Huma Abedin, a top aide to Hillary Clinton, tells the story in her newly published memoir (both and; Published by Simon and Schuster) on Clinton’s visit to Pakistan when she was US Secretary of State (2009-2013) under President Barack Obama. The entire US delegation accompanying the Secretary of State was invited to a state dinner at the Presidential Palace in Islamabad. While introducing Abedin to President Asif Ali Zardari, Clinton stated that Huma had recently been engaged to marry. “I wish it was a nice Pakistani boy,” Zardari said sarcastically without knowing it. There was a brief moment of uneasiness, as Abedin was actually engaged to New York Jewish Congressman, Anthony Weiner.
Abdeen is the daughter of Indian Muslim Syed Zainal Abidin and Pakistani mother Salha Mahmud, both of whom are scholars. Mr. Abdeen was a prominent Islamic scholar and Middle Eastern scholar, who was educated at the famous Aligarh Islamic University and excelled in the equestrian team. Later, he obtained his Ph.D. from University of Pennsylvania in the United States. He spent some time teaching in Saudi Arabia and founded the Institute for Muslim Minority Affairs with offices in Saudi Arabia and London.
Homma was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but moved to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia when her parents moved there. She was two years old at the time and spent a large part of her childhood there. Her father was a devout Muslim and Huma claims to be a devout Muslim and is proud of her religion. She has always been associated with Hillary Clinton, beginning as an intern in the White House when she was the first lady, and then rising to become the deputy chief of staff when Clinton was Secretary of State. In the course of her long association with Clinton, Abedin has traveled extensively and met and observed many world leaders. In her memoirs, she explores her multiple identities as a child of South Asian Muslim parents, growing up in Saudi Arabia, and her life as an American citizen who had the privilege of observing history in the making of it from a certain point of view.
Abedin tells a number of interesting anecdotes from her experience as a top Clinton aide. Munira tells the story of an occasion she accompanied President Clinton on a visit to Saudi Arabia. In 2002 the President was invited to speak at the Jeddah Economic Forum and asked to be part of the delegation. These were the days when strict gender segregation was practiced in Saudi Arabia. However, the hosts were informed in advance that it was important for the President of the United States to include women in the conference, and he was assured that they would participate in the conference. However, an embarrassing situation arose when the president was greeted on his arrival at the conference by all the dressed male officials. Abedin, knowing the cultural mores, retreated until Clinton called her, “Come Homma,” as she walked through the male-only entrance. She said she could feel men uncomfortable, “looking away or simply ignoring me.” There was nothing else they could do. Soon, she was politely escorted to the women’s section.
The reader is left to wonder why someone as talented as Huma Abedin never tried to seek a more independent position, instead of remaining in Clinton’s shadow.
Abedin had the opportunity to attend many state dinners in several countries as Clinton’s special assistant. However, when she was invited to a breakfast and dinner at the White House, hosted by President Obama, for Muslim ambassadors, members of Congress and other senior officials, and seated next to the President, I felt immense pride, joy, and a special relationship with Muslims. The dignitaries present described them as “my people”. President Obama commended American Muslims who make significant contributions in many areas in America, especially citing Abedin for her distinguished service.
Abdeen expresses special love for Pakistan where most of her relatives live. “On each visit in Pakistan I made a new discovery, whether it was visiting the wide tree-lined avenues of an aunt’s house in Islamabad, manicured and quiet, or the hustle and bustle of Karachi,” she says. She proudly remembers her uncle, Admiral SM Ehsan, who rose to become the Commander in Chief of the Pakistan Navy under the regime of Ayub Khan. She traces her passion for Pakistan as a place “where sweetened tea is great, where mango lassi tastes like manna from heaven and where I’ve eaten and eaten and am still losing weight.”
The book is full of enlightening stories. In one such episode, she describes the official visit of King Abdullah who was to receive Secretary of State Clinton in his Bedouin tent in Riyadh. It was a facade, from the inside, the tent looked no different from the grandiose audience hall of the palace. When dinner was served, it was a sight to behold: a huge table saddled with all manner of Western and Western dishes, and Clinton was expected to savor all of them. She ate until she couldn’t get any more, then found out that there were two more dishes that had yet to come.
The section of the book that deals with the author’s tumultuous romantic relationship with Anthony Weiner, and their marriage and subsequent breakdown, is truly heartbreaking. Huma Abedin had been leading a very hectic life as a top aide to Hillary Clinton and although she had met a lot of important people, there was little chance of finding a suitable marriage partner until Anthony Weiner, a young congressman from New York, a rising star in the Democratic Party, appeared on Arena. And he courted Abdeen, giving all the attention and love she had hitherto been missing. The fact that she was a devout Muslim did not matter to Wiener and he was very supportive of her faith, sometimes fasting in Ramadan to accompany her. Already in her early thirties, she fell hopelessly in love. They married in an informal Islamic ceremony attended by the Abdeen family and in a more elaborate ceremony hosted and chaired by former President Bill Clinton.
It was a fun time, and life seemed to give Abedin everything she wanted until a bomb dropped. A New York tabloid published a story that Winner was sending unsolicited pictures of himself, in varying levels of undress, with obscene messages, to women he met online. At first, he denied that he was the real sender, but later admitted that he was. The news sparked a public outcry, with congressional leaders calling for his resignation from Congress. Upon expecting a child, the reported incidents caused severe shock and distress to Abedin. The paparazzi chased the family day and night. At first, not realizing the seriousness of the situation, she tried to defend her husband, whom she continued to love.
Weiner was finally forced to resign from Congress in disgrace. The frank description of this period and the psychological pain she experienced is incredibly poignant. Abedin frantically wanted to believe her marriage could be saved. However, Wiener’s reckless behavior was a symptom of a deep-rooted, irreversible illness when the family sought advice. It got worse. In May 2017, a photo appeared on the front page of a New York newspaper showing Weiner sending a photo of himself to an underage woman, while their young son slept nearby. Angry and desperate, Abedin filed for divorce from Winner shortly after pleading guilty in federal court, finding him guilty and imprisoning him for 21 months.
The book is very easy to read and appears not to be written in ghosts, as is often the case with political biographies. It leaves the reader with two confusing questions. First, why would someone as talented as Huma Abedin never try to seek a more independent position, instead of staying in Clinton’s shadows. And secondly, how poorly her judgment was that she fell in love and married a person with severe personality disorders.
In the opening chapter, I quoted the Messenger, may God bless him and grant him peace, as saying: She must have derived great help from speaking in times of trouble.
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