Being Samia Halaby: An Intimate Retrospective of the Life and Work of Samia Halaby: Apple Seeds

This article appeared in Being Samia Halaby Issue #68 dedicated to spotlighting the journey of Samia Halaby, a Palestinian-American artist whose resilience shines through despite challenges like the cancellation of a significant exhibition at Indiana University. Halaby’s remarkable year, marked by global exhibitions and well-deserved acclaim, underscores her ability to transcend borders with art that prompts reflection on themes of identity, belonging, and social justice, serving as a bridge across cultural divides.

Being some of the landmarks of my memory as a Palestinian

Dedicated to my powerful role-model Maryam Zakhariyya Atallah and to her daughter, my bright mother, Foutounie Abdelnour Atallah, and to my stubborn father Assad Saba Halaby.

I am their daughter and daughter of the amazing city of al-Quds (Jerusalem) and its tenacious ancient history, my heritage, centuries upon centuries of tradition. This special city of my birth is now being destroyed, its real population is mostly in exile.  What remains is being daily tortured before the eyes of the world. But I, like most of my fellow Palestinians, know without doubt that we will return to rebuild Palestine and that our Israeli oppressors and their partners will have an appropriate end.

I embark on the effort to organise my memories because it seems that our thoughts and experiences are forbidden. Yet it must be heard as one of the true voices of our time. I feel happy to remember my family. And to myself first of all, I apologise for this English that I have come to be confined in, sentenced thus by history and dirty politics. I know that it is one of the injuries of exile, of the great tragedy of the Palestinian Nakba orchestrated by the evil empire – Israel and its US bourgeois masters.

A Hempen Sack of Raisins

Just before the First World War, as my father Assad Saba Halaby told me, there was deep hunger in Jerusalem – a serious famine.  He was not yet nine years old and his father, to alleviate the pressure, apprenticed him to a merchant who eventually took him to a house in Amman. Finding his new home cold and cruel, he ran away and searched for a trader returning to Jerusalem. He finally found one who allowed him to walk behind the donkeys for the long walk back to Jerusalem and allowed him to camp with them at night; but warned there would be no food.  

At night, feeling some sympathy for him, the trader would give him a sack from the donkeys’ load to lay his head on. The child that my father was then could not sleep tortured by hunger and the smell of raisins inside the hempen sack. Then as my old father continued the story, his wrinkled face lit up with great pleasure, “with my little finger, I slowly, quietly dug a tiny unnoticeable hole in the sack and each night I quietly ate one little raisin at a time till I fell asleep.”  

Bread of Life

His mother contracted typhoid, which meant that the Turkish administration of Palestine would haul her off to the wilderness, to a soldier guarded quarantine. Nothing was provided, only the wilderness. That is what my father told me, and he told me that his father would bundle up some food and water in a square cloth cross-tied and my father, being small and agile, would sneak through the lines of the Turkish soldiers. In this way he saved his mother from certain death.  

Taxi

A couple of Americans, one a businessman and the other a professor, approached Assad, Halaby, my father, in Jerusalem and they cut a deal.  It was the early 1920s and the two Americans wanted to go to Tehran. They promised to buy a car and give it to Assad if he would drive them to Tehran. Knowing that there were bad roads and not many gas stations, my father arranged to have extra gas tanks welded to the sides of the car. 

Once in Tehran, the Americans asked to be driven to the Soviet Union. After questioning them at the border, the Soviet authorities told them that as their worker, Assad Halaby would be allowed entry, and as an intellectual, the professor would also be allowed in, but that the American businessman was not welcome. The professor entered, while my father drove the lone businessman back to Jerusalem. My father told me that that is how he became a taxi service. He was the first to offer public transportation in Gaza and was flooded with passengers. To accommodate as many as possible and to keep them safe, he would tie a rope around the car for  the many standing on the jump-boards that ran along the sides of the old fashioned cars.

Stolen Sugar

Food basics were purchased in large quantities. A large hempen sack of sugar cubes was tucked in the closet of the long corridor. Of course, my older brothers, Sami and Fouad, always initiated mischief and day after day they dug a hole in the top of the bag and seeing it all, I began enjoying sugar cubes as well. Mother told our father and he stood us in a circle and Fouad blamed me and I blamed Sami and Sami blamed Fouad and round and round we went pointing fingers. Saying that we were all guilty, my father punished us all; but I do not remember the punishment only the circle of pointing fingers. Even now it makes me laugh with great pleasure.

Keeping Warm

My father would recall his youth when needing to remind us, his offspring whom he educated to the max, that we can be deft even in limited circumstances. Living poor in the city of Jerusalem undergoing that famine purposely created by the British and the Americans during the years of the First World War, he would put his pants under his mattress so that they would be well ironed by morning; then he would place a layer of newspapers between the blankets to keep himself warm.

Visual Pleasures and Dreams

Memories of my first years of life in Yafa are all pictorial. I remember my toddler’s bed with wooden slats in which I lay silently awake intently watching those tiny, strange flies of the Palestinian plains as they zipped around each other in a group in the centre of the room. How their motion defined a spherical space in the very centre of the room fascinated me endlessly and etched itself in my memory.One dream gave me great pleasure, a whole line-up of small, delightful creatures would march on an imaginary ledge as high as the door from the top of which they emerged.

Words had Colours

Words provoked colourful images and often with a metallic tinge. As time went by, these images faded. Occasionally, I would miss them then I would revive them by focusing on repeating the names I remembered. But they and their beauty are a faded memory. There only remains a few skeletons. I remember my name to have looked like a symbol of railroad tracks, two long parallel horizontal lines with many short verticals crossing them and all in dark metallic red. I remember the image that would get in my head when my mother would remark that my hands were chapped. I would see rough, splintered, dry, beige, wooden laundry pins formed like hands. I remember the shape and colour my sister Nahida’s name created; it was like a biomorphic shape, very pale silver with a golden glow. My brother, Fouad, is still that green copper and Sami a golden red. Sounds still have colour but there is no necessity to cultivate the sensation. Maybe there will be a future time where this tendency called synesthesia might be the basis of a word picture language of great usefulness.

Radio Samia and Nahida

As per the social norm during the mid-1940s, everyday my father came home from work to eat lunch and take a nap. After lunch, my sister and I would be confined to play in the antechamber of the apartment with closed doors all round while the remainder of the household proceeded quietly with their activities. We would be told to be quiet and only whisper and we would heed; but we would forget, and slowly our voices would rise. I remember my father as being stern but after his nap passing us on his way back to work, he would good naturedly say that radio Samia and Nahida had volume that rose slowly to great heights.  

Bas-Relief in Mud

My brothers and cousin, the boys Sami, Fouad, and Munir played a game of territory in the mud. I wish that I could remember the logic of it. But the visual pleasure of it, the brown of the wet soil, the sliced shapes made by the catapulted knife, the consequent reforming of shapes all make up a beautiful, intensely pleasurable memory of a bas-relief in motion. First, they flooded the flowerbed with water. Then they marked out a rectangle by carving a deep channel in the mud. After marking out territories, they took turns flipping a penknife into the mud. It would somersault and land blade down. According to some principle, they then won a piece of the opponent’s territory and could therefore reshape the fields in the mud.

Once, I left them to their mud games and I went to the pink and red roses on the climbing bushes. I put my nose in the middle of one and took and inhaled deeply. An army of little black beetles emerged to sober my enchantment.

Munir

When Munir came to visit my two brothers, a team for mischief makers resulted. Their boisterous joy filled all spaces of the home. One day, they appointed me, their little sister, as guard and sat me on the lower steps to the rooftop laundry room as they played secret sex games. I sat obediently as they occasionally ran up and down the steps or quietly disappeared upstairs. When our father came home, it was time for payback. He lined us up on a table beginning with the biggest and down to the smallest, me. He made us take off our shoes and socks and extend our bare feet out towards him. He would not spank us anywhere else lest he injure our self-image. Ruler in hand he gave each bare foot a proper slap. When my turn came, they were very gentle slaps. I almost giggled but my father was very serious at that moment and so I swallowed my giggle.

Sultanie

She sat behind her crowded desk at her office. From the side, I watched highly focused as she used a blade to sharpen a pencil to perfection. We were the family of her brother visiting her office and I was a child that she delighted to entertain. Maybe she knew that the shape of each slice was a sculptural stroke upon my visual conscience?

Special Treats

Sometimes, I remained with my grandmother between weekly visits up the mountains to Jerusalem from the plains of Yafa. It seemed then that she, Maryam Atallah, was taking me to herself, to her home. She would tell my parents that I was overshadowed by my two older brothers and that my rights were being abused. I did not object. In the morning a special treat would await me at the breakfast table – the skin formed on boiled milk cooling mixed with honey. She, my grandmother, had a big leather chair and behind her were three arched windows in the heavy stone construction. They were graced with her amazing crochet and needle work. I sat on a tiny stool adjacent to her knees over which I just barely could look up at her gentle face and rich white hair fixed in a bun. Who was this great woman that I trusted and loved. She talked and told me details of her life that even as a five-year-old I knew were entrusted to me and not to be repeated. Was she ruminating enticed by my silence? Or did she intend to give me words that were fit conversation between adults. I keep her amazing crochet and needle work. I sat on a tiny stool adjacent to her knees over which I just barely could look up at her gentle face and rich white hair fixed in a bun. Who was this great woman that I trusted and loved. She talked and told me details of her life that even as a five-year-old I knew were entrusted to me and not to be repeated. Was she ruminating enticed by my silence? Or did she intend to give me words that were fit conversation between adults. I keep her important confidence to myself. I am still amazed at the treasures I received.

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