(Courtesy of the Ayyam Gallery)
In her words, Palestinian artist and academic Samia Halaby has the defiance of the Palestinian writers Ghassan Kanafani and Mahmud Darwish and the activism of 1970s New York. She is in London for her work, and yet she does not feel beholden to any critic. Years of jousting with cut-throat New York art critics has taught her not to care for the gatekeepers of culture—you either like her work or you don’t.
Critics might accuse the majority of the Palestinian diaspora’s work as being political, and by implication less worthy of praise. But Halaby embraces the label. “Semantics!” she says to The Majalla, “Don’t be fooled: everything we do is political. Staying silent is political . . . Yes, my art is political.” In fact, Samia Halaby is the walking embodiment of political. She is the Palestinian experience in the flesh—an exile, an activist, a rebel—and she is not going to compromise now.
Samia Halaby was born in 1936 in mandated Jerusalem to an established Arab Christian. Her father was a self-made man who established an importing business, subsequently moving the family to Jaffa. Her memories of this period are idyllic: attending British colonial school, green hedges, a busy port city, and fresh fish being brought in from the blue ocean. She also remembers being huddled up in her home as men dashed in with buckets of water and blood trickling down the floor. She remembers the tanks entering Jaffa, oppressive British rule, and Eastern European Jews coming to the Holy Land. She talks of how Arabs in pre-mandate Jerusalem saw themselves as Syrian Arabs, and felt a close affinity to Damascus and Baghdad. Despite having a US passport, Halaby sees herself as a Palestinian Arab belonging to a greater Arab world. Though pan-Arab in many ways, she does not relate herself to the pan-Arabism of Nasser, but rather one which recognizes the cultural milieu of her forefathers. She recognizes that despite her loss of faith, she grew up Christian in a mostly Muslim environment, and appreciates all aspects of those faiths—yet her art is her own.