Memoirs of an Early Arab Feminist: The Life and Activism of Anbara Khalidi- A reflection

It really doesn’t happen very often to grab a book from cover to cover in one single strike, especially when it is a book you are handling for research reasons, and you are not really supposed to finish it all.

In the series of a few days I was hopping from one Palestinian woman story or perspective to another. To my surprise again, taking into consideration my extreme resistance to research reading, I was reading with great enjoyment.

From Leila Khalid biography, to Amal Kawar’s daughters of Palestine to Anbara Khalidi’s memoir. I was as well taken by my last month’s biographies of Khalil Sakanini and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. I have to say I came out with the kings and queens of Palestine.

And of course I have to dismiss all the kings here. I am in my feminist injected spirit after those three women and tens of women mentioned within.

There is something about women’s plight that definitely drives me with such enjoyment. I was reading this woman’s biography, describing flawlessly her experience as a Muslim Arab woman in the beginning of the 20th century, and I was feeling proud, often murmuring to myself: “ I am like this woman”.

There is definitely something of a scholarly genius about this family to start with, so that is why it all comes with a natural talent of an institute of academia. Being the mother of Walid and Tariff Khalidi by itself drives a series of future scholarly assets.

There was something important for my research purposes that I gained from this book, which was satisfying to that immature researcher inside me. But as usual, I took that and gathered it in a bundle of its own and put it aside. There was so much more that i took from that journey of a book.

Of course, it has this usual revisit inside the Palestinian being. The identity, the cause, the struggle. But there was still more about Anbara, she was from Beirut. Her life started and ended there, and Jerusalem was a midway. But her life in her hometown Beirut until she was married to Ahmad Samih Khalidi at the age of thirty was an amazing zealous life of an amazing exceptional woman. A very normal woman actually. A woman who was just breaking the chains of patriarchal traditions, despite the comfort of her luxuriously defined life. A girl growing up in the strict culture of closure on women and firm Islamic teaching, that women inside it were still nothing but complimentary. A time when education was far from luxury, and when discussed among the best of the best enlightened, it was for the comfort of the husband in the best scenario. In times when education for girls was refused by de-facto, and at the age of fourteen a marriage would be more than ripe for a girl. At the age of seventeen Anbara was in the frontline of what became women unions. Her education was perceived by maneuvering around the possible. A woman fully endured with morality and principles and burdens of being a woman, her life was about mediating options whereas she learned to bend with the norms and yet, reach her own plight. He devotion to what she wanted to achieve inside her was so amazingly determined and reachable in wise footsteps even in her revolutionary times.

When women’s highest aspirations in those times were to unveil their heavy veils. And here, when veil is mentioned, it is the face veil that is meant, not the whole hijab, head cover. One can imagine how long the journey to liberation took.

But being an Arab, like being a Palestinian at that time, required another form of liberation that was heavier than unveiling a veil. It was occupation that took the form of an oppressive ottoman empire that towards its ends used unprecedented murderous means to suppress and oppress the Arab natives. A choice as usual Arabs make unwisely and persistently in making wrong tactics. In order to get rid of the ottoman oppression, thye sided with the devil. A devil that took form of mandate authorities by the British and the French, who were sheepishly, keenly distributing the shares of what will become the Middle East. It was a time when one oppression ended and a worse entered. A fact that made the Arabs more cautious and awakened. A part that gave an access to women movement to start forming itself.

Somehow, this may have given women an opportunity to take on a faster developing step in her status. By no time, women were heading demonstrations and invited to resistance and political committees.

Maybe, women political participation and resistance roles took a faster development than that of their own personal rights. A woman like Anbara for example, was highly appreciated by the time she was less than twenty, a main public figure in education and women’s rights, she would make a speech infront of generals and kings, but all with her face veiled. People would applaud highly for her courage and outstanding commitment, but on the day she dared to make a speech without a veil, riots went out against her, and she was and her family the topic of societal criticism that occupied them more than the occupying colonial forces.

A persisting reality of the Arab life that its misery was reduced to the Palestinian one is a harsh lesson I am still learning about (my) history. That era between the last years of the Ottoman Empire, and what took place from the Nakba to the Naksa, and then the Palestinian exodus from one Arab country to another until Oslo, keep unveiling itself. Like peeling an onion. Its core seems unreachable.

The problem may have been our ignorance and naivety. Our fear to see the truth. Which resulted in ending one tyranny to fall into another, and instead of facing the truth we found ourselves fighting realities that were far reached.

That period of Ottoman reign, that secluded the Arabs, and towards the end of it, with the Armenian genocide, an ethnic cleansing to the Arabs was as well taking place. But yet we failed to recognize. What Jamal Pasha did to get rid of Salim II, and his indepth hate to the Arabs that was revealing itself shortly after, made the Arabs look for any ally to contract with. The fall of the empire was the joy of the Arabs. Whereas, they failed to see what was yet to come to them. As the international community kept feeding the Zionist movement, the Arabs were assured that their worries were exaggerated.

Towards the end, Anbara gives a painful testimony of her last years in living in Jerusalem until the 1948. The living images of Zionist threat, fear and terror. The British empowering and supporting their growth as terror groups in the first place by arming them and organizing them, while safeguarding the locals by imprisoning them each in his own home. Their sorrowful exodus that still leaves their house, inhabited today by the UN higher commission, and the Arab College that is the head quarter of the UN … keeps the place haunted with her last words bidding farewell to every room in the house… to mark another tragedy of a Palestinian life.


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