Style and substance

Rehana Hyder pays tribute to Ambassador Seema Naqvi

Style and substance
I first encountered Seema in 1981, when I became Programme Officer for the ‘7th and 8th Common’ batches at the Foreign Service Training Institute in Islamabad, as the Foreign Service Academy was then known. We were almost contemporaries, so could relate to one another easily.

She was educated at CB (now FG) College Rawalpindi, that elite institution established by the legendary Salma Masud. Amongst her classfellows were Zeba Bukhari and Samina Rauf, who went on to become representatives of UNICEF and ILO.

Seema was the only woman in those thirty or so probationers – by no means her only distinction. Friendship aside, I quickly discovered her to be the best of that bright bunch of ambassadorial aspirants, all of whom I consider my ‘batchmates’ (being from the same common, though a different department).

She was stylish as well as smart, and sincere to a fault. Slim and elegant, with her signature short hairstyle that suits so few, but framed her perfect features and sparkling eyes beautifully, she was the picture of elegance and grace, especially during Muharram and Safar when she made sure that all the clothes she wore always had a touch of black. Having said that, she was a devout Muslim first, and a committed Shia second, her lifestyle being 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 anyone, we dissolved into laughter whilst deciding which remonstrances he was saving ‘for his next letter’.

Seema’s father Syed Z H Naqvi – a senior executive in Attock Oil – and her lovely mother Tahira, made all her and younger sister Rena’s friends welcome in the family house in Pindi, first in Lalazar and later in Saddar. Likewise they became firm favourites in our home. On Seema’s birthday a huge deg of the most delicious chicken karahi ever, made especially 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 whilst never letting go of the attention to detail was what carried Seema forward in her career as a successful diplomat, in both bilateral and multilateral work. Her personality also helped, of course; that elusive blend of authority without arrogance, charm or ‘sweetness’ alongside substance.

I saw these disparate personality traits come together in her person yet again - and sadly for the last time, during her bravely borne, two-year-long illness when I visited her 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 several papers with ease and assurance and sundry superiors/subordinates, just as I’d seen her do as a young Section Officer over thirty years ago. Even at the Institute she used to address the DG, Ambassador Rauf and DDG, Amb Ahsani, young Librarian Saeed, our Naib Qasid Mr. Anwar, and elderly janitor, Arjan with the same courtesy.

With Egyptian Ambassadors
With Egyptian Ambassadors

I was fascinated by her acute analysis of the Egyptian scenario: her deconstruction of the Islamic Brotherhood and her impressions of the up-till-then balanced actions of President Morsi; in particular after hearing her spot on comments on the Cairo uprisings whilst she was still Pakistan’s Ambassador in Egypt. ‘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.

Apart from being a serious professional, Seema never forgot to project Pakistan’s culture wherever she served and/or accompanied her husband abroad. I recall her mother telling me cheerfully yet exasperatedly that (in Ankara) ‘she’s transformed the Residence into a Mehndi Scene from Turkish television!’

At Headquarters she was, coincidentally, the first career Foreign Service woman to hold successively the otherwise honorary positions (usually occupied by the wives of the Foreign Secretary and Foreign Minister) of Chairperson and President

PFOWA (Foreign Service Women’s Association). Her energy and achievements there were likewise out of the ordinary, social justice being amongst her abiding concerns.
Her wedding card was in Punjabi and Seema looked ethereal in a white lacha and kurta

Her marriage to Additional Secretary and Ambassador (later Foreign Secretary and Foreign Minister) Inamul Haq in 1985 seemed one for the books. No-one who attended will ever forget it – from the wedding card in Punjabi to Seema’s ethereal appearance in a white lacha and kurta ensemble, to all the adornments in silver without an iota of gold.

During her illness she rang to proffer her prayers every Eid, and texted her thanks often for all those praying for her everywhere, including, by name, our chauffeur Sadiq. That is the kind of person she was.