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Islands of Solitude: a conversation with Hala Al Faysal

Subjects:

On 9 August 2005, Hala Al Faysal, a Syrian artist, walks into Washington Square Park, New York, to make a solo protest against the continuation of the American war in Iraq and the worsening conditions of life for Palestinians in Gaza.

Dana Omari Berg is a writer. She has lived and worked in Damascus, Dubai, and Algiers

At the park's fountain, she removes her clothes. "Stop the War" is written on her naked body both in Arabic and English. She steps into the shallow water and with her hands above her head she starts to walk around. Cameras take pictures. Some people clap and cheer. Other passers-by watch the police take the 47-year-old Syrian painter away.

The protest caught the attention of the American media and created controversy in the Arab world.

Hala was described as a saint and an Arab Lady Godiva. And as indecent and disgusting, as well as being called: not a Muslim. Her own brother called her a whore.

(1)

"Black thoughts haunt me to the fifth floor."

Sitting with Hala Al Faysal in her apartment on the last level of a building in the Mazra'a neighbourhood, hearing her speak about the intimate, the personal and the private is not a simple task. I am nervous and trying hard to hide my own anxiety, knowing very well that issues and experiences close to my own skin are going to surface.

Hala has just returned from Beirut and is feeling quite unsettled. She has even thought of cancelling the meeting with me.

In the living room, I am sitting between the books and the paintings. I speak carefully and explain that I am here because I would like to write about her, Hala - the woman. My words and what I have just said is not expected. Hala cries. It never occurred to her that anyone would be interested in her person.

"I was thinking about my life yesterday", she says after a while, "and I don't know the meaning of it all. Where do I go from here?" Her question resonates in the silence. She moves around and asks me if I would like a glass of water.

While she is in the open kitchenette, I let my eyes wander on the details. Hala has drawn and written on each surface of her apartment; the doors, the living room, the kitchen cabinets, even the low ceiling.

On one of the walls hangs a photo of Hala's sister. "She was my best friend", she says. "A very beautiful girl. Tall. Fair. Graceful. Everyone was mesmerised by her." Hala smiles when describing her younger sister. "She was prettier than me," she says it with a sense of pride. And then adds, "She drowned in the sea at the age of seventeen."

She brings a stack of photographs and shows me pictures of her childhood. One particular picture is of the two sisters and their younger brother held closely by Valentina Tereshkova, the Russian cosmonaut who later was to be awarded “woman of the century” in London by the Women of the Year Association in 2000. The picture was taken when Tereshkova visited the family in Damascus. As a child, Hala dreamt of becoming a cosmonaut herself.  

The photos and the memories calm Hala. Our first meeting comes to its end. She looks at me and says, with quite a warm smile, "I am happy I did not cancel the meeting. Yes, I agree to the interview."

(2)

Hala grew up between two cities. Damascus and Homs. Her father was a leading communist figure during a turbulent time for Syria; the late fifties and early sixties. Her mother is from a known Kurdish family from Damascus, the daughter of an intellectual father and a bourgeois

mother. In the early years of their marriage, Hala's mother had to raise the children alone when her husband was living in hiding or in exile. Later he returned to Syria and played a role as a politician and served as a minister of telecommunication in the cabinet of President Nour Eddine Atassi. His work kept him busy and away from the family life.

Today, Hala feels that her mother does not want her to grow a stronger bond with her father. "Every time I visit Homs and he and I are left alone, she will come to interrupt us as if she does not want us to be close. I don't understand her."

Her mother has a strong character. She continued her studies in spite of the fact that she had three children. She was the first woman in Homs to have such an ambition and to follow it. On many occasions, she would leave the children in Homs and travels to Damascus to follow her studies and exams. Though never a good cook, Hala remembers herself as a child standing on a small stool and cooking at the stove when her mother is away. The mother obtained a university degree, later to become a teacher in Homs.

I have the impression that Hala's mother is a communist. Hala smiles and corrects me. She explains that her mother is simply a dynamic woman. She in fact neither believes in communism nor in socialism as ideologies. "She frequently criticised my father by saying to him: look to where leftist ideas brought the country."

(3)

Hala's childhood memory of Damascus is still vivid and beautiful. When the family decided to move to Homs for her father's work, it was to her great disappointment. Homs is a smaller city with not much prospect.

She was a serious student, interested in the sciences and performance especially singing and acting. But the school in Homs was dull in that respect, so Hala and her sister tried to invent activities.

"I used to call girls, who were only interested in their physical appearance and how to attract boys, loose girls. They used to tell me: Look, this boy is interested in you. But I did not believe them or care."

When I ask Hala about her early experiences with boys, she smiles and mentions Ghossoub, the neighbour boy from upstairs.

"In Homs, at the age of fourteen, I used to sneak up to the neighbour's apartment as soon as my mother would leave for work. His mother was often in Beirut. It gave us the chance to waltz. I still remember the song we used to dance on." She starts to sing the tune: Pour toi maman, pour toi (for you mother, for you). "The closeness and feeling my feet swing in the air was a true thrill." She reflects for a few moments. "He was studying for his baccalaureate (secondary school degree) and soon afterwards he left to the United States. We kept writing. I tried to convince him with my communist ideas. Can you believe it?" She smiles, and then adds: "Until one day I felt I lost him for the United States. I wrote him, "Alas, you are a capitalist!" And that was the end of it."

(4)

“My sister was one year younger than me. We shared everything. She was the only person to put an arm around me, the only person to actually hold me. We were inseparable."

"On that summer day, we went into the water. No body warned us from swimming. We swam into the sea. My sister was ahead. And the water was in rage. I couldn’t keep my head up. I shouted for help. Some people jumped into the sea and took me back to the beach. I kept shouting for my sister. They told me that they will get her next. They thought that I was the one who needed urgent help. When they brought her back to the beach, she was already not breathing. My father tried to give her first aid. But it was hopeless. She was dead. I went back to Homs with family friends. They were driving behind my parents. In the car, I kept shouting and beating myself incessantly."

"In Homs, my mother sent me away for a few days. She kept my sister in the house for three days - against the Islamic tradition that instructs the burial of the deceased the soonest to the hour of death. Away from home, I never got the chance to say goodbye to my sister."

(5)

The loss of a younger sibling is both painful and confusing, which I know myself. The survivor might even wonder whether it was better if he or she died instead. But Hala, still quite young, felt certain. One day, she fell from the kitchen's stairs and broke her arm, her mother, she might have not been quite conscious to what she was about to say, said: "Look at you and the problems you make. It should have been you, not her."

"The same year, I had to prepare for my baccalaureate. I did pass the exams. But my grades did not grant me an admission to the field of science. My parents said that I have to repeat the exams all over again."

"One day, they opened the door to my room. They saw me sitting at my desk, crying almost hysterically. I said: I don't want to do it again. I want to study at the Fine Arts Faculty in Damascus. They were bewildered, but said yes."

One of Hala's great regrets in life is the fact that she never was given the chance to become a singer. It was unthinkable to even consider it. Her parents would never have allowed it.

The choice to study Fine Arts in Damascus was the second best. Hala needed to get out of Homs to breathe. The Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus represented a new world - seemingly freer and a place where diversity appears to be accepted. So now Hala lived in Homs while studying visual communication in Damascus.

Perhaps out of the need for emotional reassurance following the trauma of her sister's death, Hala, still eighteen, started to see a young man who came from one of the "good families" of Homs. From the beginning, she made it clear to him; she needed companionship but was not in love with him. The relationship began after the young man made a marriage proposal and was rejected by Hala's parents.

He was in love with her. And in a desperate act of selfishness, he told her family that she has lost her virginity with him. "Was it true?" I ask. "I lost my virginity but I, somehow, was not even thinking about it. I was not well."

When Hala's family learnt the news, they forced her to marry the same man they had rejected. Thus, Hala was led into her marriage. She did not dare to say no. "They made a wedding. My mother bought me Parisian dresses from a lady in Damascus. A full ceremony was held, and the society of Homs was invited."

(6)

How can a marriage become right, when it starts with betrayal?

After the wedding, Hala still a new bride, was cold and distant. Her husband started to leave her at night only to return in the early hours of the morning and force himself on her.

The first pregnancy ended with an abortion upon the advice of Hala's mother. Hala was too young for motherhood! Yet, when the second occurred, Hala kept the baby, a son and her only child. She raised him and brought him with her to the Fine Arts Faculty. He lived with

her in Damascus, while his father worked in Saudi Arabia. Hala's husband only visited once every six month. And upon each arrival and departure, Hala requested a divorce. But the divorce was not granted. Even her family was against her getting one.

Desperate, Hala attempted to take her own life. She took an overdose of medications. She swallowed the pills she found in the medicine cabinet and waited. At first, nothing happened. She then opened the gas bottle in the kitchen. Her attempt failed but her body became fragile.

And for four weeks she stayed in bed. The lawyers were brought to her bedroom to convince her that she should maintain the marriage. But she turned her head at every argument without saying a word.

When living together became impossible for the couple, Hala's husband finally agreed to a divorce and granted her that their son would live with her. After the divorce, he broke his promise. He told Hala, if the child is to remain with her, he will not receive a dime from him.

Hala felt betrayed for the second time. The child was to be raised by her husband's sister.

Recently, Hala asked her ex-husband, "Why did you take away my child from me?" He answered "But this is history now." Hala insisted, "I know, but I need to know." His response was quite straightforward: "I did not want to lose him to you."

(7)

After graduating from the Art Faculty, Hala told her parents that she was planning to go to Paris to continue her studies. Her parents, already feeling challenged, got alarmed. And somehow, a grant to Moscow was offered to her. Today, Hala believes that her father was behind it. In Syria's era of socialism, Moscow was perceived ordered and within reach.

In the following years, Hala studied at the Film Academy in Moscow and developed a new independent life. "In Russia, at the time, you could live on nothing. I had no obligations or restrictions. You share a flat for nothing. You study at the Academy in the morning and watch great classical films in its showrooms in the evening. Imagine, upon request, a film can be shown to only one person. At night, you move from one gathering to another. Life was rich."

In the late eighties, Hala returned to Syria. As a social convention, a divorcee in the Arab world is expected to live with her parents as she did before her marriage. For Hala this was not even a consideration. She insisted to live on her own in Damascus. Her parents were against her decision. When leaving her parent's home, Hala's mother said: "Let's see how long you can make it on your own!"

Without a real income, Hala found it hard to find a place in Damascus. Her brother did not open the door for her. Her relatives were not an option. She roamed from one friend's place to another.

One day, when out walking in Damascus, Hala came face to face with her uncle. She kept walking. He called after her, but she did not stop. A man walking with him followed her and said that her uncle wished to speak to her. She replied: "About what?"

The uncle made a good will gesture and invited Hala to stay with his family in Damascus. She spent one month in her uncle's apartment, until the day her mother called and told the uncle: "You are making it easier for her."

Hala was again on the streets, until she found a small garage studio where she could live, if only on the margins of society.

This is the first time I hear of Hala. I was seventeen and a friend of mine told me: "There is this crazy bohemian, Hala Al Faysal, who lives in our garage and refuses to leave it."

(8)

From then on, Hala got married twice. Once to an American scholar and later to a German man.

The marriages took her both to the US and Germany. She also obtained a German passport and two divorces. In the United States, single again, she lived with her adult son in New York and taught Arabic at university.

Meanwhile, Hala's parents bought a small apartment in the Mazra'a neighbourhood on the fifth floor; initially they registered it in the name of her mother, later to become Hala's own. Then, they helped the owners of the garage evict Hala without her knowledge or consent.

In 2005, with the American army still in Iraq and a deteriorating situation in Palestine, Hala, now in her late forties, chose to protest naked in Washington Square Park, New York. Her protest shocked people in the Arab world and somehow bemused the west.

(9)

Hala then returned to Syria for a visit, but the visit extended to years. This was when Hala met Dury, a young Iraqi who fled Iraq during the war and joined the Iraqi Diaspora in Damascus. Hala was twice the age of Dury, but that did not stop them from developing a romantic relationship. Ultimately, they lived together, unmarried, in the Mazra'a apartment.

This did not pass without ordeals. In summer 2007, Hala is about to go out from her apartment when confronted by her neighbours from next door. A woman with her young daughter started calling Hala names. They insulted her. And then they beat her. Hala cried out for help. But none of the other neighbours came to rescue. The doors remained closed. The two women tried to drag Hala into their apartment but failed. She escaped but was completely shaken up. The neighbours then went to the police, informed them that an Iraqi is living with Hala and filed a complaint.

Things did not stop there. For one full year, Hala's neighbours systematically harassed, tormented and intimidated her. They used every single occasion to exhibit their hatred. One evening, they knocked on her door with kitchen knives and made the police come to the building. Hala did not open the door. She and Dury stayed in the apartment, making sure not to create any noise. Around seven in the morning, Dury took off his shoes and ran down the stairs, five steps at a time, and out of the building. And since then, he has not put his foot in the building, even though Hala became his wife.

(10)

One feels that Hala's devotion to Dury stems from her desire to have had someone take care of her when she was young herself.

Today, Hala is trying, but still to no success (though a holder of a German passport), to get her husband a visa to Germany. The couple are under pressure. Hala is tired and stressed out. She feels vulnerable and is incapable of seeing the future.

Being an Iraqi refugee, Dury is not allowed to work in Syria or in Lebanon. He feels he is stuck in a black hole. Hala is worried about Dury as she sees him fall into depression. The couple are finding it more difficult to communicate with one another. They live separately because Dury refuses to return to Hala's apartment. And Hala is still unable to sell the apartment - which is her only capital - to buy a new one where they could both live. Recently, Hala's parents learnt of her intention of selling the apartment, they got angry and told her that they don't accept it.

I ask her if she told her parents about her ordeal with the neighbours. She answers: "No. If they learn about it or the subject is ever brought up, they will say: Once again, you bring our family name down."

Reflections (1): Family, name and honour

We almost began and ended with those two words: "family name". The "name" holds the history, values and integrity of the "family" and its "ancestors" - it is the capital of the family. And though both man and woman are held accountable to honour it, the pressure is more felt and is more persistent on the female, accompanying her in all the choices she makes (or does not make) in the course of her life. So clearly, when a girl loses her virginity, and the news thereof comes out, the family honour or name is in jeopardy. The family then tries to mend the damage. "How" depends on its background, the class and the education of the parents.

What is perplexing in Hala's case is not only that she belonged to the educated bourgeoisie, but also to a communist and activist father - yet still she was sacrificed. This points to a paradox between the communist/socialist dogma carried by men of the self-considered "civilised" Syrian bourgeoisie of post-independence Syria and what could be called the "oriental" condition of the traditional Syrian family.

The Syrian activists, ideologues and politicians, who were influenced either by values and intellectualism present in the west or the USSR doctrines, demanded equality between classes. Yet, they refrained from applying the same principles of equality to the personal level, allowing "eastern" and colonial inherited belief system to rule their private realm both by law and in practice. Hence, allowing gender inequality to persist and allowing articles such as Article 508 to exist.

Article 508 allows the rapist to evade his sentenced punishment in the event he marries the victim. The logic is: now that she is not marriageable, it is better to give her off to a rapist, than to have her future destroyed by remaining without a man and eventually becoming a spinster - a burden and shame. Therefore, when Hala's parents learnt that she lost her virginity, in order to protect the family name, and perhaps in a strange way, Hala's own future, she was forced to marry a man who resorts to social blackmail to marry a woman.

One is confronted by a sad reality that in post-independent Syria, women were treated no differently than in the time of colonialism, meaning as inferior.

While slogans of ideology were shouted out in public, the personal remained silenced, primitive and unchallenged.

Reflections (2): Out of the family, out of the social system

In absence of real social security, a sophisticated banking system, a developed educational policy, the family becomes the only security for the individual to grow and prosper, and sometimes survive, in society. Hala defied the social order - living on her own, without the approval of the family. This meant sacrificing her social class and privileges. It meant losing social guarantees and financial means. It meant living on the outskirts of society. It was choosing the unthinkable - a fall from grace.

In the Arab world there is a conviction that the Arab family is strongly bound, contrary to what is perceived as the disintegrated western family. In this myth lies some truth about the difference of the two societies, but, at least, two misunderstandings.

The first misunderstanding is that, contrary to popular myth, western family relations are in general not broken, but has been transformed. But even in case broken, the European social system guarantees a beginning for the individual by providing a real education, a functioning banking system, health security, and maybe even social security.

The second is that the Arab family is strongly tied only if the offspring does not cross the family borders or resist the family code. If it does, it will find itself alone and without a real support to find its own way.

It is no coincidence that the Arab family takes leverage in the absence of alternative systems or opportunities to force its morals and ethics on the individual. It does not only give the family the right to interfere in the daily life of the individual - especially the daughter - in most of its doings, comings and goings to what fit the standard of the family according to its position in society. It sometimes even takes decisions in vital matters such as field of study, what job to take and whom to marry. In other words, the family controls the life of a person in most endeavours he or she makes.

The person understands from a very early age that in a family oriented society, to achieve respectability and recognition, you need the family to be standing steadfast behind you. And therefore, few challenge the system.

Thus, society reinforces the family, and the empowered family again reinforces the social code.

Reflections (3): Covering the body in defensiveness, reclaiming the body in protest

Hala and I did not discuss the protest in Washington Square Park. But she mentioned to me that when visiting friends in Damascus she was asked about the meaning behind her act. Hala explained to the European wife of a close friend how difficult it was for her to remove her clothes and protest naked. The friend's wife said at the end: "But it is easy to remove ones' own clothes. There is nothing difficult about that." This comment hurt Hala and bewildered her at the same time.

There are many interpretations of Hala's bold act. The west might have seen it as a performance of yet another bohemian not to be taken too seriously. The Arab world, on the other hand, have seen Hala's act as vulgar, disgraceful, "non-Arabic, non-Islamic" as communicated in many blogs on the internet. Many Syrian intellectuals view Hala's nude protest as only a desperate act to gain publicity, making it easy to dismiss her as an individual worthy of attention, and by reducing it to the personal they refuse to engage and so they stigmatise her.

But if we attempt to see this protest in its cultural context and political meaning, we will see it as an exception - a form of radical resistance of imposed identities as well as crossing geo-social binaries. After 9/11, the gap between the Arab and the Muslim world and the United States and the west became steep. The invasion on Iraq increased the prejudice between the two worlds.

And later the inability, or unwillingness, of the west to stop the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006, and later Gaza in 2008-09 confirmed these prejudices for many in the middle east. Times of uncertainty induce people to follow strong currents. Especially if a current is regional, clear in its message, populist in its approach and trying to affirm its identity by playing on strong emotions like anger in face of the injustice in the middle east.

Muslim women are in the heart of this conflict. In the Muslim world, women do represent a serious thing. They represent different types of identities - their bodies can be and are being politicised and their wardrobe is being used as a vehicle to express discontent. Today, as a consequence to the regional political instability, the Iraq war, the increased poverty, the unresolved state of Palestine, and the loud religious call, hundreds of thousands of previously unveiled Arab women embraced the veil as a reaffirmation of an Islamic or a traditional identity and an expression against the disregarding West and American hegemony. Where this response to the fragile state of the middle east is a hardening of rhetoric and covering up of the societies' perceived vulnerabilities - Hala chose to protest by expressing her vulnerability - and by doing so reclaiming her body.

Reflections (4): The Individual, society and space

In a society where overall values and beliefs are not questioned, the individual becomes a challenge to the system because it searches for its own reason of being. And in the process it questions the agreed values and resists the belief system.

Hala is a woman who dared to cross borders and tried to form her individuality to show society that there is more than one reality for a woman's life. But as a consequence, society sanctioned Hala and used her individuality as an excuse to transgress into her private realm, verbally, psychologically and even physically. This is an intimidation of the worst kind by society of the individual. Driving the individual to the point where it does not feel that it has a space even within its own self.

One is left with questions: is our society without acceptance of diversity? And by breaking the code of privacy is society intimidating us by showing the cost of individuality?

What is dangerous as well is that the act of resistance can become a trap for the individual. Stuck in the fixture of rebellion, of legitimising its difference vis-à-vis the family and society, the individual, ironically, is often left with no capacity to break its inner boundaries to accomplish the potentiality of its self.

When examining the fate of the individual in an undeveloped society, one comes to see that in the long process of resistance and making one's own choices, individuals face the hard reality that we are islands of solitude in an ocean of sameness.


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