In searching for the most befitting words to think of Asma’s absence, I thought of words and their meanings. We live in times where words seem to lose much of what they signify because of those who overuse and abuse them. But then there are those whose presence with us and in our lives and memories, gives meaning back to words, making them overflow with truth. Words such as: love, generosity, motherhood, warmth, home, and homeland.
Home and homeland, because Asma’s house was, for many of us, and for me personally, a miniature homeland. We had a family and a home, far away from the lands where we were born. Asma’s heart was a big house, embracing and welcoming strangers, feeding the hungry, and tending to the wounds of those who lost a round in the long battle with life. Her home was a heart overflowing with love and giving life and warmth to its guests. “Ahla” an otherwise pedestrian word, resonated on a different emotional plane when Asma said it and repeated it. You knew you were at home.
Asma embraced, nurtured, and supported our dreams and projects in so many ways. Her home became a laboratory for many projects. She was a dazzling interlocutor. She could easily challenge and take on three or four academics, debunking our arguments. Her sarcasm was lethal, but she was always patient with our shenanigans.
There are those who love and those who know how to love and make it an art. I will miss seeing Asma kiss her loved ones. A series of kisses with a distinctive tempo. A tight embrace that would make one feel the strength and meaning of love.
In one of the last phone conversations, I told her that I had known her much longer than I had known my own mother who died in Baghdad when I was still twenty-one. “I have known you since 1992.” “I am your mother, Sinan.” She said it twice. And I believed her.
When we celebrated her seventy-first birthday, four years ago, I was searching for a befitting metaphor. I realized that Asma was our tree. Her roots firm and deep, her branches towering above. Migrating birds rest on her branches and others nest. The weary lean on her trunk and sleep in her shade. She spreads and speaks life and love.
Such a strong woman who faced life (and its end) with exceptional courage. Elegant, extravagant, attractive, and charismatic. The embodiment of maternal love. Lucky are those who loved her and whom she loved.
If there are any heavens, there will be one just for her all by herself.
I remember her smile, cheerful face, and warm voice, welcoming us whenever we would visit. How could a stranger not feel at home after being greeted with that smile? Her generosity transcended any ailment she might have been suffering. In her presence, I used to return from the suburbs of DC to all that was beautiful and everything I missed in Palestine, Syria’s sister, and Asma’s homeland. “Everything will be alright,” she used to say with certitude, even when the world outside was about to collapse. And I believed her. Asma was not naïve at all, but she had lived and experienced what made her believe in resilience and steadfastness. She knew how strong the roots strangers send forth are wherever they go without forgetting our roots back home. Asma’s house was the shore where strangers sought refuge and respite in our compulsory or “voluntary” exiles. Her home, always open, protected our fragility. Now I have to learn to carry her sense of humor, her smile, and her resounding laugh with me and spread them in the presence of her absence. I will miss your voice, Asma, and will miss that warm smile.
Expansive. Beautiful. Inspiring.
Where is Asma? This was my question when I first went to the Haddad household. She had already occupied an expansive space in my imagination. From that first encounter and in the many to come, Asma would be one of the most incisive interlocutors of my life. In the dark hours of the night and over the kitchen table we would share secrets. She listened and advised and told her own stories. She noticed everything. This made every exchange all the richer. I could never get enough of her. There was always more I wanted to say, more I wanted to learn. The pilgrimage to the Haddad “compound” was first and foremost about her counsel, her presence, and most of all her humor. It was Asma who was the heart of the labor of collectivity that Bassam initiated and that Carol and Elie made possible. She imparted the lessons of revolutionary nurturing: how to fight for your beliefs, how to remain strong in the face of adversity, how to feed the people you loved materially and otherwise, how to shape hospitality, how to laugh, how to love. She had a special gift for piercing through facades. Whenever I saw her, she reached right inside of me to heal my aches, talk me out of bad ideas, and feed visions for the future. When Asma died, there was a large tear in the universe. There is no mending to this tear. There is only the gift of having had her for the time that we did. There is only the memory of her lessons, the memory of her beauty, the memory of her inspiration, the memory of her expansive presence.
Asma’s home was known as "the compound." It was in the spring of 2005, at the end of my first year of an MA program, when I first began to go there as part of my early with the Arab Studies Institute. That is also when I first met her, Asmahan Haddad. The compound was the place people gathered for working weekends, surrounded by nothing but love, support, and nourishment for bodies and souls. It had been so for than a decade before my first visit. For the next fourteen years, I would spend countless days working, resting, celebrating, and feeling at home in the compound. I do not recall a time when I was there and Asma was not. I do not recall a time when I did not have the chance to sit down with Asma—sometimes for ten minutes and others for hours catching up and laughing. I laughed a lot with her. She always seemed to know my news. When I would tell her about my news, she would say: “I know. They told me. But . . .” The “But . . .” was usually a question that went beyond the empirical fact of some good happening or unfortunate development. It was an expression of genuine love and concern, asking how I was feeling and reminding me to keep my eye on the prize. That prize, according to Asma, was not anything superficial. It was my health, my relationships with those I loved, and the necessary milestones of my chosen career. I would try to break the intimacy of the encounter and shift the attention away from me by updating her on ASI-related news. Perhaps on a documentary film we were working on; an upcoming Arab Studies Journal issue or a Jadaliyya article. She would respond with: “I know. They told me.” She would follow that up with an insightful comment about that project, or some question that would leave me challenged. In all cases, her “I know” was, in fact, the truth. She knew. She cared enough to know what we were up to and how it was going. And then, she would go back to “But . . .” because she understood full well how I had tried to change the subject. Despite my attempts at avoidance, I always left the conversation wanting more of her time. She was a force of love, pillar of support, and an endless fountain of energy. I miss those conversations. It is rare to find someone that is in the know about the grandest of plans and most intimate of feelings. But then again, that was Asma. She had a way of making you feel like you could reach your furthest goals, while grounding you in the very reality you needed to confront to do so. She also let you know that she would stand with you along the journey. It was not so much about catching you if you fell, but about not letting you fall. Her passing was so much more than devastating. Yet fourteen years of her friendship and love have given me a lifetime of strength that I will forever feel privileged to have experienced.
How lucky am I to have had two mamas in this lifetime? The second was the most remarkable gift Bassam Haddad has ever given me. Assoum deeply believed that our freedom was possible and was so intellectually and emotionally vast that she never stopped growing. Her home was a refuge for the queer kids and the interracial, interreligious couples, the dreamers, and the leftists, the heartbroken and everyone in between from infants to the elderly, the pious to the atheists. She had no limits. Assoum embraced them all in her boundless heart and overcame them with her magic: an ability to make anyone in her presence fall in love with themselves, including me. She was unapologetically a woman, a femme, a force on her own terms and inspired us all to unapologetically be our most remarkable selves. The more we shined, the more she glowed. How did this woman born in 1944 in Tartous, Syria grow up to embody infinity? How generous was she to share it with us even at her most tired and weak? Even as she left us, she brought us closer together; she made death beautiful too. Assoum insisted we not gather in sadness but in celebration and joy when she leaves. So a celebration is what we will have.
Asma Haddad will always be remembered as the conscience and beating heart of the Arab Studies Institute family, which she helped build and nurtured with exceptional dedication and an endless stream of love and support. Each member of that family has a multitude of stories to tell about the contagious energy that Asma exuded and that uplifted and protected the entire family even during its most difficult moments. For years—and for some of us, decades—we each proceeded to take on serious risks and to embark on ambitious endeavors based on our faith that Asma was there to catch us and hold us back up if and when we fall. And she always did. Asma was a pioneer, a visionary, and an agent of change who empowered many others to become the same. She set an unparalleled example for selflessness and courage in advocacy and in the pursuit of transformative change. Her legacy lives on in the family she raised inside her own household and, inside the world that ASI now embodies in the physical and virtual realms.
I met Asma (as well as Carole and Bassam), via Nadya Sbaiti in Montecatini, near Florence, in 2003 or 2004, at the Mediterranean Meeting that used to be held there. I remember a beautiful, sumptuous woman, with dark red lipstick, a cigarette in her mouth, carrying big brand name bags, exuding self-confidence and happiness. I do not know how one can effortlessly assemble both power and grace like that, but she did. I do not know what we talked about, but I recall laughter. Genuine, joyful, loud, ringing laughter. The kind that makes people turn around and stare, and you would laugh even more. It took me very little to feel connected to Asma—it was a fleeting moment, but it endured. Much later, I saw her once in Beirut, briefly, and it was heart-warming. I always heard about her, and her home, and her food, and how all the ASI people flocked there. It sounded like a weird cult from afar, but in a very cool way—the kind that makes you feel you are really missing out. I feel extra special to have met Asma, and to have had a tiny, indirect, peek into her grand world that transcended boundaries, and managed to rope an array of people and stories in.
So many of the projects that are now part of the Arab Studies Institute have Asma’s indelible imprint on them. Besides her adamant support and determination to create a home for thoughtful intellectual engagement, it was her inextinguishably boisterous spirit that is now such a characteristic of ASI and the many persons who are involved with it. The commitment to justice, scholarly agility, and unhindered creativity were inspired by her unshackled honesty and deep affinity for hope in the face of adversity. Every meeting with her was accented with a joyful irreverence, a sarcastic ridicule of pomposity, and a sophisticated proverb-filled deconstruction of power. Her zest for life and contagious love for aesthetics, lived experiences, and beautiful memories made every moment spent with her an opportunity to glimpse blissful existence. Her home became an uplifting place of refuge for all those who sought solidarity, yearned for meaning, needed healing for their devastating predicaments, or were desperate to laugh from the heart. While she will be so sorely missed, her legacy lives not only in the works and initiatives she embodied but in the many people she has touched and transformed.
The first time I met Asma was in late August 1997. Bassam, whom I had just met the day before at Georgetown University, invited me “home, because you have to meet my mother and sister.” Even now, I can clearly recall how struck I was by the deep and obvious esteem with which he held these women in his life. When Asma greeted me in her house, for the first of what would turn out to be countless thousands of times, she was the epitome of elegance: she was wearing a blouse in one of her signature colors, a deep coppery brown, with black pants, her hair impeccably coiffed, makeup and nails perfectly done. She was effusive and warm, making me feel not like I was meeting her for the first time, but rather like I was a loved one who had been away for many years and was being welcomed back home.
That power that she had I would witness in various forms over the next twenty-one years. During that time, she taught me—and many of us—some of the biggest lessons that can never be learned from a PhD. Accept yourself. Do not (take or give any) bullshit. Forgive. Make a budget. You are loved.
As tides of my life periodically took me away from DC, Asma–and the home she made–was the shoreline. She made that home with determination, love, strength, and unstinting generosity, traits she also passed down to her children in spades. Writing these few words, I still cannot fully comprehend that we will not hear her big laugh, sit with her at the kitchen table (there have been so many kitchen tables), hang out in her bedroom late at night, share a confession, get her advice. It feels impossible to accept.
Beginning in 2003 and the making of About Baghdad, Asma’s home was my home away from home for many years. I spent most weekends at her home, editing films in her basement. In fact, during the first year of my PhD program, I was commuting between NY and DC, and it was often unclear where I was commuting to and where I was commuting from. That first year of coursework I would be in NYC for from Monday-Thursday, hop on a bus to DC and stay in the Haddad home from Thursday to Monday, when I would return to NYC and my PhD. While at the Haddad home, I would be up until the early hours of each morning editing and otherwise working on What is Said About Arabs and Terrorism, and it was often just Asma and me in the house in the wee hours of the night (Bassam would be off DJing around DC). As long as I would stay up working, I knew Asma would still be awake. I would sit with her for a few minutes and chit chat about politics, and mostly about Lebanon and Syria and how I was doing at graduate school (that first year I nearly dropped out). These conversations were brief (and they were sometimes just a “goodnight Tante Asma” as I crawled to bed) but they were critical—I felt supported and I felt that my ideas were important to someone, even when she (often) told me I was wrong. We sometimes forget (I know I do) how important these moments are.
What enabled my schedule that year was not just my dedication to our important film work, it was the home itself: the knowledge that I would arrive and eat amazing food, laugh and argue with an amazing group of people and with the intimacy of a family member, that I would return to NYC with Tupperware to sustain me, and that I knew at the end of the week I would be back in that home. This is what Asma was to me, and to many of us: the home that we returned to—that made our lives in the United States less alienating, and that kept us feeling that what we were doing, thinking, writing, and making was important, and that we would always succeed (even when she was reminding us of our mistakes). As a woman in her early twenties, this made so much possible.