High Tea with a Disgraced Political Dynasty


"You cannot trust anyone. These people used to follow us everywhere. They would tell us ‘We are your cats and your dogs’. Now, we can’t get our own shadows to follow us."

Maryam Safdar was an inconsolable young woman. It was July 2000, nine months since Musharraf had taken power in Pakistan, deposing and imprisoning Safdar’s father, Nawaz Sharif. The Sharif men were in prison or in exile, leaving the Sharif women to rally the faithful. The faithful, however, were few and far between, leaving Sharif’s wife and daughter with time on their hands. Frankly, when you have endless hours to spare for a rambling chit-chat with a passing Australian freelancer, you have hit rock bottom.

Now, the political cycle has turned. Last week, Musharraf finally bowed to the inevitable and resigned from office, his own cats and dogs having fled into the night (although he still rated a phone call of appreciation from George W Bush, who was among the last of his friends to desert him). Watching Musharraf’s televised resignation speech, I looked for his shadow, and saw no sign of it.

And Nawaz Sharif is a man on the political rise. His party performed unexpectedly well in the elections earlier this year, although the Pakistan People’s Party won the largest share of the vote in the wake of the assassination of its leader, Benazir Bhutto. And in the months since then, Sharif’s hardline stance against Musharraf has further restored the public standing that lay in shreds back in 2000, when I met Maryam Safdar and her mother.

By the time Sharif was overthrown in 1999, after an unsuccessful attempt to sack Musharraf as Chief of the Armed Forces, his rule had become so authoritarian that many Pakistanis felt that military dictatorship could hardly be any worse. Journalists who dared to question Sharif’s grip on power were beaten up and arrested, opposition rallies were violently dispersed, and the Supreme Court was stormed by a mob when it attempted to hear a contempt of court case against Sharif.

I visited the Sharif women along with a couple of local journalists, one of whom had left the country during Sharif’s final months in power, after some not-so-subtle hints that his presence was unwelcome. "The electricity on the house was cut. Just our house, nobody else’s. The tyres on the car were slashed. And then I was shot in the leg. Here, let me show you – or perhaps not here. There are many people around. Later."

In the circumstances, it was perhaps too much to expect that this journalist, along with many other Pakistanis, was going to have much sympathy for the Sharif women’s troubles. Sharif’s wife Kulsoom had been placed under house arrest at various points, but since the luxurious Sharif residences had been the source of much resentment among ordinary Pakistanis, there was a general sense of satisfaction at having them confined to their golden cages. The journalist with the bullet-scar in his leg surveyed the Sharif’s bling-studded Lahore residence with a proprietary air. "All of this, paid for with our money!"

Kulsoom Nawaz seemed somehow out of place amid all the glitz. She was dressed like a frumpy auntie, very un-Benazir – which may well have been the point. Her manner, too, was low-key and nervous. She clutched a rubber band in one hand, and as she spoke, she began to twist it between her fingers in agitation. Her husband had stood firm against "certain forces" who wanted Pakistan to become "like Spain". I was momentarily disconcerted by an image of Pakistani streets filled with tapas bars and flamenco dancers, before I realised that she meant a country that had once been governed by Muslims, from which Muslims had been entirely eliminated.

She detailed the various indignities inflicted upon her family – the discomforts of prison, the unjust accusations, the way her son had been roughed up in prison. The rubber band twisted faster and faster. ("That elephant!" snorted a journalist later, at the mention of Sharif junior. "Always speeding around the country in his father’s armour-plated jeep.")

The Sharif entourage – what was left of it – first arranged for us to visit the hospital that the Sharifs had paid for opposite their country estate (or "palace" as most Pakistanis referred to it) outside Lahore. It was a lovely hospital – clean, shiny, fitted out with impressive-looking equipment – and almost entirely deserted. A young boy with his arm in a sling was the only patient in sight. Then it was over to the palace to meet Sharif’s daughter. She was a stubborn woman, the Pakistani journalists had told me, who had insisted upon marrying her father’s aide de camp.

"Was her father angry?"

The journalists giggled. "He was furious! They invited only 200 guests!"

But none of those guests were apparently calling on Maryam Safdar anymore, as she sat alone with her children and the servants in the infamous family palace. "I do not trust anyone! Not anyone! None of them can be trusted! And you" – she stabbed her finger in my direction – "you must learn from my suffering! Never trust anyone!"

Except your family, of course. Her father, she said, was "very close to God these days" – praying and seeing divine guidance. His faith was a great comfort to him in these difficult times. Her visits to him were difficult, the guards always keen to impose every humiliation, but their faith would see them through it all. And her mother was keeping the party running until he should return to them.

I asked whether she had ever considered going into politics herself, and she snapped "No! Not when I have seen what politics has done to my family. Unless," her face brightened, "unless I could become Prime Minister. I would love that." Then her face fell again. "But I am Muslim. And it is against Islam for a woman to become Prime Minister." So there, Benazir.

The next day, the Urdu-language newspapers reported that the Sharifs had been visited by "a delegation of Australian journalists". I was impressed. Either my Pakistani colleagues had become honorary Australians, or I was worthy of "delegation" status all by myself. Even from a disgraced political dynasty, it seemed like a compliment.

A few months later, the Sharifs were released into exile in Saudi Arabia. And now Musharraf is gone, the Sharifs are back, and Nawaz Sharif is sporting an improbably luxuriant regrowth of hair and an equally improbable commitment to democracy and the independence of the judiciary.

Yesterday, the shaky alliance between him and Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari finally fell apart. Sharif had insisted on the restoration of the judges who were sacked last year by Musharraf, and who might have overturned the amnesty on corruption charges against Zardari.

Zardari and Sharif had based their alliance on a commitment to return the judges to office, but Zardari apparently regarded this as a non-core promise, telling the BBC that the agreement with Sharif "was not like the holy Qur’an."

Sharif will now position himself as the opposition, the man of principle who refused to sell out to Musharraf, to the United States, and to the increasingly unpopular Zardari. And the cats and dogs seem to be hearing the call.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.