Pakistan lost a good friend on November 1, 2017, when French scholar Mariam Abou Zahab lost her fight against cancer in Paris, France. She was considered an authority on Pakistan and one of the few pro-Pakistan academicians in the West.
Born in February 1952, she converted to Islam at an early age and married a Muslim of Middle Eastern origin. She developed keen interest in Pakistan and Afghanistan while volunteering for relief support efforts during the Afghan war against Soviet Union. Her love for Pakistan grew with every passing year which was evident from the fact that she chose to study the political movement of Pakistan People’s Party in the 1970 for her Masters’ thesis and later obtained a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Paris Institute of Political Studies for her work on sectarianism in Pakistan.
She remained associated with the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO) as a senior lecturer and researcher at the Center for International Studies and Research (CERI) in Paris from 1982 onwards and collaborated notably in the Cahiers d’études on the Eastern Mediterranean and the Turkish-Iranian world (CEMOTI) on topics related to contemporary Afghanistan and Pakistan.
For her, Pakistan was a second home, which she visited at times more than once in a year. There are few researchers who can claim to match Mariam’s outreach among the religious and militant organisations in Pakistan. She was a frequent visitor to Pakistan from the 1970s onwards. Those who were familiar with her routine could plan meetings with firm belief that she would be in Pakistan during Ashura Muharram. In the two decades of my friendship with her, these were the last two years that she could not visit Pakistan due to poor health.
Most of her research work focuses on Shiism in Pakistan, sectarianism and jihadi groups. She was perhaps the only female researcher who had access to the top leadership of organisations such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba, Tehrik-e-Jafria and Jamatud Dawa. Her quest for facts took her places and she spent a considerable amount of time in the districts of Jhang, tribal and Northern Areas.
In Jhang, she used to reside at the house of an influential Shia feudal. It was perhaps during one such visit that the SSP leadership noticed her and reached out to her in Paris. “I returned home and was stunned to find a message on the answering machine from Maulana Azam Tariq (SSP leader) requesting for a meeting as he was in Paris,” said told me during one of our interactions adding, “Oh God they had my home number, I was on their radar, I am not sure if I ever gave any of them my personal number.” In a later visit to Pakistan, she was hosted by Maulana Azam Tariq at his home in Jhang, which most of us thought was a reckless move but she found it important for her research work.
She would often narrate her first ever meeting with Jamatud Dawa leader Hafiz Saeed in Lahore with much excitement. In my entire life as a researcher, she told me after the meeting, it was the first time that I interviewed someone while we both were facing walls in the opposite directions. I asked questions loudly and he (Hafiz Saeed) responded to them.
Mariam had a keen interest in studying Shia rituals and would make an effort to be in Pakistan during Muharram and attended Majalis and processions in different parts of the country. In the initial years, she attended Muharram processions in urban areas such as Lahore, Rawalpindi, Jhang and later focused on the rural areas and would join processions in remote areas of Mianwali, Dera Ismail Khan and in remote areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
To the surprise of many Shia friends, she would narrate tales of centuries old processions which none had heard before. She added to my knowledge of Asuhra Muharram being observed twice in a year – once according to Islamic calendar month of Muharram and the second time during the month of Jeth of the solar or Bikrami calendar also referred to as the Hindu calendar, in several remote areas of Punjab, including a village near the Indian border in Sialkot and Pakki Shah Mardan in Mianwali.
Back home in France, she was the first choice for media whenever they needed an opinion on Pakistan and was often accused of being soft and biased in support of Pakistan. Whenever an act of terrorism occurs in Europe, I lay out my prayer mat and start praying ‘God let there be no Pakistani connection’ in the incident, even before the media calls for opinion, she once said while discussing media perception of Pakistan in the West.
She had a good command over Urdu, Arabic and a number of other languages and was expert in keeping channels of dialogue and information open even in the worst of circumstances. For instance, when the French government refused to grant Maulana Samiul Haq entry on arrival in France and turned him back despite a valid visa, Mariam wrote a letter in Arabic apologising for the incident and acknowledging his support to the French authorities in facilitating oil pipeline talks with the then Taliban government in Afghanistan.
Mariam also carried out extensive research on the tribal areas of Pakistan and Pashtun society in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It would not be an exaggeration that she travelled the length and breadth of Pakistan more than a local and had friends in every city. Most of her work is in French, however, some including; Islamic Networks, The Afghan-Pakistan Connection, co-authored with Olivier Roy; The Dynamics of Sunni-Shai relationships: Doctrine, Transnationalism, Intellectuals and the Media; Changing Patterns of Social and Political Life Among the Tribal Pashtuns in Pakistan; The Regional Dimension of Sectarian Conflicts in Pakistan; and Unholy Nexus: Talibanism and Sectarianism in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas; and many more speak volumes of her understanding of the complexities of the region, are available in English.
With friends and students spread across Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, the UK and US, Mariam was yet to choose between Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, and Kufa University, Najaf, for teaching assignment on retirement in 2018, but death came early and a few days before her demise she wrote to inform me that she had chosen Najaf, as her final resting place.