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Abedin’s book suggests that she embraced the notion of multiple identities

One of the surprise US bestsellers of the last 12 months has been Both/And, a memoir by Huma Abedin.

It is written by the woman who rose to become one of Hillary Clinton’s closest aides and who, if Hillary had won the election, would have been a major figure in her White House, possibly her chief of staff.


Abedin attracted some attention in America a few years ago when her husband, the Congressman Anthony Weiner, was caught sexting women. (They have since separated.) That wouldn’t have mattered so much by itself except for an unexpected consequence. The New York State attorney’s office, which was investigating Weiner, found e-mails on his computer that appeared to be copies of correspondence between Hillary Clinton and Huma.


   Shortly before polling day in the presidential election in the US, the then FBI director James Comey, wrote to Congress to say that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was examining these emails. This amounted to re-opening an investigation into Hillary’s emails which had already ended with the FBI concluding that she had committed no illegality.


   Historians will debate how much difference that announcement made to the result of the election, but at the time it was seized on by Donald Trump to suggest that new incriminating evidence against Hillary had been found. That caused Clinton to lose the momentum her campaign had acquired and, according to some assessments, contributed to her eventual defeat.


   Clinton won the popular vote but not the electoral college which elected Trump; one of the peculiarities of the American system where the total number of votes polled does not necessarily matter. Abedin says she blamed herself for the events that led up to Hillary’s defeat.


   She must have felt even worse when the FBI eventually concluded that the emails on Weiner’s computer were merely copies of emails it already had. In other words, it had all been for nothing. There was no new evidence. But by then, Trump had already become president. (And in a bizarre turn of events, he fired James Comey and described the FBI director as a showboat who loved being in the news.)


   It is Abedin’s account of these events plus the stuff about Weiner that was expected to sell the book —and judging by its bestseller status, it probably did — but, for me, the best parts of the memoir were the early sections that dealt with growing up in a South Asian family in Saudi Arabia and in Middle America. Given the current public mood in America, I found it striking that Abedin made so much of her Muslim faith and emphasised how important it is to her. It is her faith, she suggests in the book, that sustained her through the low points in her life.


   Abedin’s memoir captures what it means to be South Asian and live abroad. Her family regarded Mumbai as home. Her father was opposed to Partition. But then, when they faced hostility in the workplace in India, her family moved abroad.


   Many immigrants who have grown up in these circumstances, turn their backs on the cultures they have left behind and settle on an entirely American identity. Some of them join politics; there are lots of South Asians in US politics now. Kamala Harris is the most notable example though there are others who have gone the full American politician route. Bobby Jindal became governor of Louisiana after converting to Christianity. Nikki Haley (often mentioned as a potential presidential candidate) spent a long time playing down her Indian origins.


   Abedin’s book suggests that she rejected that approach. Instead she embraced the notion of multiple identities; an idea that all of us in India embrace in our everyday lives almost automatically, without even realising it. For instance, I am an Indian first and foremost. But I also have an ethnic identity — Gujarati – and a religious identity — Jain — all of which co-exist in harmony.


   That can be more difficult to do for an immigrant who enters the American political system. And yet, reading the book, there is no doubt that Abedin has managed to effortlessly balance her many identities. When she talks about US politics, she speaks as an American. There is no

"What is clear though is that despite the trauma of the investigation and the electoral defeat, Abedin seems to have come out of it, head held high."
sense there in which you feel that she writes as a child of South Asian immigrants who spent many years in Saudi Arabia till she returned to the US for college.


   Watching her at the Soneva edition of the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF), it was also clear that she had retained her South Asian cultural identity. She followed a session on Urdu poetry with an educated interest (her family spoke Urdu at home) and when she was listening to the rock band Kabir Café, who set Kabir’s dohas to music, I was surprised to discover she recognised many of the dohas.


   Then, there is the matter of her Muslim identity. She was a leading light of Hillary’s campaign at a time when Donald Trump was calling for a ban on all Muslims entering the US. But she never played down her faith or made apologies for it. She continues to do that. For instance, she is leaving the JLF event early because she is co-hosting an Eid party in New York (at Sona, the restaurant Priyanka Chopra is associated with).


   Watching her at JLF gave me a sense that a new kind of global South Asian is emerging. Abedin says that her father told her that now that she was an American, she had to throw herself into the life of her adopted country. There could be no half-measures. On the other hand, there was also no need to deny her cultural origins or the heritage she shared with other South Asians or with Muslims. It is a marked difference in style from Bobby Jindal’s and Nikki Haley’s approaches.


   You can’t really meet Huma Abedin and not ask her about the email controversy that may have led to Donald Trump’s election. So, I asked her for her perspective and based on what she said and what else I have read, I think I may now understand what really happened.


   The New York State’s attorney had custody of Anthony Weiner’s computer. Shortly before the election — and weeks after they had got their hands on the computer —they told the New York office of the FBI that they had found Clinton’s emails on the device. The New York office of the FBI probably leaked this to Rudy Giuliani, the city’s former mayor and Trump’s lawyer.  Giuliani went public with the claim that revelations that would blow Hillary’s campaign out of the water were coming.


   The New York office of the FBI then forwarded the emails to the bureau’s director. James Comey now had two choices. He could wait to check to see if these were new mails. (They were not.) Or he could immediately declare that the FBI was once again re-examining Clinton’s emails. He chose the safe option of going public, and wrote to Congress.


   In Comey’s defence, it could be said that perhaps he feared that given that the existence of the mails had been leaked to Giuliani he had to act immediately because otherwise he would be accused of a cover-up. And, so, he wrote to Congress, knowing fully well that letters of this nature are always leaked.


   And, of course, Comey’s letter was leaked. And Trump used the existence of the tapes to suggest that new evidence had been found.


   While Abedin still seems to blame herself, there are some worrying questions still to be answered.  Did the New York attorney’s office wait to reveal the existence of the mails it had sat on for weeks till the revelation could have the most impact? And was the New York branch of the FBI out to get Hillary?


   These are important questions because those decisions may have contributed to the election of Donald Trump. And there can be little doubt that the world would be a very different place today had Hillary become president.


   I guess we will never be sure; just as we can’t even be certain of how much Comey’s announcement contributed to Trump’s victory.


   What is clear though is that despite the trauma of the investigation and the electoral defeat, Abedin seems to have come out of it, head held high. The massive success of the book has probably helped. She says that writing it all down was liberating. And I imagine it will help rid her of the baggage of the past as she goes forward.


   And she will go forward. I think we will read and hear more about her in the years ahead.



Posted On: 17 May 2022 12:00 PM
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