Zalayhar Hassanali on turning 90: 'Good family life key to productive society'

Zalayhar Hassanali turns 90 on Monday. Photo: Heroes of Trinidad and Tobago Facebook page.
Zalayhar Hassanali turns 90 on Monday. Photo: Heroes of Trinidad and Tobago Facebook page.

Zalayhar Hassanali, the widow of this country's second president Noor Hassanali, is hopeful that the fundamentals of a good family structure can be restored in society.

As she celebrates her 90th birthday on Monday, Hassanali told Sunday Newsday in a phone interview that good family relationships were key to a successful and peaceful life and a productive society.

Growing up in Siparia, she recounted her past experiences and attributed her development to a strong family structure which was filled with love, support and humility.

There were also challenges, Hassanali said, but the bond of her family was the main reason for many successes and memorable experiences.

“People and relationships help a lot – with family, friends, neighbours and such, especially at this time where we have the chance to reflect on the things that are important.

“Family life is very important. Coming from good background gives you the stability, values and identity and helps you develop yourself into a good person.”

Known by many of her family members and friends as Zalay, she is the seventh of twelve children of  Khatoon and Ali Mohammed. She attended Naparima Girls’ High School, and later Naparima College, after which she became a teacher.

In 1952, she married Hassanali, who later became the second President of TT in 1987, and served for two consecutive terms, which ended in 1997.

He died in 2006 at88. She is the mother of two children, grandmother of five and great-grandmother of three.

Her work with charities and communities continued after her husband’s death, having affiliations with about 60 organisations. Her active role with children, women, seniors, the Girl Guides Association, Young Women’s Christian Association, the National Centre for Persons with Disabilities, Cancer Society and Persons with Visual Impairment, has been focused on protection and advancement of people re-skilling, promoting the use of technology and education in general.

Her work with the women's organisations has focused on empowerment, the protection and preservation of the lives of women, building and moulding strong women.

“I am very concerned about children and now there is greater awareness about such violence against women and children. There were instances where children would tell me of their horrible experiences where a relative or friend abused them. It is nothing new and we have tried to break that cycle.

“Some people do not know how to cope with it. I always pray for our families. because it is one of our weaknesses that we do not seem to be able to strengthen family structures.”

Zalayhar Hassanali, the widow of this country's second president Noor Hassanali, in the garden of her Westmoorings home.

Social media, she said, has brought the issue to the forefront and while there have been increased efforts and trained personnel to deal with the situation, much more was needed for women and children to be safe.

Hassanali has also worked with United Way, Lady Hochoy Home, Salvation Army, and associations which protected nature and the environment.

Her love for nature and the outdoors shone through her younger years. She reminisced about her gardens at President’s House, which provided much of the fresh vegetables, seasoning, spices, fruit and tilapia eaten on a daily basis, during banquets and hosting of guests.

While she is not as active as in her previous years, she believes individuals should be involved in some form of agriculture. Her favourite flowers are anthuriums and orchids.

“Today (Wednesday) I have already spoken with someone people who are lonely and sad, and they needed someone to talk to. People are really suffering now with the pandemic, having lost their jobs and income.

“Getting your hands in the earth and growing something is a very rewarding experience. It gives you something to do and makes you feel different. It is a way of getting out of your frustration and it also helps with your household food bill.”

With the covid19 pandemic upon the world, she said, it has become worrisome and extremely difficult for students transitioning to a full-time online learning platform, but believes adaptation to the “new normal” can be achieved.

“In this time of the pandemic it is very difficult to plan, for parents, teachers, for children and for everybody. It is going to be very difficult, but we have to keep trying and we can’t give up easily.

“Education is the key, but while some people want change, and some don’t want change, some things must be changed if we are to get ahead. We can't just sit there and say we will try without any attempts to be innovative and creative.”

Hassanali also believes academic studies should not be the benchmark of success but rather people should have holistic growth and development through other avenues.

“Education has always been the key and we need to use it well. Education does not just mean getting a certificate, we also need to be good critical thinkers, creative, innovative, and to do things to help ourselves and each other.

“In sports, dance, culture, always being mindful to include young people in projects whereby they learn values, living skills, teamwork, self-sufficiency, with the outcome of a happy feeling through doing worthwhile things for others.

Hassanali also spoke of the importance of education and need for the younger generation to be particularly aware of their history.

One of her fondest memories was Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, and members of their household’s visits to the country.

“I don’t know why we are not interested in our history, and we should have been interested in their visits to the country.

“I tried to write something when (Prince Philip) passed away, but no one seemed to be interested. We need to remember our history and I wish we can get back to it.”

At her time at President’s House, she facilitated school tours of the grounds and library, which held many historic treasures, and encouraged children to read and write, know their history and develop a sense of national pride.

Hassanali wrote a publication about  the President’s House and Gardens,  in an attempt to garner public support and raise funds for the restoration of President’s House.

Her biography, Zalayhar: Life of a First Lady, was written by Brinsley Samaroo, Yvonne Teelucksingh and Kenneth Ramchand.

She also received the highest national award – the Order of the Republic of TT – in 2011.

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