Written in the Daily Mail UK by Daphne Barak
TV journalist Daphne Barak has befriended many of the world leaders she has interviewed - from Nelson Mandela to Shimon Peres - but none became such a close friend as Benazir Bhutto. Here she reveals the private world of the murdered former Pakistan prime minister. “Daphne, you don’t want me to go back home?” asked Benazir Bhutto. She knew the answer - we’d been having the same debate for months.
Benazir was a close friend of mine and, even before an assassination attempt on her life in October this year, I was against her returning to Pakistan.
“You know how I feel,” I said. “It’s a trap! You fell into it, but you can still get out…”
“I can’t,” Benazir replied, sounding stressed. “You see Daphne,they are expecting me in Pakistan. They know Washington is supporting me. My photos are already all over the streets. Asif [her husband] and I are taking into account what you are saying. But how can I back out? It’s too late. And if I don’t go now, I might as well just quit politics forever.”
She was confident in the support of the Bush Administration. But I wasn’t so sure. I had a bad feeling about it and when I last saw her I became emotional. I knew I wouldn’t see her again. She came over and hugged me. I cried. She didn’t. She just held me tighter.
The Benazir I knew and loved was the most extraordinary woman. Everyone knows she was brilliant and extremely ambitious but what very few people know - and I am privileged to be one of those - was that she was also what I would call a girlie-girl who loved to talk about skincare and hairstyles.
Benazir, who used to sign off her emails to me with the name Bibi, was one of those rare women who had the ability to move a conversation from heavy politics to lightweight gossip in the space of a minute.
Benazir was like a big sister to me. I am still trying to come to terms with the loss of someone so close to me. We met for the first time while she was serving a second term as Pakistani prime minister when she gave me an exclusive interview in June 1995 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
We got on well and met again in 2000 at the home of our mutual friend Esther Coopersmith, who is known in Washington as the hostess with the mostest. Benazir was no longer in power but Esther had arranged an amazing lunch for her, and everything from plates, napkins and even food was in either green or white, the colours of the Pakistani flag.
From then on Benazir and I developed an increasingly close friendship. When we met - usually in New York, sometimes in London - we talked about politics, of course. I knew she was determined to bring democracy back to Pakistan and I would sometimes arrange parties for her and make sure she met the right politicians in a private and relaxed setting.
But, as so often happens with powerful women I interview, like Hillary Clinton and Segolene Royal, I also had the great fortune to get to know her as a woman, wife, mother and friend, the sides she revealed only to people she could trust, and these are the areas I want to concentrate on.
As a woman she was very different from the tough politician she presented to the world. She wasn’t, as some have said, a brutal man in feminine clothing. She was just like so many women. She was always keen to lose weight and wanted to look younger and healthier. We discussed girlie subjects alone and when men were present.
Benazir had a very good appetite and particularly loved Italian and French food. When we went to restaurants together - only those that were off the beaten track so we would not be snapped by the paparazzi - she would always order three courses.She particularly loved desserts and cakes and chocolates. She also gained weight from stress.
No one would recognise her when we went on our dinner dates. She would dress very casually, usually in a blouse and slacks, and her hair would be uncovered. Sometimes she wanted to diet. I introduced her to my own private general practitioner Mark Hyman, who lives in New York, and he worked out diet regimes for her.
Dr Hyman would prescribe a powder that had to be made up into some kind of milkshake. You drank that and ate only vegetables for three days at a time. I found it disgusting, but Benazir persevered and would ring or email me from Dubai or wherever she was, thrilled when she’d lost a few pounds.
“Daphne,” she would say. “It’s wonderful I have lost some weight. Please send me more of those detox powders.” She always took vitamins every day, too.
She cared about what she looked like under her clothes. I introduced her to Victoria’s Secret, the sexy stylish underwear company, whose range she loved and always wore. She was very Americanised and wore her headscarf only when it was politically correct to do so.
I helped her with her hair,too.My hairdresser, Diego, who works for the Regency Hotel in New York,would style her hair when she came to some of my parties. When she was in exile, I introduced her to influential people and she wanted to look her best.
She had the most wonderful, lush, thick, dark hair and she loved, literally, to let it down. But, of course, only in private. Benazir was interested in the latest face and body creams and asked me for advice. I change brands all the time but my latest recommendation was Pria, created by a friend of mine. Benazir told me she loved it.
We often exchanged gifts - anything from the latest political books to very sensual candles. Of course we talked a lot about men, as all women do when they get together. She enjoyed hearing in detail about other people’s love affairs but most of all she was totally fascinated by Princess Diana.
She knew I was friendly with Hasnat Khan, the Pakistani doctor whom Diana fell totally in love with before she died. Benazir enjoyed speculating endlessly about the couple’s relationship.
“I am curious to know why their love didn’t have a happy ending,” she would say. “I wonder if Diana was serious in her intentions to go and live in Pakistan. It would be hard for her.”
I also remember her discussing Diana’s relationship with Dodi Fayed shortly before the Princess died. “I am sure it is just a summer fling,” she said. “I firmly believe it is her attempt to lure Hasnat back to her. It won’t last.”
As far as her own love life went, she was completely and utterly in love with her husband Asif. In him she knew she had found a man who was confident and secure enough in himself to allow a woman to be really powerful and not to feel threatened.
Asif is also very liberal and they behaved like teenagers together. In public they were very restrained, but in private or with close friends they were very demonstrative and would hold hands and kiss. You could feel the passion between them.
She could be very giggly when she was with Asif and I can tell you he was the power behind her throne because although she was very strong-willed, she always wanted to please him.
He is really the one who has been calling the shots. He is a brilliant man and she always did everything political that he advised her to do. He will certainly run for office instead of her to maintain the legacy.
Of course Benazir and Asif did not spend very much time together throughout their 20-year marriage and had to face major challenges that not many other couples would have survived. In a way it made their relationship such a romantic one.
Asif was a rich playboy when he met the heiress of the political dynasty and became politically involved when he fell in love with her.
But in 1997 he was jailed on corruption charges and she didn’t see him at all for the seven years he was in prison. She used to joke to me: “My life is strange. It seems that either I am prime minister or my husband is in jail. There can’t be many like me.”
During the last three years or so they saw each other only about 25 days a year. Asif lived in New York where he was undergoing heart treatment while Benazir was in exile in Dubai but they would speak and email each other all the time.
Both Benazir and their children - Bilawal, Bakhtwar and Aseefa - would travel to New York to see Asif. She would say: “They must spend time together. It is very important that they know their father.”
It was hard for them all. Asif was trying to become a father and husband again, but he found coping with noise and even a lot of space very difficult after his years in confinement. Even going to a theatre was a problem and I remember him leaving one venue shortly after we had arrived because he couldn’t cope with the crowds.
Asif was living in an apartment hotel and initially wanted Benazir to stay somewhere else, mainly because he didn’t want to be recognised and also because it wasn’t romantic enough for her, but she gradually persuaded him that they should be together. They had two dogs - one very small and one that looked like a horse - who both chewed all the furniture. Benazir didn’t complain. She didn’t even seem to mind that the flat was sparsely and simply furnished.
No one besides family and extremely close friends were invited to visit and anyway she had other more important things on her mind. She would say: “My mind is on politics. My home in New York is temporary. I am not interested in making it comfortable.”
She was very patient with her husband and he brought out the feminine side of her and liked her to shine. After his time in jail it was as if they found each other all over again.
I remember having a meal with them and some other friends. I had just come back from interviewing Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate for the French presidency against Nicolas Sarkozy last May. Benazir wanted to know what Segolene wore and how was her relationship with her partner.
I told Benazir that Segolene resembled her. Asif responded forcefully and immediately. “Nobody is as beautiful as my wife,” he said. Benazir blushed deeply. She loved him saying that.
She was also a wonderful mother. I called her a cross between an earth mother and a Jewish mother because she was loving but also pushed her children to do better than their best. She was very hands-on with the children and they would tease and hug each other a lot. But she wasn’t at all strict.
She didn’t want to put any more pressure on them than they already had because of her political ambitions. I feel she was always trying to compensate. But even though she was easy-going, the children were very well mannered.
I met them all many times. When one of her daughters, I think it was Bakhtwar, decided she wanted to become a punk singer, Benazir asked me if I could introduce her to Puff Daddy, who I know, to give her advice about a career in music.
She wasn’t snobbish about it. Nor did she seem in the least concerned about the implications it might have on her own political future. Benazir was also particularly proud that her son Bilawal got into Oxford and made sure that both she and Asif took him up and helped him settle in, just as any parent would.
Benazir was a wonderful friend to me - the best friend you could ever have. I was staying at the Dorchester Hotel and was injured just as she arrived to spend a few days with me before her historic return to Pakistan.
Asif told her I couldn’t get out of bed but she wouldn’t take no for an answer and came up with creative solutions like going to Harry’s Bar wearing a jump suit to cover my injuries.
Despite what she was going through herself she would regularly email me to ask how I was and if I didn’t tell her exactly, she would remember to ask me again, and be very specific. Sometimes her emails made me laugh.
For ages it was impossible to use a Blackberry in Dubai, but that changed recently and so over the past six months she emailed me from it all the time. In an email about her plans for her farewell dinner in October, she wrote: “Wld u like to join me for dinner? I am having dinner at nine and cld collect you at 8.15. I am having dinner with a friend and I told him I wld like to bring you. Bibi.”
Later that day as we finalised our plans, she sent me another email: “Dinner at harry’s bar. Can u come in a jump suit? Do u want to check? If its not too late when we finish we will drop by for coffee. Let me know if harry’s bar allows u to come in a jump suit.”
After eight years in exile, Benazir finally returned to Pakistan on October 18 this year. There was an attempt on her life that very day at a homecoming rally in Karachi - a suicide bomber killed 140 people but Benazir escaped unhurt. I spoke to her on the phone and realised that she was suffering from trauma after the blast.
On November 3, Pakistan’s President Musharraf declared a state of emergency and suspended elections. Suddenly, after being snubbed for nine years, Benazir was being feted by Washington. She thought this was fantastic news and that President Bush’s support would help her win the election in Pakistan.
But Asif asked me to check with my own contacts in Washington and Islamabad. I did and the information I got was that as soon as Musharraf ended the state of emergency, the Bush Administration would abandon its support for Benazir. She would be left extremely vulnerable. I thought it was a death trap.
On November 8, Benazir was placed under house arrest after threatening to join a protest rally against Musharraf. I rang several times before I managed to get my call answered.
I didn’t speak to her but she later called me back. She couldn’t talk freely as she knew her conversation would be overheard. She sounded frantic. I asked her if she needed anything, meaning a book, face cream, perfume or me to contact anybody. She replied: “Yes. I need a bulldozer.” I couldn’t understand what she meant and thought she was talking in code. Later Asif called me and said her house was surrounded by so many guards, Benazir needed a bulldozer to get out.
In one of our last phone calls, Benazir told me: “Washington is behind me. I can’t lose this opportunity. I have been waiting for it for nine years. We need to get Pakistan democratic again. I am needed here. It is now or never.”
I said: “There will be a better opportunity for you and I wouldn’t bet on Washington’s support. You have already been prime minister. Try something else.”
Again she didn’t listen. Once Benazir made up her mind about something, there was no way to change it. How I wish I could have made her think again. Bibi, I’ll miss you so.