” Zain had been raised in a mostly secular manner, so he decided to remain in India on principle. “I don’t need a country to tell me I am Muslim, he said. So he stayed, with the belief that India could flourish,” she writes.

He studied at Aligarh Muslim University where he got his Master’s in English literature and wrote poetry both in English and Urdu. He played every sport and rode for the university’s equestrian team. After a year-long break due to an injury, he graduated and then taught English literature in his alma mater for the next decade. Eventually, he applied for and received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. 

In the summer of 1963, when her father boarded a ship from Bombay to take him to Europe and the U.S., he had no idea that his journey would be one-way. He was expected to return when his studies were complete, to marry a woman his parents had informally promised him to. But fate had other plans for him. He met Saleha, his future wife, a year later, when she, also a Fulbright Scholar, was pursuing her doctoral studies in sociology and demography. 

Abedin’s mother’s family was from Hyderabad in India where her grandfather and great grandfather served as civil servants in the court of the Nizam. In 1946, when Saleha was 6, the family decided to move to Bombay. Her father moved first, joined his older brother’s billboard business, settled down and then called his family to join him.

In Bombay, Saleha’s family lived near the Gateway of India; and she and her sisters were enrolled in Catholic schools, where she thrived. Her parents saw no contradiction in sending their Muslim children to Catholic schools. Their family assimilated with the Hindu, Christian, Zoroastrian and Jewish families surrounding them. Saleha’s best friend was her Jewish next-door neighbor in the Great Western Building. “That kind of openness and tolerance was commonplace in Bombay, one of the major crossroads of the world, where people of different ethnicities and religions lived side by side,” Abedin writes. 

Then came the Partition. Despite the tension, her mother’s family, like her father’s, decided to stay in Bombay. However, after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination On Jan. 30, 1948, riots broke out in Bombay and “a general sense of unease and uncertainty prevailed.” In the months and years that followed, life began to change. Abedin’s maternal grandparents, “who had never before felt the need to defend their Indian-ness, hung the flag of the ruling Indian National Congress party outside their door so that no one could question their allegiance to their country.

As the family’s future began to feel uncertain in Bombay, and Sadiq’s advertising company began to fail, the family boarded a ship for a three-day journey to Pakistan. As they settled in the new country, Saleha’s parents had difficulty finding appropriate schools for the children. Instead, tutors were brought to homeschool them, and they were able to supplement their limited instruction with access to a relative’s small library, where Saleha read everything she could get her hands on. As she got older, even her father recognized that her intellect was superior. “Her excellence first propelled her to college, then to graduate school,” Abedin writes. She eventually came to America, on a Fulbright Scholarship to Penn. Her parents supported her decision, despite resistance from relatives for sending an unmarried girl abroad for higher studies. 

When Saleha boarded the plane to Philadelphia, she was the first person in her family to travel to the United States, the memoir reveals. She had less than $100 in her pocket, one suitcase, and no winter coat. “Just a determined spirit, hunger for knowledge and an open heart.”

Abedin’s parents met at Penn and eventually got married. “Saleha wore a whisper-thin chiffon sari every day, her long hair down to her hips; Zain, his Nehru jacket and a short, neatly trimmed beard,” she writes. “Though they must’ve been an exotic sight on the Penn campus, by all accounts they were happy there and felt right at home. They took walks, had picnics, enjoyed night outs at Local Pagano’s pizzeria, and talked endlessly.” 

That summer, after marrying and settling into a new apartment on campus, Abedin’s parents sent a letter to the U.S. State Department. As recipients of the Fulbright scholarship, they applied for a waiver to remain in the U.S., and it was granted. “Years later, when I worked at the State Department in Washington, D.C., it struck me that it was this very institution, and the values it embodied, that anchored our family in America, enabling me to have the truly most incredible life,” she writes. 

When Zain completed his doctoral studies in American Civilization at Penn and received an offer for a faculty position at the Western Michigan University, he and Saleha loaded a tiny U-Haul trailer, hitched it to the back of their emerald-green 1967 Dodge Dart, and headed west out of Philly I-76 with their newborn, my brother Hasan, to make their new home in the American Midwest. There they would have two more children, Hadeel, and then 18 months later, Abedin.

In the chapters where she talks about choosing public service as a career, Abedin writes about her grandparents who chose a life of service in India and Pakistan. In March of 1997, Abedin was working as an intern at the White House. With less than two months for graduation, she was anticipating applying to law school and looking for an internship at The Washington Post. But she was offered the role of an assistant to Melanne Verveer, First Lady Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff. 

“I didn’t know what to think. I was stunned, excited, giddy even, at the prospect,” she writes. “In college, I had taken so many political science classes that I almost ended up with a double major, so perhaps this was a path I had chosen unconsciously,” she writes. “My father’s family had been in government civil service for generations in India. I knew the stories about my maternal grandmother’s work with a women’s advocacy group hosting women educators and activists all around Pakistan, and sometimes beyond. Maybe public service was in my blood.”

Not the ‘Other’

When Abedin was 2, her father was diagnosed with progressive renal failure. The doctor gave him at most five to ten years. Despite the news, her parents, both professors, “decided to go ahead with a long-planned sabbatical year.” Her father had intended to spend a year in Italy, “but as they weighed various options, Saudi Arabia became a more appealing choice.” At the time, the Saudi government was investing in infrastructure and education and recruiting teachers to come and support inaugural programs at new institutions, and King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah made an inordinately generous offer. Her parents would both be given faculty positions, plus free university housing, a stipend to pay for school for all three children, free medical care at the university hospital, and first-class round trip airline tickets twice a year back to Michigan. “My father was told he was dying, so he went out and lived.”

See Also

Abedin writes how her growing up years in Saudi Arabia shaped her. “I had the benefit of being raised in a Muslim country where I could practice my faith without threat and suspicion,” she says. “I never had to be the Brown kid in an American school who was tested for bringing ‘weird’ ethnic food in my lunch box,” she continues. “Thanks to both my parents, as an adolescent I’d had enough confidence to carry on with my faith and cultural traditions once I landed in America, where I was suddenly a minority.” 

She remembers how classmates asked her if she lived in a tent or went to school in a camel and almost always wondered how she was so fluent in English. “I knew they were just curious, not malicious.” She talks about how she “floated” between an American accent, a British accent and an Arabic accent, “depending on whom I was talking to.” But most people who met her didn’t think she had an accent at all. “I tried different stereotypes and didn’t fit neatly into any one category. I was never the other and found I could fit anywhere.”

Even before moving to Saudi Arabia, Abedin recalls growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she was born, where she spent her earliest years and every summer for years. “We lived in a suburban ranch-style home with a large picture window, a backyard with a lawn, and a small field of asparagus stalks,” she writes. “We spent weekends shopping at Hardings Friendly Market, picnicking at Milham park, or driving two hours to a kosher butcher in Gary, Indiana, where the proprietor usually mistook our Muslim family for Sephardic Jews.”

She remembers how their home “was always filled with visitors.” Her paternal grandmother had moved in with them, as she aged so her parents could care for her. “There was always a relative coming through town, some just having arrived from India or Pakistan – for dinner, a weekend, or for a few weeks before they made their own new American homes or headed back to the motherland after their studies were complete,” she recalls. 

“My parents hosted dinner parties for friends and colleagues where they would discuss literature, religion and culture over heaping servings of biryani. They didn’t consume or serve pork or alcohol, and no one seemed to mind. Thanksgiving quickly became our family’s favorite American holiday. On Christmas Eve we spent at our close friend’s house helping with tree trimming and preparing family feasts, opening the door from time to time to listen to Christmas carols.”

The Burden of Guilt and Hope for the Future 

In interviews to promote the book, Abedin has spoken about the guilt she experienced over Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 presidential race to Donald Trump. She shares an incident that she experienced in what she calls “the darkest moments of her life.” 

On Nov. 9, 2016, Clinton delivered her concession speech in New York City. As Abedin and others walked across the street headed for the staff van, the crowd of reporters who had gathered called out to her, “Huma! Do you think your laptop cost her the election? Do you feel responsible for her loss?” 

She recalls getting into the van to go to the campaign headquarters with Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, his daughter Mae, and Jennifer Pike Bailey, HRC’s Senior Public Policy Advocate. But when they got stuck in traffic they chose to take a subway. As Abedin and others stood on the platform waiting for a train, she recalls a woman approaching her and telling her “You know we Americans are a peace-loving people … I just want to ask you, if you don’t love this country, why don’t you leave?” Abedin recalls how her legs began to shake, “partly from the exhaustion, partly from the shock of her words, and I thought they might buckle under me.” She remembers Podesta intervening and telling the woman to leave her alone. But she was persistent. 

“As an Indian, Pakistani, Muslim girl growing up in Saudi Arabia, my tremendous pride in being an American has never wavered,” she writes in response to the incident. “It was part of my identity, the same as any other Americans. The same as hers. I didn’t reply to this stranger who in one of the very darkest moments of my life questioned my love of country.”

Abedin chose not to respond to the woman because she didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of a response. But she writes what she wanted to say. “I love this country so much that I spent the last 20 years of my life in public service, working for the institutions that defend your right to stand here and say whatever the hell you want to me.” But the train pulled in. She boarded, watched the sliding doors close, leaving the woman on the platform. Then Abedin “dropped” onto the orange bench. “The forces unleashed by the dawning of the presidency of Donald Trump were here, out in the open, ugly and angry, hateful and spiteful, soon to be given voice by the most powerful pulpit in the world,” she writes. “Instead of Love Trumping Hate, now we have this.” 

Although Clinton’s defeat had shocked and disappointed everyone, Abedin recalls how it inspired women and young people to speak up and run for office. It also opened their eyes “to the reality that if democracy meant something to them, if they wanted their leadership to reflect their aspirations and beliefs, they needed to step up themselves,” she writes. She quotes a friend who told her that she believed there was a divine purpose to what happened in November of 2016. “HRC had to lose for many Americans to wake up; to scare them, motivate them to stand up for the values they believed in. And they did.”

Abedin was proud to see the proliferation of Muslim and South Asian candidates, especially women, running for local, state, and federal offices. “In some ways, it was a response to the travel ban against Muslims that Trump announced a week after his swearing-in,” she writes. “At the time, I couldn’t help thinking about all the people I had met on the campaign trail who had shrugged off my ‘dramatic warnings about what a Trump win could mean for Muslims. People who did not take him seriously or literally, but as a form of entertainment.”

Abedin also refers to the recognition of South Asian Americans as a powerful voting bloc. “Even though we were a small percentage of the American population, both the Muslim and the South Asian communities have concentrations of citizens in battleground states like Michigan, Georgia, Nevada, Arizona and North Carolina,” she writes. 

She cites two 2020 polls conducted by the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at the University of California, San Diego, “showing that between them, the Muslim populations in Arizona and Georgia are large enough to make a difference in the electoral outcomes in residential races – and that their interest and motivation to participate was higher than ever before.” 

She also quotes AAPI Data’s revelation that in 2020, AAPI voters supported Democrats candidates over Republicans two to one. “No longer was I part of a minority in this country that didn’t count, as my colleague had told me back in 2007,” she writes. “Like any minority, we need to keep raising our voices, claiming our place in the public discourse, defining ourselves instead of just gritting our teeth over malicious and unfounded accusations. We also have to make an effort to demystify our faith, our culture, our values and beliefs, and I am excited that all these new faces and voices are showing us the way.”

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