The definition of true peace: ‘freedom from disturbance, noise or anxiety’ holds profound significance to Hala Kazim. The 54-year-old Emirati author and motivational speaker’s quest has been a two-decade long circumnavigation of the globe that has taken her from America to Bali to Austria and Japan. But her journey comes full circle to bring her back to the UAE, a country where her familial roots are entrenched in the grains of sand. An odyssey of sorts, each path taken has brought her closer to the peace she now safeguards with ardour. The journey isn’t a private one, talking simply and honestly to Bazaar about her road to reconciliation with the people and circumstances that brought, at times, discord and disharmony to her life. Rather than shy away from the dark times, she grants them a voice, which in turn allows her, through personal experience, to promote peace and help other women in similar circumstances.
This philanthropic calling of compassion filtered down to Hala from two parents who were equally benevolent in their own way. Hala’s father was a businessman, a trader of pearls, fishing equipment and household goods, who married Hala’s mother aged 70, when she was just 16. She was his ninth wife, and to Hala, he was more like a grandfather. “He was very gentle with me, very loving. I was the youngest of his 14 children.” It meant that Hala’s childhood, one complicated with dyslexia and ADD, was filled with siblings, half-siblings and nephews close to her age. “My father was very human in his connection with the poor and needy,” she says, “But it wasn’t a happy marriage, he was old, my mother was very young. But nobody forced her. My father was very handsome and very rich, so it was a very attractive [proposal].” Her mother was a “very tough woman. She was small, but you would be scared of just her look. She was a widow at 35 so she had to be tough. But she was full of life, almost ahead of her time. I think she struggled that people did not get her.”
Photography by Ethan Mann
Hala Kazim wears: Dress, Dhs2,530, Diane von Furstenberg at Harvey Nichols - Dubai
Hala’s own approach to motherhood (she has five sons) was learnt from the good things her mother gave her – “she was a survivor, she had a lot of humanity, she helped people” – and the things that she didn’t, “I learned a lot of things that she didn’t give me, so I decided, that when I became a mother, to be the opposite. She never said ‘I love you’, she didn’t know how to. I don’t blame her, she did what she knew best. But I know better, so I did better. You have no idea how many times I say I love you a day to my kids…”
The combined gentleness and humanity learned from her parents had profound impact on her life from then on. Hala too married young at 17, an arranged marriage by choice that took her from Dubai to America, attending high school, and then taking an English Diploma at Toledo Ohio University. “I had my first son, Anas, aged 18,” she says. “This is where I wanted to be a lot of things my mother didn’t give us. So I made a decision to be very expressive and giving. My mother loved us through action, so I decided to love through action and words.”
After five years, and having given birth to two more sons, Moadh and Harith, the family moved back to Dubai. Life went on, but the marriage never “blended” she says. “I could not find myself, and I went through a very deep depression. I was very lost and confused.” Hala sought out a psychiatrist but, with a stigma attached to mental health issues – “you have got something wrong with you, it just wasn’t allowed,” – she hid her problems, and the appointments, from her family. It was the next encounter, however, that redirected the course of Hala’s future – a meeting with Canadian psychotherapist Elaine Kinney. “She is the woman I owe all my success to, my everything. I would not have sat in front of you today if she was not there. I didn’t want to live. I could not function. She saved me.”
The impact Elaine’s teachings had on Hala was incalculable. “I was a very good student because I did everything she asked me to do. And if I couldn’t do it, I would try and try again.” Elaine helped Hala to find herself once more, whilst teaching her to be the instigator of the change she needed.
Hala wears: Top, necklace and shoes, her own. Trousers, Dhs4,650, Emilio Pucci at Harvey Nichols - Dubai
Slowly the fog cleared, Hala and her husband divorced in 1998, and four years later she met her second husband, Egyptian/Scottish Kamel Hamza and gave birth to another son, Hassan. Elaine proved a constant throughout these years, and, with their relationship morphing from professional to personal, a profound, life-long friendship forged. “Every year we go to a retreat together and give courses to other women,” Hala says. The courses Hala refers to are organised by her company, Journey Through Change, which Hala set up in 2010. “I was on a hike in Camino de Santiago, with a friend, and just thought, why can’t I bring Arab women, and change the way we travel?” So Journey Through Change was born, a calm office space-cum-sanctuary located in Al Quoz, and her first retreat began in 2011. The premise behind the six-day retreats is simple in its execution: take women out of their comfort zone, away from their husband, children and community, away from life’s complications, and give them the space to breathe, talk freely and simply just ‘be’. Through workshops, lectures, hikes and other activities, Hala teaches women how to take care of their health, their mental well-being, and, in turn, how to be the facilitator of their own change.
“If you are ready to change your life, then I am here to help you, I will teach you how to love yourself,” she says of her business model. Hala knows, from experience, that it isn’t an overnight epiphany, that it requires time and commitment on a client’s part. “It’s a lifetime’s work,” she confirms. “But it is my heaven. Journeying through change is a process, but I am a living example of change: from depression to happiness, from negativity to positivity… I share my stories with people, tell them what I’ve been through so they can see there’s hope. I think the word that people repeat about me, is that I give them ‘hope’.”
Hala’s life is indeed a story of hope and salvation. While the past may be interspersed with struggles, there are also many stories of light and love. She has five sons, including Tariq, whom she adopted in 1997, two grandsons, a beautiful marriage, and a holistic business that brings much happiness to both herself and women in the region.
Jacket, Dhs3,430; trousers, Dhs2,020, both Racil. Shoes, Dhs2,700, Aquazzura
While future plans may incorporate retreats for men, for now Hala’s focus is helping women. She says the overriding problems clients come to her with circle around the fact that women have been programmed not to know how to love themselves, that it’s “programmed in us under the name of noble-ness, that we put everybody before ourselves. But a woman is the base, she is the mother; you educate and help a woman to love herself and she will make a daughter, a son, a husband, a boss happy. You destroy them, you destroy the community.”
Circumventing a label of feminist, Hala prefers to be considered a ‘human’, with the belief that men and women weren’t created equal but that, in itself, is something to be celebrated. “My body is different [to a man’s], my brain is different, my demand is different… There are jobs that I cannot do, there a jobs that a man cannot do. How can I be equal to him or him to me? I am not in competition with men. No. I want to be me and you to be you. To be your companion – not behind you, not in front of you, next to you.”
Outside of the office, a holistic sentiment flows through the other parts of Hala’s life. She describes her home as “practical and comfortable not luxurious.” She shops when she can afford it, and doesn’t if she can’t. She cites Gucci, Chanel and Diane von Furstenberg as preferred designers alongside her mainstream high street additions, and wears make-up but only when she feels in the mood. “Dress up, wear make-up, or wear a T-shirt or pyjamas… Just be comfortable in being who you are.”
Hala wears: Dress, and shoes, her own
Testament to the impact her candid, undemanding yet curative approach to life yields in her audience, she has amassed 149,000 followers on Instagram. She also published two books, the second of which, Hala and Change, was released earlier this year, she has presented several key speeches at TEDx Dubai, and won the Mohammed Bin Rashid Award for ‘Best Business Woman in the UAE’ in 2013. She is, of course, far from being done. Her work in helping to lift the social stigma of mental health is a continuous undertaking; while she may have found peace with herself – “we became good friends,” she says of her relationship with herself – she will continue to help women throughout the region find their own internal peace; and, through actions and words of love, she will continue to raise her boys to be exemplary human beings, all while looking to the works of Umm Kulthum and Maya Angelou to guide her, safely, through life. With an office peppered with inspirational aphorisms, it is the Maya Angelou quote on Hala’s website that resonates truest with her heart, summarising a good life lived by an equally good woman: “My life has been one great big joke, a dance that’s walked a song that’s spoke, I laugh so hard I almost choke when I think about myself.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia.
Photography by Ethan Mann