Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women's rights
Samira Azzam grew up in the Acre district on the coast of Mandatory Palestine in a Christian Orthodox family. She was born Sept. 13, 1927, in a land already in upheaval. By the year of Samira’s birth, United States newspapers reported frequent confrontations and violence in Palestine.
Samira attended public school in Acre, then a Christian high school in the nearby Haifa district. Her life was, wrote Kathyanne Piselli, “fairly typical of an educated Palestinian of the middle class.” During Samira’s school years, the Great Palestinian Revolt, also called the Arab Revolt, raged in Haifa, fueled by the poverty and displacement of Arabs that resulted from the 1922 Palestine Mandate’s promotion of Jewish immigration to Palestine.
At age 16 in the early 1940s, Samira started working as a teacher at the Greek Orthodox School in Acre. In her free time, she was a frequent contributor to the newspaperFilastīn, writing under the alias "Fatāt al-sāhil,” meaning “Girl from the Coast.” Rawaa Talass ofArab News, wrote that Samira “taught herself English through a correspondence course.
On May 14, 1948, Jewish Agency leader David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel. The new country was quickly, on the same day, recognized by U.S. President Harry S. Truman. What followed was Plan Dalet, a formal outline for the Israeli War of Independence. It details the stages and contingencies for expelling the Arab population from the now-designated Jewish states, including, “Destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris), especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously.” Bridges should be destroyed, the Plan says, roads seized, and transportation, energy, and resources controlled.
Palestinians call this time “an-Nakbah,” an Arabic word meaning “catastrophe.” In less than six months, from December 1947 to mid-May 1948, Zionist armed groups expelled about 440,000 Palestinians from 220 villages. ... Some 150,000 Palestinians remained in the areas of Palestine that became part of the Israeli state. Of the 150,000, some 30,000 to 40,000 were internally displaced. Like the 750,000 who were displaced beyond the borders of the new state, Israel prohibited internally displaced Palestinians from returning to their homes.”
Twenty-year-old Samira was one of these displaced Palestinians. In 1948, she and her family traveled northeast to Falougha in Lebanon. Then they moved out to the coast, settling in Beirut. Samira journeyed back inland to Iraq where she taught in a girls’ school for two years. In 1952, she found work as a radio broadcaster with the Sharq Al-Adna/Near East radio station, an Arabic-language, British-owned station that itself had to relocate to Cyprus (which was still under British control) after the mandate terminated.“She is familiar to many Arabs simply because she was heard so often on the radio,” noted Kathyanne. “She later worked for radio stations in Iraq and Kuwait and taped material for the Jordanian station and the Voice of Palestine in Cairo.”
During these years, Samira also began to write short stories. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the short story was highly popular in the Arab world. Literary shorts were easy to print, publish in magazines, and read aloud on radio broadcasts. Few of Samira’s short stories reference Palestine directly, but she often explored themes of separation and anguish. She frequently depicted class divides, writing tales of the poor and marginalized finding ways to survive. In “Her Story,” Samira wrote the letter of a sister to her younger brother. The boy she once raised now rejects her for having been sexually assaulted and forced into sex work. The sister tells her brother how much she’s struggled for what little comfort she has; she tells him about her anger at the injustice in the world.
On Dec. 24, 1959, she married Adib Yousef Hasan. The couple briefly lived in Baghdad, but soon left, fleeing the upheaval of Iraq’s collapsing monarchy and violent birth of a republic. By some accounts, she was banished for voicing her opposition to the new regime.
Samira became more politically active through the 1950s and ‘60s. She began contributing articles toDunia Al-Mar`a(Women’s World) andSawt Al-Mar`a(The Woman’s Voice), a Sudan-based progressive magazine. While her short stories gained popularity, she also started writing a novel.
Samira worked diligently to form connections and resisted “the prevalent belief among some people that Palestine could only be liberated by the hands of Palestinians,” according to Nejmeh. Instead, she saw it as a cultural responsibility, one that should be held by all Arab states. “She was a pioneer in the political world, establishing a secret resistance organization (The Liberation Front for Palestine) spreading from Lebanon to Jordan.” She was part of the General Union of Palestinian Women, an organization specifically focused on advocating for the women of Palestine.
In 1967, Samira—like most displaced Palestinians—avidly followed the developments with Egypt’s controversial new president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who wanted to unite Arab nations and vocally opposed Israel. Here lay a chance to return to her homeland of Palestine and to see her people restored.Samira watched as the second Arab-Israeli War of her lifetime, the Six-Day War, ended with Israel invading the Sinai Peninsula and occupying the cities of Rafaḥ, and Al-ʿArīsh, and Gaza. Hope for Palestine had been lost once again.
As she and other women activists in Beirut organized to help the refugees from the Sinai Peninsula, Samira destroyed the novel she’d been writing. “Its title must have seemed particularly tragic in the wake of ’67:Sinai Without Borders,” wrote M Lynx Qualey in the introduction for a collection of Samira’s short stories.
Despite this renewed heartbreak, Samira continued working for Palestine. She and other members of The Liberation Front for Palestine headed for Jordan; they needed to regroup and adapt to the new situation. In 1967, at just 39 years old, Samira died of a heart attack in a car along the way. She was laid to rest in Beirut.
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Kathryn S Gardiner