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Huma Abedin: The Phoenix Rises

11 months ago / by Seema Kumar
huma abedin
Photo Credit: Sharmeen Chaudhury, Stylist: Sanjana Bhandary

Huma Abedin’s favorite color is green, which in Islam symbolizes nature and life. It is the color of paradise in the Quran. But the past decade has been far from paradise for Abedin. In fact, it has been pure hell, and Abedin says she had to reach deep within her faith and herself to emerge from the shadow of shame, proud and resilient. As one of Hillary Clinton’s closest aides, Abedin was often in the public eye, always by Clinton’s side, present but silent, rarely the topic of the story. 

In her 26-year political career spanning the White House, the Senate, and the State Department, Abedin collected her share of scars in the roughest of towns: Washington D.C. But nothing prepare her for the heartbreak and ignominy caused by husband and former Congressman Anthony Wiener’s repeated sexting scandals, which she endured in full public view. That scar, she says, will take a long time to heal.

“He ripped by my heart out and stomped on it over and over again,” Abedin writes in her memoir, “Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds,” published in November 21 by Simon and Shuster. The scandal, along with the discovery of Clinton’s confidential emails on Weiner’s computer, disrupted the presidential candidate’s campaign. 

“I lived with shame for a long time… I could have been the first chief of staff of the first female president,” she writes in the book. “How am I going to survive this? Help me God.”

But survive she did. And, Huma, which means “lucky bird” or “phoenix” in Urdu, has emerged out of the shadows breaking her silence and rising, she says, to reclaim her own narrative. She says she is taking things one day at a time and drawing strength from her religion, her parents, her cultural roots and values, and, most of all, faith in herself. 

“Be true to yourself, let others say what they will. You are responsible in the first instance to yourself, to your principles and your values, and ultimately to your God, or higher power.”

Abedin says on tough days, she turns to advice from her dad, who died when she was 17

That has carried me through,” she says.

Early Life and Values

The daughter of an Indian father, Syed Zainul Abedin, and a Pakistani mother, Saleha Mahmoud Abedin, Abedin was born in 1976 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Her mother’s family had moved from Mumbai, India, to Karachi, Pakistan, a few years after the partition of India. Her mother was a sociologist and Fulbright Scholar who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania where she met her father, a professor of American civilization and Muslim studies who also earned his Ph.D. at University of Pennsylvania. With India and Pakistan at war in the mid-1960s, matters got complicated for the Indo-Pakistani couple, who sought asylum in the United States. They settled in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Two years after Huma Abedin was born, the family left to Saudi Arabia when Syed Abedin was diagnosed with renal failure. 

“My whole life changed,” Abedin says. “He was told that he had five to 10 years and to get his affairs in order. So he went out and he lived. He was my age. He was 46.”

They lived in Saudi Arabia in an international community, but every summer traveled all over the world.  

“We went everywhere – from Asia to Europe to Africa, because my parents were curious about the world,” says Abedin. “For them, like a lot of South Asian families, education really was a religion. They always told us you can do whatever you want for your profession, all we require is that you be educated.”

Abedin says she enjoyed the strong presence of her community in Saudi Arabia, overflowing with support. She felt a sense of security that someone was always there to help her. Although it was a conservative place, where women couldn’t drive or wander the streets alone, Abedin also found a counterpoint when she traveled every summer to the United States to see relatives or when traveling the world with her parents and siblings.

“My parents always raised us as Americans,” Abedin says. “They taught us to be equally proud of both our heritages. But when I moved here as a 17-year-old in 1993, I did experience culture shock. I realized as I was wandering around through college, there were certain American cultural things I was not familiar with, things I didn’t know. I wasn’t wearing shorts, like all the other kids. I was teased in gym class, because I didn’t know how to assimilate. In some ways. I had a more global and international perspective. But in other ways, I did have a sort of a naiveté, about about certain things. It was hard. When I walked into the White House as a 21-year-old in 1996 I brought that perspective with me, and I’m really grateful to have had it.”

The White House Intern

Abedin says she ended up at the White House by accident. For, her dream was to be a political journalist like Christiane Amanpour. 

“When I was 15, I remember sitting on the living room floor watching TV during the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, and seeing a face appear on the screen who looked like she came from our part of the world,” Abedin says. “It was Christiane Amanpour, reporting from Iraq, for CNN. I just remember being captivated by her and impressed by how brilliant she seemed and what a badass she was. I thought, that’s it. I’m going to be Christiane Amanpour. I had found my calling, and it was to be her. So that’s one of the reasons I went to Washington, to George Washington University, to study journalism: so I could follow in those footsteps.”

As an intern meeting the first woman Prime Minister of Bangladesh as she arrived at theWhite House. First greet down, thousands more to go

Like many students, Abedin applied for internships while at college. A friend who was interning in the White House for then press secretary Mike McCurry, encouraged Abedin to apply for an internship. 

“I didn’t think there was a chance I would get in at all,” Abedin says. “It seems so far out of my reach. But I had nothing to lose. So I thought, what the heck. I filled out the application. And I went back home to Saudi Arabia for the summer.” 

When she returned to the United States, a large packet was awaiting her. It said: “Welcome to the White House.”

“I always say, so much of my life is a combination of fate, luck and hard work,” Abedin says. “And that really was just fate.” But when she arrived at the White House, she found out that she has been placed in the First Lady’s policy office because of volunteer work she had done with her mother, Saleha Abedin, at a Beijing conference. Her mother was a big advocate and supporter of women’s education and rights.

“I remember calling my mom, a little disappointed saying they didn’t put me in the press office. How was I going to be Christiane Amanpour,” says Abedin, who at the time had no political affiliation, having only been exposed to members of the South Asian community in New Jersey that supported Christine Todd Whitman and George H.W. Bush. They tended to be socially and fiscally conservative and automatically register as Republicans. Her mother urged Abedin to give her plan B a chance. She took the job in part because it felt like a good cause. She eventually fell in love with it.

The Golden Age in “Hillaryland”

Abedin began as an intern in 1996. From the get-go, Abedin prioritized work above everything else. Abedin recalls the exact moment, a fork in the road, when she decided work was more important than family. At a fancy family wedding at a hotel on Central Park West, Abedin got a phone call from the White House. As a brand new staff person, she had to make a choice, should she travel with the first lady or stay at the family wedding. 

“I could only see one path right in front of me,” says Abedin. And throughout her career, Abedin always took the call.

Abedin worked with Hillary Clinton for 25 years, serving in various capacities – as a political staffer, a strategist, an assistant, and traveling chief of staff to Clinton during her 2008 campaign for the Democratic nomination in the 2008 presidential election. Abedin became one of Clinton’s closest aides during the latter’s tenure in the State Department, and was her deputy chief of staff when she was the U.S. Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013. She ultimately becoming the vice-chair of her campaign.

Clinton is an important element of Abedin’s book, with one entire chapter of the book dedicated to her, and the concept of “Hillaryland.”

There were always exciting events at the White House. Day after jam packed day. Night after spangly night. On this Millennium eve in December 1999, some of us expected our computers to crash at the stroke of midnight. They didn’t.

“I tried to approach writing about her just as I tried to approach writing about other really, incredibly historic figures. I was privileged to work with and meet President Obama and more world leaders than I can I can count, but what I tried to do is show, rather than tell, how Hillary Clinton is amazing and brilliant, by taking my reader on a journey,” says Abedin. “I wanted to show them what it was like to be in a room with her and what it was like to be in meetings as she made decisions, and what it was like backstage, before, walking into a big meeting. I wanted to give people just a sense of who she was as a person as a character as a human.”

She says a number of people have expressed surprise to learn the softer side of Clinton.

“Most people don’t realize the sense of just humanity and radical empathy that she has in spades. She has this ability to put herself or at least envision what it is like to be in somebody else’s shoes. And because she is a consummate problem solver. She always wants to help figure out what the solution is if somebody has a problem,” says Abedin.

Abedin says she learned a lot from working with Clinton. “When you’re at a table with Hillary Clinton, she is not intimidated by anyone around the table being smarter than her. She wants everybody at the table to be smarter than her. [She knew] the way to get things done is to have the smartest people in the room at the table, and she always believed you can make more space, that we can expand the space at the table.

“Working in Hillaryland meant women climbed up the ladder and gained professional success, instead of stepping on those below, and reach their hands to pull the rest of us up,” says Abedin. 

huma abedin and hillary clinton
When I found campaign offices on the corner of “Tillary” and “Clinton” in Brooklyn, it felt meant to be. Taking our first walk in the neighborhood after the campaign launch

Hillaryland is a place of sisterhood, she explains, a culture that Clinton created where empowerment and recognition were plenty and a supporting environment in which people checked in and helped each other.

“It’s a club that comes with lifetime membership. And the only entrance fee are the shared scars of doing battle in Washington,” says Abedin.

Abedin gave her all to work and thrived in Hillaryland. Her mother joked that Clinton saw Abedin more than she did. Her personal life took a back seat, so much so that she felt that dating men was a distraction. Plus, she says, given her conservative cultural background, she was waiting for the right person, saving herself for the right man. Until she met someone who she thought was the perfect man.

Anthony Weiner

Anthony Weiner was in his second term as Congressman when he first asked Abedin on a date at a DNC retreat at Martha’s Vineyard. At the time Abedin was a senior advisor for then Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). They began dating during Clinton’s first presidential campaign. Abedin was taken by Weiner’s charm, political knowhow, and passion for helping people. 

“He was brilliant and captivating.” 

Abedin was smitten. 

Hilary Clinton hosted an engagement party for the couple, calling Abedin her second daughter.

They married in July 2012 in a ceremony officiated by Bill Clinton. Everything appeared perfect. 

“I really thought I had the perfect marriage,” says Abedin, who had grown up seeing her parents have a model marriage. 

huma abedin and wiener on their wedding day
We were so happy. On our wedding July 10, 2010

“My parents would never argue in front of the four children,” she says. “My father was an old-fashioned romantic. Every time he came back from a trip, he would bring my mother sweets or gifts, and leave jasmine flowers on her pillows. They were a unit, they were a team, they shared this great mutual love and intellectual curiosity about the world and a mission to leave the world a better place.” When her father died, her mother, who was 50, never remarried. And all three of her siblings found life partners.

Abedin, who had prioritized work over family, thought she had finally found her life partner. She was newlywed and barely 12 weeks pregnant when she traveled to the U.K., spending a night at Buckingham Palace. She remembers waking up cherishing her marriage and her secret pregnancy. 

“I took out some stationery and began writing a letter to my husband saying how is it possible for two people to have lives this perfect. We are so lucky, we should be grateful,” Abedin says.

Two days later, everything changed.

It was June 2011, and the first of Weiner’s sexting scandals broke on his Twitter account. After claiming that his account had been hacked, Weiner later admitted sending it as a joke. Weiner resigned from Congress a week later. In December 2011, their son, Jordan Zayn Weiner was born. 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

It was April 2013 before the couple re-emerged from this setback with Abedin ostensibly forgiving Weiner, saying that after a lot of soul-searching and couples therapy she had decided to save her marriage. She stated that she didn’t make the choice lightly.

“I had a lot of anger for a long time,” she says. “When the story first broke, I was with somebody I was deeply in love with. I was carrying his child. I did not have a choice when I lost my father. And so I, of course, wanted to give my child every chance to be in a house with two parents. And I tried – we tried – and even now our goal is to be, you know, fully present parents for our son.”

In May 2013, Weiner announced that he was running for mayor of NYC, purporting to be a reformed man, but soon news emerged that he had continued sexting after he resigned from Congress. Abedin stood by her man as he admitted this at a press conference in July, staying in the race and ultimately losing the Democratic mayoral primary. Abedin still stayed with her man. In 2016, the couple’s ups and downs during the NYC mayoral race was captured in a shocking new documentary. By now, Abedin was vice-chair of Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, traveling globally, with her husband acting as a stay-at-home dad.

Then the big bombshell fell in August 2016 when the story broke that Weiner had been sexting with another woman while babysitting their toddler son, Jordon, who was also in the photo. Abedin announced her separation from Weiner the next day.

“For me, part of what was so hard was that the person I was in a relationship with, I never saw the person who was in the media. It was really like being with, you know … It was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as I learned later. So it was very, it was very hard for me, and I didn’t understand the behavior.

Coping and Building

Coping with the betrayal and heartbreak and picking life back up was not easy, she says.

“I give a lot of credit to my parents, and how I was raised with this sense of belief in oneself,” Abedin says. “What has helped me get through the hardest days is waking up every single day and acknowledging that while my life was hard that someone out there has it worse. It really grounded me, and always gives me perspective on what I am enduring.

“Without my faith, going back to that core place, there are days that I would have not made it through. The Muslim prayer (namaz) is about stepping back from the world and reflecting on your actions, deeds and intention. It’s a reflection and a meditation – a singular conversation between you and a higher power. And it carried me through difficult times.”

Writing the book has been cathartic, Abedin says. 

“It was tremendous therapy for me, I’ve been lucky to be able to put it out in the world. And if I can help one person, or five people, I feel as though I’ve done a service,” she says.

It was also a way to answer in her own words the question most researched about her in the past decade, she says: What is wrong with her? And what was she thinking?

“I am reclaiming my narrative,” Abedin says. “If I didn’t write it down, somebody else is writing my history. It is one of the reasons I chose to write exactly what I was thinking. My father always told me, our eyes are at the front of our heads for a reason; it’s to look forward. Even though it’s important to know history and understand history, it’s really just to inform the decisions we make about the future. I think one of the cherished things about writing the book was learning about my family’s incredible legacy and space in this world. If I could have one more conversation with my dad, I would give him this book and say, ‘This is what I’ve done with my life. And I hope you’re proud of me.’”

Jordan and Abedin

Abedin hopes to foster that way of thinking with her son, Jordan Zayn Abedin. She wants him to have a relationship with his father. Although they are separated, Abedin and Weiner are co-parenting Jordan.  

“I want my son to feel loved and supported,” Abedin says. “We’re always going to be sources of truth for him. Obviously, he’s going to have to learn some hard truths. I want him to just be a kind, good human being with principles and values and, and pass on as much as I learned from my parents. My dream for him is to be a good responsible human being in this world. And he’s inheriting a very complicated world.”

THROUGH THE EYES OF HUMA ABEDIN

On her book, Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds

A New York Times bestseller, this book is a memoir by Huma Abedin, a long-term political staffer and strategist who became one of Hillary Clinton’s closes aides but became the headline when she stood by her man, former husband and congressman Anthony Weiner, through his multiple sexting scandals.

BOTH/AND: A LIFE IN MANY WORLDS BY HUMA ABEDIN
BOTH/AND: A LIFE IN MANY WORLDS BY HUMA ABEDIN

Huma in Urdu means “lucky bird or Phoenix.” In this book, Abedin talks about how she is rising up from the depths of pain and heartbreak and drawing on her faith and her values from to find peace and a path forward. In the book, Abedin answers the question most asked about her: Why did she stand by her man, Anthony Weiner, after repeated scandals? And how did she cope?

“It is one of the reasons I chose to write exactly what I was thinking,” she says. “I am reclaiming my narrative. If I didn’t write it down, somebody else is writing my history.”

Abedin chronicles her journey and service that spanned the White House, Senate and the State Department. Through her memoir, ‘Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds,” she attempts to take control of her own narrative, writing about her roots, her culture and values, and her multi cultural upbringing. and about faith, work, family, marriage, motherhood, and resilience. 

Writing this book has been cathartic.

“It was tremendous therapy for me,” she says. “I’ve been lucky to be able to put it out in the world. And if I can help one person, five people, I feel as though I’ve done a service.

“This is my year of saying yes (I’ve stolen that from Shonda Rhimes) … I feel as though I’ve spent a lot of my life being a little afraid of stepping out into the world. And that’s what I’ve done with this book is, put my full truth out there and step out into the world.”

Anna Wintour makes the impossible seem effortless

On Women

Having that touchstone, that place that you can go where there is no judgment, where it’s okay to not be okay… Not be perfect is important. As women, we tend to be very hard on ourselves, judge ourselves and feel judged. The elephant in the room is the feeling shame for decisions that you make … feeling judged for staying or been judged for leaving. Finding that core place of peace, it’s not easy, and sometimes you have to do it alone. 

On Community

Finding that community is a real gift … Rediscovering or making new female friendships is one of my most therapeutic, most fun, most wonderful moments of self care…Having friends that I can rely on and call and just say, “I’m feeling low. What are you doing? Let’s go get a coffee,” is important.

On Resilience

Faith has been a core part of my everyday life. If you can go to that place where you think it’s going to be okay, you are going to be OK and just recenter, rebalance, you can get up every single day feeling like you can do it again. Ultimately that’s what resilience is.

On the Lack of South Asian Sisterhood

When my book first came out … I really wanted to be able to reach out to the South Asian community in this country and around the world.  If I can mean something to another generation of young women, even if it’s a handful of people, then it will have meant something. 

“I wonder if we feel there aren’t enough seats at the table. We have to work at it. We need to not be afraid of having the conversation. it is important for South Asians, South Asian Americans, to help each other as we figure out our way in the world to make to make space for other people.

Advice for Women of Color 

Do the thing that scares you the most, because it’s probably worth it. Many people don’t think a certain dream is possible, or that it’ll be interesting, or that it would be available to them. But it is just getting in the game.

Jordan meeting First Lady Michelle Obama on his first trip to DC.

On How South Asians Can Exert Their Influence

In 2008, being a South Asian woman of color didn’t count because that community did not vote in large enough numbers to make a difference. In 2020, in some key states, that community helped carry certain precincts and certain districts in favor of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. So it is just about showing up and doing something that you thought maybe you would never do, and just getting involved. 

Our community hasn’t historically been involved in politics. When I was in my 20s and 30s, my uncles and aunties would say, tell Hillary this or tell the president that. And now I want to say to my cousins, well, go do it yourself! (go vote).

On the South Asian Tendency to Blend In …

When my parents came to this country, they assimilated, but they did not let go of their cultural and religious traditions that were important to them. And so when I walked into the White House, I sometimes wore my Indian clothes for black tie events on the State Floor. I had no problem sharing with my colleagues that I was fasting when it was Ramadan, or talking about my family in India and Pakistan, and having them come to our events. I did it with a tremendous amount of pride. 

I think it’s part of that both/and, you know. It’s one of the reasons my book is called “Both/And.” Yes, I can be an American, but I can also hold true to the values and traditions that I was raised with. I’m very proud of and [it is] a core part of who I am. Being multi-dimensional, being able to bounce between different worlds, and feeling comfortable – that’s a gift.

On Success

When I walked into the White House, I was not the best, or the smartest, or the prettiest. What I did know is I was prepared to outwork anybody else, and that I’d found something that I loved. 

Find what you love, and, and if it’s politics and public service, go volunteer for your Congressman, for your local assembly member in the mayor’s office. Learn about how our laws are made, learn about policy, learn about the basics about life in public service. You might love it, you might not, but the only way you’re going to know is try. 

On Breaking Her Silence, Her Book and Next Steps

This is my year of saying yes, (I’ve stolen that from Shonda Rhimes), I feel as though I’ve spent a lot of my life, being a little afraid of stepping out into the world. And what I’ve done with this book is put my full truth out there, and step out into the world. 

Now I have to do something about it. I’m open to new opportunities and new experiences. But I also recognize I have to go out and, you know, be a little bit more aggressive about figuring out my next step. I’m not there yet, but I’m hoping to figure that out soon. Who knows, maybe I will still become Christian Amanpour. I haven’t figured it out yet. But I need to see that is still alive.

On Kamala Harris

I have had the great privilege of knowing Kamala Harris for many years. She made history in her own right in California. When Kamala Harris was chosen to be on the ticket, it was just nothing less than awesome. I feel a great connection to her. I think that my mother and her mother would have connected on so many levels. She made history for us, and she does us all proud every single day. Being the first is hard. There’s no precedent so nobody knows what to compare you to.

On Anti-Muslim Sentiment

I wrote the book in part to explain what it was to be a Muslim in America. What happened to me and my family in 2012, and to other very high ranking Muslims serving in government, when we were accused by five Republican members of Congress of essentially being spies and of not being loyal to this country, was … shocking. In my case, [it was] based on essentially fake news about my parents. In some ways, it was one of the hardest experiences of my life. I’ve been in politics a long time, I’m used to people making all kinds of crazy outlandish accusations against me, but they attacked my parents, my brother, with completely unfounded accusations. I remember at the time just wanting to scream into the wind, “None of this is true.”

Which is why, when Republican Senator John McCain from Arizona, who I had the great privilege of knowing, went to the floor of the Senate and defended my family’s name, I was just overcome with emotion.

Saying goodbye to Senator John McCain at his ranch in Sedona in 2014. In his hand is the letter I wrote thanking him for defending my family’s name

What happened to us in 2012, was really a [prelude] to 2016, when anti-Muslim sentiment became effectively pervasive.

Throughout the Trump campaign, we became the other, we became the scary boogeyman, and it was very effective. I remember traveling around the country, and I would talk to the South Asian community … People just wouldn’t take him seriously, [they’d say] that he just saying these things to be dramatic, he’s not going to do any of these things. 

The only road forward is to normalize. When people watch a show on TV in this country, and they see a family going in a church, they think nothing of it. When you see a family going into a mosque, there’s that dark cloud. And we have to change that. We have to normalize that. The only way to do that is just be out in the world and share who we are, what we believe in. That’s the only way forward, in my opinion.

On Lata Mangeshkar’s Passing

It’s hard. My mother always says it’s like poetry. You can’t translate these songs. It’s not the same, you know, to translate into English feeling.