Moving on, reaching out

Mughal to share stories about love and life

It is very difficult to recognize Julie Mughal's Upstate New York accent. It may be there, if she takes a moment to slow down her speech. At the fast-clipped rate she usually talks, one hears an accent from other lands.

Is it from living with her second husband, Imran, a Pakistani, the past seven years? Is it because this 43-year-old woman has spent nearly half her life traveling the globe, first as a college student and then performing her responsibilities for two international companies, including Westport-based Save The Children.

Now she is U.S.-bound taking on responsibilities as associate director of Development Communications. She took on those responsibilities when she realized that it became quite a challenge to continue her position as a manager of Asian operations for the humanitarian organization, which required a great deal of international travel. But, then again, Mughal is accustomed to challenges.

Rewind to 1998. She is married to her first husband, Pascal. They have just celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary. They had met in Geneva, Switzerland, during the time Mughal was working for the International Organization for Migration, and lived during their marriage in France, Pascal's native country. Then, Pascal decided he wanted to pursue a career in computer technology. He enrolled in computer classes in Manhattan. When it was time for him to fly back home to France, he decided to stay a little longer in New York City to prepare for his exams. Meanwhile, Mughal flew back to their home where she learned a short time later, that the airplane that Pascal had been on for his return flight home had crashed off the coast of Nova Scotia on Sept. 3, 1998.

Last week, Mughal sat down for an interview at the dining room table in her home on Woods End Road in Fairfield, where she lives with her husband Imran and their three children, Sophia, 6, Zachariah, 4, and Nathim, 9 months. The purpose of the meeting was to talk about her new book, Land Without Hats, which she wrote following the death of her first husband. In the book, Mughal talks about that fateful day that she learned that her first husband had died. However, the book is not just a memoir about a young American widow, but a collection of interviews with widows from many countries, mothers, whose lives which were cast in turmoil following the death of their husbands.

The title comes from a popular Haitian phrase that implies that after they die, men take off their hats before the Lord when they go to heaven.

Shortly after the death of her own husband, who was among 229 people on board Swissair 111 when it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, Mughal got the idea for a book in which she would travel to many countries throughout the world to interview other widows.

"The idea just came to me," said Mughal, describing how about a year after her husband's tragic death she got the idea for the book. With the assistance of Save The Children employees who arranged the interviews, Mughal traveled to many countries to interview between 50 and 60 widows. In the book, she chronicles interviews with a variety of women, many educated and non-educated. She interviewed Native Americans as well as widows from Nepal, the Philippines, Haiti, Bangladesh and Pakistan

"It's incredible how the widows opened up their souls to me," Mughal said, reflecting upon the years she spent interviewing the women.

What does she want people to learn from reading her book? The author cites the resiliency of the widows and their focus on the future and the lives of their children. The children become the priority in all the lives of the widows. As Mughal points out in her book, the extent to which the widows can care and resume their lives depends very much upon the culture in which the women live. In some cultures, says Mughal, the widows become "pariahs." In others, their in-laws embrace them. The more successful ones, who move on with their lives, are those who are educated.

"It's amazing how education can turn a woman's life around."

Mughal praised the bravery of the women who "opened up to her. She said their openness allowed her to examine her own life, her own grieving and ultimately to come to terms with her life.

"It was vary cathartic," she said of the process of interviewing the women and writing the book. "After I wrote the book, it freed me. I continued on with my life."

Mughal, who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in international relations, from Syracuse University said the experience for her also represented "how blessed we are in this country where widows can continue on with their lives."

From the women she interviewed, Mughal said she came away with a feeling of how much the women had in common. They have compassion for others and especially they share a love for their children and their faith.

During her research for the book, she interviewed a widow who lived in Peggy's Cove, not far from the Swissair crash site. Her name was Agnes and she had been married to William de Garthe, a famous sculptor and painter. The couple had spent their summers in Peggy's Cove and in 1955 moved to the village. "For half a century, deGarthe painted the sea and the land and the critical juncture where they become one," wrote Mughal in her book.

Mughal had been so drawn to Peggy's Cove, near where her husband had lost his life, that she decided to buy a home in a nearby town. During the interview, Mughal described how she loved that house and that maybe that was her way of connecting with her late husband. The house in Lunenburg was an 1860 shipbuilder's home and she could see the ocean from an upstairs bathroom.

She wrote: "There's something about the beauty of the place and the kindness of its people that brings me great comfort. It has been instrumental in my healing process. I felt that I was not alone on this island that was no stranger to tragedy. Among the many accidents and shipwrecks that have occurred off its coast, the most famous is the titanic. Over 200 of its victims are interred in Halifax, the provincial capital of Nova Scotia."

She described the Canadians as wonderful people who reached out to her because they all had known about the crash that claimed her husband. She owned the house for four years and when she could she would fly up and stay in the house for a week.

"There was something really special about the place," she says. "It's Pascal's final resting place. It was comforting. I felt connected. Something drew me to it -- the people, the island, the ocean ... I guess it was my place to heal."

And heal she did. Today her life is so very different, as she and her husband raise their three children in this Connecticut suburb. As she talked about her book, she praised the book cover artist Carla Caletti's haunting portrait of a woman with big eyes. She walked into the kitchen to show a visitor another painting by the artist hanging on the wall. As she talked about the artist her husband Imran held their baby.

"America is all about children and animals" he said. Could be an accurate observation from someone who has traveled the world and also an accurate observation that has something in common with what his wife has learned in interviewing the widows of the world.

Admitting that writing the book was a major undertaking that took years to complete, Mughal says she is thinking about writing about the widows of Africa who have lost their husbands to the HIV virus and other diseases.

Mughal will talk about her book in the Memorial Room of the Fairfield Public Library on Thursday, Nov. 12, at 7 p.m. She will talk about her own story about becoming a young widow and how her experience compelled her to seek out other widows in developing countries who discussed how they cope.