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Remembering Salma al-Haffar Kuzbari
By Joseph Mouallem
Author Salma al-Haffar Kuzbari, most renowned for her work on women activist and literary pioneer Mai Ziadeh, died in Beirut on August 11, 2006, at 83 years of age. Al-Haffar Kuzbari spent 17 years researching the early 20th century literary figure Mai Ziadeh, ultimately publishing three works on her life and accomplishments.
Like her early 20th century heroine, Haffar-Kuzbari was also at the forefront of defending women's rights and equality in what was a strongly patriarchal society.
The daughter of a prominent Syrian family, her father, Lutfi al-Haffar, served as Syrian prime minister during the French Mandate, later becoming an ardent supporter of Syrian independence. Al-Haffar Kuzbari enjoyed her father’s support throughout her personal and public life, thus affording her the opportunity to push the proverbial envelope in women’s liberation.
Born in 1923, during an age when it was a violation of social norms for women to attend school, al-Haffar Kuzbari received an elite education in Arabic and English at a prominent Franciscan school, and even studied under the renowned Damascene publisher Mary Ajami. Al-Haffar Kuzbari possessed such a command of the Arabic language that Ajami encouraged her student to pursue a writing career. Al-Haffar Kuzbari was first published in 1940 in the Damascus-based Al Ahad magazine, but created the majority of her work in her later years. Al-Haffar Kuzbari’s first book, an autobiography titled “Hala's Diaries,” was published in 1950, and was eventually followed by another autobiographical work, “Amber and Ashes.”
As a defender of women’s rights, al-Haffar Kuzbari made her first foray into challenging the status quo when just a young girl by refusing to wear the traditional black hijab, or veil, preferring, instead, a white head scarf. Later in life, she spearheaded a number of social movements and involved herself in many Syrian women’s organizations. In 1945, she and a group of friends founded Mabarat al Taleem wa al-Muwasaat, a charity organization providing shelter for abandoned children.
Through her writing, al-Haffar Kuzbari was able to address the subject of women’s consciousness – no small feat given that Arab literature at the time tended to neglect this topic. One poetry collection, titled “Stranger,” dealt with themes of alienation, a motif apparent in many of her short story collections.
It was al-Haffar Kuzbari’s interest in women’s issues that eventually led to a discovery of her passion for Mai Ziadeh. Ziadeh was famous for her Al Nahda literary salon in Cairo. Al-Haffar Kuzbari discovered previously unpublished documents, letters, and manuscripts from Ziadeh, including her two-decade correspondence with Kahlil Gibran. Her works on Ziadeh include “Mai Ziadeh and the Tragedy of Genius” (1961), “Accomplished Women” (1961) and “Blue Spark: Gibran’s Love Letters to Mai Ziadeh” (2004), which was co-translated and edited by Suheil Bushrui.
Al-Haffar Kuzbari was twice married, first in 1941 to Mohammed Karameh, the brother of Abdel Hamid Karameh, a hero of the 1943 Lebanese independence movement. Al-Haffar Kuzbari was widowed only one month after the birth of their first and only son when her husband was killed. She was remarried in 1948 to Nader al-Kuzbari, a Syrian diplomat and ambassador to Spain with whom she had two daughters. The couple embarked on a nomadic lifestyle, moving through different countries throughout Latin America and Europe, including Spain.
The time she spent there gave rise to a new direction in her work, and she began focusing on the Andalusian legacy of the Golden Age. Her most well-received novel, “The Two Eyes of Seville,” explores this era. The title of the novel came at the suggestion of her late friend, Syrian poet Nizar Kabbani. The friendship also inspired her memoir, “Spanish and Andalusian Memories with Nizar Kabbani and his Letters” (2000).
Widely recognized for her Andalusian work, she was awarded a medal from the Spanish government for Arab and Andalusian studies in 1964, and was also the recipient of the Mediterranean Literature Award from the University of Palermo in 1980. She also received the King Faisal International Award for Arabic Literature in 1995 for her studies of major figures in modern Arab literature.
While al-Haffar Kuzbari addressed social issues, she concerned herself with politics as well. Her 1989 work, “Bitter Oranges,” examines the tragedy of young Palestinian women confronting the challenges they face resulting from years of protracted conflict. Her last work, “Lutfi al-Haffar: 1885-1968,” chronicles the life of her politician father and the significant role he played in the political events of his era.
Al Jadid staff writers contributed research to this article
This essay appears in Al Jadid,Vol. 12, nos. 54/55 (Winter/Spring 2006)