The Journey of an Arab Woman


Hala Archive

The Journey of an Arab Woman: January 1990.


It is extremely difficult for me to talk about myself. This is the first time I do it and it will probably be the last. Well, don’t be afraid. I do not intend to impose on you a biography of mine. What I propose to do is rather to try to provide you, through my personal experience and the socio-political environment in which I grew up, with some insights into the problematic of my generation of women. Perhaps, my experiences are not at all general, but they are definitely not particular to me.
It is true that I come from two established Sunni families of Lebanon, the Salaams, an upper bourgeois family from Beirut, and the Karamehs, a semi-feudal family, leaders in Tripoli, their hometown. My grandfather on the Salaam side was a member of the Ottoman parliament, representing the district of Beirut. Yet, he was part and parcel of the modernizing movement which swept the Arab world in the early 20th century, and which, politically, took the form of Arab nationalism. His memoirs clearly dictates of the wrenching experience for the Muslim Arab at the turn-of-the-century when he was faced with a choice between his sense of Arab identity or his Islamic roots. He chose Arabity. He was one of the leaders of the First Arab Congress, held in Paris in 1914, asking for autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. Yet, he agonized over the decision to help dismantle the only Muslim empire of the time.

He was one of the people of his time who thought the road to development and progress was easy. All we needed was to be educated and acquire from the West the knowledge necessary to our societies from the state of backwardness they were in because of the policies of the Ottomans to a modern prosperous society. Toward that end, he sent his children to Europe to get educated. In fact, his oldest son ?Ali was sent to Cirencester in 1897, and graduated with a degree in agriculture. My father, the youngest, is an engineer who graduated from Londonborough, England.

My grandfather educated all his children and encourage their different pursuits. Anbara, his daughter, organized the Young Arab Women Society in 1914 as a political support group to the Young Arab Society. In fact, my great aunt Anbara was the first Lebanese Muslim woman to remove the veil publicly. The story is interesting. She had been lecturing extensively on political and literary matters, for hers was also the first modern Arabic translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and she also lectured on the necessity of women participating in society on an equal footing with men. In one of her lectures in 1924, she expressed her admiration of Huda Shaarawi, who had removed the veil a few months earlier. She was dared by some of her friends to do the same. But, before she did it, anticipating the public’s outrage, she asked her father for his support. He gave it to her. For months afterwards the Salaam house was stoned by conservatives in Beirut.

My grandfather was also the president of the Makassed Society, which he started to provide education for poor boys and girls in Beirut, and which grew to become one of the most important charitable organizations in Lebanon. In fact, he started many modern institutions, the last of which was Middle East Airlines. For the Salaams, as it was for many other Muslim families of their class, modernism had a value in itself. They were open-minded, colorful, and trend-setters in many ways. They would offer you a drink. They would put carnations in their buttonholes and smoke cigars. My youngest times, in the 1930s, would go to school from their house in Msaitbeh, the heart of Muslim west Beirut, on a bicycle wearing shorts, something I could not do in the 1950s.

By contrast, on the Karameh side, preserving traditions was a value in itself. My grandfather Karameh was the last of many generations of muftis, or religious leaders. He became Mufti at the age of 19, inheriting his father’s position, and resigned after having been imprisoned by the French during their occupation of the in fact, he was imprisoned twice and exiled four times before our independence. Socially, the Karamehs were conservative, resisting modern ideas which they perceived as westernization. They were devout Muslims, yet without fanaticism. My grandfather, for example, chose that his daughters be educated in a Catholic school run by nuns. He allowed his daughters to participate in demonstrations against the French, yet would not hear of their unveiling. They had to give an example of modernization and participation without westernization and without any clash with customs and traditions.

The Salaams were his friends and he would stay with them when he would go to Beirut. They would do the same when they would come to Tripoli. Both families were involved together in the struggle against the French and for Arab unity. When my parents talk about that., it sounds as one of intense activity, when leaders from Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine — in fact, from the whole Arab world — would visit them and they would together, plan for independence and unity. This intense political camaraderie translated into marriages between these families. So, my aunts and uncles are married to Syrians, Palestinians and others. My first cousins are married to Egyptians, Bahrainis and other Arabs. No one felt that he was marrying his children to an outside group when they did not marry Lebanese.

Afaf Mahfouz, in her introduction[to this speech], said it has politicized at an early age. How could I not have been? My mother started her labor with me while she was listening at the door in her father’s home as men were deciding whom to elect as the first president in Lebanon. This constituted the first act towards declaring the independence of Lebanon. Somehow, I always considered this as tying me directly to the country of my birth. In fact, soon after my mother came home from the hospital, her father was sent into exile again, together with the newly elected president and the whole cabinet.

Like the Salaams, my grandfather became prime minister and then his son Rashid, who was assassinated four years ago. Now my youngest uncle, Omar, is the prime minister. To all intents and purposes this sounds establishment. Yet, they never compromise on their commitment. One of my first memories as a child is of the Lebanese army storming my grandfather’s home in Tripoli a few months after he had resigned as the prime minister, for he was leading the fight against the legalization of the separation from Syria. This scene was to be repeated a number of times in 1957 and 1958 prior to, and during, the rebellion against the Lebanese government’s joining the Baghdad Pact. In fact, during that same time, my other uncle, Saeb Salaam, was shot and wounded by the Army in Beirut. His house was fired at and bombed on numerous occasions for the same reasons.

While my family excepted belonging to the Lebanese entity in the prevailing state system created in the Arab world, they never gave up their dream of Arab unity. As a child, I was always told we should not except borders drawn for us by Sykes-Picot, which only serve the interests of the French and the British. The tragedy of Palestine was a personal affair for us, as it was for many families in Lebanon. One hands on my mother’s side, two on my father’s, as well as other more distant relatives, were made refugees. I vividly remember helping in the effort to accommodate them. I was five. But they let me carry some of the things that were moving to help them settle. I remember stories they told as they arrived which made a great impression on me.
I have dwelt at length on my family to give you an idea of the atmosphere in which I draw, and of the social tensions and political conditions which existed. In fact, growing up in Beirut was itself a politicizing experience. Many people talk about Beirut as having been the Paris of the Middle East. This was mainly cosmetics. More importantly, Beirut was the nerve center of the Arab world at the time. Beirut was the city to which political exiles from other Arab countries congregated. It was a city of intellectual and political ferment, one of the few places in the area with the Free Press and respected publishing houses, an open place for the flow of ideas.

I went to a French school in Beirut. But these were times of upheavals and intense political activity in the Arab world, and we were involved in every major Arab event. We demonstrated for Nasser when he nationalized the Suez Canal and we demonstrated again during the Tripartite attack on Egypt. We went to Damascus and witness that moment in history when Arab unity seemed within reach, when unity between Syria and Egypt was announced. We close the school and were penalized by its French administration when we demonstrated against the French for their imprisonment of Gamila Bouhirad in Algeria. We demonstrated when Tunisia became independent and we were part of the rebellion in Lebanon in 1958.

Yet with all this politicization, I did not consider myself politically or socially involved in such. I was primarily concentrating on my education. The political was an extracurricular activity. I got my master’s degree in Mathematics from the American University of Beirut in 1966 and was teaching in several high schools and giving a course on the subject at the Lebanese University when the war of 1967 broke out. The war changed my life as it change the lives of many women of my generation. Nothing was ever going to be the same afterwards.
Before the war, I was dating and seriously considering marriage to a nice boy I had known of the university. He was an engineer who was totally unaware politically. When the war broke out I organized together with other colleagues and students a committee for civil defense. We signed on as volunteers and started training. I was so involved I did not see my boyfriend for a few days. He, totally unaware of what I was doing, called as usual to invite me out. I was so furious at his insensitivity that I dropped him right there and then.
In retrospect, I am always grateful that I had not married him or anyone else before the war of 1967, for up till then I myself had not realized the extent of my commitment. In fact, so many marriages I know of broke up as a direct result of 1967, either because the woman became very involved and the man was not, or the other way around. To give only one example that many of you would know, Marie-Rose Boulos, the heroine of Etel Adnan?s book Sitt Marie-Rose. She was one of my best friends. She had a nice husband and two kids. But, after 1967, she felt, as many of us did, that the loss of the war was somehow our responsibility. The shock of the sweeping defeat of all the Arab armies jolted us into an awareness that one reason for that defeat was that we had not actively participated in the preparation for the confrontation with Israel, we had been passively supporting what we considered were nationalist leaderships. We realized in 1967 that we needed to become more actively involved. We had not done our duty as we should have. Our priority, we felt, was the struggle against Zionism and all the forces of reaction in our midst. Total commitment conflicted with family commitment and Marie-Rose and her husband decided on divorce. It was not easy for many of us to confront family and stand up against many social norms but we were many and we supported each other.

Remembering that period, I cannot but reminisce about those days, when to us, the women involved, everything seemed within reach. Those were days when total liberation of our occupied lands, of our oppressed people, and our repressed women, seemed possible. We felt we were making history and that we were capable of effecting a total transformation of our societies. We did not realize how strong were the forces of reaction outside our world, nor did we realize how our mistakes were going to be exploited by these forces and reflect on our struggle.

I remember our meetings on a weekly basis, in the late 60s and early 70s. Lebanese and Palestinian women involved in the Palestinian revolution met to discuss women’s liberation and whether it should precede or be an outcome of the achievement of our revolutionary nationalist goals. We avidly read Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon and the feminist literature. We felt that national liberation did not only mean the removal of colonial rule and the realization national independence, but more importantly it had also a functional aspect, namely the assertion of the will to partake on an equal footing in the universal endeavor of human liberation. As such, it was part and parcel of a worldwide liberation movement. From that perspective, we followed very closely the liberation movements in Asia and Africa, and the women’s liberation movement in the United States and Europe; and we kept in very close touch with the Arab nationalists and the women’s movement throughout the Arab world.

An expression of this new awareness was that, in the summer of 1967, a number of organizations to support the Palestinian cause were established in Beirut. Some devoted their work to information, publishing bulletins and pamphlets, writing letters to the editor, helping foreign journalists get a more accurate picture of the problem, and preparing women to be better equipped to participate in international conferences and other related activities. Others were formed to stimulate and enhance education and reintroduce cottage industry in the Palestinian camps. Others devoted their activities to fund-raising projects which would further the Palestinian cause. All these organizations were started simultaneously. I belong to most of them and was also actively involved in grassroots organization. By then I had changed my career and was working as a researcher at the Institute for Palestine Studies.

It was at this period of time and at one of the conferences I was attending that I met my husband-to-be, Clovis. I had read many of his writings and admired him before we ever met. The conference was in Cairo and was attended by towering intellectual figures such as Hassanain Heikal, Lutfi al-Khuli, and Muhammad Seyyed Ahmad. I was the only woman invited. Clovis and I started dating. My parents objected, and my family, in general, did too. I came from a generation of muftis, after all. How could I marry a Christian? But I had transcended all of this. I believed in secularism. Not only intellectually but as a tool to integrate the Lebanese citizen, in particular, and the Arab in general. I felt very strongly that I had to live up to my beliefs. Yet, I was too attached to my parents. They had always made me feel they were so proud of me, and the last thing I wanted to do was to hurt them. That was the most difficult period of my life, to have to make that hard choice. And I don’t think I could have made it if I had not had the support of the women I was talking about before, who, each in her own way, were making such hard choices.

We were married in 1974, during the oil embargo crisis when Clovis was appointed as the Special Envoy of the Arab League. Soon afterwards, the civil war broke out in Lebanon. This, in a different way, led to another change in my life. During that war, we became quite alienated from what was happening. Sectarian language soon became the order of the day. This was a very painful period. Our lovely home in Choueifat was badly hit and became uninhabitable. We had started losing many friends. Kamal Nasser and Nada Yashruti had been assassinated. Hanna Mikhail disappeared. He was kidnapped and, although his body was never found, we knew he had been killed. The most difficult loss for me to handle was Marie-Rose?s. That such a woman could be tortured and then killed shattered me.Around that time, Clovis was offered the position of Ambassador of the Arab League to the United Nations and the United States, and we welcome the opportunity not to be in Lebanon. We were committed to the Palestinian cause but we could not identify with many of the practices of individual Palestinians in Beirut. We were committed to an Arab secular Lebanon and we saw our slogans being misused and old friends jumping on the bandwagon of the new emerging sectarian movements in our midst. From the United States and United Nations we felt we could represent the totality of Lebanon and our Arab commitment much better than in Beirut.

Clovis and I became very actively involved in trying to change the image of the Arabs in the United States. But soon, our emphasis changed again. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. Witnessing the destruction of my country on television, the constant bombing and shelling of Beirut for 80 days, and knowing all along that my whole family and especially my young nieces and nephews, as well as most of my friends, were there, was more than I could handle emotionally. That they were denied water and electricity, and were under siege made me feel very guilty. I reacted to the war, as many other Arab women in the United States did, by organizing the Arab Women’s Council, staging demonstrations, going on a media tour to explain our perception of the war, and otherwise reaching out to Americans. Personally, I was trying to identify with the suffering of the people of my city, Beirut, and politically, together with the other Arab women who joined the hunger strike, I was attempting to affect the course of events.
That period changed our lifestyle. My home turned into headquarters for the Council. Clovis was relegated to the upper quarters. For four years, this organization became my whole life. It was another intense period, a good period to discover the commitment of so many, and the most heartening was the support of so many Jewish friends.
Going to Beirut after the invasion of 1982 was so traumatic to many of us who had experienced the 60s and the early 70s. They ruled without the PLO, Beirut with women taking up the veil or other so-called "Islamic dress" was in itself shattering. What went wrong and why did it go wrong? An assessment and a self-criticism were of absolute and urgent necessity. Of course, there were outside forces which were overwhelming, but we all committed mistakes. I had to explain to myself the reasons for the failure. This is when I went back to study political theory and wrote my dissertation on Arab nationalism and Islam.
And now what? A new landmark and a new phase with the invasion of Kuwait. As my husband wrote in his resignation speech to the Arab League, "the Arab house has fallen on itself and the conflicts have submerged our shared priorities? the Arab house has blown asunder." He could not serve under these conditions. On the personal level, it meant the loss of friends with whom we had shared for years the same commitments. All of a sudden their tribalistic instincts overtook their enduring involvements, as if it were a rupture.

Clovis and I needed a period of reflection. We’re both teaching now, he at American University, I at George Mason University. He is writing extensively in the Arab press. I am trying to publish a book on women based on a course I gave last year at Georgetown University. Meanwhile, we are together continuing the journey. We are trying to figure out what shattered our dream.

A January 1990 to address to the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies.

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