Syeda Mehjabeen Abidi Habib (1963-2023): A Beautiful Life

Syeda Mehjabeen Abidi Habib (1963-2023): A Beautiful Life
Yazid asked: “How did you find the way Allah treated your brother and your family?” to which Bibi Zainab (AS) replied: “I saw nothing but beauty.”

With these poignant words shared by Syeda Mehjabeen Abidi Habib, I embarked on my journey to Damascus in Syria earlier this year. Bibi Zainab, after witnessing her family’s tragic deaths in Karbala, was brought to Damascus in chains to be presented to the court of Yazid. The oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world, Damascus has survived thousands of years of civilisations – its ancient walls have been parts of Roman temples, Crusader cathedrals and Muslim mosques. Mehjabeen knew these old walls well – she had often visited Damascus in the 1970s long before the war had broken out.

She had shared the news of her illness with me by then – it was cancer and she was getting treatment in Lahore. She sounded strong on the phone. She had only just turned 60 and I was sure she would defeat it. Indomitable and fearless – those were the two qualities I had always admired in Mehjabeen, one of Pakistan’s top ecologists, who had been a mentor to me since my early 20s when I first started writing about environmental issues. Armed with an old world elegance and iron will, she was not one to be deterred or defeated easily. In all our travels together across Pakistan I don’t remember a weak or angry moment. On a particularly bumpy Fokker flight from Bahawalpur to Lahore she was the one holding my hand and distracting me with engaging conversation while the plane lurched up and down and passengers recited duas.

Mehjabeen with Ali Habib

She asked me to offer a dua at Bibi Zainab’s shrine located in the outskirts of Damascus. A staunch believer, she was most inspired by Bibi Zainab. In her youth she had experienced the high culture of the Levant – Beirut and Damascus in fact, had been the haunts of her pre teen life. She told me that the 1970s was a real heyday that she had thoroughly enjoyed. Her father had been a renowned engineer, the GM of Tarbela Dam when Mehjabeen was born in 1963, and later on he had worked for the UN in Jordan and Rome. While living in Jordan, Mehjabeen had regularly visited Bibi Zainab’s shrine and ever the teacher she encouraged me to learn more, messaging me that “She is one of the most extraordinary women of Islam and she transforms the notion of what it is to be a woman and the bravery and depth that is possible.”

Mehjabeen had always been an intrepid traveller and a passionate writer who long after marrying the love of her life, Ali Habib (a fellow environmentalist who headed WWF-Pakistan for almost two decades) and having two beautiful daughters, managed to complete her PhD on Resilience in 2011. Her PhD was conferred by Government College University Lahore, with a fellowship to the University of Oxford. She was now Dr Mehjabeen and taught a course at Government College University and helped set up the exchange of PhD students from Oxford who wanted to do scientific research in Pakistan. She was part of the faculty of the Oxford University hosted summer Adaptation Academy.
Water in the Wilderness was eventually published by Oxford University Press Pakistan in 2016 after around 12 years of diligent work, which Mehjabeen described as "a labour of love"

Mehjabeen always had the drive and discipline to complete the tasks that she had set for herself and broke many barriers along the way. She was a loving wife, a dedicated mother, a consummate professional, a caring activist, a thoughtful writer and a dreamer of a better, more sustainable and ecologically friendly world. In between she somehow managed to run two beautifully designed homes, one in Lahore and one in Gilgit that she had built in their traditional wooden style. She spent many happy summers in these mountains, tending to her garden and writing the most eloquent columns for a local newspaper. When her eldest daughter got married a few years ago, family from all over the world who had flown in were invited to holiday in the Gilgit home after the wedding in Lahore. It must have been a lot of work but Mehjabeen would have meticulously planned every detail, ensuring that they had the most incredible real experience of Pakistan’s famed mountainous north.

Richard and Mehjabeen in Deosai

She often shared the columns she wrote with me and I marveled at her story telling – elegant and insightful with plenty of good humour. After a long stint in UNDP-Pakistan, where I had first met her, she worked later on as an Ecology Advisor to the Heinrich Boll Stiftung Pakistan and was on the Panel of Critical Friends of the L'Oreal Corporation global for which she would regularly fly to Paris. She was also a member of the Scientific Panel of Project Drawdown, a US based initiative to identify the 100 most effective actions to combat global warming. Her professional work experience included positions in academia, the UN and various NGOs spanning over 30 years. She was also director of Himaverte, a sustainable business enterprise that offers solar solutions, environmental consulting and a small recycled handmade paper business.

My professional journey with Mehjabeen started when I joined her on a magical ride on a wooden boat on the Indus River near Sukkur in the mid-1990s. This was when I first did a feature on the environment for The Friday Times as a young journalist. It was Mehjabeen who had invited me to write about the Indus Dolphin rescue project while working for the UNDP. On that early misty morning on the mighty Indus River I began to realise what it truly meant to care about the environment. With their purplish grey colouring it was at first difficult to spot the Indus Dolphins in the muddy waters of the Indus but then they jumped up out of the water in a graceful arc and they were a sight to behold. Mehjabeen asked me if I wanted to do other stories on other endangered species of Pakistan and I readily agreed. She promised to accompany me and guide me and so began our partnership that resulted in two books of which we were both enormously proud.

The story about the endangered blind dolphins of Sindh was eventually included in the book that Mehjabeen and I completed called Green Pioneers – Stories from the Grassroots which covered several UNDP funded small grants projects. It was our work on Green Pioneers, which led to the idea of writing another more ambitious book that took the shape of Water in the Wilderness – Life in the Coast, Deserts and Mountains of Pakistan. We initially received a grant given by the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Pakistan to travel throughout Pakistan for the book.

Mehjabeen and I often stayed at remote rest houses and occasionally tents out in the wild and I must say we were never scared. I have to add that this is because I knew Mehjabeen would handle any situation with her customary grace and courage. It was good training for me – I was careless and easily distracted. She was a very patient and wise soul. I remember her telling me “experiment all you want in your 20s but in your 30s you must decide what kind of person you want to be in your 40s. Remember, you will have less energy and time as you get older, so choose carefully what you want to spend it on.”

We travelled with ease from Hingol National Park to Gwadar and Jiwani on the coast (the Makran coastal highway was then still under construction) to interior Sindh to Lungh Lake and then onto the Rangla wetlands in Southern Punjab and the Cholistan desert. The last chapters of the book are on the high mountains and we later travelled to Shandur Lake, the Deosai Plateau and visited some of the glaciers up north for our final chapter on “Glaciers – the Guardians of Time”. During many of our trips we were accompanied by ace photographer Ayesha Vellani, who took many of the art quality photographs which illustrate the book. Ayesha and I would giggle incessantly and complain endlessly about the hardships of travelling to such remote yet beautiful places – but Mehjabeen took it all in her stride. She was far too evolved, her eyes seeing what we could not, her thoughts always private – her words were always measured carefully.

Water in the Wilderness was eventually published by Oxford University Press Pakistan in 2016 after around 12 years of diligent work, which Mehjabeen described as "a labour of love." In between I got married and moved to Islamabad while Mehjabeen completed her PhD. To complete the manuscript, we both applied for and were granted a Rockefeller Foundation grant to spend around a month in Bellagio in Lake Como in Italy in 2012. It was the most magical month where during the day we would write and in the evenings explore the environs of the stunning Lake Como while being hosted in a gorgeous old Palazzo.

In Mehjabeen’s words, Water in the Wilderness showcases the interdependence of wetlands and indigenous communities essential to the ecological and social wellbeing of Pakistan. “We selected freshwater as the thread around which to weave our social ecological narrative, realising that water dynamics are critical to an arid country like Pakistan that is highly vulnerable to extreme climate events such as glacial shifts, floods and droughts”. She would tell me the book chapters had to come together like pearls in a necklace and so they did.

The outcome of our residency in Bellagio was a manuscript ready for submission to a publisher for consideration as a photo illustrated art book. During this period one of our co-authors, Richard Garstang, had fallen ill. Mehjabeen soldiered on, making sure to include him in calls to South Africa where he had gone for treatment. As lead author, she held our small team together and persevered in getting the manuscript published by OUP. In her personal acknowledgements Mehjabeen wrote:

“I wish to honour my elders who each passed away in the years that this book was under preparation. Within the protective sanctuary of our collective home, I flourished within a harmonious joint-family. My mother-in-law, Miriam, showed me how to make writing flow in the two chapters of this book that she proofed for me while writing her own manuscript on an artist-friend’s life. My mother, Jolly, helped me with the first school essay that earned full marks at age 15 years. Herself a star investigative reporter of the nascent ‘Jordan Times’, she told me to describe places with one’s heart on one’s sleeve; an experience as delectable as puff pastry. My father, Asghar Ali, whose poetic imagination and adamantine mind set the bar so high that I unlearned perfectionism and got on with the business of writing anyway.

The author (left) with Mehjabeen Abidi Habib (centre) and photographer Ayesha Velani (right) in the Cholistan Desert

In Lahore, my husband Ali and daughters developed a recipe of support with ingredients of wonderment, healthy leg pulling and just a pinch of pride. I must thank both my daughters for putting up with the most un-conventional example of motherhood in their peer-group and still always coming home to roost. Without Ali, the knight in shining armour of Pakistan’s nature conservation movement, I wouldn’t have tried this.”

By the time I got back from Damascus, Mehjabeen’s cancer had spread and I never got to see her in person to discuss my journey. I had so many stories to share with her, so much of her knowledge and insight to still learn from but we had run out of time.

Mehjabeen died peacefully in Lahore on 26th May this year with her loved ones around her – they say she had time to say goodbye to each one and she helped them prepare for her passing. I attended the serene and elegant dua at her home where we recited marsias invoking the tragic events of Karbala and the struggle for righteousness. Deriving strength from Bibi Zainab’s struggle, Mehjabeen went through many trials in her life, but she saw nothing but beauty in them.