Book Talk and Review: Sophie Halaby in Jerusalem: An Artist’s Life November 3, 2019 16:37

On Oct. 16, Middle East Books and More hosted Laura Schor to speak about her newest book, Sophie Halaby in Jerusalem. Watch her talk, filmed by the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and read the book review below.

By Laura S. Schor, Syracuse University Press, 2019, paperback, 272 pp. MEB: $30

Reviewed by Eleni Zaras

Many historians agree that women’s voices in Palestinian history are often absent or underrepresented in mainstream discourse. This can largely be attributed to dominant methodologies that privilege document-based sources over others, which have ultimately led to a dearth of scholarship about women. This is especially relevant to the story of Sophie Halaby, whose personal papers disappeared after her death in 1997. Professor Laura Schor’s new book on the late Palestinian artist has succeeded in overcoming this challenge. In Sophie Halaby in Jerusalem, Schor weaves together Halaby’s art, research from oral histories, papers from family members, peers and a wide range of institutional archives to sketch the contours of the artist’s life against the backdrop of 20th century Jerusalem.

While Halaby is remembered today as the first Arab woman from Jerusalem to study art in Paris, where she lived from 1929-1933, her story unfolds, not in Paris, but primarily in Jerusalem. Even for those familiar with the turbulent narrative of 20th century Palestine, studying this period through the lens of a female, Arab, Russian-Orthodox artist draws due attention not only to the artistic vision of Halaby but, more broadly, to different perspectives on Jerusalem’s history.

Having attended the diverse and prestigious Jerusalem Girl’s College, Halaby spoke four languages, boldly pursued her art studies abroad in Paris in the early 1930s and floated in the intellectual circles of Jerusalem’s society that traversed religious barriers. Regardless of her privileged upbringing, though, her life, according to Schor, was still “deeply affected by Arab and Zionist nationalism” and by the “continuous physical changes to her city.” She and her family were subjected to displacement, land seizures by the Israeli government and raids of her home and studio.

Halaby’s studies in Paris expanded her worldview, which laid the foundations for her artistic style and offered new inspirations and resources. Upon her return to Jerusalem, she brought these influences with her and dedicated her art to capturing impressions of her homeland in paint and watercolors. Her palette and style evoke the artwork of Odilon Redon and the French impressionists, notes Schor, and repeated depictions of the Mount of Olives, site of a Russian Orthodox church and the graves of her parents, recall Cezanne’s fixation on Mont Sainte-Victoire. While other artists in Palestine turned to overtly political themes, Halaby’s art, with the exception of eight political cartoons that challenged both the British and Zionists, remained subtle and poetic.

Instead, she focuses on a single bouquet against a muted background, or a small cluster of wildflowers against soft expanses of hills and valleys. Halaby deliberately crops out signs of urban development in her landscapes, although she includes, unassumingly, the gold Dome of the Rock and contours of the city walls and low buildings the color of sand. “Her persistent painting of Jerusalem as she willed it to be was her private form of resistance,” Schor explains, as she erases the physical scars of war and occupation that transformed the city and her own life.

And private her work did mostly remain: She did not participate in exhibitions with artists of “The Palestinian Group,” which consisted of Jews with Palestinian passports in the 1930s; nor did she join the League of Palestinian Artists, a collective whose overt goal was to engage art with politics and to liberate Palestine (although she did participate in a 1986 exhibition of Women’s Art in Palestine).

Yet Halaby did persist in quiet, personal dissonance, importing paints and supplies from Paris, painting with colors banned by the Israeli authorities, and staking claim to her homeland through her repeated renderings. If she no longer had physical or legal control over the fate of her homeland, she could still wield agency through art— her visual testament to belonging.

Through Schor’s judicious research and writing, Sophie Halaby in Jerusalem recreates the world Halaby inhabited and amplifies Halaby’s quiet, but powerful voice. Schor offers much-needed nuance to Palestine women’s and art history and hopes that Halaby’s story will inspire others, like herself, “to work for a better present and future for Jerusalem and for the Palestinian people.”