Samina Quraeshi : Bridging worlds

Samina Quraeshi: always dazzling. Photo by Andreas Burgess

Samina Quraeshi: always dazzling. Photo by Andreas Burgess

My article in The News on Sunday today about Samina Quraeshi (October 12, 1944-September 25, 2013), who will be treasured as a movie maker, photographer, designer, architect, writer, city planner, storyteller, and on and on…  See her introduction to

By Beena Sarwar

While in Pakistan nearly a year ago, filming for her documentary, ‘The Other Half of Tomorrow’ on the complexities and empowering aspects of the lives of Pakistani women, Samina Quraeshi suffered a stroke that doctors feared she would not recover from. Miraculously, she did. Her own indomitable spirit, the best medical care, and undoubtedly the love and prayers of countless friends and well-wishers pulled the vivacious, versatile writer, artist, and designer back from the brink.

Her right side was left paralysed, but she carried on with her characteristic zest for life, even though, as she said sadly, “I can’t even hold my granddaughter.”

Richard Shepard (1945-2013). Photo courtesy: Design Observer

Richard Shepard (1945-2013). Photo courtesy: Design Observer

Fate dealt another, far crueller blow a few months later. Samina’s devoted, beloved husband Richard Shepard, father of their children, Sadia and Cassim, died after a brief bout with cancer. A reputed architect and town planner, he was also her business partner at S/Q Design Associates.

Their story — and Samina’s connection to America, which started earlier, when she went to Kansas as a 16-year old exchange student in the 1960s — forms part of the narrative in Sadia’s fascinating book ‘The Girl from Foreign’ (Penguin, 2008).

Samina missed Richard terribly, but was bravely recovering, full of plans for the future, undergoing therapy and hoping to get better. We last met on a glorious autumn afternoon at the farmhouse that she and Richard had lovingly converted, south of Boston. We had a sumptuous Lahori-style lunch prepared by our friends — the filmmaker Shireen Pasha and her daughter Zebun, who were visiting from Toronto. I contributed aloo baingan and a nectarine crumble.

Image courtesy T2F

Image courtesy T2F

Since Richard’s illness and passing away, Cassim, Sadia, and Sadia’s husband Andreas Burgess with their baby Noor Jehan, made sure that one of them was always there, away from their base in New York. Andreas, incidentally, is also the cinematographer for ‘The Other Half…’ that Sadia co-produced and co-directed. That day, they were all there, and it was lovely.

Samina expressed immense interest in the work I’m doing with Aman ki Asha, the India-Pakistan peace initiative, and said she wanted to be involved in it. I promised her we would work on it. But that was not to be. Two weeks later, an unexpected heart attack took her away.

Photos on display at the memorial last week.

Photos on display at the memorial last week.

Thalassa Ali: Blessings for old friend Samina

Thalassa Ali: Blessings for old friend Samina

Last weekend, at an elegant celebration of Samina’s life at the De Cordova Sculpture Garden and Museum, there was music and reflections by close family and friends including the writer Thalassa Ali, and a slide show of photos by Andreas. The hall was packed to overflowing before the event began. We reached in time for a soulful alaap by the Boston-based classical singer Shuchita Rao and some moving, insightful remembrances.

Samina could have been “the perfect ambassador” to Islamabad — and to Washington, said her old friend HDS Greenway, a longtime journalist, who himself knows Pakistan well, having travelled there as a reporter several times over the past 40 years for the publications he has worked with, like Time magazine, Washington Post and The Boston Globe.

HDS Greenway: “She knew both countries, knew all their faults, but loved them both.”

HDS Greenway: “She knew both countries, knew all their faults, but loved them both.”

“She knew both countries, knew all their faults, but loved them both.” And, he said, she “represented the best of both. Her lyrical writings about the culture, history and traditions of Pakistan were the first that made many Americans learn about that fabled land. No doubt she was the most talented woman I have ever known, movie maker, photographer, designer, architect, writer, city planner, and on and on. But it was the Samina the storyteller that I will always treasure.”

He recalled the time when Samina suggested to a troubled friend that she visit the Sufi mystics to seek solace. “The friend said, how can we contact them? Samina replied: ‘Oh, they already know we are coming.’ She didn’t talk about it much, but she was deeply religious and admired the Sufi traditions.”

Samina was “our beloved bombshell, awesome and always amusing"

Samina was “our beloved bombshell, awesome and always amusing”

To another friend, psychotherapist Kyra Montagu, Samina was “our ‘beloved bombshell’, awesome and always amusing, someone who intended to be noticed, “with a brilliant instinct for drawing and holding attention. She could talk about Sufi traditions and music, but equally about the political career of friends like John Kerry and others”.

She recalled how Samina helped her negotiate to hold a fundraising event at the Boston airport in 1998. Everyone knew it was out of bounds. But with her characteristic “chutzpah”, Samina “persuaded Massport that an artist’s party there was just what they needed. Not only that, they should want a billboard announcing Artweek Boston Open Studios on their highway welcoming sign. And so they did.”

Samina was passionate about Pakistan and the importance of Islamic culture but cared about countless other contemporary issues too. Her work as Design Director at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), from 1994 to 1997 was a perfect opportunity for her to “bridge the cultures of her two worlds and interpret them to each other”.

After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Samina worked to help the city heal by launching NEA Design Initiatives to reimagine the downtown area. “She felt passionately about the capacity of good design to help people ‘see with feeling’ and enable communities find ways to join together after such a tragedy,” recalled Montagu.

Roger Mandle: She was "the perfect emblem of this land.”

Roger Mandle: She was “the perfect emblem of this land.”

Samina’s own words best describe her, believes another long time friend, Dr. Roger Mandle, who has headed the National Gallery of Art, besides the Qatar Museums Authority and served as President of Rhode Island School of Design.

He quotes Samina’s Introduction to Legends of the Indus (2005) where she writes about looking out over Karachi and thinking, “Where they (the British) instituted structure, the people and their culture rebelled in instances of spontaneity, colour and flamboyance that would not be suppressed, like glossy weeds fighting their way through cracks buried in concrete. “On nights like these, I feel as if I am the perfect emblem of this land.”

Samina's memorial: A packed hall was tribute to the respect and popularity she enjoyed

Samina’s memorial: A packed hall was tribute to the respect and popularity she enjoyed

Postscript: Video of Samina Quraeshi speaking about her book Sacred Spaces (2010) at Kuch Khaas in Islamabad, introduced by KK founder and dear mutual friend Poppy Afzal Khan.

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One Response

  1. binA jii, aoa .. please send me yr email address .. I don’t know how to send u an article by this blog. jafree (IQBAL GEOFFREY). the new format of your blog is excellent, well done.

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