My crush on Musharraf

With his dogs, drinking, frameless glasses and Armani suits, he's reviled by extremists.

Published November 10, 2001 11:06PM (EST)

Uzma Asim, 35, is a modern Muslim woman, a vice president of operations of Anmar Associates, a garment exporter. Her office is replete with glass tables, leather sofas, just ordered-in Kentucky Fried Chicken and a quiet room for women to pray, with rugs folded neatly on the floor. She sweeps before me, a burst of energy in a modest white cotton shalwar kameeze with black block print.

A mane of curly, raven black hair descends upon her shoulders, a thin line of kajal flutters upon her upper eyelid and her eyes sparkle when she talks about her president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Asim is an international globetrotter, touching down in London, Paris, Frankfurt and Dubai in her travels. Fine works by Pakistani artists hang on the walls and a Louis Vuitton bag sits open at her side as she taps at her keyboard. And who stares back at us from her screensaver? Musharraf.

She salutes him, flicking her hand against her forehead. Then she stands and opens a long closet door that conceals locker-like shelving. Musharraf is looking over his left shoulder, wearing a purple tie, white shirt and gray suit that falls well-sculptured on his shoulders. Asim has glued this photo of the general onto the inside of the door.

"Look at him," Asim says, punching her fist in the air. "Confident. Certain. Determined." Her raves continue: "He's a magnetic person."

"I love him," she gushes. Asim doesn't want there to be any confusion. "I'm happily married," she says. But as the rest of the world sees many of the furious turban-wearing fundamentalists burning Musharraf in effigy in the streets (they will likely be out in full force now with Musharraf out of the country, preparing to meet with President Bush and address the United Nations in New York) another part of the population feels quite differently.

There are no Gallup polls measuring public opinion here -- approval is best measured by silence in the streets, which for Pakistan has largely been the case, even since U.S.-led forces began bombing Afghanistan a month ago. And for modern Muslims here who eagerly seek to embrace a global culture, Musharraf incongruously manages to be a military dictator and yet also a symbol of modernity. He breaks taboos with his pet dogs and consumption of alcohol -- not to mention his penchant for Armani suits and golf.

Now, with his measured support of U.S. strikes on the neighboring Taliban -- a government he had supported up until Sept. 11 -- he has made a dramatic pro-West shift in his polices, most notably ditching hard-line elements from the country's powerful intelligence agency. And his most avid followers are modern Muslims.

OK and fine, I'll be honest. I was relieved to find Asim, because I, too, have developed a thing for Musharraf. When we realize our shared interest, we squeeze each other's hands like soul sisters. I knew I couldn't be the only one who watched him on television, playing host as a parade of world leaders took turns across from him while he sank into a nicely upholstered sofa, like a new Homecoming King. He is Muslim and a man of the world. At a time when the world sees images of crazed Muslims who not only want segregation from, but to decree violence on, nonbelievers, Musharraf is reassuring, inclusive and strong.

The photo that Asim has in her closet was shot from an unusual tour he took in July to India and the city of the Taj Mahal, where he and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee politically arm-wrestled over the disputed territory of Kashmir. It was on that tour that Musharraf won a special place in many a heart. He proved to be aggressive politically, personally sentimental and thoroughly hypnotizing. He ditched his usual military uniform to wear a cherwani, the trousers matched with a long coat and high collar that many have associated with the jacket popularized by Jawaharlal Nehru.

At the time, he made a side trip to visit his ancestral haveli ("big house") in the Old Delhi neighborhood of Daryaganj where he was born. Early in his childhood, his family left it behind and called Pakistan their new home after India won independence from the British in 1947 and its north was sliced out to create a nation for Muslims. During the trip, he reached out to the people, Clinton-like, and hugged a very elderly woman servant who said she remembered him as a child. He showed none of the restraint of the most conservative of Muslim men, who try to avoid touching a woman unrelated to them, no matter what the age. "He was so sympathetic to the old lady," remembers Asim fondly.

Then, when he faced off with India's journalists, they wanted to ask him questions about anything other than Kashmir, so they could at least get to know the man on friendlier terms. He responded that they could, but it wouldn't make much of a friendship. He proceeded to answer each journalist's questions so precisely, viewers back home were impressed. A critic in an Indian newspaper complained that India's tough journalists had turned into "salivating puppies and purring kittens." (Musharraf manages to turn up on TV quite frequently. When he does, Asim says, her husband calls her over with an eager shout: "Your boyfriend is on TV!")

Musharraf made an impression on me in an interview last spring when he admitted that he had trouble with an expanding waistline since taking office (just like Clinton), a sweet tooth (ditto) and with security detail -- because he appreciates spontaneity. He said: "I think my natural self is the best. I just behave normally, what I like, I like. Whatever I don't like, I don't like."

He said he didn't really like pop bands ("I find them very stupid and silly"), but admitted liking Sufi music and ghazals, poetic Muslim songs (like the ones my mother used to hum at the kitchen sink when I was growing up) and a band called Junoon. What? I first saw Junoon, a Pakistani rock band inspired by Sufism, in a Central Park concert a few years back when very cute and hip teenage Pakistani-American boys from New Jersey moshed in Tommy Hilfiger shirts to the band's Urdu chants of "Allahu, Allahu, Allahu" -- belief in only one Allah.

And when Musharraf made his tour through India, I had just returned from visiting India and staying in my ancestral haveli, a sweeping white palace of a home called Latif Manzil in the village of Jaigahan in Jaunpur District in Uttar Pradesh. To be in your ancestral home is to feel the pulse of ancestors who seem very much alive, if only in the clouds that pass overhead from the courtyards. Maybe it seems, in the West, typical, perhaps calculated, for him to travel to his ancestral haveli during his short diplomatic mission. But to me and others at the time, it seemed to speak wonders about his soul.

He is a Rudy Guliani figure whose fans fear will leave office at some point (no problem there -- as a military dictator, he could be dislodged only by a junta, although he has promised an election that many of his fans wish wouldn't happen). While he hasn't quite reached the sex symbol status of the shaggy-haired prime minister of Japan, he has become a bit of a fashion icon. A retired senior army officer recalled running into him at the Islamabad Marriott before the war and admiring his Armani suit. (Though it's not so rare here, or even imported from Italy; Armani suits that get stitched here for export, like Bally shoes, are very inexpensive.) And, like some Western pols, he's followed by rumors in higher society circles linking him with starlets and other ladies.

Musharraf is known among the younger set as a gentle uncle figure, tapping his daughter's friends with a gentle touch on the shoulder. Years ago, Musharraf, his wife and two children used to visit his very progressive mother, who lived in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of F-7/1 in Islamabad, and was known to neighborhood children as mother dado, (a play off dadi, grandmother), who played traditional Indian subcontinent music with harmoniums and tabla instruments while Musharraf's daughter bicycled around the neighborhood free as a kite. By listening to music, and caring for a pet dog inside her house, she openly violated taboos on two things that the strictest of Muslims abhor: music and dogs.

The dog issue, in fact, seems to hound Musharraf. In India, a columnist refers to Musharraf as "a dog-loving nattily uniformed general." Musharraf boldly posed holding his two dogs for his photo-op after taking over the country. Go figure. The man knew that many Muslims go running when a dog starts approaching them, even with its tail wagging, especially with its slobbery pink tongue hanging out of its mouth. We have to do something called wuzu, a ritual washing, before doing namaz. We're taught that touching a dog makes you dirty for namaz, so that you shouldn't keep a dog in the house. Others interpret what is said in the Quran more liberally, though.

I had Pluto, the Majumdars' Pekinese, to initiate me; when I was 11, the Majumdars, who practiced Hinduism, gave me something like $5 a week to walk him in Morgantown, W.V., when they were on vacation. My mother was trained early as a Muslim girl to distrust dogs (she claims because they were wild in India). She refused to get near Pluto, backing away from the reach of his chain when he would scamper toward us when he visited for dinners with Majumdar Aunty and Majumdar Uncle. Then there was Nikita, a beautiful Samoyed with soft white fur that moved in across the street, leaping whenever he could on Denise Pickle and me, both of us thrilled by his eager soft self. But my Athar Chacha, my father's brother, here in Karachi goes running even when a little dachshund approaches him. Among Muslims here, that's quite common.

Not surprisingly, Musharraf's dog antics don't play well with many people. But they do play well with moderate Pakistanis. One liberal woman repeated with glee seeing Musharraf allowing one of his furry companions seats at the breakfast table. They're tired of the hypocrisy in a nation where people hide behind a veil of piety. They see it with the mullahs, who are often uneducated religious leaders who rally those in the lower class to despise modernity.

To understand how Musharraf fits into Pakistan is to understand the disenfranchisement of middle-class families from mullahs and political leaders. Many Pakistanis have gotten only false promises from political leaders who somehow manage to build their wealth and bank accounts.

This is the history as they tell it: Musharraf joined the Pakistan Military Academy in 1961 and was commissioned in an elite artillery regiment in 1964 while Ayub Khan was in power. The Pakistani armed forces were modeled after the British military, and Pakistani military culture had with the same values of dancing, drinking and dating found in its Western counterpart.

In 1965, Pakistan went to war with India. That war marked a turning point; the military became more conservative as more religious generals came into power. But Musharraf was part of the more liberal earlier graduating class. The very liberal Zulfiqar Bhutto came to power after Pakistan fought another war with India in 1971. Pakistanis remember his proud declaration that he drank alcohol at a public meeting as the natural end to an exhausting day. Society turned more conservative with the 1977 coup d'état of General Muhammad Zia-ul Haq, who presented himself as a religious man, shutting down nightclubs and raiding parties where alcohol flowed.

With Zia's death in a mysterious plane crash, the liberal Benazir Bhutto came to power after elections in 1989, loosely drawing a dupatta over her head to appease conservative Muslims though it wasn't the liberal image of her days studying in the West. To this day, I remember a friend of mine, an aide in the U.S. Congress, shocked at how U.S. congressmen and senators fell over themselves in front of the seductive image of this woman with a dupatta. But she left many in the middle class of Pakistan disenfranchised after growing evidence of corruption drove her from office. She was eventually followed by Nawaz Sharif, another leader hounded out of office amid findings of corruption, this time in the coup that blasted Musharraf to power.

In this highly polarized country where immigrants from India have formed a political party to demand more immigrant (mohajir) rights, it's a coup of sorts for this group that Musharraf, himself a mohajir, has risen to power. Even Musharraf's wife, Sehba, is nothing like a mullah's wife. Unlike Bhutto, she doesn't feel the need to drape a dupatta over her head, wearing it over her shoulders instead in elegant outfits. She is considered loyal and devoted -- and the woman behind this man's success. Even bolder, he's known to prefer Johnny Walker Black Label scotch.

By all accounts, the Musharrafs lived a modest life, not filled with fancy upholstered sofas. At one time, according to a family friend, their furniture included a simple padded low wooden platform with a red fabric over it and big pillows upon which to rest. Their furniture often had "MES" printed on the back, standing for government-issued stock from the Military Engineering Services. His eldest daughter, Ayla, pursued an unconventional field in Pakistan for women -- architecture -- going to National College of Art in Lahore. There, she was courted by a man she eventually wed in a "love" marriage, as opposed to an arranged one, also not the norm in this culture. Even more surprising: The Musharrafs are Sunnis, and their daughter married a Shiite. By accepting the marriage, they also transcended many of the hangups of families who don't allow their children to marry out of their specific group.

Friday's much-hyped "strike," organized by religious extremists against Musharraf's alliance with America, was all about those who take issue with Musharraf's modern lifestyle. I hopped behind my cousin Ali on his beat-up Honda CD-70 and sped off to the protests. This is what I noted: A young man tossed a ball menacingly in his hand as he crossed the street before us. Would he throw it at us? Not quite. No, he was crossing the street to get to the park where hundreds of young men and boys already had converged. My cousin brother Ali explained: "Today is a nice day. No school. No work." It was a national holiday, the first in years, for Pakistan's great poet Allama Iqbal.

Flatbed trucks passed us with flags unfurled. A truck full of police followed quickly behind. A juice walla stood at the roadside spinning sugar-cane juice. The windows of a Subway sandwich shop on I.I. Chandigar Street were covered with black fabric, a trick businesses use to somehow disguise their windows from rocks flung by mobs. As if they wouldn't just aim at the sheets instead. We glided through the empty streets at Fresco Chowk Roundabout, known for the famous Fresco food store a few stores down from the corner. A boy was picking his nose.

Ali surveys the crowd. He knows what most Pakistanis know. The crowd is mostly filled with Afghan refugees, Pathans (the Pashto speakers, many of them with relatives across the border in Afghanistan) and boys driven in from the madrasas of the religious right that supports the Taliban. The voice over the loudspeaker trashes Musharraf, and welcomes a leader from one of the madrasas outside Karachi.

I'm the only woman there. I chose to keep my dupatta off my head today so I draw plenty of stares, though I spread it modestly over my tunic-like kurta. There is Taj Mohammad, a white-haired elderly man. He's carrying a big plastic bag filled with smaller plastic bags of salty snacks, and reminds me of the peanut vendor at a Yankees game. A young man with bleary eyes comes toward us as we take pictures and tries to act menacing, saying someone is following us. Whatever. Ultimately, it's a less than menacing turnout, even though images on TV will look frightening.

When I come back to my hotel I see Musharraf on TV, and admire his stylish frameless glasses, such a departure from the OSHA-approved-style safety glasses more common with men his age. I wonder what he should do with his hair. And I know that in a living room in the other side of Karachi, a husband is saying to his wife, "Your boyfriend is on TV."

By Asra Q. Nomani

Asra Q. Nomani, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal currently on leave to write a book, is reporting for Salon from Pakistan. To read more about Nomani click here.

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