Queen of Baluchistan

by AFP/Danny Kemp , Jan 21, 2007 | Destinations: Pakistan

Irish-born Jennifer Musa has lived in Pakistan for almost as long as the country has existed. She came to her husband's homeland in 1948 and stayed on after he died, becoming a legislator, ice manufacturer and a local legend who refused to wear the Muslim veil. After six decades living in Baluchistan, the poorest and most remote of Pakistan's provinces, the 89-year-old tells Islamabad correspondent Danny Kemp she has no regrets that she is unlikely to see County Kerry again.

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Pishin, Pakistan, December 2006 - The tribal-ruled, rust-red deserts along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan are generally out of bounds to all foreigners -- all, that is, apart from an elderly Irishwoman who has spent nearly 60 years here.

Jennifer Musa is such an engrained part of this parched wilderness that she is widely known as the "Queen of Baluchistan" and once saw Kalashnikov-wielding feudal lords meekly bow to her will.

Now aged 89, the one-time nurse from County Kerry has been the poverty-hit province's only female member of parliament, once ran an ice factory, and has long defied local traditions by refusing to cover her head with a veil.

"I feel very much like I am at home here, they have always treated me like one of themselves. I couldn't have gone back to Ireland," the frail Mrs Musa says, the faintest trace of an Irish brogue still clinging to her words.

"I know more about this place now than I do about my home."

If her memory is starting to fail at times, her 113-year-old colonial home in the dusty town of Pishin serves as a museum for a life that has mirrored her adopted nation's tumultuous history.

A white tiger skin, with a bullet hole marking where her brother-in-law shot the beast, hangs on a whitewashed mud wall near the mounted heads of a leopard and another tiger, killed at Bhopal in British India.

In the 1940s Pakistan's founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah and his wife spent two nights in the four-poster iron bed that dominates the room next door. Four antique sabres ring a photograph of Jinnah in an astrakhan hat.

Candle sticks made of empty Bailey's Irish Cream and Courvoisier bottles stand on the sideboard in the long trophy room, a rare sight in this conservative corner of an Islamic republic where alcohol is banned.

Outside is a manicured rose garden shaded by pine trees -- the only green visible in every direction in the southwestern province of Baluchistan -- and a neglected orchard.

The barren Khwaja Amran mountains lie on the horizon and on the other side is the insurgency-hit Kandahar province of Afghanistan where the Taliban once again hold sway.

 "I came with my husband because he belonged here"

Next to the French windows overlooking the garden are black and white photographs of Exeter College, Oxford University, in May 1939 and the Exeter College Ball.

It was there that the young Irish nurse met Qazi Musa, a philosophy student and scion of a Pashtun noble family from Baluchistan. They married shortly afterwards, despite opposition from his clan.

"We met at his college, at a party -- you know what students are like. I was a Catholic, he was a Muslim. I think I became Islamic at the time," she says with a smile, wrapping a shawl around her traditional shalwar kameez.

"There is no difference in any of these religions except some people believe in one god, some in another and some in lots of gods.

"I just came here with my husband because he belonged here."

The couple had a son, Ashraf -- who later became a senior Pakistani diplomat and is now the country's United Nations envoy to Iraq -- and moved to Pakistan in 1948, months after independence and the bloody partition from mainly Hindu India.

Baluchistan's dust devils and clashing clans could not have been more different from the verdant County Kerry where she grew up, but Jennifer Musa says she was unfazed.

"Some interesting people passed through here, Quaid-e-Azam (the Great Leader -- Jinnah) and Madam Jinnah slept in the bedroom through there," she says.

"You come across the same difficulties. I found no difficulties whatsoever. I didn't because we had mixed in England with the Indians," she says.

Patting the knee of her housekeeper, one of many who has spent generations in the family, she adds: "As it was we didn't mix with the men in Ireland. But here you just take it for granted that you sit with them here."

While the elderly lady of the house takes a rest, the elderly servant tells the story of how a tribesman once came to the house and asked if it was true that she was a princess given to Qazi Musa by the Queen of England as a reward for killing a tiger.

Scattered around the house are three rifles including a muzzle-loaded gun, magazines from 1976, pictures of her husband as a chubby young boy in a silk outfit standing with flamboyantly-moustachioed tribal sardars.

Like despatches from another world, she recounts how she also used to go to Afghanistan back when Kabul was a fashionable party town full of European sophisticates.

"I married into a progressive family and never wore a veil"

In 1956 Qazi Musa died in a car crash.

Pakistan's conservative tribal societies are not known for the emancipation of their womenfolk, but Jennifer Musa decided to stay, keeping her son near his grandparents.

And she did it her own way.

In particular she would not wear the veil, marking her out in a traditional region where almost all women are kept in purdah.

"I never wore a veil. Because it was only worn by people who believe in the system," she says. "I married into a progressive family, they never asked."

Her independent streak -- she makes several wry, twinkly-eyed references to Irish republicanism -- soon found expression in her involvement in Pakistan's notoriously fiery politics.

The striking Irish widow became a member of parliament for Baluchistan in 1970 and an advocate for the rights of this backward province's ethnic Baluch people, who make up around two percent of the country's 150 million population.

It was a move that earned her the enmity of then-prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, father of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's first female premier.

"Bhutto was a clever fellow but a strange chap," Jennifer Musa says reflectively. "He was his own worst enemy. I found it difficult to get along with him."

Meanwhile she also started to mediate in the feuds that often erupt between the heavily armed Baluch tribes, earning her the unquestioning respect of turbanned feudal chieftains.

Among them was Nawab Akbar Bugti, a tribal lord of her own generation who rebelled against the government in recent years and led an insurgent campaign that ended in his death at the hands of the army in August 2006.

"A rowdy, nothing else," Musa says dismissively when asked about his death.

"He wasn't clever or anything. If he was clever he would have cooperated and got his own way just the same. He thought he could be the big man all the time.

"You have to be very astute dealing with the Baluch," she adds conspiratorially.

"They all call me Mummy Jennifer"

Her political involvement waned however after Bhutto was executed by military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in 1979 and Pakistan got caught up in the Afghan war against the occupying Soviet Union.

"Quite frankly I don't take much interest (in politics or) many of these things these days," she says.

Spurred by the plight of young girls in this desperately poor region she took up social work. "I worked with all the people, even with my bad Urdu. They are clever people. I founded a kind of girl guides and the Pishin women's association, I founded that for the education of the girls," she says.

During the 1980s she took a new path, one that like her Irish upbringing stands in stark contrast to the surrounding rocky plain -- manufacturing ice.

The giant blocks provided the main source of refrigeration in a region where electricity is only available for a few hours each day, and much was even sold into Afghanistan during the 1990s civil war.

Now however the "war on terror" that has come to Afghanistan and Pakistan since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States has curbed the business, as have her own advancing years.

Pishin is better known these days as a Taliban hotspot, meaning that all foreigners need a permit to come here.

So Jennifer Musa spends her time quietly, taking brief walks in the garden and resting during the hot, dry Baluchistan afternoons.

In November she celebrated her 89th birthday at a ceremony for which her son flew home. A framed picture of Ashraf and his family meeting US President George W. Bush sits on a side table.

"He is a very good chap and very good to his mother," says Jennifer.

She gestures with a smile to a green-spined book of photographs of Ireland, but says she has no intention of leaving the place she has called home for more than half her lifetime.

"I don't think I will ever go back to Ireland. I haven't anyone living there any more. If I were to go home I would fell absolutely strange," she says.

"Even now as I sit here in Pishin I feel I am home. They don't put me on a pedestal, that would be terrible," she says.

Servants now turn away many of the callers who once came seeking the "Queen's" signature on a chit to win them preferment or quick treatment at the hospital.

But she says her old nickname was "just a joke" and that these days the locals all call her "Mummy Jennifer".

"They all call me mummy. Even the mummies call me mummy," she says.

"But mummy has had her innings."

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