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

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.

Samia Halaby, approximately nine years old, Palestine, 1946.
Samia Halaby, approximately nine years old, Palestine, 1946.

I was born in Jerusalem, Palestine, on December 12, 1936. My mother told me that the hour of my arrival was 7:00 or 7:30 p.m. but I am not sure which she said. My mother’s name was Foutounie Abdelnour Atallah and she embodied that gentleness of spirit that typified Jerusalmite families. Our strong, typically, Arab family ties led to very wonderful memories for me of my grandmother, Maryam Zachariyya Atallah, and her husband Abdelnour Atallah. My father, Asaad Saba Halaby, on the other hand, was a strong-willed excitable Jerusalemite. His Mother was Wasile Amar and his father, Saba Jiryes Halaby, who as a low-income Jerusalemite, had underone the pain that famine of the early 20th century that was artificially created by Britain and America. Saba Halaby died at an early age leaving my father orphaned, bereft of his three older brothers, and at the head of the family at the age of twelve. He took on the responsibility, regretful of having to abandon his education, but sufficiently determined to fulfill his weighty new responsibility and thus arrived at adulthood a proud self-made man. To him my mother was a true lady and an encyclopedia of knowledge. She was educated at the Friends School in Ramallah and thirsted for education and pursued knowledge all her life. He wished I were like her and always called me ‘stubborn. When he said it in Arabic it had softer edges and kinder colours. When he said it in English it sounded hard. I am in deep admiration of their lives and victories and deeply saddened by the pain imposed on them by British colonialism, American imperialism, and Zionist and Israeli oppression and terrorism. 

Samia Halaby topcentre, Maryam Atalla
(Samia Halaby’s maternal
grandmother) lower centre,
Nahida Halaby (Samia
Halaby’s sister) lower right,
Nawal Halaby (Samia Halaby’s cousin)lower left, Beirut, 1950.
Samia Halaby top centre, Maryam Atalla (Samia Halaby’s maternal grandmother) lower centre, Nahida Halaby (Samia Halaby’s sister) lower right, Nawal Halaby (Samia Halaby’s cousin)lower left, Beirut, 1950.

But my true heroin in my childhood was Maryam Atallah, my maternal grandmother, who in her wisdom entrusted me with family secrets and who, in my childhood, treated me as one who might be told what only adults should hear. She clearly expressed her will and was obeyed. On weekend visits driving up from Yafa to her home in Jerusalem, she would tell my parents that my two older brothers were overshadowing me and thus she would keep me with her till the following weekend. I basked in the special attention of her household. I sat on a small stool resting my head next to her knees as she sat in the imposing stuffed leather chair, and heard her words. Her respect for my future adulthood has always been a source of wonder and strength. I often stood at the balcony of our home in Yafa, the famous port city where we lived, and yearned for her visits and dreamt of being like her. I think she knew that she was handing me a great gift and I still keep her words to myself.

Fouad (brother), Nahida (sister), Samia Halaby, Asaad Saba (father), Foutounie Abdelnour Atallah (mother), 1951.
Fouad (brother), Nahida (sister), Samia Halaby, Asaad Saba (father), Foutounie Abdelnour Atallah (mother), 1951.

I was sent to a British school called Tabitha Mission School. As an adult, I recognise in the name and my memories that it was a typical colonial project to brainwash children of the colonies to be loyal to the coloniser. But my school friends were irreverent, and we often giggled together at the British teachers’ arrogance and silliness and what we considered to be their ridiculous behaviour, their lack of love, their harshness, and strictures. The most ignorant of their English traits was their thirst for sunshine, which they expressed by taking the class out to the playground to sit unmoving under the hot sun, which always gave me a headache. We had a prayer session each day and we stood row after row as words were  delivered. I do not remember any of them but do remember giggling with my friends and being punished.

Being at a British school meant that my training in the Arabic language suffered. I regret this loss which continued to grow as imperialism and Zionism followed colonialism and disrupted our lives.

I am the third among four siblings: Sami, Fouad, myself, and Nahida, in descending order of age. Until this day we are close, reuniting annually. During Covid times in our eighth  decade of life, we met weekly with pleasure on Zoom calls. Since Covid, the younger of my two brothers, Fouad, has passed away and I recognise clearly the present season of my life.

In 1948 we were exiled by Zionist aggression aided by the British and America. After a brief residency in the mountain villages of Lebanon, my family and I lived in Beirut for a little over three years. Beirut was lovely at the time and I was young, healthy, and protected by my parents. But my memories are full of my parents’ generation’s troubled hearts, with all the painful tearing of family and social relations that were imposed on us. From adjoining rooms at home in our new small apartment, I could hear the ebbing urgency in the rumble of male voices as the men gathered, trying to comprehend the loss of Palestine. Great pain accumulated slowly in my heart and for years after political discussion caused me anxiety. Decades later, I realise that that the ebbing rumble of male voices was a profound lamentation, and sympathy replaced anxiety. The women on the other hand had an emotionally easier task: they took action, supporting the flood of homeless refugees pouring in from the Galilee. 

Samia Halaby with her paternal aunt Sultanie Halaby, 1948.
Samia Halaby with her paternal aunt Sultanie Halaby, 1948.

In Beirut, my school again was British, the British Syrian Training College, and again it was clearly the coloniser’s brainwashing machine. At this older age my school friends, of course all girls at an all-girls school, were more assertively politicised and decidedly more aggressive. We all understood that the teachers were them not us. We never took our complaints against each other to them. We settled our disagreements secretly among ourselves. Once,another student and I had a strong disagreement and a move from words to action was needed. We all hid in a weed grown abandoned playground of the school that we could secretly reach through the window of one classroom. Out we all went and the two combatants, me and my friend, went at it till I tore her uniform which ended the fight as she became very worried about the potential problems it would cause. Someone ran and brought a needle and thread, my anger turned to solidarity, and I carefully stitched her torn uniform back together. By the time I had finished sewing her uniform the school bell had long had long since rung, and only the two of us were left. All the other girls had rapidly sneaked back in. The two of us had no way to get back in as class was in session. But we rang back in unseen as we knew none of the students would betray us.  

I remember days of revolt where we collectively made normal school functioning impossible. I yearn for those little victories of childhood and hope to experience such exhilaration at the liberation of the international working class accompanied by the liberation of Palestine from the horror of the unbelievable abomination of history, Israel, that was started by British colonialism and utilised by US Imperialism.  

In 1951, my parents decided that it was safer for their children to move to America. I was against it but did not, at the age of 14, think of ways of asserting or even describing my views. But it was understood that I did not want to go to America. 

Samia Halaby, The Caryatid porch of the Erechtheion, Athens, 1951.
Samia Halaby, The Caryatid porch of the Erechtheion, Athens, 1951.

So, in 1951, at the age of fourteen, I found myself at an American high school where I began to experience the unpleasantness of patronising attitudes in some of my teachers and their occasional hostility when I outperformed my schoolmates. My father had moved us to Cincinnati, Ohio, and arranged for my sister and I to attend North College Hill High School. It was considered friendly, not so ‘fast,’ and more appropriate to our naiveté. After graduation, I attended the University of Cincinnati and in 1959 earned a Bachelor of Science degree. For this I underwent a five-year co-op program that allowed students to study and work and that allowed me to earn my way through undergraduate school. I continued to find ways to support my education; while my home life was supported by my parents. As a graduate student, I first earned an MA degree from Michigan State University in East Lansing followed by an MFA from Indiana University in Bloomington.

It was clear in our family that we will all pursue higher education. Years into adulthood when all four of us had embarked on our professional paths, my father would sometimes express his pain at having missed his own education because of the death of his father. Occasionally, he would be miffed about our arguments. But I had another role model for my education, other than Palestinian Arab tradition and my own mother’s learning. I had read as a young teenager about Andalusia and Arab scholarship and yearned to be something like it. 

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