VINTAGE LEBANESE ACTIVISTS
Anbara Salam Khalidi
Anbara Salam Khalidi (Arabic: عنبرة سلام الخالدي)
4 August 1897 – May 1986
was a Lebanese feminist, translator and author, who significantly contributed to the emancipation of Arab women.
Khalidi was born into an eminent Sunni family in Beirut in 1897. She was the daughter of Salim Ali Salam, a deputy in the Ottoman parliament and a merchant, and the sister of former Lebanese prime minister Saeb Salam. Two of her brothers served as cabinet ministers of Lebanon.
She received modern education and learned French. She and her siblings attended the Anglican Syrian College in Ras Beirut, which is the predecessor of the American University of Beirut. From 1925 to 1927 she studied in the United Kingdom.
After returning to Beirut Khalidi joined women’s movement in the country. She is the first Lebanese woman, who publicly abandoned the veil in 1927 during a lecture at the American University of Beirut. She was the first person, who translated Homer’s Odyssey into Arabic. She also translated Virgil’s Aeneid into Arabic for the first time. Her memoir was published in 1978 with the title of Jawalah fil Dhikrayat Baynah Lubnan Wa Filastin (A Tour of Memories of Lebanon and Palestine in English). It was translated into English in 2013 under the title of Memoirs of an Early Arab Feminist.
In her memoir, Khalidi emphasizes negative effects of Ottoman ruler of Syria Jamal Pasha’s activities on her family and her childhood. A chapter in the book is about Jamal Pasha, titled Jamal Pasha and his Crimes.Anbara Salam married a Palestinian educator, Ahmad Samih Al Khalidi (died 1951) in 1929. It was his second marriage. He was the principal of the Arab College in Jerusalem in Mandatory Palestine. They settled in Jerusalem and then in Beirut. She died in Beirut in May 1986.
In an era when the idea of educating girls at all was controversial, Anbara was encouraged by her father, a prominent figure in Lebanese society, to attend one of the best foreign schools in Beirut. Her father had appointed the headmistress, a Christian woman called Julia Tu’ma, who proved to be a source of inspiration for the young Anbara, and a close friend thereafter. ‘Miss Julia’ encouraged the 13 year old Anbara to attend an evening lecture at the American University. However Anbara was prevented from entering the venue due to harassment from two men, and a newspaper published an article critical of her attendance the next day couched in terms of ‘morality’. The school was one of the few to deliver a rounded education to young women, with a wide scientific curriculum. After her school education was complete, her father engaged private tutors in Arabic, French and science.
Her education also included a visit to Cairo in 1912 where she enjoyed museums, exhibitions, boat-rides on the Nile and experiencing the Egyptian culture and heritage. She returned to Egypt in 1920 where she attended a gathering in memory of Qasim Amin, author of The Liberation of Women and The New Woman, which was also attended by pioneering feminist Huda Sha’arawi. The young Anbara read Amin’s works under the bedcovers and felt inspired by the burgeoning movement towards feminism in the Arab world. Attitudes to women in Lebanon were poor: when Anbara published a front-page article in a newspaper on the topic of the first Arab Conference of 1913, many argued that it could not have been written by a woman; although some maintained that it could have been written by a woman – as long as she had a man’s help!
In 1915, Anbara formed a society called The Awakening of the Young Arabic Woman which helped girls finance their education. She also was one of the founding members of the Society for Women’s Renaissance despite a brief hiatus when she visited England. It was during this trip abroad that she abandoned the veil: by the time she reached Alexandria, she only covered her hair, removing her face-cover; by the time she reached Marseilles, she covered her hair with a hat rather than a veil, after the Western fashion.
She was impressed by the orderly and polite nature of British society that she encountered, and even more so by the freedoms afforded to British women. When King Feisel of Iraq asked her what she thought of the ‘English Girl’ she responded: ‘What favour has she won with God to deserve all this freedom? And what sin have I, the Arab Girl, committed in God’s sight to deserve as punishment a life filled with repression and denial?’
After two years in Britain, Anbara returned to Beirut – facing the prospect of being forced to cover her face once more. She had come to see the veil as ‘a prison, preventing women from advancing in the world.’ Veiling, previously considered a social norm, had become a topic of great debate in Lebanon throughout the 1920s. She made a controversial decision to deliver a two-hour lecture with her face uncovered, despite the opposition and violence against women who chose to unveil.
Despite a variety of suitors for her hand, starting with a proposed marriage with a relative at the age of 12, Anbara remained unmarried until the age of 30. At 16, however, she became engaged to Abd al-Ghani al-’Uraysi. He was arrested for his political activities before the marriage could take place and hanged in 1916 under the orders of Jamal Pasha. At the time, many Lebanese were suffering from starvation and hardship. The Ottoman Empire initiated some belated relief programmes, and ironically, Anbara was reluctantly forced to write and deliver a speech in support of these before Pasha himself.
Ultimately, she accepted a marriage proposal from Ahmad Samih al-Khalidi, a writer and translator, who had attended school with one of her brothers. The marriage was an extremely happy one, each serving as commentators upon the other’s writing. He had two children from an earlier marriage, and Anbara brought with her a very much younger sister who was like a daughter to her. The couple had three more children before Ahmad died of heart failure in 1951. Anbara’s had a great passion was the written word: she names many writers and journalists she admired and works that were meaningful to her in her autobiography. Fittingly, it is as a writer and translator (for instance, her work in translating the Odyssey, the Iliad and the Aeneid to Arabic) that Anbara is best known.
”Keep a sharp eye on that daughter of yours,” Faisal said to Salim Ali Salam, ”in her heart she carries a revolution.”
Two of Anbara’s brothers served as ministers in various Lebanese governments, and one as prime minister. Of her sisters, the youngest, Rasha, devoted much of her life to the Palestinian struggle
After two years she returned to Lebanon and while at sea, resumed the wearing of the veil. She threw herself into social activism in Beirut. Within weeks she accepted an invitation to speak in public and removed her veil as she stood at the podium. Criticism and threats followed but soon many women bared their faces, “until the tyranny of the veil was eradicated.”
The author became less active in public life in Beirut, devoting herself more to her family and agonizing over the injustices that still afflicted her homelands-the injustices suffered by Palestine, and the horrors of conflict in Lebanon. She was close to despair in those final years, feeling that, “the light of truth is now almost extinguished” and her accomplishments in women’s liberation almost obliterated. But she ended her memoir in 1978 with hope not only in her God, but in the decency of humans to overcome cruelty, conflict and injustice and restore the rights of Palestinians and peace in the region. She died in 1986 hers hopes still unfulfilled.
A feminist, activist, writer and translator of classic literary works into Arabic.
Anbara Salam was born in Beirut on 4 August 1897. Her father, Salim Ali Salam (Abu Ali), was a Beirut notable. Her mother, Kulthum al-Barbir, came from a family of religious scholars. She had seven brothers and two sisters, many of whom would play prominent political and social roles. She was married to Ahmad Samih al-Khalidi and mother to Usama, Randa, Tarif, and Karma, who died in childhood.
Anbara received her elementary education in a traditional kuttab and then at various other schools, the last of which was the Maqasid School for Girls. The school was headed by the well-known educator Julia Tuma Dimashqiyya, who had a profound influence on Anbara’s thought and introduced her to Arab and foreign literatures as well as feminist issues. During World War I she was tutored at home in Musseitbeh Quarter, Beirut, in the Arabic language and linguistics by the celebrated Arabist and lexicographer Shaykh Abdullah al-Bustani.
Encouraged by her father to engage in social activities, to pursue her education, and to express her ideas freely, Anbara wrote her first editorial at the age of fifteen. This appeared in the newspaper al-Mufid, edited by Abd al-Ghani al-Uraysi, to whom she was later engaged. (He was one of several nationalist figures publicly hanged in public squares in Damascus and Beirut in 1916 on the order of Jamal Pasha.) In these early editorials, Anbara emphasized the essential role of women in the nation’s renaissance through education.
When the First Arab conference was held in Paris in 1913, Anbara and two of her female friends sent a telegram of welcome to the conference, and it was the first message to be read out. Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, Anbara and some of her female friends established a society called The Young Arab Woman’s Awakening, which was one of the very earliest women’s societies in the Arab world. The purpose was to encourage the education of Arab girls, but the war interrupted their activity.
During the war, Anbara and a group of women friends worked to equip and manage schools, shelters, and workshops for war orphans. In 1917, Anbara helped to establish a social cultural club called The Young Muslim Women’s Club and then became its president. The club attracted many distinguished figures and scholars who delivered lectures on diverse scientific and literary subjects.
In 1919, on the aftermath of the Great War, Anbara was a member of a women’s delegation that met the US King-Crane Commission and presented to it a memorandum similar to memoranda submitted by other nationalists. In 1924 she took part in setting up the Society for Women’s Renaissance in Beirut, which aimed to encourage local industries.
In 1925, Anbara travelled to England to join her father who was there for private business and three of her siblings; she stayed for two years. This visit left an indelible impression on her mind, particularly her encounter with English women and their struggle for emancipation and for joining the labor force.
In 1927, Anbara was invited by the Sunday School Club of the American University of Beirut to speak about her trip to England. The lecture was entitled “An Oriental Woman in England.” Stepping up to the podium, she removed her veil, becoming the first Muslim woman in the Greater Syria region to remove the veil in a public place. This act was met by a wave of violent protests in the conservative Beirut street.
In 1929 Anbara married the Palestinian educator Ahmad Samih al-Khalidi and moved with him to Jerusalem; they remained there until the year of the Nakba in 1948. She took part in the political and feminist activities in Palestine and delivered many radio talks on Palestine Radio about famous Arab and western women in history. She also worked closely with her husband as he pursued his literary, history, and educational research and joined him in the service of the Palestine cause and in explaining it to the British and international commissions of inquiry that visited Palestine. She performed the same service with the many foreign journalists and writers who visited her home in Jerusalem. She wrote many articles that were published in Lebanese and Arab journals. Some articles remain in manuscript form.
Anbara Salam Khalidi died in Beirut in 1986 and was buried there.
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