Originally posted July 2010

What does it mean to be a woman and creative in the Arab world?

For mere biological reasons, I am a woman and by birth I am an Arab. As for my work, I am a journalist and filmmaker. I am not sure whether “creative” accurately describes my work, and I am uncertain whether creativity means the same thing across different cultures. Can we describe some work somewhere as “creative” just because it belongs to a profession that is categorized as “creative” in western cultures?

In principle, a film, a novel, a painting, a poem, a fashion, an article, or a song made by an Arab woman is, I think, only a simple detail in her complex life. I’ve come to realize that the main achievement is not in the making of a film but rather in bearing our share of responsibility towards our world, our community, our culture, and our people. The achievement is to be able to express our feelings — to be brave, to cross the oceans and continents in order to address women elsewhere in the world and share personal experiences.

The so-called “creative” Arab women have crossed immense obstacles throughout the past century, but this has been the battle for all Arab women, whether classified as creative or not. To be fair, I think this volume should be entitled simply “Arab women,” for it is difficult to use the word “creative” in the Arab context. Arab women in the creative field have been referred to as “combatant,” “insurgent,” “audacious,” or even “crazy.”

It is difficult to reflect on the meaning of creativity in my life without allowing a bit of narcissism in narrating my life, my story through my lenses.

I am the daughter of a Palestinian man and an Egyptian woman. I lost my father, when I was only weeks old. I also lost my homeland. The sense of loss is what drives me to be “creative” — to express myself in word and film.

Shortly after my birth, my father, Ibrahim Al Abed entered one of the training camps in Lebanon, which were the center of Palestinian activities at the time. He told people there about his passionate dream to recover Palestine. I lost him for this dream to return our homeland.

Since experiencing these profound losses, I have lived with my mother, though neither in Palestine nor in Egypt. Instead, I have lived in Syria while holding Jordanian nationality. My brown complexion has always differentiated me from fair-skinned Syrian girls. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always been asked the question, “where are you from?” My dark skin made Syrians think I was an Indian or perhaps a Filipino. If I change my hairstyle, I may even look like a native woman of the Gulf. Some Syrians have even told me that I could look Malaysian with nomad eyes. When I am abroad, I am often asked whether I am originally from Cuba or Colombia.

These hybrid cultures made me feel more like a citizen of the world than a citizen of one nation. I have never felt that I belonged to a specific identity or a nation and have gradually learned to see the world free from any narrow-minded patriotism or fixated perspective.

When I joined the field of journalism, I learned to deepen this sense of freedom. Continuous contact with grassroots movements and with humble and poor people on a daily basis has kindled a dream in me to recover the lost paradise where we could all live together and care about one another regardless of our backgrounds.

I know now that we see much more when we come face-to-face with the less privileged and see very little when we choose to see them through a televised news report that is guaranteed to fail to capture the miracles performed in those people’s lives. Those people master the art of survival in a cruel and gloomy world and yet they never lose their hope for a better tomorrow.

Such lives are what I want to capture in my films. My most recent film zooms in on the life of Noor Al Huda, a 15-year-old girl who lives in a tent made of tin and cardboard, in one of the slums on the outskirts of Damascus. Noor walks 15 km to school, yet, she is never late to school. She confronts the camera to recount her story with poverty not only to Syrian audiences but to the whole world. Noor wants to improve her life but she does not ask for help. She wants to do it alone. I had known Noor for two years before shooting the film, and we became very close. My camera documented her daily struggle.

Noor Al Huda is my great achievement so far, not because the film won the Syrian Dox Box festival award, but because of Noor herself: an irrepressible young woman who still dreams of a better future.