Anastasia (Asia) Halaby (b. 1909) was the youngest of three children born to Jiryes Nicola Halaby and Olga Akimovna Khudobasheva. Her father had gone to Russia for higher education; upon his return, he met Olga, who was teaching in a Russian school in Palestine, and married her. Asia was born in 1909; her brother, Nicola, was about six when she was born, and her sister, Sophie, about three. Asia would become the politically active sister, Sophie the artist. The sisters would spend almost their entire lives together.1 In the words of artist Samia Halaby, a distant relative, “The two sisters were a small monument of Jerusalem society, not because of wealth and elegance, though they might have accumulated enough comfort, but rather for their accomplishments.”2
Anastasia (Asia) Halaby
The Halaby family lived in the upscale Palestinian neighborhood of Musrara, in Jerusalem’s New City, and remained there until 1948. The family was well-off and owned considerable property. The children could converse in four languages—Russian, Arabic, English, and French. Asia grew up in Jerusalem with many paternal cousins nearby.
The family left Ottoman Jerusalem when World War I broke out; they were closely connected with the Russian Orthodox Church—Olga was a Russian national—at a time when the Russian and Ottoman empires were at war. They lived in Kiev for a while, but shortly following the eruption of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, they returned to Jerusalem.
The Halaby sisters identified with their mother’s culture and often spoke Russian to have private conversations with one another.
Asia attended the English Girls’ High School, later to be known as the Jerusalem Girls’ College. Jerusalem families favored the school because they wanted their daughters to acquire fluency in English, to have access to higher education (and for that, they were prepared to send their daughters abroad, since there were no local institutions), and to get good office jobs. Asia graduated in 1926 and took classes to obtain a Secondary School Certificate.4
The graduates of Jerusalem Girls’ College retained close connections with one another over their lives. Many of the graduates, like the Halaby sisters and Hind al-Husseini, remained single and achieved distinctive careers.
Certificate in hand, Asia found employment with the British government, and remained in its employ until 1948.5
During World War II, she volunteered for the Auxiliary Territorial Services, the women’s branch of the British Army during the war, and did intelligence work in Ma‘adi, outside Cairo. Toward the end of 1941, she was based in Alexandria. Recruits were trained in Sarafand, south of Haifa, and hailed from Palestine, Cyprus, Greece, and various European countries. Fluent in four languages, Asia served as translator during training.
The women were taught a variety of skills including drafting, driving and mechanics, nursing, switchboard operation, radio operation and repair, and electrical work. Asia, who already had a driver’s license, studied mechanics to be able to repair her vehicle during long trips. With her knowledge of English, experience working for the Mandate, skill as a driver, and take-charge personality, Asia was made an officer before leaving the base at Sarafand.6
Volunteers often were assigned to drive ambulances and other vehicles. Schor speculates that she might have been assigned to company 503, which drove the Cairo–Alexandria road. The work was dangerous. On leave in Jerusalem, Asia reportedly wore her British uniform and drove her jeep around town. Although Palestinians who worked with the Mandate were typically derided and jeered, Asia seems to have been spared that humiliation, possibly because of her family’s prominent position.
In the waning years of the Mandate, those employed by it were exposed to other threats, too. On July 22, 1946, Zionist terrorists dynamited the King David Hotel, part of which housed British government offices. Among the 91 dead was Nadia Wahbe, Asia’s cousin; two of Nadia’s sisters were also wounded in the blast.
Less than two years later, the Mandate ended. The day before it ended, Asia authorized the hiring by the Agricultural Department of guards in Jenin. On the final day, she said goodbye to British coworkers and went home to Musrara. She found a note from her brother, urging her to join the family in the Old City, where it was safer. One of the items she took with her was a copy of George Antonius’s book The Arab Awakening. And soon she put her first aid experience at the service of the Austrian Hospice, which had been transformed into an emergency clinic to care for the wounded. Schor raises the possibility that she might have worked with the Arab Legion during this time; the biographer’s interviewees claim that Asia was a major in the legion and wore the keffiyeh and drove a military jeep for many years.7 Historian Ellen Fleischmann states that in 1948, Asia worked as a liaison officer between the Jordanian army and the United Nations.8
Starting over after the War
Like all Palestinians who lived in what became West Jerusalem and fled to the eastern Arab side, the Halaby family was denied the right to return home when the war ended. The family moved from their temporary residence in the Old City to a new home in Nur al-Din Street in the neighborhood of Wadi al-Joz in what became East Jerusalem. Their home was designed by Asia’s brother Nicola, an architect, and was more spacious than that in the Old City.
While waiting for the new house to be completed, the Halaby sisters traveled to Paris: Sophie was eager to pursue her art study. After spending a week or so together, Asia left Sophie in Paris and continued to London, undoubtedly to visit former coworkers and staff from her high school.
When the sisters returned to Jerusalem, the family consisted of the three women; soon only the sisters remained. (The father had died in 1945, and the mother died a few years later, in 1952. Nicola lived in Lebanon.) The house was located near the Palestine Archaeological Museum. The Halaby sisters were well-off, thanks to their inheritance of property, and they enjoyed an active social life that included evenings at the museum, the American Colony Hotel, consular events, and travel abroad.
Asia worked briefly with the Red Cross or the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).9 The Jordanian government hired her to work at the Jerusalem Airport north of the city, where she checked passenger documents. She also worked for a while as a guard at the Mandelbaum Gate, the sole checkpoint between the different parts of the then divided city (West and East), along the armistice line. (See Where Is Jerusalem?)
In the early 1950s, Asia began work that would contribute greatly to the lives of hundreds of women: she established the Arab Refugee Handicrafts Centre and set up workshops where impoverished and displaced women could find work and support their families. According to biographer Schor, Asia learned to value Palestinian crafts like embroidery from her mother, who collected embroidered pieces and taught her daughters to recognize patterns associated with specific villages. After the war, Asia turned her familiarity and appreciation of embroidery into her life’s mission. Initially, the center put to work 20–25 women in camps in Jericho and Hebron to produce items, but their numbers swelled to 700–1,000, and sometimes more. By the late 1960s, more than half a million items had been produced.10
Asia imported the fabric for the products from Aden and silk thread from France. The sisters rented a space on Zahra Street in the Old City to sell the embroidered fabrics—tablecloths, pillowcases, sheets, napkins—produced in Asia’s workshops. (The lower level of the house was turned into an embroidery workshop.)
Soon the handicrafts were sought after by tourists, foreign ambassadors, and consular staff. (Asia included painted postcards with embroidery orders to promote her sister’s artwork.) A relative in Amman, Hanna Halaby, helped her market the center’s items in that city; Vicken and Ada Kalbian, her Armenian Jerusalemite friends who emigrated after the war, helped sell her goods in the United States.
In an interview, embroidery expert Widad Kawar credited Asia and Sophie Halaby as “having saved Palestinian embroidery traditions after 1948.” The sisters were also collectors of embroidered dresses; biographer Schor interviewed a collector who described the collection of the Halaby sisters as one of the finest to be had anywhere.11
While East Jerusalem was under Jordanian control, Asia also took an interest in archaeology and was able to work with scholars Kathleen Kenyon and James Pritchard, which led to assignments of increasing responsibility. The experts became her mentors and friends. Asia is listed as a cataloger of the excavation of the biblical town of Gibeon, and in the early 1960s she was listed as a supervisor on the project, indicating growing proficiency. Later she would work with Pritchard on the excavation of the cemetery at Tel al-Sa‘diyya. Artifacts from the excavations on which she worked were displayed in her home.12 During these years, the American School for Oriental Research and the Palestine Archeological Museum assumed an important role in her life.
Asia was 58 years old when Israel seized the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip in 1967, and her home was one of the first to be entered by the triumphant Israeli troops. The sisters were ordered at gunpoint to leave the house and to lie on the ground while soldiers searched their home; they left havoc in their wake. Soon thereafter, Jordanian soldiers sought sanctuary at the house, and the sisters took them in. The sisters gave the men civilian clothes to wear and helped them sneak out of the house, burning their clothes surreptitiously to avoid suspicion. That action was one that family members recounted with pride.13
Asia is known to have participated in a women’s protest in March 1968; whether she was beaten and jailed, like other participants, is not known. Her opposition to the occupation was not hidden, and in 1969 she was detained at al-Moskobiyya detention center in Jerusalem for a whole day and asked to sign a statement avowing that she had not participated in protests in the past, and would not do so in the future. She refused and was released; the next day, she attended a party at the American Colony Hotel and regaled the guests with her account.14
She continued to protest Israeli policies and was frequently arrested as a result, and she kept an eye on Israeli archaeological maneuvers, such as tunneling under the Western Wall, because such activity compromised the structural integrity of nearby buildings. In the early years of the occupation, she frequently drove archaeologists to various sites and gave tours to foreign guests to show them the effects of Israel’s occupation on the holy city.
In the late 1970s, a relative who visited the Halaby sisters recalled that Asia wore pants; for a woman in her late 60s, this was unusual at the time.
The Russian Orthodox Church and community was ever present in the lives of the Halaby sisters, even though Asia reportedly once referred to religious discourse as idle chatter (kalam fadi). The sisters opened their home to get-togethers with journalists and others. They were part of an old-school women’s movement, which focused on charitable acts by upper-class women.15
By the mid- to late 1980s, Asia stopped driving. She was beginning to show signs of dementia and would remain silent when guests arrived to her home, looking to Sophie to carry on the conversation with them. Eventually she was hospitalized in a nursing home in Emmaus when Sophie, herself elderly, could no longer care for her at home.
Asia died on February 12, 1998, less than nine months after her sister. Although the sisters had been wealthy, they were swindled of their wealth by an unscrupulous lawyer. They are buried in adjacent graves in the Russian church graveyard.
The following appraisal by Ellen Fleischman, a historian of the Palestinian women’s movement between 1920 and 1948, seems like an appropriate ending for this biographical sketch of this unusual woman:
[Asia] Halaby was a unique woman for her time and place, impressing others of her generation who still recollect her unusual character and exploits. Raja al-‘Isa (the son of ‘Isa al-‘Isa, the owner of the newspaper Filastin), commented, “Asia is a tough guy . . . she’s two men in one woman.” Her story illustrates how women used organizational or associational structures, even within the mandate government itself, in order to seek fulfillment in nontraditional roles.16
Fleischmann, Ellen. The Nation and Its “New” Women: The Palestinian Women’s Movement, 1920–1948. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Frank, Geyla. “Crafts Production and Resistance to Domination in the Late 20th Century.” Journal of Occupation Science 3, no. 2 (August 1996): 56–64.
Halaby, Samia. “Sophie Halaby, Palestinian Artist of the Twentieth Century.” Jerusalem Quarterly, no. 61 (Winter 2015): 84–100.
Schor, Laura S. Sophie Halaby in Jerusalem: An Artist’s Life. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2019.
[Profile photo: Photo courtesy of Lily Wahbe Porter]
This bio draws heavily from Laura S. Schor, Sophie Halaby in Jerusalem: An Artist’s Life (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2019); another source is the authoritative essay about Sophie Halaby, written by the artist Samia Halaby; “Sophie Halaby, Palestinian Artist of the Twentieth Century,” Jerusalem Quarterly, no. 61 (Winter 2015): 84–100. The two sources occasionally conflict regarding specific important details. According to Schor, the parents met in Palestine and raised their family in Musrara and Kiev and Asia was born in 1909. Samia Halaby claims that they met in Kiev and lived in Qatamon and that Asia was born in 1908.
Halaby, “Sophie Halaby,” 85.
Halaby, “Sophie Halaby,” 98.
Schor, Sophie Halaby in Jerusalem, 18, 25, 35.
Schor, Sophie Halaby in Jerusalem, 42.
Schor, Sophie Halaby in Jerusalem, 93.
Schor, Sophie Halaby in Jerusalem, 108.
Ellen Fleischmann, The Nation and Its “New” Women: The Palestinian Women’s Movement, 1920–1948 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 193.
Geyla Frank, “Crafts Production and Resistance to Domination in the Late 20th Century,” Journal of Occupation Science 3, no. 2 (August 1996): 59.
Schor, Sophie Halaby in Jerusalem, 46; Frank, “Crafts Production,” 59.
Schor, Sofie Halaby in Jerusalem, 46, 121.
This was common practice at the time. Schor, Sofie Halaby in Jerusalem, 127.
Schor, Sofie Halaby in Jerusalem, 155.
Schor, Sofie Halaby in Jerusalem, 166, 168.
Schor, Sofie Halaby in Jerusalem, 117, 176.
Fleischmann, The Nation, 193.