I first met Seema in 1981, when I became Programme Officer for two intakes or ‘batches’ at the Foreign Service Training Institute or Academy in Islamabad. We were almost contemporaries, so could relate to one another easily. She was educated inter alia at CB College Rawalpindi, that elite institution established by the legendary Professor Salma Masud. Amongst her classmates were Zeba Bukhari and Samina Rauf, who went on to become Representatives of UNICEF and ILO.
Seema was the only woman in the group of thirty or so probationers, which was, by no means her only distinction. Friendship aside, I quickly discovered her to be the best of that bright bunch of ambassadorial aspirants. She was stylish as well as smart and sincere to a fault. Slim and elegant, with the signature short hairstyle that suits so few but framed her own perfect features and sparkling eyes perfectly. During the months of Muharram and Safar—marking the tragedy of Karbala where the Prophet’s grandsons and their companions were so tragically slaughtered—her graceful attire always included a touch of black. She was a devout Muslim first, and a committed Shia second, but her lifestyle was governed by the large-hearted, broad-minded tenets of Sufism.
Many were the jokes we shared and the situations we relished—most of them ludicrous—in those halcyon days. Once, during a Conference in the State Bank premises, where the probationers were on protocol duty, we witnessed a stumble on the escalator: ever afterwards we would giggle like schoolgirls at that spectacle of the delegate who ‘fell up the stairs!’
On another occasion, discussing a colleague who routinely peppered his correspondence with complaints against everything and everyone, we dissolved into laughter whilst deciding which remonstrance he was saving for his next letter. Friends were always welcome in the family house in ‘Pindi; and they became firm favourites in our homes likewise. On Seema’s birthday a huge cauldron of the most delicious chicken ‘karahi’ ever, made specially by her mother, was delivered for everyone at the Institute, and duly relished to the last drop of ‘masala’.
Her assignments were always the best presented and prepared, and her appreciation of the broad picture yet attention to detail was what carried Seema forward in her career as a successful diplomat, in both bilateral and multilateral work.
Her personality of course helped; that elusive blend of authority without arrogance, sweetness with substance to spare. I saw this once again—and sadly for the last time, before her bravely-borne illness—in her office as Additional Secretary Middle East and Africa (later Special Secretary) on the Foreign Office’s vaunted Third Floor (‘Corridor of Power’), early last year, 2013.
She dealt with ease and assurance with paperwork and sundry superiors and subordinates, just as I’d seen her do as a young Section Officer over thirty years ago. Even at the Institute she would address the Director General Ambassador Rauf, Deputy DG A. Ahsani, young Librarian, Saeed, our Peon Mr. Anwar, and Janitor the elderly Arjan, with the same courtesy.
I was fascinated by her acute analysis of the Egyptian scenario, her deconstruction of the Islamic Brotherhood phenomenon (how the leaders’ years in exile had influenced them, and how different they were from the Taliban) and her impressions of the till then balanced actions of President Morsi; in particular after hearing her on-the-spot comments on the Cairo uprisings whilst still Ambassador there just previously. “You would understand exactly,” she had said, “as you’ve lived here yourself. These people will never again submit to that sort of subjugation of the Mubarak era”. This was the sentiment echoed by my old Cairene friends Wafaa and Nagwa, whose condolences for Seema, amongst those from across the world, I’ve just received. It’s a great pity that not only I but the Foreign Office as a whole will be bereft of her assessments of Egypt and elsewhere, and the country of such an able representative.
Apart from being a serious professional, Seema never forgot to project Pakistan’s culture wherever she served or accompanied her husband abroad. I recall her mother telling me cheerfully yet exasperatedly that (in Ankara) she had “transformed the Residence into a Pakistani wedding scene for Turkish television!”
At Headquarters she was, by coincidence, the first career FS woman to hold successively the otherwise honorary positions (occupied by the wives of the Foreign Secretary and Foreign Minister) of Chairperson and President PFOWA (Pakistan Foreign Service Women’s Association). Her energy and achievements there were likewise unique, social justice being amongst her abiding concerns.
It’s difficult to decide whether Seema was more devoted to family or friends, as she lavished her love on both. A doting grand-daughter, dutiful daughter (she enabled her parents’ pilgrimage to Holy Sites whenever posted nearby), dedicated wife, doted-upon elder sibling and aunt to her brothers, sister, nieces, and nephews; and rightly the favourite of all her family and in-laws; it’s yet more difficult to imagine our world without her. As expressed by several of the many present at the Prayer held for her, she was a very fine person and a great lady.
Her marriage to Additional Secretary and Ambassador (later Foreign Secretary and Foreign Minister) Inamul Haq in 1985 seemed one for the books—or seen through the stars. No one who attended will ever forget it, from the wedding card in Punjabi to Seema’s ethereal, elegant appearance in traditional rural ensemble, all the adornments in silver without any gold.
As she, Zeba and I did as often as our routines at the Foreign Office, UNDP, and UNICEF allowed, I remember her taking out precious time from the Ministry and tiptoeing into my room to bless my newborn son like a veritable fairy godmother with three adorable outfits.
In Hong Kong, whilst accompanying PM Nawaz Sharif from Beijing, I heard her telling Inam Sahib excitedly even before I knocked on the Shangri-La suite door, “Guess who’s here?!” In Cairo she would go to Syedna Husain (the Prophet’s grandson’s shrine) after work to offer Fateha, and then pray for my son’s success in his SAT exams. She took care to maintain on display the photos I’d earlier delivered of my parents with the ‘Nightingale of the Nile’ Umme Kulsum in that very house in the 60s.
During her illness Seema rang to proffer her prayers every Eid, and offered her thanks to all those praying for her everywhere, including, by name, our chauffeur Sadiq. I hope this gives some measure of the extraordinary generosity of character of this exceptional person.
Rehana Hyder is from Pakistan. She
was born in London and educated at
Oxford. Coming from
a diplomatic family
she has travelled to and
lived in many countries,
and is now based in