By Zubeida Mustafa
The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs is one of the oldest research institutions in the country. In the 1970s, which were years of change for the institute, Khalida Qureshi’s steady presence and devoted and meticulous work gave continuity and stability to this organisation which she served for over two decades. As the Director of Research, hers was the key role in keeping PIIA’s research tradition alive at the leanest period in its history.
It was November 1956. The Suez crisis had thrown the Middle East in a turmoil. A summit of the Muslim members of the Baghdad Pact was being held in the Iraqi capital. The visiting leaders had been invited to dinner by Pakistan’s ambassador, Mr Shuaib Qureshi.
Suddenly word came that Shah Faisal of Iraq had expressed the desire to accompany President Iskander Mirza to the dinner. In those days of yore, the Iraqi monarchs did not as a matter of royal protocol go to embassy parties. Hence this was an honor for Pakistan.
A wave of excitement ran through the mission. The hostess was Khalida Qureshi, the ambassador’s daughter, who deputed for her late mother. She was very young at the time. But what she lacked in experience she made up in charm and hospitality. In the short time available she managed to have everything set for the royal guests.
But in her nervousness and eagerness to have everything in perfect order, Khalida forgot to mind her step when she went to receive King Faisal. It was only later when the photographs came in that she discovered to her great horror that it was she who was occupying the place of honour in the middle of the red carpet that had specially been laid for the monarch’s reception. The royal visitor had, been edged off the carpet. Years later, this was an incident Khalida would recount with good humour. There were many more such faux pas in her repertoire of lively anecdotes that made her such an excellent conservationist. One never tired of listening to her. She possessed the art of converting the most embarrassing of situations into an occasion for laughing at herself.
Then there was the story of the broken shoe. At a formal diplomatic party thrown by the British ambassador in Baghdad, Khalida felt the heel of her Cindrella-like shoe come off no sooner than she had entered. As she struggled to discreetly kick away the offending object,* the host noticed her predicament and came to her rescue.
The shoe was promptly dispatched for repairs and brought back on a silver salver.
But there was something more in the anecdotes that Khalida had to tell: her inborn sense of humour. It was this quality that made her the life of every gathering. It also made her a lovable person who put others at ease, for the jokes at her own expense conveyed the message, “I am after all human and not infallible.”
I first met her at the Karachi University after we were admitted in the International Relations department. She was well-travelled and as the hostess of the parties thrown by her ambassador father Khalida had had many interesting encounters with people whose names now figure in contemporary history. She spoke about her experiences with natural ease making them interesting and entertaining. I learnt infinitely more from these discourses than from the theoretical text of the books on diplomacy. Khalida’s light-heated demeanor could be quite deceptive though. One had to know her better to detect the rock-like courage and seriousness of purpose which lay beneath her jovial exterior. They kept her going through adversity, inspiring others who met her.
For hers was not quite the life a young and intelligent girl from an upper class family of high repute (her maternal grandfather was the great freedom fighter Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar whose fiery spirit of independence she inherited) is called upon to lead. She gave up her studies when her mother fell ill (and later died). This was the most challenging period of her life and given her youth and inexperience, she could have faltered. But she rose to the challenge learning much more than young women of her age were required to know as she strove to be a mother to her younger sisters and play the perfect hostess at the embassy parties.
After being mostly in the company of older people for ten years she decided to resume her studies when her father retired and settled in Karachi. Now she was called upon to adjust to the company of girls much younger in age. She did it gracefully and with good cheer. During her travels she had discovered her natural flair for foreign languages. When she went back to the university, she found that she was intrigued by the academic dimension of international affairs.
There was no looking back after that. Her interest in the subject was further stimulated by the research job she took up at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs where she worked for over 20 years, writing papers and reports. After the death of the founder- Secretary of the Institute, Khwaja Sarwar Hasan, Khalida was increasingly called upon to guide younger scholars and edit the research journal. She did these jobs with untiring devotion until she took final leave ten days before she died on February 23,1983. No one knew how seriously ill she was, surgery and radiotherapy having seemingly brought a remission in her cancer. But insidiously the illness was devouring her liver. She continued to be her kind and con. siderate self, forever concerned about the comfort of those who came to visit her, though all along she was fighting a losing battle against the dreaded disease.
Only once for a fleeting moment she had seemed to despair. When she discovered the lump and was due to go in for surgery she called me up. I went to see her. She would • always declare it time for tea whenever we got together. It reminded us of good old times. That day she was pensive. “I feel like packing that tin trunk we always talk about,” she sadly declared. (She was referring to an old joke we shared of wanting to run away with a trunk full of clothes whenever things seemed to be going drastically wrong in life.)
“The only problem is,” she added after a pause, “my illness will come with me wherever I go. So what good would it do running away?” Thereafter she came to terms with her illness, departing gracefully after due farewells only when her time was up. But she did not have to pack her steel trunk for her final Journey