In 2008, French scholar Mariam Abou Zahab met Abdullah Anas, a known Algerian Islamist and veteran of the Afghan jihad, over dinner on the sidelines of a conference in London. At some point, the conversation turned to Afghanistan. Mariam Abou Zahab, who was conversing in Arabic, mentioned how dear the country was to her heart. Anas’ interest was piqued and he asked her if she had travelled to the war-torn country during the 1980s. She replied that she had indeed spent a considerable amount of time there. “But what were you doing in Afghanistan? Were you a journalist?” asked Anas, only to see his interlocutor shake her head in denial. A few more questions followed as he tried to further probe this enigmatic French woman. Was she an aid worker there, or a scholar? he asked. She was visibly amused and kept on answering in the negative. “So what were you doing in Afghanistan?” he asked in desperation. “Jihad,” replied the middle-aged woman with a smile.
According to a witness of this exchange, her laconic answer petrified Anas who was still struggling with the stigma of his militant past. “He was so shocked that he did not dare ask for precise details. He just clung to his chair and waited for the conversation to move on,” the witness recalled. All those present were left to wonder what she could have meant by her ambiguous statement.
This was not the first time that Mariam Jan, as her Afghan friends affectionately called her, had left her audience high and dry after arousing its curiosity. Not that she was secretive – she just had a gift for dissuading others from enquiring further about her past lives. Because, like a cat, she lived several lives until cancer took her away on November 1, 2017, in Paris.
Longing for new horizons
Mariam Abou Zahab was born Marie-Pierre Walquemanne in 1952 in Hon-Hergies, a village in northern France. She came from a family of small industrialists and grew up in a Catholic environment. Feeling somewhat suppressed in her original milieu, she manifested a desire for new horizons early on. Moving to Paris was a first step in this direction. At the age of 17, she passed the entrance examination for the prestigious Institute of Political Studies (better known as Sciences Po) and graduated in three years.
At 20, she showed an inclination for travelling on the cheap. In 1972, she bought an inter-Europe train ticket and accompanied her elder brother on a tour of European capitals. As she later confided to one of her closest friends, Marie-France Mourrégot, the two siblings were briefly detained by the Italian police after they were found sleeping in a park. After their release, they went back home but the train ticket was still valid, so she decided to hit the road again, returning to Warsaw on her own.
The following year, she travelled overland to India. It is during these years (1973-1974) that she discovered Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as the Indian city of Lucknow, to which she would remain particularly attached. Her remarkable linguistic skills – alongside political science, she studied Hindi/Urdu and Arabic at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilisations (Inalco) and would later learn Persian, Pashto and Punjabi – allowed her to engage deeper with these societies than other travellers. Her conversion to Islam, made official at the Great Mosque of Paris in 1975, also contributed to her acculturation. After becoming a self-declared Shia, Marie-Pierre gave way to Mariam.
She acquired an intimate knowledge of Afghanistan, gained through strenuous and perilous travels under the cover of a shuttlecock burqa.
Her conversion was rather unusual in mid-1970s France, although some prominent intellectuals and artists of the time were attracted to the mystic traditions of Shiism, starting with the famed choreographer Maurice Béjart who was initiated into Islam by the Iranian Sufi master Nur Ali Elahi in 1973.
If her conversion estranged her from her original milieu, it was also a matter of concern for her husband. Nazem Abou Zahab, a young Syrian whom she had met in Damas and married in 1976, came from a Sunni middle-class family with a secular orientation and, as he told us, he found his spouse’s turn to religion rather disturbing. In those days of political upheaval throughout West Asia, however, spiritual matters were not the only thing on her mind.
Activism without borders
When Mariam Abou Zahab settled in Damas in the mid-1970s, she was no stranger to political activism. Five years earlier, she had responded to the call of French novelist and former minister of cultural affairs, André Malraux, to form an “international brigade” in support of Bengali nationalists in East Pakistan. And when this project failed to materialise, she still spent some time in the war-torn eastern wing of Pakistan, alongside several French intellectuals influenced by Maoism. Although she did not share these young men’s infatuation with Mao’s Little Red Book, she remained a defender of the oppressed throughout her adult life – a revolutionary commitment that, far from working against her religious devotion, went along with it. Her fascination with Shia Islam had a strong mystical component as well as an aesthetic and scholastic one. It also fuelled her public interventions, which in turn nurtured her. She was, after all, a child of May 1968, as attested by the number of books in her library devoted to the social movement of the era that changed the face of French politics and society.
After taking the side of the Bengalis in 1971, she became an active sympathiser of the Palestinian liberation struggle. In 1975, before settling in Damas, she made her first trip to Beirut where she met Issam Sartawi, an early supporter of peace negotiations with Israel. It is unclear if she shared his political views but she remained close to him until his assassination by Abu Nidal militants in Portugal in April 1983.
She was not a drawing room activist and faced up to the violence that was engulfing her world. During the spring of 1983, after separating from her husband, she briefly took up arms in the ranks of the pro-Arafat faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. For two or so weeks, she took part in combat in the Bekaa Valley, opposing the pro-Syrian faction of Fatah, led by Abu Musa. She related the episode to one of her former comrades at Sciences Po, Elizabeth Picard, who at that time was completing her PhD on Hafez El Assad’s “correcting movement” in Syria.
Mariam Abou Zahab’s proximity to notorious Palestinian militants invited the attention of French intelligence agencies. (Between 1980 and 1982, several attacks against Jewish restaurants and religious places were recorded in Paris; Palestinian terrorism remained a source of concern throughout Europe in the following years). She was even interrogated by France’s leading anti-terrorist judge, Jean-Louis Bruguière. She would later claim that she was denied entry to the French ministry of foreign affairs because of her Palestinian acquaintances.
The making of Sheenogai
Mariam Abou Zahab was a participant-observer of most of the crises that affected the Middle East and West Asia from the early 1970s onwards. She also made a transition from supporting secular freedom struggles to aiding holy wars, as the region at large did. In the early 1980s, she was more involved than ever in the Palestinian movement even though she had already started spending more time alongside the Afghan Mujahideen.
Persisting rumours over the decades have suggested that she could have been involved in military activities against the Soviets on behalf of the Afghan Mujahideen. In the mid-1980s, an article in the French magazine Actuel even suggested that she was heading a band of Afghan fighters in southern Afghanistan. While fuelling her legend, these rumours remain unsubstantiated. If she did fight with and for the Afghans, it was essentially by distributing financial aid to villagers affected by the war and occasionally to local Mujahideen commanders so as to legitimise her presence and that of her organisation among them. As a volunteer for Afrane, a French non-government organisation she had been associated with from 1982 onwards, she also provided medical care to the sick and wounded, spread awareness among women about health issues and visited local schools to assess their needs. According to Eric Lavertu, another volunteer for Afrane who later joined the French ministry of foreign affairs, her affection for children and her concern for women’s issues were defining traits of her personality. More than her alleged radicalism, it is her romantic side (son côté fleur bleue) that veterans of Afrane now remember her for.
She travelled extensively across the provinces of Ghazni, Zabol and Kandahar, whereas most French volunteers worked in the north of Afghanistan or around Herat in the west. In order to gain acceptance from the populations to whom she distributed help, she insisted that the funds for her work did not come from the French government. They were gifts, similar to donations made under zakat and sadaqa.
Her mission reports for Afrane are a unique and often poignant testimony on the socioeconomic dynamics of Afghanistan at war, even if they are focused on practical concerns and tend to oversimplify her relations with local populations (which, she would later admit, were often more conflictive than she could acknowledge at the time). She recorded in great detail the disruption of the agrarian economy and also documented the transformations of the education sector, conveying the desire for change among her informants (a significant number of whom seemed favourable to education for girls). She also underlined the positive role of madrasas in a country where secular education had virtually disappeared.
She acquired an intimate knowledge of Afghanistan, gained through strenuous and perilous travels under the cover of a shuttlecock burqa that limited her movements and made the summer heat even more unbearable. Jean-Pierre Perrin, a former reporter for Libération who accompanied her on a particularly challenging journey along the fringes of the Registan desert during the summer of 1983, was impressed by her courage and endurance: “It was a very painful trip. We had to ride motorbikes, trot on camels, and walk long distances. But she tolerated all this, often better than me,” he recalls. She was not invincible, however: as Perrin remembers, long walks on rocky paths took their toll on her and she sometimes collapsed from the heat.
These activities pertain to a now bygone era of humanitarian aid, predating its professionalisation. The clandestine nature of their work and the absence of telecommunications only reinforced the isolation of volunteers (Afrane generally covered the travel costs of its aid workers but they were not paid). Etienne Gille, one of the co-founders of Afrane, recalls, “Once our volunteers had crossed into Afghanistan, we had no way to communicate with them for two to three months.” This complete immersion only reinforced Mariam Abou Zahab’s bonds with the Afghans, and with Pakhtuns in particular. Her fondness for them was reciprocated – sometimes beyond her expectations. Mariam Jan was also known as Sheenogai or “green-eyed beauty” in Pashto, and she would often joke about the number of marriage proposals she had received from Pakhtun commanders during the Afghan Jihad.
To her critics, her romance with the Pakhtuns and her proximity to some Mujahideen commanders in eastern and southern Afghanistan often blinded her. Many French journalists, aid workers and diplomats eulogised Ahmad Shah Massoud, a celebrated Mujahideen commander who died in a bomb blast in 2001. Known as the lion of Panjshir, he was widely perceived in France as an enlightened figure with the soul of a poet, if not as an Afghan Che Guevara. Mariam Abou Zahab, for her part, always considered the myth surrounding him a fable for Western consumption. She herself preferred Pakhtun commanders such as Jalaluddin Haqqani, never ceasing to refer to him as a hero. Her views on the Afghan Taliban also caused controversy in France after she argued that they were a social movement, largely autonomous from Pakistani intelligence agencies. Instead of projecting the Taliban as an archaic formation, she depicted them as a reaction of the poorer and younger strata of Afghan society against traditional elites (the khans and maliks). She also saw their rise as a revolt of the countryside against the cities, which were perceived as dens of iniquity.
Her earlier texts on the origin of the Taliban – published in 1996 in Afrane’s journal – do not make an explicit mention of class as a sociological category, but it featured prominently in her analysis. This approach anchors her writings into critical, if not Marxist, currents of sociology. The centrality of class to her work only became clearer as the years passed by, especially featuring in her later work on sectarian conflict in Pakistan.
Making sense of Pakistan’s religious politics
While Afghanistan had a special place in Mariam Abou Zahab’s heart, she also developed a vibrant relationship with Pakistan early on. This set her apart from most other French aid workers active in the region during the 1980s. According to Gilles Dorronsoro, who worked for Afrane before becoming an internationally acclaimed scholar of Afghanistan, “We were utterly ignorant about Pakistani society and, to be honest, even a bit contemptuous of it. While in Peshawar, we were just longing to cross over to Afghanistan. On the contrary, she was fluent in Urdu and Pashto and she could talk extensively about Pakistan – not only about Peshawar but about many other parts of the country as well, which in those days was truly original.”
Her first contact with Pakistanis dates back to her days as a young student on an exchange programme in the United Kingdom. From 1968 onwards, she spent three successive summers in Kent where her curiosity led her to accompany Pakistani migrants harvesting strawberries. Her mischievous sense of adventure, her insatiable curiosity and her unflinching sympathy for those on the wrong end of domination continued to inform her relationship with Pakistan even as it matured into an intellectual and personal engagement in later years. So did her love for Urdu and its literature that reveals itself in her marvellous French translation of Naiyer Masud’s collection of short stories, Itr-e-Kafoor.
Her contribution to Pakistan studies is impressive, especially considering that she published all of her scholarly works in the last 15 years of her life. Following her intellectual journey is not always an easy task because her academic publications often took the shape of chapters in edited volumes. One precious exception is the book she wrote along with French scholar Olivier Roy, Islamist Networks: The Afghan-Pakistan Connection. Published in 2004, it revealed her unparalleled knowledge of Islamist political groups and militant outfits active throughout Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir.
Located at the crossroads of political science, sociology and Islamic studies, her academic work encompasses a vast array of topics. The Pakistan Peoples Party was one of the first political organisations to engage her interest. She dedicated her master’s thesis to the party – yet another indication of her progressive inclinations. In later years, however, she turned to the place of Islam in Pakistan’s public sphere. Although not explicit, the one thread running throughout her multifaceted work is her class-based analytical perspective. She primarily understood Pakistani religious politics through the grid of social cleavages, structures of domination, status conflicts, power struggles over scarce resources and phenomena of “frustration” (an emotional variable that she used in many of her works to explain the motivations of the “dominated”) be they Sunni ajnabi or strangers contesting the domination of Shia landlords in Jhang, or the “rural poor” challenging the authority of maliks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Her fieldwork in Punjab mainly focused on Sunni supremacist groups, such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba. She was the first scholar to study the organisation’s sociogenesis in southern Punjab. Her papers on this topic, especially her ethnographic study of socioeconomic status conflict and sectarian violence in Jhang, have become classics. Besides their intrinsic academic value, these studies underline the originality of her approach towards her research objects: a convert to Shiism, she did not try to portray the adherents of her own sect as victims; instead, she documented a relation of domination where Shia landlords oppressed Sunni tenants. And, like in her earlier writings on the Afghan Taliban, she argued that the rise of Sunni militancy in southern Punjab was the reaction of an emerging social group (in this case, the urban, lower middle class) against traditional elites (mostly comprising Shia landowners). Her intellectual honesty, as well as her courage, is also attested by her visits to prominent figures of the Sunni sectarian movement. She would remember her meeting with Maulana Azam Tariq, the now slain leader of the SSP, as one of her most challenging experiences ever.
In the mid-2000s, she turned her attention to another Sunni supremacist organisation, the Lashkar-e-Taiba. In a preliminary paper, she retraced the evolution of the Ahle Hadith sect in Pakistan, its involvement in proselytising and education (through the establishment of madrasas) and its jihadist activities through the LeT, which she described as the “largest private jihadi army in South Asia”. In the process, she unravelled the Arab connection of the Ahle Hadith movement and unearthed its internal dissensions (between pietist, political and jihadi elements) based on differences over rituals and strategies. This article is an excellent illustration of her methodological approach. Always mobilising an impressive amount of documentary evidence, she explored not only contemporary (geo)political developments but also historical contexts, ideological and religious doctrines, as well as individual trajectories of the leaders and foot soldiers of the movement under study.
Best known for her work on Islamist movements, Mariam Abou Zahab was also a keen observer of Twelver Shia religious life in Pakistan. Her contribution to this field has brought attention to the role of women in the transmission of religious knowledge and to the richness and vitality of Muharram rituals in the country. Though home to the second largest Shia population in the world, Pakistan has long been overlooked in the study of lived Shiism. Her cross-provincial and longitudinal perspective of 40 years made her uniquely equipped to detect subtle variations and innovations in Shia piety. In turn, her familiarity with Iraqi and Iranian forms of Muharram rituals, and with networks of learning connecting these countries, allowed her to offer rare comparative insights.
Some of her latest seminars focused on the performance of Muharram rituals in Punjab, also the subject of a 2008 article subtitled “How Could This Matam Ever Cease”? In it, she examines how variations in the performance of processions and self-flagellation are revealing of changing attitudes among Pakistani Shias towards transnational Shia networks and towards the adherents of the sect in the West Asia. Paying attention to these processions, she writes, can help us situate the singularity of Pakistani Twelver Shiism. If they once denoted a composite interreligious culture, since the 1980s they have increasingly become a means for the community to assert a distinct, sectarian Shia identity. Increasingly more ostentatious yet always vulnerable to attacks, Shia public rituals are now part of an inter-sectarian tussle over the use of public space and, by extension, over the community’s right to exist. She demonstrates that, paradoxically, the modernising and purifying impulse of the Iranian revolution and later the Shia revival in Iraq have led to a revival of local heterodox practices in Pakistan. Elaborate processions and the self-infliction of ritual wounds, she argues, have become cardinal to the way ordinary Pakistani Shias mark themselves as distinct from local Sunnis and as more intrepid lovers of the Ahle Bait than Shias abroad.
Her work on Pakhtun society also built on her prolonged and multifarious experience in the field, in particular on her familiarity with regions such as Fata that have become inaccessible to foreign or even Pakistani scholars over the past two decades. In the last few years of her life, she had started reflecting upon the social and political changes brought to Fata by religious militancy, state repression and economic disruptions. As the tribal areas were no longer accessible to her, she proceeded to study these transformations from the outside, in particular through the Pakhtun diaspora in the Gulf. Her fieldwork in the United Arab Emirates with migrants from Fata was central to her comprehension of emerging social dynamics in their home regions. It was also in consonance with her long-term interest in Pakistani diasporic communities and transnational relations – be they economic or religious in nature – between overseas Pakistanis and their homeland. Indeed, her interest in Pakistan did not stop at the country’s borders. She was in personal contact with numerous members of the diaspora in France and elsewhere and kept close scrutiny on their activities. These experiences, together with her immense erudition, greatly enriched the people she taught on Pakistani migration for more than 15 years at the Paris-based Inalco.
If Pakhtun expatriates in the Gulf were the primary focus for her latest work, she was also concerned with the fate of the populations forcibly displaced from Fata by military operations. This took her back to Karachi, a city which she was not particularly fond of but where she had nonetheless built strong ties over the years. Many local Deobandi and Shia clerics knew her personally and had equal respect for her due to the in-depth and impartial character of her work. In Sohrab Goth, she conducted interviews with Mehsud tribesmen displaced from South Waziristan by military operations against the Pakistani Taliban. Her ability to converse with them in Pashto was truly impressive. So was her familiarity with a little-known movement from South Waziristan, the Tehreek-e-Teman Force, which was launched in the late 1990s by a gangster-turned-social bandit, Gokhan Mehsud, who attracted a number of Mehsud youths. By 1999, the acronym TTF started appearing on the windshields of buses and trucks often run by Mehsud tribesmen in Karachi. Despite its influence at the time, the TTF did not attract much attention from non-Mehsuds – something that made her interest in this group all the more intriguing. By returning to this long forgotten group, she was trying to shed new light on the genealogy of the Pakistani Taliban movement.
Although far from being central to her work, the social and political transformations of Karachi did not evade her attention. She was among the first scholars to write on the development of a Pakhtun middle class, a development of considerable importance not just for the Pakhtuns living there but for the city at large.
Her new research was scheduled to be published in a comprehensive monograph on social and political changes in Fata (or, possibly, among Pakistani Pakhtuns more widely). She had been working on it for several years when illness took her away.
A generous pedagogue
Mariam Abou Zahab was a gifted and generous pedagogue who never tired of guiding policymakers, journalists and students through the maze of Pakistani and Afghan politics. She delivered lectures – often highly critical of Western intervention in the region – at institutions as diverse as the French ministry of foreign affairs, the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace and the US Central Command. For many years, she also worked as a translator for the public institution in charge of assessing requests for asylum in France, OFPRA. One of her contacts there remembers: “Protection officers would get annoyed because she often delivered a whole lecture during the auditions of Pakistani asylum seekers. She really had a gift for understanding individual trajectories and replacing them in their context.”
It was truly in the classroom that Mariam shared her intimate knowledge of South Asia and the Middle East. At Inalco, where she taught classes on subjects as varied as Pashto literature, Pakistani history, South Asian Sufism and diasporic communities, she trained a new generation of French scholars on Pakistan. At Sciences Po, where she taught with various Middle East specialists (such as Gilles Kepel and Elise Massicard), she inspired many young scholars specialising in the Arab world or Turkey.
Her students marvelled at her ability to mobilise first-hand ethnographic knowledge. A lecture on qawwali traditions would thus end with her recollection of being Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s interpreter in Paris and a class on dargah culture would culminate with her sharing tabarruk (offerings) that she would have brought back from a recent visit to Pakistan.
Mariam Abou Zahab was an unconventional teacher. As Stéphane Lacroix, a former student of her at Sciences Po who would become a renowned specialist of political Islam in Saudi Arabia, says: “Her classes were not the usual university seminar. She spoke passionately and often didn’t care much about structure. As far as I’m concerned, she fuelled my desire to do fieldwork. She had gone so far that she had fused with the field.”
Even as her health deteriorated, she continued to teach. Now unable to travel to Pakistan, she would ask her friends there to film religious rituals (especially those of Muharram in Pakki Shah Mardan for which she developed a growing fascination during the last years of her life) so as to discuss them with her students. This was her last jihad – a struggle to hold back the tide and fulfil her educational mission just a bit longer.
When she realised that this battle was coming to an end, she prepared meticulously for her last journey. She organised her own funeral in the Iraqi city of Najaf and told her friends with a smile that she hoped Shia militias would turn up and escort her to her last abode. She also set up a foundation that will provide funding to promising scholars working on her favourite region, and she donated to a number of welfare projects that will perpetuate her lifelong engagement with Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Pakistan, these donations will go to the Acid Survivors Foundation.
It really takes more than death to disarm fighters of this calibre.
This article first appeared on Herald.