LONDON -- The official engagement photographs show a somewhat serious pair: a tall, slender, dark-haired woman dressed in silken polka dots; a slight, pleasant-looking man with glasses and a large handlebar mustache. In some pictures, she is seated with him standing beside her. In others, they are side by side on a sofa. In none are they touching.
Several days after the photo session, sitting on the same sofa in the London living room of Benazir Bhutto's sister, her mother confides that the engaged couple have not yet passed a moment alone together. "She won't let him near her," the mother sighs. "For all her modern ideas, my daughter is very old-fashioned."
Bhutto's reticence is perhaps explained by the fact that she first set eyes on her intended, Asif Ali Zardari, only six days before their engagement was announced on July 29. The marriage, scheduled to take place this winter, is an arranged one, negotiated over the past year by senior members of her family and finalized only after they assured themselves of the suitability of the match.
Such arrangements may be foreign to western notions of how true love should find its way. Still, on this rainy Saturday in London, there is a whiff of romantic excitement in the air, enhanced by at least a dozen extravagant flower arrangements, the gifts of well-wishers, scattered around the room. Now that the deal has been struck, a nuptial ambiance that seems to know no cultural borders has taken hold, and a half dozen female Bhuttos are discussing the details. Seated among them, far from the tense Pakistani politics she says she never envisioned for herself, Pakistan's major opposition leader is positively giggly:
"Mummy, please come and explain to this reporter, she was asking, how do families find out" if a marriage applicant is suitable.
Her mother complies. She made a list of questions, she says, "and read them out" during her examination of the would-be groom.
"Oh, Mummy, please don't," Bhutto interjects, acting horrified at the prospect that the actual exchange would be recited. "That's an invasion of privacy." But she falls back, laughing, into the sofa.
When Zardari asked for Benazir Bhutto's hand in marriage early last year, her family had its work cut out. Following the precepts of their Islamic faith and Pakistani custom, they began an exhaustive investigation of his social and economic standing. Arranged unions are the norm in Moslem countries; among the upper classes, they are more merger than marriage, joining together two families in a way that suits, and hopefully advances, the interests of both.
Zardari, 34, the same age as his intended, passed the first hurdles easily. The son of landed Pakistani gentry, he runs the family construction business. Most Pakistanis know him best for his polo team, the Zardari Four.
But in Bhutto's case, there was an additional, even more important consideration. Having succeeded her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, she is one of the most popular and powerful politicians on the Asian subcontinent, and hopes eventually to become Pakistan's president. In a male-dominated culture, could Zardari handle a position as consort to an exceptional woman who is followed and beloved by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of her countrymen? Could he deal with a wife whose time is neither his nor her own, who has divided her days in recent years between the political stump and house arrest under Pakistan's current military regime? Would he resent being known as "Mr. Bhutto?"
Early last month, at the end of the exhaustive investigations, family members and political advisers pronounced Zardari fully qualified. By mid-July, the bargain was all but sealed, with only one detail remaining -- the introduction of the hopeful groom to the prospective bride.
It was a meeting she says she did not relish. Her aunt, the reigning Bhutto matriarch, said he was nice. Her mother, always eager to expand the family, approved. "They all said yes, he's very good, we're sure he's the best choice," recalls the reluctant bride. "I kept saying please, postpone it a little more, please just a little more. Then, I was more or less compelled to meet him." She reserved a right of veto.
On July 23, the Bhuttos and the Zardaris met in London, a central location for their far-flung relations. As the two clans met each afternoon and evening, Benazir watched Asif across crowded rooms.
On July 28, she said yes, agreeing that he was nice, and finding him "tolerant," with a "good sense of humor." Besides, she said in retrospect, "you get tired of saying no, no, no all the time."
The subject of love did not come up.
To those who knew her by her nickname, "Pinkie," during her years at Harvard University in the early 1970s, the idea of Benazir Bhutto submitting to an arranged marriage strikes a dissonant chord. In England, where she came for graduate studies, she is remembered for being the first woman elected president of the prestigious Oxford Union debating society, and for driving fast in flashy cars. One British newspaper, reporting her engagement, described her as having been "socially active" during her Oxford days.
But Benazir Bhutto's life has long been a series of contradictions. At home during her college years, Pinkie was the daughter of the prime minister of Pakistan, a young country trying to negotiate its way through the conflicting pressures of internal warfare, democracy and Islam. There, her world was one in which women were seen but rarely heard, dominated by the towering figure of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and the often-threatening din of national debate. "I was interested in politics," she now recalls, "but I didn't want to live through that tension and fear." She wanted to be a diplomat, meeting important people and helping to shape Pakistan's destiny from a safe distance.
One world finally gave way to the other in 1977 when, after months of political turmoil, her father was overthrown in a military coup led by the army chief of staff, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. In September of that year, the elder Bhutto was imprisoned, charged with conspiring to murder a party colleague. Found guilty, he was sentenced to be hanged and, despite world appeals for clemency, he was executed in April 1979.
Throughout the period of her father's imprisonment, it was Benazir who carried the standard for both the party and the family. Her sister was not politically active and her two brothers, both of whom remained at school in England after their father's arrest, eventually chose to fight against Zia in another way, forming an underground organization based outside the country, allegedly with links to Libya and Syria.
Arrested for protesting her father's jailing, Benazir was again under detention when he was hanged and was denied permission to attend his funeral. Arrested for a third time in October 1979, she was not freed until April 1980. In 1981, after members of her brothers' group hijacked a Pakistani International Airlines plane to Syria, it was Benazir who was again placed under house arrest. That time, her detention lasted nearly three years, until Zia allowed her to leave Pakistan for medical treatment.
She stayed in London until July 1985, when she again returned to Pakistan, this time for the funeral of one of her brothers, who had died under mysterious circumstances on the French Riviera. Another arrest and another stint in London followed before she went home for good in April 1986.
According to press reports at the time, she was greeted by the largest antigovernment rally since Zia seized power in 1977; some said it was the largest since Pakistani independence in 1947. As leader of the country's major opposition party, she has spent the last year sparring with Zia, testing the limits of political freedom and readying her supporters for elections he has said will be held in 1990.
Pinkie Bhutto herself makes a different point. In a country where, she says, women have a religious duty to marry, she saw her spinsterhood as a potential political liability. While it has become increasingly common for western women to delay marriage into their thirties, the optimal marriage window in Pakistan starts to close at about 21. By 24, Bhutto says, "you're considered gradually out of the market."
Besides, she notes, after her brother died, "my mother got more and more worried and concerned that the family was small."
Clearly, it was more than past time for her to take the plunge. Her brothers and sister, living outside of Pakistan, married for love, and while Benazir knew she must always be seen as the embodiment of Muslim propriety, she assumed eventually she would do the same. But the years began to catch up with her, and there never seemed to be time to look for Mr. Right.
Instead, she got Mr. Zardari.
Begum Nusrat Bhutto is a more visible mix of Asia and the West than her daughter -- a cosmopolitan woman who now lives in Europe, but who goes about observing the customs of her mother country in a businesslike way. Clearly pleased with the marriage arrangement, she is more than willing to discuss the negotiations between the two families.
"It was more than a year ago when his father had come," she recounts, to ask for Benazir's hand. "I was not in Pakistan, so they went to her father's sister, she's the eldest of the family. So, his father went to her aunt to take the proposal, and then her aunt came to London to tell me. She said, 'This is it, this is it ... he's very nice, and he's a sportsman.' Of course, they assured us that he wouldn't stop her from continuing her political career."
The daughter takes over the story: "Also, you know, you check for similar social and economic background. His personal attitudes ... I didn't want somebody who would nag me when I came back home and argue with me. All day I am nagged and argued with, so I didn't want to come home to more."
Once all the reports were in, Benazir still reserved final approval until a face-to-face meeting. The clans were gathered in London, and for five days and nights, they had family lunches and family dinners. Every morning, her mother and sister queried her. Was it yes, or no?
Daughter: "They all liked him. They kept saying, he's so nice."
Mother: "She said, well, I must ask my friends if they like him. I said for God's sake, how can your friends tell? Your friends don't even know him, they don't know our background. Even her English friends had to meet him, see him, and say whether he was good or not."
Daughter, with amused exasperation: "Not too many, just a few. Very discreetly."
Mother, insisting. "Yes, yes, they came to dinner."
Daughter, in embarrassment: "Oh, Mom. This is scandalous, please stop."
Mother, continuing: "But she said she had not decided. They thought she didn't like him, so they all said, look, he's very nice, with a lot of sense of humor."
Unnoticed by the Bhuttos or the reporter, the subject of the conversation has entered the room and is sitting quietly off to the side. Eventually, he is introduced and asked how it felt to be held up to such close examination.
His bride-to-be answers for him. "I don't know how he did it, frankly. I did everything to put it off ... but he was very persistent."
But surely he would have preferred a love match to an arranged marriage?
His future mother-in-law responds. "She has an arranged marriage. But he doesn't. Because he had seen her before, and he liked her."
The daughter groans. "Oh, Mummy."
Mother: "Yes, that's what I heard, that he had seen her somewhere or other, even when she was only 14 or 15."
Daughter, groaning again: "Oh, Mom. What a romantic story. Let me hear it, let me hear it. I have not heard this."
Finally, the groom answers. Dressed in a sport shirt and slacks, with a Pakistani shawl around his shoulders to ward off the London summer chill, he is calm and soft-spoken, and seems more bemused than bewildered by his sudden international notoriety. "My father used to own a cinema, and she would come to see the movies."
The mother interjects: "And then, of course, she was always giving speeches, and he would see her. She didn't notice him. But he knew her. So, you see, it wasn't arranged for him."
The daughter looks skeptically at her negotiated groom. "But it was arranged. Your father must have told you" to do it.
No, he answers quietly, "I told my father." Until Benazir, he says, "nobody else had inspired me."
Benazir Bhutto sighs and smiles. "That's a nice compliment. You see, he's likable, isn't he?"